What Brooklyn — the real Brooklyn — has to fear is not designer pickles, is not boutique mayonnaise; nor is it farmers markets, or shoestring suspenders (or the mustachioed hipsters from whose non-shoulders they hang), or periodic forays by Taylor Swift across the water from the bosom of TriBeCa.
Other items to ignore: boozy Sunday brunches, the practice and vocabulary of mixology, the word refurbishment — and its cousin, conversion — shoddy construction, overpriced pseudobodegas, the curvature and artful rust of the Barclays Center, gallery space, studio space, greenspace, retail pop-ups, the cast of the HBO show Girls, the word artisanal, noise pollution, yoga, joggers, Maclarens, real-estate-inspired neighborhood renamings, bad Banksy impersonators, top hats and fedoras, Warby Parker, the airbrushed and alienating gloss of Brooklyn Magazine, etc.
No: be not afraid. These things, they tarnish the body, but after that, there’s little they can do.
The true and so far unheralded danger to Brooklyn — the real Brooklyn — is me.
Last year I interviewed an artist at a diner in the Bronx, near Yankee Stadium. Our discussion was supposed to be about the artist’s most recent project, but as an interviewer I am prone — by way of nervousness, and of distraction — to all kinds of half-relevant digressions, and somehow we got to talking about the swiftly changing demography of New York. The artist and I were both born and mostly raised in various pockets of the city, and as natives of any place are prone to do, we performed a kind of eulogy for the (benevolently graffitied, quaintly murderous) place we once knew, or like to think we knew. Here is what the artist said:
ARTIST: I saw what happened in Brooklyn. Like, places like — me and my friends are one of the reasons why Brooklyn is gentrified right now. I would totally take the blame… and I know exactly when it happened! One night I got a ride home from someone, coming from a friend’s spot like, “Yeah, we’ll drop you off, no problem.”
They pull up to my corner [and] I’m like, “Right here, make a right. Stop right here.” And the driver’s like, “Oh, my god, there’s so many trees on this block. It’s so beautiful. What’s this neighborhood called?” I was like, “Uhhh… Far Rockaway!”
But, you know you, can’t stop the spread of information, you can’t stop the spread of culture, you can’t stop “progress.”
When my friends moved over there, I had to [take the] shuttle train. I would not sit down. I would stand up on the shuttle by the door in anticipation of God-knows-what happening. And all of those places I used to walk by — and [maybe] it’s a memory that needs to be updated — but… for New Yorkers, we have a memory of what happened in some of these places and we get triggered and we’re like, “We need to be careful, such-and-such happened over here.” But for some people that didn’t grow up with that experience, that are new, they’re sitting on the fuckin’ curb, drinking a latte.
“But whatchamacallit got shot right there, you shouldn’t be over there because that might happen again!” They’re like –
VC: They’re not worried about that.
ARTIST: “I don’t know about that.”
Two things there, right? Accountability and experience. Guilt and memory. Blues forgotten and paradise found; the new truth and the old truth all at once, somehow.
What I’m saying, I guess, is that I’m moving to Brooklyn. By time you read this I might already be there for good. My fiancée (I’m getting married too: another journey into the exotic half-lit; another territorial leap) was raised in the borough, not far from our prewar apartment near where Flatbush and Nostrand avenues collide, and is therefore all but inured — affectionately, but still — to its amazements. She looks on vaguely amused as I count them, and I count them often:
That Flatbush-Nostrand Junction, West-Indian 125th Street, fast-food mecca, full to falling apart with Jamaicans and Trinidadians, Bajans and Haitians. (Even growing up in New York, I have never met so many Caribbeans, nor by extension been aware of so many varieties of rum.) Barbershops, hair salons, nail salons, beauty supplies, storefront church after storefront church, dollar stores, dollar vans, Russians, Hasidim, Target shoppers, Home Goods shoppers, the cloud of teenaged clothes hangers at Kings Plaza Mall, which I hadn’t known even existed.
This is what I mean when I say real:
A while back, call it a month or so ago, two, my fiancée and I found ourselves hurtling down Flatbush Avenue — that wide vein running barely interrupted under the skin of Brooklyn: former Native American footpath, former Dutch farming road, former Revolutionary War mini-theatre — in the middle row of a dollar van. These vans, in case you’ve never experienced the mingled pleasure and terror of a ride, shuttle largely unmarked up and down the borough, made conspicuous only by the intrusive triads of their horns, honked incessantly, and the broad gleam of their grills. The driver holds a rope that draws a thick, frayed line to the door, which he whips shut behind each new entry. Usually there’s dancehall on, or soca, or kompa, or gospel, or R&B.
