By Leah Finnegan
Brooklyn is home to 62,000 Italians, 65,000 Dominicans, innumerable pairs of skinny jeans and 4.5 million tourists. The travelers come from all over the globe, searching for a Brooklyn that doesn’t necessarily exist.
The idea of Brooklyn is one that artists love to explore. Writers tend to wax semi-poetic about a number of well-worn topics related to the borough. For one, the light: James Agee called it “the lordly, idiot light”; William Styron the “pollen-hazy light.” Walt Whitman, in his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” described seeing “red and yellow light over the tops of houses” created by “foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night.”
They also write about Brooklyn’s food, or objects that double as food. Anatole Broyard, “A Sunday Dinner in Brooklyn:” “On the corner squatted their church — a huge casserole, fat, heavy and plain as the women who prayed in it.” Woody Allen, in “Side Effects:” “Because the family is too poor to afford fresh rolls, he spreads marmalade on the News.”
But most tellingly, they write about Brooklyn’s streets. The novelist Carson McCullers described her Brooklyn Heights street as a place that had “a quietness and sense of permanence that seem to belong to the nineteenth century.” Betty Smith, in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” said the borough had “beautiful names for ugly streets.” Henry Miller, who was “born on the street and raised on the street” in present-day Williamsburg, put it best. “To be born on the street means to wander all your life, to be free,” he wrote in 1959. “In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them.”
So it could be that these millions of tourists are looking for a feeling unique to the borough — some hazy, idiotic, godly sensation, scented by marmalade-dressed newsprint. Or, in other terms: the absurdity of real life in Brooklyn. Guidebook in hand, I went there to find out.
I’ve never met Rick Kadlub in person, but he offers to pick me up off the side of the road in his beat-up silver Mitsubishi Eclipse one Sunday morning in Park Slope. He’s 47, burly and completely bald, save a pair of thick black eyebrows. He navigates the roads like he mapped them.
We’re driving so he can get cigarettes, and then to meet Hector and Vivian Garcia so Rick, a self-employed Brooklyn tour guide, can take them on a three-hour sightseeing jaunt around Park Slope and Prospect Park. Rick was born in this neighborhood, but the area he shows to his customers differs from the one he grew up in — he used to carry an ax in his coat when walking to pick up his grandmother at the subway stop on Union St. The corner today is home to a charming diner and apartment buildings with fluorescent-colored doors.
Most of Rick’s clients are from overseas, looking either for physical proof of a Park Slope coffee-and-stroller army or to see where parts of their family migrated. One-fifth — or maybe it’s one-seventh — of America can trace their roots to Brooklyn, Rick says; he’s not sure on the exact figure. Regardless, he once had a woman from Atlanta on a tour who broke into tears when she saw her childhood home.
The Garcias meet us at a sunny bagel shop. They’re an hour late. Vivian is petite and expressionless, Hector tall and younger looking than his 65 years in shorts and a baseball cap. They own a website in Florida that sells essential oils and materials to make soap. They visit New York often, but have never made it to Brooklyn. “We were afraid of where we might end up,” Vivian says.
Rick leads us up and down the neighborhood’s lush, brownstone-laden blocks. The Garcias are impressed. This is not the dingy Brooklyn they expected. Hector feels the groove of the place. “You come here and you get energized,” he says. Vivian tries to prove herself wrong. She says that some of the brownstones could stand to be pressure-cleaned. She asks if it’s safe to walk around at night.
We walk by the Montauk Club, Rick making sure to point out the building’s intricate moldings and quatrefoil windows. The Garcias squint to see the Native American heads carved into the balcony. The building has received such dignitaries as Grover Cleveland and Mark Twain. Today it hosts a Weight Watchers meeting.
A few blocks over, Prospect Park fully placates the Garcias. A string trio plays at the gates to the verdant pasture. Nuzzling couples stumble by. Families bike in packs. We turn our heads away from Richard Meier’s glass castle to soak in the scene. Our two-mile tour is almost over, and this is a good note on which to end. Rick tells us that sheep used to graze the park’s lawn, and it’s not difficult to imagine.
Over gloppy post-tour slices of pizza at Pinos, the Garcias nod emphatically when I ask them if their opinion of Brooklyn has changed. They’re not much for talking anymore, though, with their focus narrowed in on their slices. They say it’s the best pizza they’ve ever had. It might be why Hector slips Rick a $5 bill when we all part.
A few Saturdays later I’m at the Brooklyn entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, intent on stalking rogue, tour-guideless tourists. I want to walk over the bridge with them, chart their reactions as we cross boroughs in the gray air above the East River.
Immediately, I bump into Jean Ruane, Marie Baxandall and Shirley Carr puzzling over the large map of the adjacent area mounted next to the stairway leading up to the bridge. They’re from Manchester, England, in town to run the marathon the next day. They’re looking for Williamsburg.
