In A Brooklyn State Of Mind

Jacquelin Cangro

Copyright 2004 by Jacquelin Cangro

 Brooklyn is the kind of place where its reputation precedes it. We know all about the stereotypes. The borough has its share of loud-mouthed, opinionated men wearing gold chains, and loud-mouthed, opinionated women cracking chewing gum. But there is more going on here than meets the eye. Brooklyn isn’t just the oft-joked-about cousin to Manhattan’s glitz and sophistication. We have enough sights, culture, history and eateries to make leaving the borough, dare I say it, completely unnecessary.

Brooklyn once again has become a hot commodity. The New Jersey Nets basketball team is close to relocating to town and Carnival Cruise Lines has proposed a new $100 million passenger terminal on the South Shore. Even Sex and the City’s Miranda fled her Manhattan digs to call the borough home. We’re not kidding when we say that Brooklyn should be the 51st state.

 Novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote, “It’d take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn through and through and even then, you wouldn’t know it all.” True, but since visitors have to start somewhere, it makes sense to begin at the beginning – the Brooklyn Bridge.

There are few things left in this world that are free and the Brooklyn Bridge is one of them. An elevated walkway above the traffic makes for a pleasant stroll, jog or bike ride over the East River, especially at dusk, when the sun sets behind the Manhattan skyline. The opening of the bridge in 1883 was the impetus for thousands of Lower East Side immigrant workers to seek refuge in a more hospitable area with cleaner air and more living space. At the time, Brooklyn was an independent city with more than one million residents, the third largest in the United States.

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of four bridges connecting Brooklyn to other boroughs in New York City. The Verrazano Bridge, once the longest suspension bridge in the world, links Brooklyn to Staten Island, and the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges lead into Manhattan. Labeled as the new Greenwich Village, the area around the Manhattan Bridge has become home to burgeoning artists and musicians, giving new life to an area that had been long neglected. The Art Under the Bridge festival, held annually in October, draws thousands of visitors from all over New York City, proving that Manhattan does not have the only art scene.

Brooklynites love to abbreviate names, so we affectionately call this area DUMBO, or Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Tucked between DUMBO and the Brooklyn Bridge is New York City’s best pizzeria, a topic of constant debate. Blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Grimaldi’s never fails to please. They don’t deliver and they don’t take credit cards, two sure-fire ways to kill a pizza business in other cities, but Grimaldi’s thrives. People will continue to come, no matter the inconvenience, as if the extra effort makes the pizza taste better.

As waves of immigrants pushed deeper into the borough throughout the Nineteenth Century, the city eventually gobbled up all of the surrounding towns: Williamsburg, Flatbush, Bushwick, New Utrecht, Gravesend and New Lots. These neighborhoods still exist as informal landmarks, and they retain the character of the immigrants who settled them first. “You can go from neighborhood to neighborhood and run into the UN,” said Brooklyn historian Ron Schweiger. This is the essence of Brooklyn – neighborhoods and immigrants. One out of every seven Americans can trace their family roots through Brooklyn, and many of those can further track their family history to Europe. Part of Winston Churchill’s lineage is in the opposite direction. His mother, Jenny Jerome, was born in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, and Jerome Avenue bears her legacy.

In 1898, Brooklyn was incorporated as one of the five boroughs of New York City, passing by a narrow margin of 277 votes. Kings, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island and The Bronx make up New York City. Brooklyn is Kings County and we treat our town with a reverence reserved only for royalty. Many an arguement has begun by locals eager to defend the most mundane aspect of Brooklyn life – alternate side of the street parking or why we aren’t permitted garbage disposals, for example.

And where do the intricacies of these arguements get aired? At a diner, of course. In some cities a diner is just a diner. In Brooklyn, diners are where locals meet to gossip, catch up on the news of the day and hold court on important topics. For more than 50 years, Junior’s on the corner of Flatbush Avenue and DeKalb Avenue, has been that place for Brooklynites. Order just about anything on the menu, but be sure to leave room for an egg cream and one of the 18 different kinds of their world famous cheesecake.

Not far from Junior’s is a 526-acre respite from the sirens and horns of Flatbush Avenue. Go deep enough into Prospect Park and all sounds of the city fade away, just as landscape architects Frederick Law Omsted and Calvert Vox intended. It was said that the duo, who also designed Central Park, felt they had improved upon their earlier creation.

On the edge of the park is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It’s one of Dawn Techow’s favourite things to do in Brooklyn. “In spring during the cherry blossom season and in June when the roses bloom, the Botanic Garden is wonderful.” Techow is a “Brooklyn two-timer”. She lived in Brooklyn for a short period after college and then moved to Manhattan. It didn’t take long for her to realise the error of her ways and beat a path back to the borough. “I moved back to Brooklyn from Manhattan because I love the laid-back attitudes of Brooklynites. I think I’ve always felt more comfortable here."

Summer is the season when Brooklyn lets her hair down and Coney Island is the center of it all. Coney Island is a sliver of land, not really an island at all, on the southern shore of Brooklyn. In the late 1800’s, it was America’s first playground for the wealthy and people came from around the tri-state area to live it up on the beach, at the horse tracks, in the Vaudeville theatres and on the boardwalk.

Coney Island’s golden era ended in 1964 when the last of three giant amusement parks closed, leaving the boardwalk in disrepair for many years. Now the area is revitalizing itself with help from the city. The Stillwell Avenue train station is getting a much needed face lift, while the shoddy buildings on Surf Avenue are being renovated or torn down. A huge boost came from the Brooklyn Cyclones, the borough’s first professional baseball team in more than 40 years. From the upper deck, fans can keep one eye on the game and the other on the wooden roller coaster for which the team is named.

The Mermaid Parade is Coney Island’s annual coming out party on the first Saturday after the summer solstice. Mermaids and mer-men march down Surf Avenue in costumes that are a sight for sore eyes after a long winter season. The party isn’t limited to mermaids. Anything under the sea is fair game. Poseidon and Captain Nemo usually make an appearance.

We often refer to Manhattan as “the city,” but the worst mistake a visitor can make is to treat Brooklyn as a bedroom community to the glitz of Times Square and the drama of Broadway. “My original impression, despite having lived in Long Island, was that Brooklyn was one of those outlying districts,” said Ken Wheaton, a Brooklynite for five years. “But Brooklyn had a charm to it. It seemed older, wiser.”

When Ron Schweiger gives a lecture about Brooklyn, he finishes with an image of a postcard, circa 1915. On the postcard is a woman in a bathing suit at the beach, holding a sign that says, “Brooklyn”.   Across the bottom it reads “…is a great old town.” It surely is.

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