Whose Brooklyn?

coney island avenue 2This morning Monte sent me a link to this article from the New York Times about Brooklyn. It’s something I have thought about often, how cities are organic, how they change over time as cultures develop and demographics shift and different immigrant groups arrive. I’m enough of a romantic to see this as healthy.

Last time I was in Brooklyn, I chatted with a young man from Pakistan at the Botanical Gardens who seemed to have moved to the city with the same dreams that my grandfather had when he arrived a hundred years earlier.  I grew up on Coney Island Avenue, a long stretch of a street still known for the motley patchwork of ethnicities, religions, and nationalities who have come here. When I was a kid, it was mostly Italian, Irish, and Jewish.  In recent years I’ve talked a couple of times to Scotty, an African-American man who now owns the building my family lived in, and he says that his neighbors are Israelis, Pakistanis, people from the Caribbean, folks from all over. “We’re gettin’ along,” he reports, “doin’ our best.”

I enjoyed another article that’s been making the rounds lately, called What to Do If You’re Falling Out of Love With New York. It acknowledges the fact that the New York you knew and loved even five years ago isn’t the New York of today, and lists some recommendations for rediscovering the city’s charms. Of the current incarnation of my own childhood neighborhood, referred to as Kensington, it says this:

Walk the stretch of Church Avenue in Brooklyn from the B/Q Church station to the F/G Church station, preferably on a weekend or during the evening rush hour. You will pass a Golden Krust, an Islamic center, a Mexican hole-in-the-wall that sometimes advertises tamales via hand-written sign, a West Indian place, a synagogue, a halal market, Polish meat markets, a place that advertises tax preparation in several Eastern European languages and a couple of Indian-Pakistani-Bangladeshi markets. You will pass Orthodox Jews in those black hats, women in hijab, women in saris, dudes in track suits, neighbors calling across the street to each other, parents herding a gaggle of parka’d children toward the bus.

Coney Island Ave Cowboys_1024When I was growing up in Brooklyn, there were talkative shopkeepers, pushcart peddlers, scissor sharpeners, meddlesome grandmas with their elbows on the window sills, and noisy kids playing sidewalk games. There were newsstands and candy stores, kosher pickles in barrels to be plucked out with tongs, bottles collected for deposit, everyone counting pennies, dreaming big.

Yes, I wax nostalgic sometimes about the Brooklyn I knew as a kid, and I do realize it’s a Brooklyn long gone. But Brooklyn doesn’t belong to Spike Lee either or to Park Slope yuppies or Williamsburg hipsters or anyone else in particular.  The fundamental constant is the hope that brings people to new shores and the drive to build a better life, with all the variations that implies.

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