Brooklyn Rising

Even if they’ve never set foot on this area of 81 square miles at the southwestern tip of Long Island, most people have a vivid picture of Brooklyn—gained from gangster movies or postcards of its bridges or of Coney Island, songs (“Give Me the Moon Over Brooklyn”), countless immigrant novels or Jackie Gleason’s bellowing, ever-dreaming bus driver in “The Honeymooners.” The gabby streetwise Brooklyn kid, pugnaciously devoted to his trolleys, his Dodgers, and finally his platoon, was a staple of World War II movies long before more recent films depicted this complexly clannish borough as a bastion of family neighborhoods or a cluster of ethnic enclaves set in combustible proximity (Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Flatbush, Gravesend, Flatlands). From Arthur Miller to Spike Lee, Brooklyn’s popular identity is so strong it can be further broken down into distinctive neighborhoods that people also feel they know.

For the two and a half million people who actually live here, however, Brooklyn is represented by more local images: the heroic view of Prospect Park from the top of Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch at Grand Army Plaza, the annual blessing of the fishing fleet in Sheepshead Bay, or the sight of dozens of men “dancing” a 65-foot, flower-decked tower through the streets of Williamsburg in the centuryold summer Giglio Festival. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade, built in 1950 to put an elegant face on the invasive Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and from which Brooklynites admire the towered spectacle of downtown Manhattan, is a quintessential Brooklyn spot. On nights in early spring you hear the crunch of embracing leather jackets as high school kids pair up along the benches. Much of Brooklyn packs shoulder to shoulder to celebrate Independence Day on this walkway with fireworks booming over the river, and for months after the September 11 attacks the Promenade became one-third-mile-long shrine, covered in candles and pictures and messages. On this same promontory George Washington made his headquarters before the British forces overwhelmed his green army at the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776. Long before the consolidation of New York City into five boroughs in 1898, Brooklyn saw itself chiefly in relationship to Manhattan (or New York, as it was called, and still is by many). The view from the Promenade perfectly illustrates the mixture of pride, dependence, envy, and superiority in the relationship.

Seven years ago a New York Times article said, “Brooklyn today is famous mainly for what it has lost: industries, neighborhoods, a baseball team.”

Perhaps the most potent Brooklyn symbol for locals, though, after the Great Bridge itself, is the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower, which has long been a kind of downtown skyline of one, looming 512 feet above the central thoroughfare of Flatbush Avenue. With its four enormous lighted clock faces and blunted top visible all the way from Brooklyn Heights to Dyker Heights, it’s a kind of traveler’s star by which Brooklyn-ites can navigate unfamiliar neighborhoods. The Williamsburgh has waited decades for the arrival of the downtown building boom it signaled in 1929, just in time for the Crash, but no other skyscraper appeared on the horizon until the spearmint-topped One Pierrepont Plaza tower rose over Brooklyn Heights in the late eighties.

 

In the coming months, though, the borough’s original skyscraper may be joined, even crowded, by a thicket of towers and a 20,000-seat sports arena that would outshine any similar venue in Manhattan. All this has come to pass because in 2004 a New York real estate developer named Bruce Ratner outbid every other contender to become the owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team. Bucking recent historical trend, the NBA franchise did not land in some rising Sunbelt metropolis but in the famously abandoned borough of the lamented Dodgers. The main question was where to put it. But not stopping with this unlikely triumph (at $300 million), instead of installing his new team in some quickie shedlike structure Ratner hired the celebrated architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, Frank Gehry, to design a grandly ambitious stadium on the site of some rail yards downtown. The ghosts of the Dodgers were very much in the room on the December day in 2003 when the Gehry designs were unveiled and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz exulted, “Forget the Dodgers. Brooklyn’s future is the Nets… . Brooklyn, as everyone knows, is a world-class city, and it deserves a world-class team playing in a world-class arena designed by a world-class architect.”

How did Brooklyn, a borough of nearly 2.5 million people famous for its churches, Dodgers, seaside light, and family-centered living, become “world-class”? Only five years earlier the Manhattan-voiced New York Times had called it a “poor relation.” To mark the 1998 centenary of the consolidation that brought the city of Brooklyn (along with the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island) into Greater New York, the Times Magazine published a history of the borough by its columnist John Tierney. His long report traced Brooklyn’s recent troubles (which then included empty factories and 10 percent unemployment) all the way back to its decision in the 1890s to trade its independence as the nation’s third-largest city for a shared tax base and water supply. “Brooklyn today is famous mainly for what it has lost: industries, neighborhoods, a baseball team,” he wrote.

