“There’s Always Brooklyn” was originally written when I took part in the Southern Nevada Writing Project, and since then it has seen life a couple of times in both The Maxwell Digest and The Copperfield Review.
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Brooklyn, New York, cradle of tough guys and Nobel laureates, fourth largest city in the United States, proof of the power of marginality, and homeland of America’s most creative diasporic culture.
~David Neal Miller
George and Ira Gershwin
Louis Gossett Jr.
According to some estimates, nearly one in four Americans can trace their roots to Brooklyn, New York. My mother is from Brooklyn, like Babs and Barry. She grew up in the Sheepshead Bay area in a brownstone apartment on Cropsy Avenue beneath an Irish family. The policeman father had red hair, a ruddy complexion, and he favored a Guinness and he favored one frequently throughout the day. Whenever he’d get drunk my mother could hear him screaming at his wife and kids. She also heard him beat them around a bit. But she was friends with the kids, and she remembers going up to their apartment when their father wasn’t home and hanging out of their window watching the construction workers build the Verrazano Bridge. The Brooklyn Bridge, the bridge that connected Brooklyn to Manhattan, was hailed as the Eighth Wonder of the World when it opened in 1883. But the Verrazano Bridge, well, that was new, and when it opened it was the world’s longest suspension bridge.
Brooklyn in the 1950s was bobby socks and Chinese food every Sunday night while Ed Sullivan droned on from the black and white television. My mother remembers seeing Elvis swivel his hips and the Beatles shake their mop tops while eating egg foo young and fried rice. Pushcarts lined Pitkin Avenue. Weekends were spent in the city. Bus rides through the Lincoln Tunnel and over the George Washington Bridge brought you to shopping stops at Macys.
My mother remembers the pharmacy my grandfather and his brother owned on Avenue N and Nostrand. They owned the store from the 1940s through the early 1960s. She remembers her two younger brothers stealing baseball cards from the store, and she may have walked out with a make-up case or two. She remembers making sundaes out of soapy suds in the sink. Mainly, she remembers that her father was not a licensed pharmacist, but no one thought much of it then. Those were days when people trusted you when you knew what you were doing.
If I were a rich man,
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.
If I were a wealthy man.
I wouldn’t have to work hard.
Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.
If I were a biddy biddy rich,
~Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof
The Immigrant’s Brooklyn, 1910
The newer, taller buildings became more crooked, more crowded, and the further east the train traveled the more squalid the surroundings became. Through the curtains were the ordinary, private acts of home life that casual eyes should not witness. In gaslit rooms were women cooking over their wood fire stoves or tending children or folding laundry or serving meals to their overworked husbands or sewing. The tired inhabitants didn’t notice the El train passing just feet from their windows, commonplace as lack of privacy was for the people with large families in crowded flats.
Among the tenements was squalor shaped into narrow, pushcart-lined streets. Even at night people sat on the stoops so they would not suffocate in the stifling heat inside the over-crowded buildings. The noises of the slums were still rumbling, the peddlers calling to passers-by to buy their fish, herring, apples, pickles, scraps of clothing. Women, wives and mothers who needed to feed their hungry families, haggled with the peddlers. Their children needed to eat, so they argued, cajoled, cried, begged, screamed, or feigned indifference, whichever would enable them to bring home whatever they could.
Horse-drawn drays navigated the maze of lanes, avoiding the pushcarts and the elfin boys in suspenders and slouch caps running wild in the streets, the iron-shod hooves clattering over the cobblestones. Bearded shopkeepers tipped their hats to each other in an unspoken greeting. Grocers pulled barrels of coal, herring, and vegetables in various stages of pickling inside as they closed for the night. Tailor shops sold dressmakers trimmings, and second-hand apparel shops showcased worn-out shirts and jackets that looked like they could slide off the hangers and walk away. On a block of decaying tenements were buildings with so many fire escape ladders that it looked like one vast jail cell—like a debtor’s prison from Dickens’ day.
Still, this darkness was better than the darkness they had escaped from because over there was an all-consuming darkness while here, though the shadows were dense in places, it was a hope-filled darkness because light sprouted wherever you looked. There was a way out, they knew, and even the most tired, most overwhelmed of them knew that they were on the path towards the light. There was a purpose to their struggles, and they knew that their children would do better, their children’s children even better, because here darkness meant possibility where there it was only darkness. These were not angry faces or disgruntled faces, but tired, so tired faces with pasty complexions, even the youngest of them, their eyes distant and focused on the farthest horizon. The horizon meant the future to them, and in the future they could see the realization of their dreams.
The Arch of Triumph
The botanical gardens
Nathan’s hot dogs
Ballparks should be happy places.
