Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Original Brooklyn

Sujata Massey

Summer driving trips are on an upswing. Why not? Gas is cheap, and it's often faster to drive to nearby state than to fly or take the train. Feeling all these things, plus a desire for a short summer road trip, I packed up the Highlander Hybrid and took off for Brooklyn.

The mission was for my husband and me to deliver our teenage son to three-week-long performing arts camp, a significant expense—but one that we sensed would give him a great deal of pleasure, and perhaps help him think about ways to share his stellar guitar performances beyond the confines of his bedroom. And the SUV had enough room to carry an amp and guitar and all the extras needed for a camper--plus room for my  husband and me to bring overnight bags for our own adventure.

We were all going to be happy campers. 

Tony and I hadn’t been in Brooklyn since visiting friends 22 years ago who were renting in the once borderlin” North Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill. Our friends had long since departed a neighborhood that became very chic. We stayed in a small hotel at the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Smith Street, which had turned into a kind of gourmet row full of Danish, French and Asian restaurants. Brooklyn seemed a paradise of good food and sophisticated little shops selling everything from tea to the premium British Farrow and Ball paint.

Still, you knew it wasn’t a fake city. The Brooklyn Detention Center faced directly across the street from the Nu Hotel. However, the jail also looked rebuilt.

Fortunately, the Middle Eastern grocery shops I remembered from the 1990s were still thriving on Atlantic Avenue. Sahadi’s had a James Beard Award sign in its window when we walked in to buy Aleppo pepper flakes and ras-el-hanout Moroccan spice mix. I got my pita across the way at Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop, which was filled with jovial customers perhaps shopping for Eid.

After we’d stashed the food in the hotel, we wandered into the residential area known as Boerum Hill. Did you ever read Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Set 100 years ago, that novel showed the poverty and lack of opportunity for the poor and working class in Brooklyn. Today, a lot of tall trees line Brooklyn streets filled with well-kept brownstones. The attached-house architecture reminded me of typical areas in Baltimore, although ours are brick, stucco or wood—and we call them rowhouses. Deja vu continued when we went to dinner at a jazz supper club in Williamsburg, the neighborhood of the book. It was delightful to pass a bar that didn’t have hipsters drinking aperitifs, but older local people who were joyfully slapping dominos.

On a Sunday morning, we walked from our hotel to the Brooklyn Promenade, a walk that takes one along the piers of the waterfront known as Brooklyn Bridge Park. Lots of native plants had built a lush landscape, and tucked behind tall shrubs were a series of inviting family playgrounds, some of which had playground sets and others, pools and sprinklers. 

At the Park’s Pier 1, we came upon “Descension,” an art installation by an Indian artist, Ashish Kapoor, who had created a large, round whirlpool filled by the nearby sea water. I found it mesmerizing to stare into the churning water. My thoughts whirled about how Brooklyn once was the kind of poor and working class town that Baltimore still (mostly) is. The two cities were linked by similar architecture, a past history of industry jobs, and attractive, developed urban waterfronts. But why was Brooklyn so much more successful?

The answer was staring at me across the water: Manhattan and its prime jobs. That’s what my own city needed to become more than a bleak setting for crime shows on television.

On our last morning in Brooklyn, Tony and I strolled Smith Street, looking for the teashop we’d recalled seeing during the hubbub of the previous evening’s street festival. The French cafe, Tabac, where I'd had a salad of greens, beets and goat cheese for the previous day's lunch, was bustling with breakfast diners at its outdoor tables, but the area was largely quiet. We talked about how much we’d enjoyed Brooklyn, which was so surprisingly tranquil...but we couldn’t imagine upgrading to such a place. The cost!

We were startled by a tall man in his twenties walking fast toward us on the largely empty sidewalk. His mouth twisted into a grimace as he drew close. He barked: “You’re running it.”Seeing the confusion on our faces, because he clarified it. “You rich people are running it here.”

The stranger strode off before I could explain that we were actually “bridge and tunnel crowd” who couldn't afford to buy a Boerum Hill brownstone and paint its door in Farrow&Ball aubergine. I tried to remember the last time someone had verbally accosted me in New York.