In the few years since Tierney’s assessment, however, Brooklyn has undergone remarkably heady changes, and all without cutting loose from New York City. The pace of growth has been so feverish in fact as to challenge the borough’s humbler image, bringing charges that the poor relation had made a kind of devil pact called “Manhattanization.”

But the list of recent and coming attractions in this new Brooklyn even includes some amenities not found in its glamorous neighbor: a new minor-league baseball team; a refurbished and revitalized Brooklyn museum; a departure pier for Carnival Cruise Lines and its mighty Queen Mary 2 ; an Ikea waterfront complex planned for the depressed community of Red Hook; an entire luxury neighborhood—DUMBO (for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass)—created out of whole cloth in the cobblestoned no man’s land of industrial lofts and nineteenth-century warehouses between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges; a new film and television production facility, Steiner Studios, built within the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard (with the Brooklyn native Mel Brooks’s musical The Producers as the space’s first major production); and, of course, the arrival of the Brooklyn Nets.

 

The “Borough of ‘Being’”

Brooklyn was the “borough of ‘being,’” wrote James Agee during a miserable few months he spent there trying to sum up the place for Fortune magazine in 1939, while Manhattan was instead an island of “doing and bragging.” Agee concluded, “There seems almost no conceivable end to Brooklyn; it seems, on land as flat and huge as Kansas, horizon beyond horizon forever unfolded, an immeasurable proliferation of house on house and street by street… .” At 4,000 words (and two drafts) of his lyrical wrestling match with this clannish but irreducibly varied place, Agee’s editors gave up on the story. Agee quickly moved with his wife and family goat to the less bewildering New Jersey countryside. Another Southerner, Thomas Wolfe, who spent several years writing here in the 1930s, insisted in faux Brooklynese in his famous story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn”: “Dere’s no guy livin’ dat knows Brooklyn t’roo and t’roo, because it’d take a guy a lifetime just to find his way aroun’ duh f—— town.”

In Brooklyn’s considerable native literature, the borough is both cherished and despised, depending on the harshness of the neighborhood that formed the writer. Brooklyn is often the embattled starting point, the immigrant proving ground to turn one’s back on—a tradition echoed down from the agonizing fall of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman to the fierce trajectories of Brooklyn-born rappers. One Brooklyn son, the literary critic Alfred Kazin, recalls the return to his old Brownsville neighborhood in A Walker in the City (1951): “From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue and smell the leak out of the men’s room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps, an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness.” He sees the old ladies in “shapeless flowered housedresses and ritual wigs” guarding the stoops, then “the faces of the kids, who before they are ten have learned that Brownsville is a nursery of tough guys.” Roger Kahn, however, remembered a far more agreeable place in his book The Boys of Summer . He grew up a stone’s throw from Ebbets Field before achieving every Brooklyn boy’s second-best ambition (after playing for the Dodgers): covering the team for a New York paper. His Brooklyn was “a heterogeneous, dominantly middle-class community, with remarkable schools, good libraries and not only major-league baseball, but extensive concert series, secondrun movie houses, expensive neighborhoods, and a lovely rolling stretch of acreage called Prospect Park. For all the outsiders’ jokes, middle-brow Brooklyn was reasonably sure of its cosmic place, and safe.”

 

One in seven American families can trace its roots to Brooklyn. When I first visited the borough as a Manhattan kid, it seemed a distant and mysteriously changeable place; wherever you got off the subway the local people were different (Hasidic, Italian, Haitian, Yemeni, Polish), like different casts of actors on the same row-house streetscape. In fact, the last census reported that some 38 percent of current Brooklyn residents are foreign-born.) A third of all Brooklynites are black, and according to the historian Kenneth Jackson, Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant is “the largest African American community on the continent.”

