Brooklyn was its own city independent of the other one ascending across the river, building its own history and politics as it slowly assimilated neighboring towns. 1898 joined it to the great amalgam of New York City, but it remains distinct and somewhat untamed in a way dissimilar from the neglected Bronx or Staten Island, which could be a a temperate Hawaiian island. I felt the change in the long dark stretch under the East River, but I couldn’t say what it was there any more than when I came up out of the Jay Street station into swarming people and flatiron sun. Breathing is different here: maybe the lower building heights, or that the crush is condensed to a few blocks along a few key avenues, Flatbush the most sizable. Cars are more able to circulate and buses aren’t as prominent; people endure longer waits for the signal to cross, which they honor more than in Manhattan. Corporate renewal is evident in the mallish Metrotech Center, which is pleasant enough with its art installations and outdoor seating under trees, the selection of chain restaurants and no-name Asian food typical but presented with a charm suggesting real estate developers looking beyond wringing out every possible nickel. There is an expansion here, a more human scale.
Smaller scale invites wandering out of the initial crush. The buildings open while remaining low to the ground, the doors neater, the shade less hectic. I walk through some trees and end up in a broad grassy space framed on one end by a massive marble wall and two figures. Kids run around kicking red gym balls, their flipflopped mothers trying to run behind them. I understand why women try to run in flipflops as much as the kids understand what this place is and why it exists.
The Brooklyn War Memorial is full of names, along with the grand yet unpretentious lyric prose the 1940s excelled in. People believed they had done something great and noble and made monuments to reflect that.
Incredibly in retrospect, I have no pictures of the whole spread: the great white wall, two figures on each end, the park’s broad green pan with kids running around. Broad deciduous trees line the edges with green and yellow-tinged leaves and white bark, not birches, maybe poplars. To the west is a modern government building that looks like humans work there instead of frightened gods cowering in their fortress. A little north is a separate round space with a wading fountain. Kids run in and out watched by slightly heavy women glowing with summer happiness watching them. A knot of hippie skater types rests on a bench, either running fingers through dreadlocks or spinning skateboards on the nose end, as appropriate. I enjoy the fountain–it’s still hot here, and the sandal straps are wearing raw spots here and there. I’m grateful to be without them if only for a few minutes.
Turning around, I walk the wrong way, the phone’s map too slow to be much help. I end up walking as far as the Long Island U campus, which does not seem very campuslike, an arrangement I like. It’s part of the neighborhood and calls itself out only with a few parking lots and loud banners, the message that LIU is part of the great education economy as much as any other place. I don’t feel anything noble seeping through the walls, but no delusions of grandeur either. It isn’t worth pictures.
Dumbo–Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass–is full of pictures. Gravity fills the place: colors, textures, and a great sense that massive steel skeletons sit inside everything. It is pure industrial in the best sense, meaning brick and closeness and something made but not out of plastic. It has become quite cool, artists lofts turned to expensive condos. I wonder if it was priced like the dump it looks like twenty years ago, when smart money would have been buying.
These images may horrify the suburb-bound who know nothing else, but they are poetry. Standing here, I am not frustrated by being marooned out in a nowhere that demands a car to get to some other identically undistinguished nowhere. Here, any place I step, I am already somewhere. The dim echo of warehousemen pushing crates and smoking in hallways is part of the charm.
Guidebooks talk about views and culture, with culture meaning the usual dark caverns with loudish music and weird, unpriced food and drinks. I am content to look at things, and think about them. It seems like the kind of neighborhood that is now exciting and dynamic, but would have been more interesting twenty years ago when upper middle class people would have been afraid of it. It’s the kind of place that could be where two suspicious men look in a trunk and shake hands. Over a body? Too trite. A small nuke maybe. You’d do that kind of thing down here, then, where nobody goes.
Down to the water and left curves around the massive bridge footings, the Brooklyn Bridge in the near distance. The light is bright but pleasantly softened by the shade, and green fringes the water’s edge to relieve the linear pressure of brick and potholes.
A promenade hugs the water, leading to a park. Money was spent here: nice flat stone steps and a carousel inside a protective glass bubble. I’ve come on the one afternoon a week it’s closed, the horses glinting in the filtered sun. I sit on the steps and look at things, no longer incredulous that I’m here looking at these things but aware this is not normal, is not real. A couple sits not far away from me where they are plied by a huckster type in an impeccable suit for his elaborate wedding memorialization services. A gorgeous woman reads a book and looks into the distance, then her phone. It is amazingly pleasant to sit here.
Following the path south around the carousel leads to another park, all bright green, full of joggers and mixed-race couples walking toaster-sized dogs. Signs proudly announce three art installations. One is a tree trunk that burbles water. On the southernmost side is the remains of a pier, black tar stumps sticking up like a smoker’s teeth. The light on them is beautiful, really.
