A Brooklyn Literary Map: The Best Book for Each Brooklyn Neighborhood

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To paraphrase a famous member of the local literary scene, Brooklyn contains multitudes. And perhaps nowhere are those multitudes made more manifest than in the borough’s many neighborhoods, each as different from one another as are the city’s boroughs themselves. Over the years, countless writers have borne witness to the nuances of each neighborhood, celebrating the singular smell of the streets in Bushwick or the way the light washes over the beach in Coney Island. With this map we hope to celebrate much of the best writing set in the borough; neighborhood by neighborhood, these novels, essays, and poems reflect the specific time and place in which they are set, and in doing so, beautifully demonstrate the multitudes that make up Brooklyn as a whole, multi-faceted as it is now, and has always been.

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Bed-Stuy: Brown Girl, Brownstones Paule Marshall
“She seemed to know the world down there in the dark hall and beyond for what it was. Yet knowing, she still longed to leave this safe, sunlit place at the top of the house for the challenge there.”

Brooklyn Heights: Desperate Characters, Paula Fox
“Ticking away inside the carapace of ordinary life … was anarchy.”

Flatbush: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
“The true magic of this broken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.”

Prospect Park South: Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
“In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn.”

DUMBO: Friendship, Emily Gould
“Amy paid her bill, overtipping as usual, then gathered her things and started walking back to the office. On the way; she passed Peas and Pickles, the twenty-four-hour Korean greengrocer with gourmet pretensions that had sprung up to cater to the employees of businesses like Yidster.”

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Williamsburg: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Betty Smith
“There’s no other place like it.”
“Like what?”
“Brooklyn! It’s a magic city and it isn’t real.”

Bushwick: Black Spring, Henry Miller
“It was exactly five minutes past seven, at the corner of Broadway and Kosciusko Street, when Dostoievski first flashed across my horizon.”

Boerum Hill: A Meaningful Life, L.J. Davis
“A few miles away across the East River was the apartment he could never get used to, the job where he had nothing to do, the dozen or so people he knew slightly and cared about not at all: a fabric of existence as blank and seamless as the freshly plaster wall he passed.”

Cobble Hill: Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
“There is nothing Tourettic about the New York City subways.”

Bay Ridge: Requiem for a Dream, Hubert Selby Jr.***
“There was a sky somewhere above the tops of the buildings, with stars and a moon and all the things there are in a sky, but they were content to think of the distant street lights as planets and stars. If the lights prevented you from seeing the heavens, then preform a little magic and change reality to fit the need. The street lights were now planets and stars and moon. ”

Coney Island: Dreamland, Kevin Baker
“It was evening and the lights were just going up along Surf Avenue: a million electric bulbs spinning a soft, yellow gauze over the beach and parks… The City of Fire was coming to life.”

Marine Park: Marine Park, Mark Chiusano
Coming down a one-way street like that was the same feeling as being suspended in mid-air, the windows open, the radio off so I could concentrate, the car on a track almost, so it felt impossible to deviate.”

Crown Heights: The Chosen, Chaim Potok
“Someone was playing piano nearby and the music drifted slowly in and out of my mind like the ebb and flow of ocean surf. I almost recognized the melody, but I could not be sure; it slipped like a cool and silken wind from my grasp.”

Midwood: Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
“She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything.”

Prospect Heights: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman
“When you’re single, your weekend days are wide-open vistas that extend in every direction; in a relationship, they’re like the sky over Manhattan: punctured, hemmed in, compressed.” 

Kensington: Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, Anya Ulinich
“When Josh and I moved to Brooklyn and sent Dasha to preschool, we discovered that New Yorkers of a certain social class didn’t procreate before their mid-thirties and that we were half a generation younger and immeasurably more square than the parents of Dasha’s playmates… These were people with sordid pasts and outsize accomplishments, rounds of IVF and published novels, real furniture and dinner parties with wine… to which, to my amazement, Josh and I were often invited!”

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Gravesend: The Assistant, Bernard Malamud
“God bless Julius Karp, the grocer thought. Without him I would have my life too easy. God made Karp so a poor grocery man will not forget his life is hard. For Karp, he thought, it was miraculously not so hard, but what was there to envy? He would allow the liquor dealer his bottles and gelt just not to be him. Life was bad enough.”

Sunset Park: Sunset Park, Paul Auster
“He is twenty-eight years old, and to the best of his knowledge he has no ambitions. No burning ambitions, in any case, no clear idea of what building a plausible future might entail for him.”

Carroll Gardens: Milk, Darcey Steinke
“Walter had festooned St. Pauls’s front doors with evergreen garlands and the little statue of the Holy Mother wore a holly wreath around her head. Mary opened the iron side gate; the metal was cold on her fingers and she walked the icy path.”

Red Hook: Visitation Street, Ivy Pochoda
“The stoops are filling, some with newcomers dressed in secondhand clothes, others with grizzled men sucking air through their teeth as if this might cool things down.”

Windsor Terrace: A Drinking Life, Pete Hamill
“I wanted to sit there forever, drinking in bitter satisfaction, using someone else as a license. In the years that followed, I did a lot of that.” 

Park Slope: The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster
“I was looking for a quiet place to die.” 