There’s perhaps no more dramatic way to get a sense of the breadth of peoples who’ve made and remade Brooklyn over the decades than to sit in the big central jury room of the Supreme Court building downtown on any weekday morning and hear the court clerk gamely butcher the names over the intercom: “Maruhashi, Setseko … Zditowski, Michelle.” This is the long-familiar immigrant Brooklyn everyone knows from movies and books, from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to The Godfather . But could Brooklyn’s popular identity be changing? Now it is a city combed day and night in summer by double-decker buses filled with tourists; our stately Greek Revival Borough Hall (which sometimes appears in the guise of a Manhattan courthouse on television’s “Law & Order”) carries banners on two sides of its facade advertising a new “Brooklyn Tourism and Visitors Center” within. The city is a destination in itself for these tourists and for the young professionals who, priced out of Manhattan, have embraced the place as if it were Manhattan’s Left Bank, wearing T-shirts that flaunt their area code (718), shopping in new Brooklyn-proud boutiques, and drinking local beers. As the borough undergoes its most dramatic changes in decades, Brooklynites argue about its “soul” or true identity, thus resurrecting a long-running comparison with its flashier counterpart.

 

Two Cities

Unlike other cities that competed with Manhattan in the nineteenth century—Chicago, Philadelphia, Buffalo—Brooklyn also drew on Manhattan’s economic strength, and the proximity of the two makes it seem slower and smaller scale. No matter how big and flossy Brooklyn may get, Manhattan will always stand taller and burn brighter. Still, Brooklyn is now a place that would rank as America’s fourth-largest city on its own, with a population greater than that of Boston and Philadelphia combined. “The dynamics of Brooklyn are money, housing, and politics,” explains the long-time

One in seven American families can trace its roots to Brooklyn, and if the borough were on its own, it would today rank as America’s fourth-largest city.

Brooklyn observer Dennis Holt, a senior editor at the beloved, mourned, and now revived Brooklyn Daily Eagle , who has lived here for 30 years. “An awful lot of people in the sixties and seventies came over and found this amazing housing base in brownstone Brooklyn. These people had money, but [they] still worked in Manhattan, where they spent retail. That is changing. Now that a lot of people are staying and working here, you’re seeing the growth of shops that you used to find only in funny parts of Manhattan. New York City has two cities now: Manhattan and Brooklyn.”

 

In the brownstone neighborhoods of Fort Greene, Carroll Gardens, and Park Slope you see this latest transformation, and in some postindustrial blocks of Williamsburg, where kids with guitar cases walk down Metropolitan Avenue on their way to rehearsals instead of to factories.

Dodger Ghosts

 

In spite of the borough’s many boasts, the Dodgers’ decampment west in 1958 has come to symbolize Brooklyn and puts a tragic cast over any public discussion of the borough while supplying a thousand treacly journalistic leads. Beneath the new Atlantic Terminal mall that houses chain stores such as Chuck E. Cheese’s (where after several concussive hours of video games, my son and I staggered out feeling thoroughly suburban for a moment before we heard broadcast a call to Muslim prayer), and just across Flatbush Avenue from where the Nets arena is to be built, Dodger history is buried. According to Michael Shapiro’s recent book The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers, and Their Final Pennant Race Together , it was the New York transportation czar Robert Moses’s refusal to condemn land around what was then a failing meat market at the junction of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues that ultimately scuttled the Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley’s last efforts to keep the team here. O’Malley, trying to adapt to so many of his fans’ moving to the suburbs in the mid-fifties, had hired the architect Buckminster Fuller to draft a futuristic glass-domed replacement for Ebbets Field, one that would seat more than 50,000 people and be an easy walk from the Long Island Rail Road station. But Moses, who had no problem invoking his “slum-clearing” powers to bulldoze vital borough neighborhoods while building the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, refused to condemn the land. O’Malley, reluctantly or not, packed up his pennants in 1958 and headed west to Los Angeles. The area of the aborted stadium became a “region of lack,” wrote Jonathan Lethem in his recent Brooklyn coming-of-age novel The Fortress of Solitude , “a sort of brick-dotted outline tracing a phantom limb.”

 

The Dodgers’ departure resonates so widely because it also serves as shorthand for the arrival of other changes that visited cities like Brooklyn in the era of urban decline and suburbanization. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle succumbed after a seven-week strike in 1955; the borough lost mainstays in beer companies (Schaeffer, Schlitz, Piel’s, Rheingold), typographical factories, and pharmaceuticals (Squibb), while a great overall decline in New York’s shipping business hit the vital outer ring of the city, from Greenpoint to Williamsburg to Red Hook.