A small, new pier stretches out from the nest of parks. The every-fifteen-minutes East River Ferry leaves from here, which I’ve been told about and consider but never work in, even though it’s a cheap tour up and down the river and I could rent a bike too. I get ice cream from a small white house with a long but fast-moving line snaking into a group of three exhausted teenagers pushing on ahead with half-closed eyes. I think I get chocolate: just the right temperature, bursting with true earthy chocolate flavor, not melting too fast in the late day sun. I sit on a bench and watch the ferry come in, whipped in and out of the tiny slip like the pilot’s other job is working on Miami Vice.
When the ferry leaves, people wander in and out, down the parkway, stroll past tourists deciphering the ticket machine. Nothing feels abandoned. Walking up toward where I’m guessing one approaches the great Bridge, a place offers another popular ice cream. Uploading this picture I can still remember how rich and all-encompassing the chocolate was. I don’t feel I missed anything by not stopping.
No clear sign points to a walkway or entrance. I follow another tourist-seeming couple who I overhear asking for where to go on their phone. The bridge is undergoing rehabilitation, the left side closed off but the sidewalk open. I walk with them to a snarl of traffic, then up into a small park, looking around, turning back.
The way up is just to the left: a set of narrow stairs, very New York, very New England. This is the sign I needed emerging from the subway. The sign prominently and proudly describes downtown– Brooklyn’s downtown.
People are fleeing the city without panic; they are more fleeing work. The first part of the walk is pushing into the ocean: people rush in a solid stream, the bike lane hazardous to stray into. I am nearly the only person walking toward Manhattan. The light is like the inside of a luminescent peach. Everything glows like out of an afterschool special.
A guy walks past me with sandals dangling from his hand and all my old reticence and worry about what other people think–the normal strength despite any remonstration otherwise–is finally overcome. The walkway is all wood slats, smooth and warm, soft with the fine grit of exhaust. It feels awesome. I don’t see anyone look; certainly nobody says anything.
The seminal arches are Brooklyn-scaled: somehow within the human realm. The stones are warm to the touch, pleasantly; cool air drifts up from the river. People press and crowd to work around the central column. People with various weird accents ask me to take their pictures, and they are pleased with the results.
Bronze plaques worn smooth from countless hands describe design and construction. Even though they’re from the mid-Eighties fix-up-NYC era, whole sections of engraving have been rubbed away. There are two sets of plaques describing the caissons, airlocks, and cabling, both worn down in the same way. Men were sent into and out of the airlocks without any stages inbetween, the plaques explain. Dozens died of the bends. I’m sure they prayed to God about it, then found more Irishmen. Not like they’d run out, I’m sure they thought.
Up close, the bridge feels like a great ship on a calm sea.
Shadows draw out in gentle cloaks I remember from film clips, old Life magazines, movies with a younger Walter Matthau. It all seems like something I somehow know, maybe the way dolphins know where to go, or birds each season. I feel lost in a comfortable way and the air releases to evening.
At the time, I remembered this woman, her pretty, serene face and clear brown eyes. We looked at each other as she stepped carefully down in her platform flipflops but she didn’t ask me to get her picture; we didn’t say anything, and I didn’t ogle. She wasn’t that kind of woman. I knew she was from somewhere else, but that was all. Now I don’t remember anything other than her standing there, and the diaphanous light.
Exposed wood from the renovation has let people leave their marks. I don’t know what to think of the ample hashtags, though some seem to imply porn. I am drawn to the cartoon, no pun intended. I appreciate people who can take that kind of care quickly.
After this I will walk down into the city’s lower heart, the pavement warm and just fine, nobody looking, nobody caring. I thought there was a fountain I could use–I hate the feel of grinding grit into leather soles–but there are only the high-walled formal fountains I know better than to try. There is a small patch of grass which serves well enough. Lower Manhattan is like the cities of my childhood, though not utterly deserted, just thinner, with action only on the edges. I will stop at the Whole Foods–incredibly, a Whole Foods in Lower Manhattan–buy some soda sweetened with stevia along with some other items and take the subway home, exhausted, dense with goddamn CFS fatigue, close in the incandescent light, relieved and even proud somehow that I am in this living city and home to this place I am calling mine.
This is a walk that stays: the altered and changing light, the other time leaking out of the brick, everything in layers of age and now. People write they are here and they love and are loved, and nobody complains. Everybody knows the wood will be taken down, thrown in a barge, chipped up, burned, composted, something. Nothing will stay. But they meant what they wrote and we believe that will somehow stay, and can be returned to, all down time’s long well.