Unfinished thoughts on Brooklyn walks.
I've written two posts on packaging books for prisoners. I don't do this at home or by myself—rather, on Sundays around 6pm I travel from wherever I happen to be in Manhattan to 123 Columbia Street in Brooklyn. To be more specific, I take the F train to Bergen; walk west on Wykoff; south on Court Street (where I might spend an more than a few hours perusing "used" books, boutiques, etc, like the flaneur); west again on Warrick, Baltic, or Kane (past lovely brownstones and hidden alley-gardens behind iron fences); eventually crossing over the BQE (a few moments are always spent staring down the street—I find traffic mesmerizing), continuing west until I reach the T-intersection with the Columbia street “promenade,” a north-south stretch that's as close as one can get to the -waterfront in that part of Brooklyn. I put ‘promenade” in quotes because I’m self-conscious of my own idiosyncrasies--I think the view of Manhattan it is an accidental masterpiece, extending ten or so blocks down from the mouth of the BQE, and gently dipping right into Red Hook, soon to encounter the Holland Tunnel.
Now that I'm writing, the view of the area does not seem grand enough for the title 'promenade.' My image of a promenade is a place to lull about, to walk and be seen, filled with dazzling spectacles and distractions. Historically the label is probably incorrect, as 'promenades' belong to a specific era of baroque city building. The sacrilege of my comparison does not end there. On Columbus Street, the architecture (usually houses or offices with commercial space on the ground floor) is nothing spectacular in size (two, three, four stories) or adornment (brick build, just fire escapes in front). For much of the block, the entrances are all on street level (meaning no impressive stoops), there are no benches or places for people to gather. Many of the buildings do have interesting ground-level businesses, but there are just as many empty storefronts. And on the colder nights, only a number of cats is there to watch you. And there is something I haven't mentioned: on the west side of Columbia street, facing the buildings, is a high chain-linked fence, covered with green tarp, meant to separate pedestrians from large piles of salt on the other side (some company bought the title—they say its only temporary) and further down, from the docks which are still running, though far below capacity. Plans are in the works for the city to take over the docks in the development of a park that will run along the Brooklyn Coast line from Greenpoint to Redhook. I'm not sure when this will happen, and neither, it feels like, does the area. When I traveled there at night, the stillness and desolation of the area made me feel like the community was holding its breath. “When will the highrises come that accompany such growth? What will happen to us?”
I then take a short right, then a left through a wooden door, and I'm in Freebird Books. Of the building's history I know little, because the website for the department of buildings says 123 Columbia Street does not exist. The front that most people know is essentially one room, about 250 square feet, with fine wooden bookshelves and a pleasant area in front with a couch in the front where people can enjoy whatever they're thinking of buying. Below this is the basement where we do the packaging (the owner, Peter, lets us use this space for free). It is dusty with low-hanging lights, but it is cozy enough, and certainly not the worst space BooksThroughBars has ever had. Freebird also hosts weekly poetry and short story readings either in-store or on the stellar backyard patio, which we’re very much starting to enjoy with a change in the weather. I wonder if that’s a Brooklyn staple.
II. The Flanuer
I intended to write more on Freebird Books, but I realized midway through planning this essay that Freebird Books is most important to me as an excuse to be in Brooklyn. I enjoy the little bit of mystery, the time outside my routine to wonder and explore, that my travels provide—enough to make me feel guilty, and to rebuke myself for treating Columbus Street like a 'back' (I don't know what paper to cite for this concept, but it's something I've held onto from your ‘travel fictions’ class). I do not believe in the genus loci (a term that suggests character in and of itself--as Massey said, “places are always-already hybrid”) of what is essentially an imagined geography. Still I permit myself to indulge in these imaginations because they are impossible and perhaps unhealthy to fight, and for the sake of critical reflection later on.
"Imagined Geographies" are the product of the multiple narrators of a place. The Brooklyn I’ve ‘encountered’—the representations, stories, and images that make that space a place, imaginations which facilitate further imaginings—seem to be the product of what some theorists are calling the "era of memory" (Hirsch, 105). They mean several things by this pronouncement, but what the "Era of Memory" comes down to is a self-conscious re-appraisal of western historical practice and perspective, intending to shift historical legitimacy to other narratives, subjects, and methods of knowing. Made possible by the development and dissemination of new media, the change of emphasis is followed by the change in ‘the story’ itself. To return to Brooklyn, the vehicles of memory from that borough (be it oral histories, photographs, festivals and celebrations, memoirs, etc) are creating new subjects of the past, with new narratives--for the neighborhoods, the borough and for the city.
Perhaps the most important set of narrators are Brooklyn writers. I’ve always been under the impression is that Brooklyn has its own literary scene, of which I'm not well acquainted, but one short story sticks out: Thomas Wolfe's "Only the Dead know Brooklyn." It resonates with me because it is about place and memory.
The story goes like this: there's a chance encounter between the narrator, a Brooklyn native given the voice and the time period; another man of similar credentials; and a heavy-set, anonymous, "wild looking," and lost drunkard. All are waiting for the 'El' when the big drunk asks the narrator for directions. A string of incomprehensible directions follow. The other native, listening in, disagrees about the efficacy of the route, giving rise to a quarrel over who knows Brooklyn best which nearly ends in fisticuffs. The narrator eventually shanghais the stranger onto the train. They begin to speak, and our narrator begins to be disquieted by the stranger’s lack of purpose or direction. The narrator has a particularly strong reaction when he asks about the stranger’s destination.
