Jul 6, 2016
Here Is Brooklyn
Brooklyn is a funny place in summer. This is the season when it is best to be here, and it is also the season when it is best to escape. Of course, escape is only temporary; escapes are, to quote James Agee (who knew what was what when it came to Brooklyn), “relative, and bestow their own peculiar form of bondage.” There is, in other words, no escape. But this is already known, isn’t it? If you are in Brooklyn now, then it will always be a part of your story. It will almost definitely play a bigger role than where you go next (Los Angeles, Westchester, Manhattan). Brooklyn, depending on where your life takes you—or, rather, where you take your life—well, in some people’s minds, Brooklyn might even play a bigger role in your story than you do. Brooklyn might be the joke, but it’s one hell of a punchline.
All of which is why summer is the best time to take stock of Brooklyn. This endlessly sprawling place, whose non-watery borders are amorphous, even suspect (the Rockaways can’t really be Queens, can it?), suddenly becomes digestible, its every corner worth exploring, its every park worth spending a lazy afternoon, its every bridge worth admiring in the hazy gray-yellow light of a hot day. It is a study of contrasts: A street is eerily quiet, until it is a wild cacophony of children shrieking and car stereos blasting and fire hydrants gushing and sirens wailing and women laughing. A day is unbearably hot and sticky and bright, until the sky grows dark and the sky begins to rumble and suddenly there is no escape from the sheets of water pouring down on and into you and you are cold to your very bones and sticky no longer; you are a slippery, sodden mess, and the wet pavement smells of the church you used to go in as a child. A person is achingly sad after a day or a week or a month spent alone, until they walk outside and run into someone they know well or once knew or have never seen before in their life, but they start talking and flirting and drinking and the ache goes away, the loneliness passes, the days beat on.
Brooklyn in summer is so beautiful, so alien, so magical and holy, that it would be awfully easy to sentimentalize, really, if it weren’t for the steady evidence that it was eating itself, if it weren’t for the fact that Brooklyn in summer is so clearly a time of death and decay, of fetid sidewalk smells, of rank and empty subway cars. Brooklyn in summer is the pause in the machine; it’s a time to stop and reassess where we are for the rest of the year, what it is we’re working on or working toward or working for. It is a time to realize we’ve been working for nothing; it is a time to plan our escape, to forget for a minute that the escape we’re planning is from a place that isn’t just a prison of our own making, it is one that costs us dearly.
And so a pause: One spring night many years ago, I found myself driving home to Brooklyn from a dinner in Westchester, a Passover seder. I was with a friend, more of a friend of a friend, I guess, but someone I liked a lot, whose opinion I thought highly of. We were talking about places we’d lived, things we’d seen. I lamented the fact that though I’d done some traveling, I’d never really lived anywhere other than New York; at that point, I’d been in Brooklyn for 11 years, now I’ve lived here 16. I asked him why he’d chosen to settle here, and he replied that despite the pleasures of being peripatetic, it’s important to know one place really well in this life, and that it was a lucky person who got to know New York. I dropped him off on a brownstone-lined street in Park Slope, and thought a lot about what he said, thought about how Brooklyn would be my place, wondered if that was what I wanted, realized that sometimes “want” is as meaningless a word as “deserve” (i.e. very), and heard in my head that familiar-to-anyone-who-has-been-near-a-Brooklyn-playground chant: “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”
It was not long after this conversation that I started to work at Brooklyn Magazine. It was a magazine I’d never heard of, focused on a place I had a hard time taking too seriously. I didn’t get why Brooklyn needed a magazine. Who would be on the cover? Just all the stars of Girls? (Yes, mostly.) But it was a job. And there was something instantly appealing about the absurdity of it: Here was a magazine intent on mythologizing a place that didn’t stay the same anymore from one year to the next, so constant was its never-ending cycle of death throes followed by new agonies of birth. Wash, rinse, repeat. The dominant media narrative was of a borough perpetually on the rise, but beneath the journalists’ chatter, the steady thrum of annihilation pressed outward from the borough’s Manhattan-facing borders. And so it wasn’t too long before the magazine made perfect sense to me, before I innately understood why readers loved nothing more than stories about sinkholes in Williamsburg or $100 gold doughnuts (also in Williamsburg, naturally); my cynicism knew no limits, it stretched to the very edges of Brooklyn’s vastness.
And yet, despite my ever-increasing skepticism about the future of a place where getting your children into the “right” elementary school becomes warfare and where food co-op meetings frequently risk devolving into riots, what I realized was that I was busy living firmly in the present, investing more and more in this place I called home, the place where I was raising my children, a place that was becoming more and more known to me, despite any efforts to keep elements of it at arm’s length. The deeper I came to know this place, its quirks and bits of trivia and varied communities and colorful history, the more I was struck by the fact that while the idea of Brooklyn–of what it was supposed to be–shifted in and out of focus, at whim to the latest trend (or, far more ominously, the latest developer), meaning it never became a fully formed thing, the reality of Brooklyn was actually quickening and becoming as inescapable as just-poured concrete.
Make no mistake, the reality of Brooklyn is broken. Its foundation—both current and historical—is built on the worst aspects of American society: vast inequality, rapacious development, bourgeois blindness, mindless tribalism, petty frustrations taking precedence over systemic injustices, a collective insistence that a band-aid can fix a bullet hole. But that is true everywhere, its vividness in Brooklyn is due to the borough’s current place in a spotlight that shines bright enough to sometimes blast away the ugliest parts in its hot glare, flatten everything with a strange sort of glow. The brokenness ceases to matter, or maybe it becomes the only thing that matters, because if this whole borough were just the brownstone-lined streets of Park Slope it wouldn’t be worth knowing, let alone writing, much about at all.
But Brooklyn is worth knowing, and knowing well. It’s worth knowing as it used to be, and it’s worth knowing as it is now, and I can only hope beyond hope that it will continue to be worth knowing as it mutates into whatever its next iteration may be. The Brooklyn worth knowing now is one where, because of how hard you have to work to live here, is filled with people working hard, doing everything in their power, everything they can think of, to make this place worth working hard for. And so this then is also why Brooklyn in summer is a funny place; things slow down, the will to work dies, and we can take stock of why we’re here at all.
The reasons I am here now are different than they used to be; they’d have to be, Brooklyn is different than it used to be. But those reasons aren’t found in the sinkholes and the gold doughnut holes; those reasons include the chance meeting of best friends at a job in which you alternately roam the streets and stay chained to desks together, always caught in conversations you hope will never end; those reasons include finding love or lust or love and lust at a chance encounter at a rooftop party, an encounter which brings you to tears, the kind you never want to go away; those reasons include having the ability to raise children whose worlds are wider and more open by the age of 10 than are most people’s over the course of their whole lives; those reasons include a practical mandate to interact and engage with the world growing around you, lest you blink for too long and miss its latest iterations; those reasons include the wild and perfectly imperfect tableau of Prospect Park on the first warm day of the year, when it seems like every child across the borough has descended to play baseball, and every dog to play catch, and every multi-generational Brooklyn family to barbecue; those reasons include the ability to launch off in a fishing boat from Sheepshead Bay and feel your heart catch for a minute as you marvel at the beauty of New York’s other skyline, comprising housing projects, a defunct parachute jump, a century-old Wonder Wheel; those reasons and so many more are why, if there is only one place in my life that I will grow to know really well, I am glad that it is Brooklyn.
Escape may be relative and its bondage peculiar, but Brooklyn will forever be a part of my story. And I’m better for it.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen
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