What’s the “Real” Brooklyn?

welcome to brooklyn highway sign Marty Markowitz

There is no “real” Brooklyn; there’s yours, mine, theirs. Even those WWII soldiers from black-and-white movies invariably named “Brooklyn” weren’t accurately all-encompassing representations of the borough, as Pete Hamill said at the Brooklyn Book Festival. In the modern era, we have two competing portrayals: the gentrified neighborhoods, where young people survive on kale bought with money made off their Etsy pages; and the ungentrified neighborhoods, to which the media-ballyhooed economic revival hasn’t spread. Many locals reject the former as inauthentic. The media, though, can only hold onto one stereotype at a time, and after its late-20th century reputation as hard-edged and crime-ridden, from Last Exit to Brooklyn to Ready to Die, Brooklyn is now seen as something softer.

Seen, for example, by the old people who watch CBS and a show like 2 Broke Girls, which features hipsters in Williamsburg hustling food-service jobs to make ends meet. It was surprising to me that this season’s new television show set in Brooklyn, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, should be a cop show, because it plays off a conception of the borough that’s out-of-step with the current cliches: if you wanted to make a cop show, why wouldn’t you set it in, uh, Detroit or something? Some urban locale that, in reality and/or according to media stereotypes, isn’t doing so well? But what’s significant I suppose is that this show is a comedy, a sendup (I hear) of crime-show cliches. Brooklyn, in the popular imagination, is the perfect place for laughing at crime, because, we’re told, it’s not a problem here anymore. In reality, this may actually be true for certain communities and certainly not for others: there’s the reality of the gentrifiers, and the reality of the ungentrified, and even these aren’t wholly distinct: there’s unemployment and crime in Park Slope, stability and a middle-class in Brownsville, and unaffordable rents everywhere.

Yesterday, I had dinner at the Lock Yard, a new bar in Bay Ridge (a neighborhood that’s not particularly gentrified). I sat at the short bar, where two women came and squeezed on and around the stool next to mine; when I came back from the bathroom, the standing woman was leaning back, hovering over my seat; I squeezed in around her. The bartender asked her to scooch over; she apologized; he said, “No, no, I just didn’t want you to knock your elbow into a beer or something.” And she said, “You’re in Bay Ridge now. Get used to it.”

It took me a few moments to realize that she had said it to me. I was wearing a sweater over a collared shirt and a thick-framed pair of glasses: I wasn’t coded Bay Ridge; I was coded hipster, I guess, and to her I was an out-of-towner, a visitor, an outsider. I wasn’t Real. But I’ve lived in Bay Ridge all my life: the neighborhood is mine as much as it is hers. And that would be true even if I were an outsider. (It’s not new residents who make neighborhoods economically unviable for large swaths of the population: it’s developers, landowners, and government.) It’s her Brooklyn and my Brooklyn; it’s the hipster’s Brooklyn and the working-class’ Brooklyn and the rich’s Brooklyn and the poor’s Brooklyn and the transplant’s Brooklyn and the native’s Brooklyn. You can claim one is more legitimate—because it’s older—but it’s only so for the claimant. Our media can do a better job of acknowledging them all (or the Times Style section can just stop), but they’re all valid because they’re all actually happening, and culturally speaking there’s no reason (in an economic vacuum) they can’t coexist: why we can’t have farmer’s markets in Bensonhurst and real dive bars in DUMBO, why Midwesterners can’t drink a beer at the bar next to a native. They’re all Brooklyn now, for better and worse.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart


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