“Oh,’ duh guy says, ‘I’m just goin’ out to see duh place,’ he says. ‘I like duh sound of duh name - Bensonhoist, y’know - so I t’ought I’d go out an’ have a look at it.” (Wolfe)
Day-tripping seems a silly way to try and ‘know’ Brooklyn. In response, the narrators says:
“Listen!’ I says. ‘You get dat idea outa yoeh head right now,’ I says. ‘You ain’t neveh gonna get to know Brooklyn,’ I says. ‘Not in a hunderd yeahs. I been livin’ heah all my life,’ I says, ‘an’ I don’t even know all deh is to know about it, so how do you expect to know duh town,’ I says, ‘when you don’t even live heah?” (Wolfe)
The story is reminiscent of many personal experiences of being lost in Brooklyn where nobody seems to know directions (maybe not coincidence—I used to ask, “where are the natives?, but perhaps there were never any natives in the first place.) It captures the gritty working class character that parts of Brooklyn were known for, that is still preserved in a way (though increasingly contested) in the texture of Williamsburg and other); and perhaps it’s just me, but not too far in the background I can see the ‘city of churches.’ Wolfe’s tale also seems to be a very ‘modern’ reading of the place—that Brooklyn is bigger and more complicated than a simple history could tell, and that even the locals are somehow alienated from it. What makes it most interesting to me is the title: what does it mean to say, ‘only the dead know Brooklyn?’ I have some ideas:
The dead presumably means people, but it could mean the buildings around as well. All must be made to speak in one way or another.
Because “The Dead” are inaccessible, so is the true past of Brooklyn.
Perhaps Wolfe is suggesting a certain way of listening and knowing the past—memory?
There’s something very proletarian about this statement, like ‘the people’ are the real keepers of their history. Eastern too—reminds me of memory cults.
These are just VERY preliminary musings of what might be a larger paper later on, the theme of which would be ‘place and memory,’ and which would be buffered by my experience as a historical researcher in Brooklyn itself.
III. Urban Oyster Tours
I stayed in New York City last summer to take an internship with a local touring company based in Brooklyn called Urban Oyster Tours. I saw it as a great chance to explore the borough through space and time, and I’ve been trying to apply a very critical frame to my experience. The last part of this post is a great opportunity to share what I did. The experience certainly changed my picture of Brooklyn forever.
Urban Oyster Tours was a startup run by two friends, Dave Nancyez and Cindy Vandinbosch, along with a crew of four or five tour guides and a few marketers, and had been in business for a few years. They were looking for a research intern to craft a weekday variant of their very popular, and incredibly good “Brewed in Brooklyn Tour.” The tours typically features visits to historical sites, interlaced with stops for eating and drinking, and always includes a visit to one of Brooklyn's present day breweries. My job was to insert Green Point Beer works into the script. A basic list of my tasks was such: to research the GPBW building itself, and the block surrounding it; to research the brewing and dairy industry; to find holes in their own stories; and, somehow, to research on Prohibition and Brooklyn. The learning gap was intense. I spent long time in the Municipal archives, the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Manhattan municipal Archives, and the Brooklyn Public Library (looking at copies of the BDE) in addition to ‘time in the field.’
All of this was great fun, and great experience. But, having a very black and white view of gentrification at the time, I had to ask myself: would my mission compromise my politics and my ethics? Would my work be used to sell the neighborhood, to Disney-fy it? On whose authority could I tell these stories? I asked this question to Dave and Cindy at our first interview. In reply they gave me the parable that summed up the Urban Oyster ethos. Here it is, copied from their tour site (which, incidentally, has a great blog post):
"Amazing as it is to imagine now, New York Harbor may have once contained half the world’s oysters. Over time, however, many oyster beds died off due to pollution and over-consumption. Learning from this history, Urban Oyster was founded on the belief that, like oysters, the neighborhoods of New York are treasured resources that require nurturing and cultivation in order to survive and flourish. Through dynamic hands-on tour experiences, Urban Oyster aims to reveal the hidden treasures of this great city, and in doing so, promote an appreciation for the neighborhoods we inherit. On our tours we explore with you how we can live in neighborhoods today in ways that support and value local production and consumption, cultural diversity, historic preservation, and sustainability for the benefit of generations to come. We hope you'll join us for a tour.” (Vandinbosch)
That sold me. It was a story about protecting a precious resource from value-free growth, hoping to shape inevitable growth in a more sustainable way. History and tourism were a strategy for a multi-dimensional preservation that looked back as well as forward—really forward, in that their support for local neighborhood businesses and institutions is always framed in a green way. Also, although the story does posit a kind of ‘genus loci’ to a place, it doesn’t fetishize it, if that makes sense. I also felt that it was ‘democratic’—local institutions and people contributed to the stories we told. In that sense this memory work was political, bringing disparate groups together for the purpose of negotiating the history of the neighborhood with other groups—making a story that could be used to make claims and a power based to make those claims.
I'll have to leave off here, unfinished, but I shall return.
Hirsch, Marianne. “The Generation of Postmemory.” Poetics Today 29:1 (Spring 2008): 103-128.
Massey, Doreen. "Places and Their Pasts." HIstory Workshop Journal
39.Sping (1995): 182-92. Print.
Vandinbosch, Cindy. "Sharing and Nurturing the Treasures of New York City's Neighborhoods One Tour at a Time." New York City Tours by Urban Oyster - Home
. Urban Oyster Inc., 2010. Web. 07 May 2011. <http://www.urbanoyster.com/>.
Wolfe, Thomas. “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.” Southern Cross Review Nr. 56
. Unknown. Web. 07 May 2011. <http://southerncrossreview.org/Ebooks/ebooks.html>