There’s an amount of pleasure to be taken from a conversation between a real Brooklynite and a yuppie, especially when the yuppie is grasping for – and not finding – a degree of authority on the subject of Brooklyn. You know what I’m talking about. Think about the last time you read the New York Times, with its Metro desk completely staffed by Northern Brooklyn hipsters, and they were forced to write that bi-monthly article about Southern Brooklyn. They always end up jumbling neighborhoods, screwing up demographics and local legends. You roll your eyes, but really, you wish they had said that in front of a local just so you can see them blush when corrected.
That’s why when a Park Slope writer interviews Howard Schultz, the founder and CEO of Starbucks, for the Financial Times, there was a lot to be amused about. First, writer John Gapper provides us with this sweeping assessment of Canarsie as “a rugged district between Coney Island and John F Kennedy airport” (cue eye roll), then when he tries to find some common ground with Canarsie-born Schultz, he gets hilariously shut down. And, irony of ironies, it comes from a Brooklyn boy who moved to a hipster nest (Portland) to show them how to properly launch and manage a business.
We talk about Brooklyn for a while, a borough whose reputation as a rough melting pot has changed in the past few years towards becoming a symbol of gentrification. I live in Park Slope, the epicentre of the shift. “That’s not really Brooklyn,” Schultz says quickly. I mention another chief executive I’ve met who grew up in Bensonhurst. “That’s Brooklyn,” he says approvingly.
Apparently that has some brownstoners chafing. But not us, and certainly not Bensonhurst resident Arturo Tedesco, who blogs over at BKSouthie. Tedesco wrote a rather descriptive missive of what real Brooklyn means to him, and why Schultz hit the nail on the head with his Park Slope pimp slap.
This seemed to shock and offend many of brownstone Brooklyn’s more vocal residents. Their carefully cultivated idea of a “new” Brooklyn that’s sort of like Portland, or San Francisco, or hundreds of college towns all across the country, was under siege. To them, this may have been a sign of the Apocalypse. Fish from the docks of Sheepshead Bay would soon fall from the sky into Prospect Park’s lake. Proprietors in Fort Greene would start speaking in tongues of Haitian Creole and New Yorican. New brownstone owners would not be NYU grads from Wisconsin but Rhodes Scholars born in Ukraine. The sky was falling, dogs were sleeping with cats and, sick of Staten Island, their Archie Bunker landlords were moving back. Guidos and black people and stoop ball, oh my!
The thing that many of these critics, these supporters of a new narrative for Brooklyn are forgetting, is that history, even in an always-evolving New York City, is not forgotten that easily. A decade or two of gentrification in a handful of neighborhoods close to Manhattan does not a new borough make.
The dominant historical narrative of Brooklyn, that of a bedroom community of strivers and immigrants, proudly working and middle class, with pockets of the upper middle class and wealthy, also poor with a poverty that’s not hidden so much as it’s embraced, is over a hundred years old. It’s this Brooklyn that became world famous. It is also a Brooklyn far better represented by its relatively affordable southern half. A Brooklyn with artists, yes, but with far more families, both generations deep and straight off the boat. Young couples saving up for a down payment whose offspring grow up to raise their children in the same houses they grew up in. The games those children will play: street hockey with a crushed beer can, wiffle ball bats stuffed with the Daily News, ‘Utah’ in basketball courts. A city of homes and churches, synagogues and mosques. That’s Brooklyn.
What do you think? What is the real Brooklyn?