By Eric Hubler
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 25, 1998
If You Like Manhattan’s… You’ll Love Brooklyn’s…
Central Park Prospect Park (both Frederick Law Olmsted-designed masterworks of urban greenery)
The Chrysler Building The Williamsburg Bank (a fantasy of gargoyles and curlicues, long the tallest building in Brooklyn, still the most fanciful)
The Met The Brooklyn Museum of Art (near Prospect Park and the Botanic Garden)
South Street Seaport Museum New York Transit Museum (many consider it the most fun museum in the city)
Katz’s Junior’s (one meal for the price of two and the calories of three)
Zabar’s Sahadi’s (gourmet shop in the midst of Atlantic Avenue’s Arab restaurant zone)
Washington Square Park Arch Grand Army Plaza Arch (theirs depicts the Revolution, ours depicts the Civil War and features a figure of an armed slave)
Little Italy Carroll Gardens (brick-oven pizza, espresso and New York’s most extravagant Christmas decorations)
The Upper West Side Park Slope (artsy enclave, filthy with writers, notably Paul Auster)
Harlem Fort Greene (an African American neighborhood being gracefully gentrified by buppies)
SOHO DUMBO (you really want to know what it stands for now, don’t you?)
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum My houseI had to leave. The overstuffed leather, the crystal and china, the pale tourists, the clerks who smile instead of sneer and say “Sir” instead of “Yo”–it was all too incongruous. I grabbed a brochure and scrammed.
Thus ended my first visit to the first luxury hotel erected in Brooklyn in decades–the New York Marriott Brooklyn. I’d been looking forward to this moment ever since construction started on the hotel and office structure downtown, near the Brooklyn Bridge. While the exterior is big-box drab, the interior accomplishes its mission: to change my mind–and the world’s–about Brooklyn.
Which can’t be easy, for no other locality looms as large in our collective memory as this city-cum-borough of 2 million, the first suburb of and greatest rival to that skyscraper-choked rock across the East River and the largely accidental destination of a centuries-long flow of immigrants. It isn’t just that individual Brooklynites, factual and fictional, from Walt Whitman to Ralph Kramden to Mike Tyson, have made their outsized marks on the national imagination; Brooklyn itself has become a synecdoche for the nation. One in seven Americans, according to the figure bandied about here with solipsistic certainty, has roots in Brooklyn. That’s 36 million personalized visions of Brooklyn running loose upon the land.
The aim of this article–an aim the editor of this section fears I have little hope of accomplishing–is to persuade you to visit Brooklyn. “Can we really imagine having [readers] spend time–and dropping, say, $500 on a long weekend–in Brooklyn instead of Manhattan?” he e-mailed me in response to my pitch.
Now that there’s a brand-name hotel to return to at the end of the day, you have no excuse not to. Surely you’ve been to Manhattan; next visit, just don’t do it. To drum in the idea that Brooklyn would be a destination on par with Philadelphia, Boston or Baltimore were it not for its proximity to Manhattan, we’ve prepared the handy table of equivalents below, designed to convince you that Brooklyn is just stinking with worthy sites worth touring.
The fun of writing about Brooklyn right now is that, like every other city with two waterfront parks to rub together, it’s supposed to be undergoing a renaissance. (The preceding dark age started in 1957, when the Dodgers left, and ended, at least for me, when my wife and I realized we didn’t have to bail the moment our first baby was born.)
In many ways, the renaissance propaganda is true: Though there are no figures available for how many people visit Brooklyn or how much they spend, the Brooklyn Tourism Council–of course there is a Brooklyn Tourism Council!–has grown from 15 member businesses and civic associations to 40 since its founding in 1994. If you need more convincing, try renting an apartment in Park Slope. Brooklyn is hot.
(Some, of course, don’t like it hot. Writer Pete Hamill is fleeing to Queens to protest the invasion of Brooklyn by rent-raising yuppie scum.)
I’m not going to snow you, however; in some ways, Brooklyn still stinks. While there are gracious tree-lined boulevards of sweet single-family homes here, and calm ethnic enclaves full of authentic charm, and a profusion of stylish restaurants, clubs, galleries and shops, particularly in Park Slope, on the western edge of Prospect Park, and in the downtown neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill in the downtown area, there’s enough gloom to go around.
