My Brooklyn territory is broad but bounded. Atlantic Avenue to the north, Gowanus Canal to the east, and the East River all around. It takes in the bail bond storefronts and Yemeni restaurants on Atlantic; the gussied-up Smith Street of bistros and yoga studios; the Italian brownstones and funeral homes of Carroll Gardens; and the ruined warehouses, needle parks, and healing waterfront of Red Hook.
It used to be called South Brooklyn. That was before the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway severed Red Hook, and long before the real estate brains figured out that the likes of me would be more easily sold on bite-sized chunks of brownstone newly packaged as Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens. (BoCoCa, they’re trying to call it now, but we’ll ignore that as long as decently possible.)
When solidly based I like to tramp through the rest of Brooklyn. The Canadian formerly known as Ranger Tim is a great partner on these expeditions. His bush explorer’s instincts translate seamlessly to Brooklyn streets, and he knows the city better than I do. Saturday mornings he hustles me out of the cave on Atlantic, and I blink like a mole when I hit the street. We start with a plan to get coffee but somehow it always turns into day-long adventure. We stroll to Fort Greene, climb the hill in the park, and inspect the over-priced shitake mushrooms in the miniature farmer’s market at the bottom. Coffee at Tillies–lukewarm, as it is in every hipster café in the borough. Then on through Clinton Hill. I am auditioning new neighborhoods for June, when I have to move again. I stop at every lamppost like a dog, and Tim stands patiently as I read the flyers. He knows I can’t pass printed matter.
The city planners are invoking eminent domain to bulldoze some blocks near the Atlantic Yards and build a basketball stadium and high-rise office space. The mastermind is Bruce Ratner, the developer who has not yet atoned for the squalid Metrotech Center he dumped on Jay Street in the 1970s. The flyers flap their protest in the March wind, urging people to meet, demonstrate, stake their claim. But it already feels hopeless. These are poor neighborhoods. Brooklyn Heights was rich enough to demand that the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway be sunk out of sight in the 1950s, but Red Hook, a few blocks
north south, was home to longshoremen, not lawyers. The expressway roared through it and the neighborhood died.
On Flatbush we stop at El Castillo del Jaguar for chicken soup, mofongo, a soursop shake, and yuca with onions. Ten bucks worth leaves us fat and happy, fueled for the walk up to the Brooklyn Public Library, which looks, Tim claims, like Franco’s mausoleum outside Madrid. It’s a good deal more lively, though, with free movies, readings, classes, art exhibits, people hanging out in the café, and staff shouting about printer access. I lounge and read Real Simple–a guilty pleasure, full of daft, earnest homemaking tips–while Tim scopes out the library. When we leave, I take a pamphlet on volunteering there, and wonder if I could ever get home early enough to be a homework helper.
Through Prospect Park, which Frederick Law Olmstead created when he’d finished practising on Central Park. In a city of eight million people, on a Saturday afternoon, you can still find wooded stretches so quiet it could be Kedey Island; I have to remind myself I’m not allowed pee outdoors in the big city. The snow hasn’t melted here, a few hundred feet above Brooklyn Heights. Tim stops and chats to each of the fishermen, and to the birders out with fancy binoculars. Small kids race by on Razor scooters. A gang gathers around a picnic table, fussing over their radio-controlled cars, which they race over the meadow.
We leave through the far end of Prospect Park and cut back down into Windsor Terrace. These are my peeps; every front window houses a shamrock (a week after what they insist on calling St Patty’s Day). An American flag, too, more often than not. It looks like firefighter territory, like the Boston of Mystic River. There’s a fine solid church built in 1880, around the time the Irish got some cash together. Windsor Terrace looks ready to be another Carroll Gardens; host to an influx of youngish professionals just as soon as the owner-occupiers figure out how much they can get for their middle floors.
We stop in Farrell’s, a hardcore drinking hole that slops out Budweiser in styrofoam pint glasses. The barman savages the ice-wells with a baseball bat. I am the only woman in the front room, and raise a silent toast to Shirley MacLaine, who won the right to enter here in 1973. I have to say, it’s not much of a prize, the opportunity to drink bad beer with these surly Irishmen. Given the choice, I’d rather hang out with the old lads from Naples who still stand on the street corner at Second Place, argufying and waving their sticks, as if fifty years on they still hadn’t realised it’s too damn cold in New York.
Onwards: down Prospect Park West and through Park Slope. This used to be ritzier than South Brooklyn, though no longer, I hear, now that Smith Street has tarted up. Park Slope smacks of the Upper West Side; plenty of New York Times readers wheeling double strollers to the cafés. At Fifth Avenue I need a swing break. There are excellent swings here, underused by real children, and if you kick hard enough your belly swoops deliciously.
“Okay, on three, I’m going to let go and jump right over the fence,” says Tim seriously, and the nine-year-old beside me looks fearful, afraid the old guy’s going to splat. Instead, we skid-skid-skid to a jerky stop, and continue down to the mighty Gowanus Canal and cross back into my home turf. There’s a sleek cigarette boat in the water now–a petrol hog–and rumours of a seal. Tim threatens a canoe trip as soon as spring breaks.
Down Smith Street–limping now, at six o’clock–and across to Court Street to buy some cranberry-chocolate bread at the new Uprising Bakery. I mutter about yuppie bread, but can’t resist this dense, dark boule after our fifteen-mile trek. We flop with Brie and bread and red wine, and watch American Splendor, a blogger’s movie if there ever was one.
Brooklyn makes me very happy.
Related links: The Brooklyn Papers’ guide to proposed Brooklyn development, with helpful maps. Thanks, Peter!