My mother remembers sitting on the stoop of her grandmother’s apartment building by Prospect Park and Flatbush Avenue listening to the Dodger games coming from Ebbets Field across the street. They were so close to the stadium they could hear the crack of the bat, the whoosh of the ball, and the announcers calling the game. Who needs to pay for a ticket to go inside when you can sit on your own stoop and eat your own snacks for free?
The Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers were named for the Brooklynites who dodged the trolley cars as they crossed the busy city streets. The Dodgers, as they became known, first played at Ebbets Field in 1913, though they were not the top team in New York—that distinction went to the New York Baseball Giants. Before the Dodgers made their controversial move across the country in 1958, two important events happened at Ebbets Field. First, in 1939, Ebbets Field was the location of the first televised baseball broadcast when NBC showed the game between the Dodgers and the Reds. Then, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson made his debut as the first baseman for the Dodgers.
The first home run in Ebbets field was hit by Casey Stengel in 1913, the last home run by Duke Snider in 1957. People in Brooklyn today still talk about the 1958 season when Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley moved the team to Los Angeles. And, according to some, there are still a bitter few who remember the days when the Dodgers were kings and Ebbets Field the palace.
Mary Tyler Moore
Brooklyn is the center of the universe.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Step right up, step right up
To the seaside town adored by kids and
Kids at heart,
That’s right, world-famous Coney Island
Right here in Brooklyn, New York.
The home of Nathan’s hot dogs and
The scariest roller coaster you’ll ever
Find any place anywhere, the world-famous Cyclone.
Looks rickety with its worn wooden rails, but
Never fear, we’ve never lost a customer yet.
The Cyclone not the ride for you?
Never fear, at world-famous Coney Island
We also have the Wonder Wheel, the Ferris wheel
That’s so tall all you have to do is squint
To see the Pacific Ocean.
You may have heard, ladies and gentlement, that the
World-famous Coney Island began back in 1884 when
The first roller coaster was built next to the Brooklyn port.
There was a time when world-famous Coney Island was
Rundown, but a shadow of its former glorious self,
But, never fear ladies and gentlemen,
In the 1990s world-famous Coney Island was refurbished,
rebuilt, and returned to its former glory.
If you’re old enough to remember the Brooklyn Dodgers
(and you know who you are)
We now feature minor-league baseball at Keyspan Park
with the world-famous Brooklyn Cyclones.
Bring your sweetheart, bring your family,
Enjoy a day at the boardwalk by the shore
And tell your friends that
World-famous Coney Island is the place to be.
An Odd History of Brooklyn
Around 1646 the village of Breuckelen is authorized by the Dutch West India Company and becomes the first municipality in what is now New York State. Breuckelen precedes New Amsterdam (New York City) by seven years.
Around 1664 the English kick the Dutch out. Breuckelen becomes Brooklyn. Brooklyn is established as one of the original six towns of King’s County.
Around 1816 the Village of Brooklyn is incorporated into the Town of Brooklyn.
Around 1884 the world-famous Coney Island becomes an amusement center with the opening of its first roller coaster.
Around 1894 South Brooklyn becomes north of southern Brooklyn because the Red Hook area is incorporated and Red Hook is further south than South Brooklyn.
Around 1913 Ebbets Field opens, the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Around 1920 Brooklyn becomes the supplier of the industrial needs of the country.
Around 1947 Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in the major leagues, joins the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Around the 1950s Brooklyn’s industrial powers begin to wane as heavy manufacturers begin to move to cheaper locations. Middle classes leave for the suburbs.
Around 1955 the Brooklyn Dodgers defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series—the Dodgers’ only World Series title in Brooklyn.
Around 1958 the Brooklyn Dodgers move to Los Angeles, California. Brooklyn is in mourning.
Around 1977 a power failure leads to widespread rioting, looting, and arson. Forty percent of businesses in the area close within a year.
Around 1984 in “The Cosby Show,” Bill Cosby sets his fictional television family, the Huxtables, in the high-class neighborhood Brooklyn Heights.
Around the 1990s Brooklyn’s fortunes are revived. Brooklyn becomes a center for the arts because of the many artists who flee New York City and its skyrocketing rents.
Around now Brooklyn is home to thriving immigrant communities from the Caribbean, Latin America, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, China, and Korea.
According to Randy Bergmann, for many Brooklynites, Brooklyn is New York. If the stereotypes of the New Yorker—the accent, the rough edges, the street smarts, the sarcasm, the energy—weren’t born in Brooklyn, they certainly grew to prominence there.
I never once thought of leaving Brooklyn. When I do leave, I want to go out horizontally, just like my parents.
As Marcia Reiss says in Brooklyn Then and Now, Brooklynites spend half their lives trying to get out of Brooklyn and the other half reminiscing about what life was like there.
There where my heart has settled long ago
I must go, I must go, I must go,
Who could imagine I’d be wandering so
Far from the home I love
~Fiddler on the Roof