And then, I did.

Back in the 1980s, I was a young woman who occasionally came into New York to visit college friends and report news for the Baltimore Evening Sun. I remember arriving in Manhattan on a rainy afternoon and trying to hail a cab. One stopped, and its driver, a white man, gave me a second look after I told him to take me to the Upper East Side. He asked, “Do you tend to have trouble catching cabs?”

“When it rains, it’s difficult,” I'd answered uncertainly. What was he getting at?

He gave me a hard look. "I mean, isn’t it hard to get a cab because you looked Hispanic? Who wants to stop? I don’t want to drive to Spanish Harlem.”

The cabbie was trying to put me in my place--just as the guy on Smith Street was doing. 

Back to 2017. I was shocked that a stranger would mistakenly infer from the sight of me that I was a wealthy interloper. Yet I couldn’t deny that who'd booked two nights in a hotel intending to enjoy the restaurants, shops and parks of Brooklyn. 

However, in his mission to make a tourist couple feel uncomfortable, the angry young man communicated something quite valuable.

There are people living in Brooklyn who don't have handsome houses with aubergine-painted doors. They are the Brooklyn originals who worry that, in a few years, there might not be any room left. 


  1. Very interesting post, Sujata. When I first came to NYC straight out of law school, I moved into the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood on the other side of Atlantic Avenue from where you stayed, and knew the area well, including the Brooklyn House of Detention and Cobble Hill. Back then, intense development had not yet hit those neighborhoods (though Brooklyn Heights had seen some)--or much of Manhattan. Life in Brooklyn has most definitely changed, but the stranger who accosted you is a few decades late in his criticism. More likely than not he was off his meds...or on them.

    Those neighborhoods represent the basic intrigue of New York City for so many; it is a series of villages, each with its own special characteristics. And yes, the engine that drives it all is its upscale job economy, e.g., "Downtown Brooklyn," owed its development back in those days to its ready accessibility to Wall Street. Later development came via renters fleeing Manhattan for cheaper Brooklyn (and Queens). Now those rents have skyrocketed. Where it all will lead is problematic, but (for good and bad) change is inevitable once a NYC neighborhood becomes "desirable."

    Thanks for my stroll down memory lane.

  2. Sujata, one of my favorite facts about Brooklyn is that it would be the fourth largest city in the US, if it were an independent entity. In fact, it is now poised to surpass Chicago in population.

    I tend to agree with Jeff about that disgruntled stranger. Brooklyn has been changing and becoming renewed/gentrified for the fifty years since I moved there--that I know about. When I moved to Brooklyn Heights in 1967, people along Atlantic Avenue were shopping for those same treats and some were still complaining about the demolishing of Ebbets Field in 1960. Not that there are not reasons for complaint about gentrification. But in this town, it seems as inevitable as death and taxes.

    On the other hand, those great jobs across the water in Manhattan--and now more then ever likely in Brooklyn itself are not always or even importantly in banks and law offices. Over the years, I have known professors of art history or literature, composers, dancers, set decorators, sculptors, opera singers, theater and film directors, actors by the scores, painters, antique dealers, and about three tons of writers--by actual poundage, quite a number of cops, and at least one statistician--who have lived in and loved Brooklyn. One of the great things about New York is how interesting one's neighbors are.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts --from Two New Yorkers, no less! I'll be back in Brooklyn in a couple of weeks.

  4. S, In that case we need to make a date to meet up while you are here. PLEASE!

  5. Nice story about Brooklyn.

    I lived on Eastern Parkway across from the wonderful Brooklyn Museum and Botaoical Gardens from 1969-1974 and I love it Would walk through the museum and the gardens on the weekends.

    It's a shame about gentrification. Regular folks are being squeezed out, and neighborhoods gentrified.

    There are still many neighborhoods and nationalities of people in the borough, and I hope it doesn't lose that special character.

    Wish I could be on Atlantic Avenue right now eating a meal from the Middle East or Northern Africa. Delicious.