By the seventies, largely because of the advent of containerization, which demanded greater trucking highway access than crowded Brooklyn could accommodate, commercial shipping had gone to New Jersey, and the borough’s longshoring population dwindled. But perhaps the most spectacular blow of all was the closing, in 1966, of Brooklyn’s world-famous Navy Yard. The Navy Yard, which employed 70,000 during World War II and 40,000 in the late fifties, was established in 1781 and purchased by the Navy 20 years later; this tremendous shipworks outfitted the Monitor (built nearby in Greenpoint) during the Civil War, then built the Maine in 1889 and later the battleship Arizona , which was sunk at Pearl Harbor, and the Missouri , on whose deck the Japanese formally surrendered. In recent years, though, life has returned to the Navy Yard. Its jutting cranes now signify an active industrial park, with more than 200 businesses, crowned by the arrival of Steiner Studios.

The Walled City

 

The Montero’s Bar & Grill, a sailors’ tavern at the river end of Atlantic Avenue, dates from the postwar days, when Brooklyn was still the busiest part of the world’s greatest port. IF THE CAPTAIN AIN’T HAPPY, AIN’T NOBODY HAPPY reads the sign opposite the bar, and the place’s dark walls are a gloriously evocative clutter of orange lifesavers for the Owls Head or SS Stonewall Jackson , a poster identifying 140 colorful ship stacks that might appear in the harbor, and dusty models of clippers and destroyers. While it doesn’t rank with classic tourist spots like Junior’s diner, Montero’s, especially during Fleet Week each May, when it fills up with young sailors in their starched whites, is a perfect boozy diorama of what Brooklyn so recently was.

The Brooklyn Historical Society often teams up with the New York Water Taxi to give floating lectures on the Brooklyn waterfront. The areas hardest hit by the decline of Brooklyn’s shipping business such as DUMBO, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Sunset Park, and Red Hook—are now in very different stages of recovery or transformation. Going with the quick East River current, my tour first passes the old brick warehouses for tobacco, cotton, and molasses that front the area now called DUMBO, the kind of warehouses that in shipping days made Brooklyn known as the “walled city.” The mere fact of renewed ferry service after decades cut off from the waterfront has allowed development and tourism among the hulks of abandoned factories at the water’s edge. A direct connection to downtown Manhattan seems to be enough to satisfy some buyers, but in picking his spots for new landings along the waterfront, the Water Taxi’s chief business officer, Mark Baker, doesn’t just follow the money but consults old maps from Brooklyn ferry days for guidance. “Whenever we’re trying to determine where to put in a new stop, we look on an old map, and when we find a street called Ferry Street, we know that’s a good place.”

 

DUMBO may be the most dramatic example of resurgence. In the early nineties it was so wonderfully uncrowded (except for its community of artists) that you could hear the sound of the rounds bell drilling in Gleason’s boxing gym from several hundred yards away. Now DUMBO is home to a chocolate factory, experimental theater, nightlife, million-dollar lofts, and a grassy waterfront park where kids fly kites beneath the D train as it lumbers over the Manhattan Bridge, all in the streets that during Agee’s 1930s tour he pronounced the most dangerous blocks in Brooklyn. “Sure, you’d get in a lot of fights,” a veteran of those rowdy days once told me, “but you’d make some of your best friends that way.”

Past Vinegar Hill (the name is an early real estate ploy to attract patriotic Irish immigrants), past the just-closed Domino Sugar plant (established as Havemeyer and Elder in 1880s), our boat reaches Greenpoint and enters Newtown Creek, which, like the Gowanus Canal, once ran shipping into Brooklyn’s manufacturing heart. At its height, the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Jaime Joyce claims, Newtown Creek handled “more tonnage than the Mississippi River.” On our right we pass the site of a shipyard where immense caissons were built for the Roeblings’ Brooklyn Bridge. Back on the East River, south of the Navy Yard, Joyce points out the approximate location of the infamous British prison ships where, during the Revolution, perhaps 11,000 POWs died and were secretly buried by the British in unmarked graves. In 1808, bones of the war dead collected from the shore over the years were entombed near the Navy Yard. They were reinterred in 1873 in what is now Fort Greene Park and later given the nearly 150-foot-tall Prison Ship Martyrs’ Memorial (designed by McKim, Mead, & White).

