Friday, August 23, 2013

The Answer is Brooklyn

So what’s the question? Not anything about Coney Island or the Dodgers, the Brooklyn Bridge or Navy Yard.

Brooklyn has a glorious history. Just ask George Washington how he lost the battle of Brooklyn Heights but won the war by a tactical retreat saving his rag-tag army for another day.

In my day Brooklyn was the butt of many jokes. People spoke with an accent that sounded like they lived on Toid Avenue and Toidy-toird St. I suppose it’s true that you can take the boy out of Brooklyn but can’t take Brooklyn out of his mouth. A residue remains. It has stayed with Barbra Streisand, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen but who knew Anne Hathaway and Mickey Rooney are natives?  My first wife was also from Brooklyn but I married her anyway.

The fine literary critic and Brooklyn-born, Alfred Kazin, wrote that his move across the East River to Manhattan represented, for him, a transformative moment in his life as if across an ocean. 

I went to Pharmacy School in Brooklyn. I’ve heard the building morphed into a mosque and the college itself now occupies what was once the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. There is a certain symmetry to these transitions. My father’s corner drugstore became a storefront synagogue and my experience at the college felt like a bad movie.

There is something about Brooklyn that resists a grid. I often lost my sense of direction while driving there. Unlike Manhattan which has a definitive north/south Brooklyn is a sprawl particularly for those of us raised on subterranean transit. I lived in Queens and for one nickel I would make my way across boroughs transferring three times and surface an hour later at Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers. At no time did I know which direction I was traveling.

The Park Slope section has recently become a prestigious address. At the turn of the 19th century it was regarded as the richest neighborhood in the entire country. Now it is home to artists, actors and writers such as Laurence Fishburne, John Turturro, Pete Hamill, Gwyneth Paltrow, Peter Sarsgaard and Paul Auster….but what ever happened to Murray, the chicken-plucker?

As for the question you may one day be asked on Jeopardy, the answer is Brooklyn to the question: What was the 3rd largest city in the U.S. in 1860 ….and for much of the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1898, fifteen years after the completion of the cathedral-like Brooklyn Bridge, that Brooklyn combined with Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island to form greater New York City.

It was no easy matter for the boroughs to join. Many opposed the idea including the Brooklyn Eagle, their newspaper for 115 years. Walt Whitman had been their editor fifty years and many leaves of grass earlier. If they had resisted annexation Brooklyn would now be the fourth most populated city in the country with 2.6 million at last count.

As a final note I would imagine it also contains the largest concentration of Dodger-haters in the world since the team left their beloved fans bereft having taken the subway to Los Angeles 56 years ago. I had deracinated myself in 1954 calling L.A. my home and regarded the move as providential intervention confirming my suspicion that God was a Dodger fan after all and was looking after me. My religiosity lasted not more than twenty minutes but I still refuse to put away childish things instilled in Brooklyn.

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