We’re in this van, and the driver’s got a big borderless beard and his locks bagged up in a knit hat, and in the air of the van hangs the pleasantly relentless smell of weed. Every thirty seconds or so the driver turns his pointer and his middle finger into a gun and he shoots it skyward in silent time with the music. At some point, halfway home, maybe, he gets a thinly coded tip through the staticky dispatch radio that, like a sign of shared worry, adorns the front panel of each of these vans.
“Red and blue,” says the voice through the radio. “Red and blue down Flatbush.”
The driver turns serious, lowers the music, cuts out the pantomimed gunplay. He turns his head halfway around.
“Everybody ‘pon de truck,” he says in his best announcer’s voice. “Ev-er-y-bo-dy ‘pon de truck: If dem pull us over, this” — this two-dollar, pot-perfumed ride — “is a church trip. You hear me? This. Is. A. Church. Trip.”
With this the music rises again and the gun rematerializes and the driver veers warned but wild down Flatbush towards home.
When I say real, then, I expose myself as every bit the outsider and onlooker. If by real, one is obligated on some level to mean current, or actual, all kinds of strange contortions start to appear.
Consider one quick stretch of Flatbush Avenue:
At 1027 sits Kings Theatre, former champagne-era Loews movie house, gold-gilded French baroque and upholstered seats inside, carpets bejeweled — or so I’ve read — and unbelievable to behold from the street. Huge black-lettered marquee and undulating facade, whole works. After a prolonged decline it closed in the ‘70s and lay fallow until this past February, when after a 95 million dollar renovation it reopened to a Diana Ross concert.
“Breathtaking,” says the New York Post of the renovation. The Times predicts that the place will “lift” the neighborhood, will act as cornerstone to a new era of “jobs and revitalization” along the Avenue. Among the acts already booked for the remainder of the year are Sufjan Stevens (whose new thing, Carrie and Lowell, might be his best thing, affectingly light on the customary Sufjanian horn arrangements and backing harmonies numbering in the millions. This one’s all aching lead vocals and half-sighed acoustics, a kind of brief, devastated descendant of sixties folk. I think I wish I had a ticket), Beres Hammond (whose name, and whose music, I’d never heard until last year; a favorite of my future mother-in-law; reggae in a slick, saddish quiet-storm mode), and the 2015 National Beard & Moustache Championships (which, well, refer to the first two paragraphs above).
Down the street, a bit southeast, at 1085, is another huge marquee, this one a white rectangular slab, jutting outward, CHURCH OF GOD splayed across it in big purple seriffed letters. Faintly ominous, the sign strikes me as the kind of detail — perhaps omitted in final cutting — that Flannery O’Connor could’ve invented if she’d ever been to Flatbush. The church — Cortelyou Road Church of God — is Pentecostal, the first Haitian church of its denomination in the States. Founded in ‘67, just years before the temporary death of the Loews, it is now, according to its own website, regarded the “mother of all Haitian Churches,” with services in Creole, French, English, and, presumably, tongues, as the Spirit gives utterance.
A theatre and a church, both of them simultaneously old and new — even in relation to each other — both offering, via rapture or rezoning, some clean and inevitable version of the future. Go ahead and tell me, please, given history, given now, which is in any honest, articulable sense real.
Still: this is what I mean when I talk with unearned nostalgia about the neighborhood I came to for love — the place I’d like to come to know and am afraid to somehow ruin:
Another day, bright early afternoon, a different dollar van. Or driver — young, wiry, semi-permanent smirk — pulls up at the light and waves to another driver. A window slips down, and somehow, because the real Brooklyn is a slow-unfolding comedy, a series of set pieces, this other driver is Church Trip, he of the ganja and the signified firearm. He waves back to our driver, nods in unstartled recognition. The two perform a quick duet in patois, the counterpoint covering the minutia of their trade: traffic, bad passengers, money, cops. Just before the light changes, our driver produces, from somewhere, a sharpied CD. He stretches it across the passenger’s side, over the gap between vans, hands it to Church Trip.
Church Trip smiles until an artery in his forehead moves, says thanks, presses the gas.