The streets generally are dirtier than in Manhattan, and huge areas are so under-commercialized as to be barely habitable. Yet inhabited they are, by people who, if they have any sense, hate their lives. (My wife and I, noting that our street ran almost the length of the borough, decided to drive the whole thing one day, and couldn’t believe how our chummy block metamorphoses into a wasteland of trashcan fires and street-corner loiterers.)
And the vaunted Brooklyn attitude–in myth, a spunky indomitability, like that of Asterix and his Gauls–is, in reality, simple unpunished surliness turned loose. Try to get service in a library or emergency room, and if the person on the other side of the desk can muster eye contact at all, it’ll only be to shoot you a weary, annoyed look as contemptuous and beyond reach as any Paris shopkeeper’s.
A little history: Brooklyn ceased being a city when it joined the consolidated New York City in 1898, only a few years after completing its own consolidation by annexing the rest of Kings County.
Okay, enough history. For the rest I implore you to read “Flatbush Odyssey: A Journey Through the Heart of Brooklyn,” by Allen J. Abel (McClelland & Stewart, 1995). There are a lot of books about Brooklyn, but I’m quitting here because it’s one of the best travelogues about anywhere, ever. One update: Crime has eased dramatically since Abel did his research, so his recorded feats of bravery–riding the bus, say–don’t seem so extravagant anymore.
A company called New York Apple was hailed as the vanguard of Brooklyn tourist renaissance when it expanded its double-decker bus tour operation into Brooklyn recently, providing the tour bus and package tour crowd with a motor-coach view of the borough.
I hear it’s an excellent tour, and first-time visitors should probably start with it. Among the places you’ll see are Grand Army Plaza, the Champs Elysees-like tribute to the Union’s survival, and MetroTech, the office and university complex that, the borough burghers promise, will lead us to victory on the battlefields of science and commerce.
But because New York Apple avoids some of the most charismatic Brooklyn neighborhoods due to their objections to bus traffic, I sought out something different. Luckily, Brooklyn specializes in different.
From Grand Army Plaza, that 19th-century symbol of racial rapprochement, it is only a few blocks along Eastern Parkway to Crown Heights, site of one of the 20th century’s fiercest race riots. It was here, in 1991, that neighbors who both define themselves largely by their oppression under affluent peoples of Western European extraction–poor urban blacks and poor urban Jews–turned on one another, leading to the downfall of New York’s first black mayor and to the end of the comforting myth that blacks and Jews, as former slaves, are kin who think alike and vote alike.
Brooklyn is basically world headquarters for the Jewish diaspora, the center of the equally influential but diametrically opposed movements of secularization (e.g., characters in Arthur Miller plays) and Zionism (many of the West Bank settlers are from Brooklyn), with every form of religious expression in between. Particularly visible, thanks to their black coats and huge broods of children, are the Hasidim, mystics who emphasize a joyous, personal relationship with God and were almost wiped out by the Nazis before regrouping in Brooklyn.
The Hasidic Discovery Tour of Crown Heights purports to introduce the secular world to the Hasidic world, but that is a feat no Hasid himself could accomplish, because of animosity among some of the various Hasidic sects. Lubavitcher forays into Satmar territory in Williamsburg, for example, have precipitated fisticuffs. So this is actually a Lubavitcher tour of Lubavitcher turf.
Led by a young Lubavitch rabbi, it’s a painfully slow walking tour–in 2 1/2 a hours we made maybe 1,000 feet–and visually unexciting, for the Lubavitchers live in the same flat-roofed, grime-stained attached houses as most other Brooklynites.
But as a time machine, it is magic. Hasids are, by intent, living fossils: The black coats are reminiscent of the style that predominated when their movement was founded, in 18th-century Eastern Europe; the distinctive headgear–fedoras for some sects, massive beaverskin hats for others–reflect the personal choice of a particular sect’s leader.