Marie, a tiny woman with dark curls and a necklace of multicolored beads that looks like a string of elfin Christmas lights, shows me an address on her cell phone. Her husband wants a Joy Division shirt done in “reggae colors” from an obscure screenprinting shop in Williamsburg — do I know of it? I don’t. They decide to push their visit to Williamsburg to Monday, after they’ve run their marathon. Today is about the bridge.
Even though the women have only been in New York for a day, they are quick to appreciate the idea of Brooklyn as an oasis of authenticity. “It’s nice to get away from the tourist attractions and see where the indigenous peoples live,” Marie says. Meanwhile, Jean’s conception of the borough springs from an episode of “Sex and the City” in which a character moves to Brooklyn and is derided for skipping town to a less glamorous locale. She’s nonplussed. “I’m going to write to the producers,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with Brooklyn.”
Jean, a petite schools inspector with cropped blonde hair, leads the pack over the bridge. The thin walkway is clotted with people coming from the other direction. It’s Halloween, and some of them are wearing costumes. There are witches, fairies and pirates. There’s a man in an emerald green bodysuit that covers even his head — it doesn’t even have eyeholes. The women pay him no mind. They’re more surprised that people in New York dress up their dogs.
Marie darts ahead of us to take pictures with her 90s-era film camera. She runs her hands over the bridge’s steel girders and metal suspension cables as if she were showcasing a Camaro on “The Price is Right.” Like Jean, Marie’s withstanding notion of Brooklyn is mired in pop culture — shows like “Law and Order” and “The Sopranos,” the introductions to which can give a better tour of the city than a chartered helicopter. But now that she’s actually here, she chatters excitedly about what she sees. She especially likes Williamsburg for “taking over from where Greenwich Village left off.”
Toward the middle of the bridge, we’re pushed into the bike lane by the excess foot traffic. A man in full cyclist regalia, presumably not dressed as Lance Armstrong for the holiday, yells at us. “Bike lane!” he barks. “Wake up!”
The women giggle and hustle to the walking lane. Marie takes a picture of Jean posing as the State of Liberty. Shirley breathes in the smog. We’re not in Brooklyn anymore. The main island is more serious. The sky threatens drizzle. The ladies ache to put their feet up, but they decide to visit Ground Zero first.
I decide it’s time to talk to a Brooklyn expert — or at least someone who embodies the borough on a near-cellular level — to synthesize what I’ve seen. I meet Eben Wood, an English professor at Kingsborough Community College, at a muffin shop in Fort Greene, near a bookstore advertising a Jonathan Lethem reading and with titles like “Where The Wild Things Are” and “Veganomicon” displayed in its front window.
Wood says he’s dismayed by the hipster infiltration of Brooklyn, even though he admits he’s a hipster himself. Dressed in a checkered oxford shirt, jeans and heavy brown boots, sporting a full beard and moustache and carrying a messenger bag, it’s difficult to argue with his self-identification.
In early October, Wood organized Dreamland Pavilion, an academic conference on Brooklyn that hosted 90 presenters on topics ranging from the Atlantic Yards to the borough as a gastropolis. More than 150 people made the trek to Kingsborough’s campus on the borough’s south coast to take part in the examination. As far as Wood knows, it was the first academic conference to focus solely on Brooklyn.
When I ask him what people look for when they look for Brooklyn, he points in the direction of the Greene Grape grocery store up the block, built to evoke an old Italian market. It’s a symbol of the old and new of the borough, awkwardly meshed together. Inside, “you expect a white ethnic guy in an apron with his sleeves rolled up, smoking a cigar and cutting you a delicious dry ham,” he says; that’s the old Brooklyn people yearn to feel when they come here. The ethos of new Brooklyn — rooted in notions of idealized utopian corporatism — is evidenced by the fact that you can’t buy a slice of dry ham at the Greene Grape unless you have $20 to kill. In his academically minded conclusion, Wood determines that the borough’s attempt at progression through simulated regression lodges it between the two extremes, making it impossible for tourists to find truth in their expectations.
Wood was born in Michigan. Drawing on his graduate work and his position at Kingsborough, he thoughtfully analyzes Brooklyn’s deeper social issues from a historian’s perspective. He purports himself to be fully enmeshed in the battle to save the area’s ethnic enclaves from developers’ malfeasant hands. He believes in Brooklyn’s obstinate pluckiness — and that it will fight against mindless gentrification, to preserve what’s left for future history-seekers and those who desire affordable rent.
But perhaps Wood’s own experience of hosting visitors best illustrates the core certainty of what outsiders think of the borough. He recalls a visit from his German friend a few years ago, after he first moved to Brooklyn. She was taken aback that she could not step out of his Bed-Stuy apartment, hail a cab and jet to the Museum of Modern Art. She summed up her feelings toward Brooklyn succinctly. “What a fucked-up place for you to move to,” she told him.