The Beginning of Breuckelen

 

In the shadow of the Great Bridge, Fulton Ferry Landing marks where the city really began. Dutch settlers crossed the river and established a small farming community here in the early 1600s. From the 1630s to the 1660s the Dutch settled the towns of Breuckelen (Brooklyn), New Amersfoort (Flatlands), Vlacke Bosch (Flatbush), New Utrecht, and Boswick (Bushwick). The Dutch and English alternated control of the area until 1674, and the towns (including the English village of Gravesend) were united as Kings County in 1683.

Fulton Landing and its ferries were most famously commemorated by the local son and onetime Brooklyn Daily Eagle editor Walt Whitman: “Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high, / A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them, / Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.” But until three years ago, when the initial yellow fleet of New York Water Taxis appeared, there had been no regular ferry service between Manhattan and Fulton Landing since the 1920s, when the ferries finally gave up competing with the bridge that had so dramatically spanned the East River in 1883. Whitman, who was born on Long Island, in 1819, came to Brooklyn with his family when he was four and eventually became (after typesetter, schoolteacher, editor, reporter) its greatest poet and one of its greatest boosters. He could be surprisingly frank in writing obituaries for his paper (Samuel Leggett’s sendoff opened: “This man is dead. He was immensely rich”), but he was known during his tenure as editor for his strident editorials and democratic gestures, among them always riding alongside the omnibus driver.

Brooklyn Heights, considered New York’s first suburb, contains Beecher’s famous Plymouth Church and 619 buildings from before the Civil War.

Beecher Boats

 

More than “a hundred years hence” from Whitman’s roiling river scene current ferriers reach the Fulton Landing, which is bounded by several acres of blue-and-white Port Authority pier sheds (with its hopeful painted slogan “Brooklyn Works!”) and the swank landmark of the River Café. This once was the destination of Beecher Boats, nineteenth-century ferries filled with New Yorkers coming for a Sunday-morning dose of the abolitionist firebrand Henry Ward Beecher preaching theatrically at his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, an exquisite area (the neighborhood, considered New York City’s first suburb, was landmarked in 1965) where 619 buildings date from before the Civil War. The handsome 1847 church where Beecher staged slave auctions is still here. A heroic likeness of the long-haired orator appears in the church’s courtyard; in front of the Romanesque castle of the nearby Brooklyn post office, a second life-size Beecher faces Borough Hall, a newly freed woman at his feet. Beecher’s church, which contains a number of beautiful Tiffany windows, was for decades “not only the moral and spiritual center of Brooklyn and New York but all America,” wrote David McCullough in The Great Bridge . “Plymouth Church, a big brick barn of a building on Orange Street, was [Brooklyn’s] foremost institution, bar none, the thing [it] was famous for from one end of the land to the other.”

Only the Million Dead Know Brooklyn

Look at any map of Brooklyn and you’ll notice its big splotches of greenery. There’s Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, known for its varieties of roses, Japanese gardens, and Celebrity Path (a Brooklyn “walk of fame” that includes, among others, Woody Allen, George Gershwin, Jackie Robinson, Mary Tyler Moore, and Chuck Schumer– intern–turned movie star Marisa Tomei). Other large green park-sized shapes on the map represent Brooklyn’s major cemeteries: Green-Wood, Cypress Hills, Washington. In 1874 the Eagle wrote with some alarm that Brooklyn’s “living population today numbers 450,000 people, and yet how few of that number are aware that there is a still larger city near by or surrounding them … and in this silent city are buried 504,000 people… .” Today Green-Wood and Cypress Hills each hold well more than that.

There is no finer marriage of the old and new Brooklyns than to sit in the Cyclones’ stands and see the boardwalk clam bars and the Wonder Wheel.