There were only three people on the tour, which is bad because it virtually forces someone to monopolize. Our monopolist was a retired uniform salesman who grew up in an Orthodox (observant, but not mystic) home in New Jersey and was racked with guilt (my interpretation) for having attended Mass for 40 years on sales calls to Catholic schools.
We saw some fascinating sights, including the former abortion clinic that Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson turned into his world headquarters, and a Torah repair studio. The lettering in one Torah had become unacceptably faint because it had been smuggled out of Nazi Germany by a rabbi wearing it around his waist, and he schvitzed into the parchment.
To get back in the funsy spirit of sightseeing, I took two more tours.
The two-hour, $10 Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Heights walking tour by a company called Big Onion is a must for anyone interested in public works.
It’s all here: politics, corruption, technology, suburbanization, occupational safety–not to mention the out-and-out lunacy the bridge seems to inspire.
My favorite nugget o’ lore was that the first chump to croak himself diving into the East River on a dare was from Washington, D.C. Possibly the most important thing the guide told us, though, was to stay in the pedestrian lane, because the other lane is for cyclists and bladers, and they will hurt you.
The bridge, which links Brooklyn to Manhattan, has always had a walkway, and it has always been a favorite place to catch a breeze and gaze at New York Harbor and Manhattan.
Governors Island, the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building can all be taken in with a single panoramic turn of the head. It’s especially lovely during a summer sunset, with the humidity glowing over the mainland.
For the Heights, New York’s first suburb and first preservation district, no word but “charming” will do.
The neighborhood predates the bridge–indeed, one of the rationales for building the bridge was to ensure that commuting bankers and lawyers wouldn’t be stranded on the rare occasions when the East River froze, stalling ferry service. After a period of decline, the neighborhood is again what it was before: a bedroom community for wealthy professionals who want to be near Manhattan but not in it.
The houses–mainly Federalist brownstones with a smattering of carriage houses and bona fide mansions–are pristine. We saw where Hart Crane, Betty Smith, Truman Capote and Arthur Miller wrote, where “Leaves of Grass” was typeset, the church where Henry Ward Beecher preached against slavery, and the skylit study of Norman Mailer’s house.
We also saw the precious real estate owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have their world headquarters here. Would-be witnesses from all over God’s creation come here for a training course that consists principally of ringing my doorbell.
I also took Braggin’ About Brooklyn, a two-hour, $20 minibus tour that covers a lot more territory and specializes in African American history.
Many of the mixed or white-ethnic neighborhoods of yore–the neighborhoods that disgorged those one in seven Americans–have become black-ethnic neighborhoods, as Southern and Caribbean migrants have created homes here.
Among the sights: the Revolutionary-era Weeksville Houses, the Brooklyn Masonic Temple and director Spike Lee’s house, an iron-gated former firehouse. The guide made the driver honk twice, saying Spike likes it.
The Braggin’ guide was a bit weaker on history than Big Onion’s PhD candidates, but his tour had more passion because this was his turf: He showed us the lamppost outside his childhood home (the house itself having been torn down). And it was fun to watch his face illuminate while listening to four of his customers, elderly white ladies who grew up in Brooklyn, moved to Manhattan and Queens, and hadn’t been back to Brooklyn since.
As we drove, pondering the ebb and flow of populations and trying to comprehend how millionaires’ rows turn into slums and back again, they exclaimed things like, “My goodness, is that the library? There was a wonderful ice cream parlor across the street!” and “That’s where I played the piano!”
We made an impromptu stop at the house where two of them lived, above their father’s butcher shop, now a plumbing and electrical shop.
While one peered in to evaluate the condition of the rear garden, the other went around the corner to confirm a memory of her own. “My father bought a car in 1922 and garaged it here,” she explained, pointing to the still-there garage.
Listening to the ladies rhapsodize (“There was a Chinese family in the basement, then an Irish family, then us, then a black family”), I could well imagine that Brooklyn really was, as the saying goes, the world–and may be again.
Eric Hubler is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. For details on where to stay, eat, shop and have fun in Brooklyn, see below. And in case you’re still wondering, DUMBO refers to Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.
By Eric Hubler