Greenpoint: The Great Man, Kate Christensen
“It happened every single day in Brooklyn: awaken to fresh glory, fall asleep to blight and ruin.”

Brownsville: “A Walker In the City,” Alfred Kazin
“Every time I go back to Brownsville, it is as if I have never ben away… as I walk those familiarly choked streets at dusk and see the old women sitting in front of the tenements, past and present become each other’s faces; I am back where I began.”

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Gowanus: Of Time and the River, Thomas Wolfe
“It is the old Gowanus Canal, and that aroma you speak of is nothing but the huge symphonic stink of… There is in it not only the noisome stenches of a stagnant sewer, but also the smells of melted glue, burned rubber, and smoldering rags, the… deceased, decaying cats, old tomatoes, rotten cabbage, and prehistoric eggs.”

Prospect Park: “The Camperdown Elm,” Marianne Moore
I think, in connection with this weeping elm
Of Kindred Spirits at the edge of a rockledge
Overlooking a stream:
Thanatopsis-invoking tree-loving Bryant
Conversing with Thomas Cole
In Asher Durand’s painting of them
Under the filigree of an elm overhead

Clinton Hill: “Brooklyn Is,” James Agee
“Watching them in the trolleys, or along the inexhaustible reduplications of the streets of their small tradings and their sleep, one comes to notice, even in the most urgently poor, a curious quality in their eyes and the corners of their mouths, relative to what is seen on Manhattan Island: a kind of drugged softness or narcotic relaxation.”

Brighton Beach: Panic in a Suitcase, Yelena Akhtiorskaya
“Filth [and] dreariness… didn’t bother him, but five [restaurants] in a row called Odessa did. His fellow countrymen hadn’t ventured bravely into a new land, they’d borrowed a tiny nook at the very rear of someone else’s crumbling estate to make a tidy replication of the messy, imperfect original they’d gone through so many hurdles to escape, imprisoning themselves in their own lack of imagination… “

***Requiem for a Dream takes place mainly in Coney Island and Brighton Beach. However, in the interest of celebrating Bay Ridge native son, Huber Selby Jr., we placed it in that neighborhood on the map.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen



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22 COMMENTS

  1. Paul Auster’s “Sunset Park” is actually set in South Slope – and has nothing to do with the reality of Sunset Park. Drops of This Story by Suheir Hammad is a far, far better book about the neighborhood – and realer, too.

  2. Esmeralda Santiago’s “When I Was Puerto Rican” takes place all over Brooklyn: Bushwick, Williamsburg, East New York. And I noticed you don’t have a book for East New York, so…

  3. Nice list. One suggested addition: a small but significant portion of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s novel, AMERICANAH, takes place in Flatlands.

  4. What?! No Henry Miller? Kristin, how are you going to put North Brooklyn on a literary map, and not mention one of our greatest literary exports of the 20th century?! For shame! 😉

  5. A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis is set in Clinton Hill, not Boerum Hill. In real life, the author lived in Boerum Hill, but the story is deeply rooted in the mansions of Clinton Hill in the late 60s – early 70s.

  6. Requiem for a Dream did NOT take place in Bay Ridge, it was Coney Island. 25th hour would be a better book that took part in Bay Ridge.

  7. One of the best novels of the last several years that takes place largely in Brooklyn is “Netherland” by Joseph O’Neill. A central character lives in Ditmas Park,

  8. Selby ‘Requiem For A Dream’ is set in THE BRONX… hello? Even if you’re confusing it with the movie, which was transposed to Coney Island… A good idea for a story but closer– and wider– reading is required.

    Respectfully, that this article could be conceived and published without reference to Wallace Markfield, for starters, is ludicrous. I urge everyone who loves Brooklyn generally, and Coney Island and Brighton Beach specifically, to read both “To An Early Grave” and “Teitelbaum’s Window.”

    If you’re going to indulge Thomas Wolfe– who’s great but not in Brooklyn– you might as well take on John Dos Passos, the Brooklyn content of “U.S.A.” being more significant than Wolfe’s goofing around.

    Auster’s “Sunset Park” is vomitous, good thing it has nothing to do with the real one, be it Finntown or part of Bay Ridge or itself.

    Any Brooklyn list without Daniel Fuchs or Irving Shulman’s “The Amboy Dukes” is quite suspect. The latter was once hugely popular and rightly so; try to find the hardcover, which was unexpurgated, the paperback had all its Yiddish/Jewish elements cut out.

    Henry Miller can be rightly claimed for Williamsburg, Bushwick and Park Slope– depends which book. Could even argue Coney Island for his bike rides and (mis)adventures there.

    re: the complexion of this list, it’s unfortunate & not representative of 20th century Brooklyn, no, but I’m afraid we have NOT an abundance of published black & “Spanish” writers who have taken the borough– or the city, if they’re writing historical fiction– as they’re subject.

    A Spanish emigre who did, in part, consider Brooklyn is Felipe Alfau, back in the 1930s, when “Spanish” Brooklyn meant mixing among the Italians and others in Red Hook and South Brooklyn.

  9. Red Hook — Last Exit to Brooklyn — Hubert Selby. Great book.

    Gravesend. The Assistant? Ah, I don’t think that was the setting for the novel.

    Park Slope. Brooklyn Follies? Terrible book. An embarrassingly bad book by someone who’s written far better stuff.

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