As a place to visit, the magnificently strange Green-Wood Cemetery is part bird sanctuary, part lush wood filled with dramatic willows and oaks, mostly a fascinating collection of competing mausoleums, crypts, obelisks, even a 20-foot-high limestone pyramid (with guarding sphinx), and part Revolutionary battlefield. Stretching more than 450 acres, it is complete with its own hall of fame of interred celebrities that includes both the noble and the notorious, from the composer Leonard Bernstein to Boss Tweed himself, the Coney Island impresario George C. Tilyou and the English-born “father of baseball” Henry Chadwick, whose pedestal is topped with a marble baseball, while his green-grass plot is squared off by stone bases. Horace Greeley is here, as is the Dodgers’ owner Charles Ebbets. This is the final place in Brooklyn where Henry Ward Beecher turns up, but Green-Wood has not kept out the less righteous, such as the Brooklyn mobsters Joey “Crazy Joe” Gallo and Albert Anastasia. Established in 1838, it is a verdant necropolis of 560,000 with its own Web site, coffee-table book, and nighttime flashlight tours. On a Sunday last fall there was a lecture tour up on Battle Hill, the borough’s highest point, which overlooks the harbor and the Statue of Liberty; there were a few tourists carrying Starbucks cups and two nervous guys in Red Sox hats asking the spirit of Henry Chadwick for luck in the World Series.

Street Life

 

“Brooklyn has over 800 weekend street festivals each year,” reports our tireless and personable borough president, Marty Markowitz, who should know since he visits most of them himself, pressing the flesh and handing out “Brooklyn” stickpins. Of the borough’s larger parades, perhaps the most joyous and colorful annual event in all New York is the West Indian American Carnival each Labor Day weekend. Eastern Parkway, the home to enviably comfortable Jewish families of “alrightniks” in Alfred Kazin’s time, has since 1969 been the route of this enormous annual gathering in which a million people jam the parkway from end to end, sampling island cooking as highly decorated 16-wheelers roll by, blasting island sounds in between groups of marching bands and children dressed in dazzling homemade costumes to look like schools of tropical fish. (One year I saw a roadside cop disappear within the embrace of an enormous marching manta ray.) The parade is a dramatic symbol of the immigration that has brought thousands of Caribbean people to Crown Heights, East Flatbush, and Bedford-Stuyvesant since the relaxation of immigration laws in the 1960s.

The End of Brooklyn

A story about tourist Brooklyn should end where national Brooklyn tourism really began, with the “Nickel Empire” of Coney Island. Although its scruffy and small collection of aging rides scarcely compared with any of the amusement empires from its several heydays, Coney recently gained a quite magnificent new train station and other improvements, especially a minor-league baseball team that plays in the New York–Penn League. Forty-four years after the Dodgers’ departure, baseball returned to Brooklyn in 2001 with the Brooklyn Cyclones, who play right off the Coney Island boardwalk in a handsome new seaside ballpark that seats about 7,500 fans, making it a very hot ticket.

 

Coney Island also plays host to the Mermaid Parade, a huge and inspiredly weird event. One day each June, among the ghosts of far stranger old Coney entertainments such as a popular re-creation of the Johnstown Flood, the Mermaid Parade takes over Surf Avenue as well as the boardwalk, beach, and bars as thousands of grease-painted, bewigged, or befeathered bodies stream off the subway trains at the end of the line. There is no end to Brooklyn, as Agee observed, but here it does in fact finally run out. Although the parade celebrates a sort of exuberant, tawdry flamboyance, some participants bring a surprising sense of Brooklyn history: One year a cortege of topless but earnest young hipsters in Hulk-green body paint were lugging the large cardboard corpse of an elephant. As they reached the boardwalk, one pallbearer explained to onlookers that it was in fact the effigy of Topsy, electrocuted in a 1903 demonstration by Thomas Edison’s men at Coney. After erasing the smiles of the boardwalk crowd with this grim account, the group marched Topsy solemnly over the hot sand and into the tired brown waves of the Atlantic.

The new baseball team is named for the classic roller coaster that’s visible from most of its stadium’s seats, the Cyclone, which still threatens to heave riders into the Atlantic on the first drop of the clattering route it has run since the year of Lindbergh’s solo flight to France. (The Cyclone’s power to scare remains even in a loop-the-loop era.) The ballpark occupies another plot of land steeped in Brooklyn history, sitting where George C. Tilyou’s long-vanished Steeplechase Park blared and shone for decades. There is no finer marriage of the old and new Brooklyns than to sit in these stands on a summer day, the LifeSaver-red parachute-jump tower (built for the 1939 World’s Fair) above right field as a reminder of the Coney empires that rose and later burned along this shore—Luna Park, Dreamland, Steeplechase. Beyond the young pitcher fiddling on the mound you see the boardwalk clam bars and the slowly turning 1920 Wonder Wheel, hear distant, tiny screams from the dipping coaster, and see the broken surf where Brooklyn ends.

A Life on the Waterfront Hungry?