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Brooklyn Bound

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Photo: Hugh Stewart and David Nicolas

When I first moved to New York—that is, to Manhattan—in my early twenties, I had only the vaguest conception of Brooklyn. There was Welcome Back, Kotter, I guess. Alvy Singer, growing up under the Cyclone in Annie Hall. Moonstruck and The Warriors. Tony Manero—Travolta again—strutting through Bay Ridge in Saturday Night Fever. Egg creams, Ralph Kramden. And the Dodgers, the Dodgers, always with the Dodgers.

Beyond that, not much. I knew friends who’d grown up there, but hardly anyone who’d stayed. Brooklyn was a place people left (Woody Allen, Mr. Kotter, the Dodgers). Manhattan was where people hoped to arrive. In the received wisdom of NYC, Brooklyn was the Old Country, and the East River a vast, roiling Atlantic.

It’s said that one in seven Americans can trace roots back through Brooklyn. I can’t, but I live here now. I came seven years ago, for the quiet, a bigger apartment, and the novelty of open sky. I also came with the resignation of someone forced into the motel down the highway when every hotel in town is sold out. It wasn’t an entirely happy move. Those early days in Carroll Gardens felt like exile... and Manhattan was right over there, taunting me, taunting all 2.5 million of us.

I spent a lot of time plotting how to get back. Manhattan... it takes a while to get over a girl like that. I compared every new experience to what it was like "in the city." If Manhattan was the Sun, Carroll Gardens seemed a far-flung, semi-inhabitable planet. Taxi drivers agreed. Utter the B-word, and they’d practically hiss. "Hey, I’m not happy about it, either," I’d snap.

You can guess where this is going. At some point during that first spring, something clicked—and I began falling for Brooklyn. Maybe it was the sudden blooming of a rosebush beside my stoop one morning. It might have been the amazing banh mi served at a Vietnamese café in Sunset Park. But I’d wager it was the old Polish greengrocer who, when I asked about fresh mint, plucked me three sprigs from his window box. "Anytime you need, just take," he said. "Is for everybody."

Finally, I was seeing Brooklyn for what it was, not just what it wasn’t. I still went to Manhattan—for work, Knicks games, dental appointments. But weekends I spent east of the river, uncovering the mysteries of Williamsburg, Fort Greene, and Brighton Beach.

It wasn’t all spearmint and roses. If I was slow to embrace Brooklyn, Brooklyn was also slow to embrace me. Every morning I repaired to the corner café for a macchiato. The owner was a gruff Calabrian named Tony. (Everyone in Brooklyn is named Tony, unless he’s Tov or Tung or Tolya or Tariq.) I only knew his name because regulars always walked in shouting "To-NAY!" Backs would be slapped, greetings exchanged.

Me, Tony scarcely acknowledged. Eventually he’d fix me with a look you might give a bug in your salad and say "Whattayavin." No matter that my order was always the same. Each day I hoped against hope for a "Hey, guy! The usual?" But always the same ignominy: Whattayavin.

Finally, manna from heaven. I walked in. Tony tilted his chin. Managed a little smile. Said, "Howyadoin." I blurted out, "Fine, fine, excellent in fact!"—then savored my macchiato as never before.

In Manhattan, you become a New Yorker within four hours of picking up your keys. No matter where you’re from, the city takes you in. Across the river, membership comes harder. Through movies and postcards and songs, Manhattan has always belonged to the world. Brooklyn always belonged to Brooklynites.

Well, surprise. In case you haven’t heard, Brooklyn has become a byword for cool, the epitomic local-boy-makes-good—and suddenly, Brooklyn belongs to everyone.

It’s easy to say when a thing ends, harder to know when it begins. Most locals date the fall of the old Brooklyn to 1957, when you-know-who decamped for Los Angeles. (We can refer to the years since as "A.D.": After Dodgers.) But other pillars were vanishing, too—manufacturing, shipping, the white middle class—and the borough struggled through the second half of the century.

When did the "new" Brooklyn emerge? Was it in the 1990’s, when artists transformed Williamsburg into the city’s creative hub? Was it in 2003, when Zagat named the Grocery—a tiny room in Carroll Gardens—the seventh-best restaurant in NYC? Or a year earlier, when Time Out New York ran a cover headlined "Manhattan: The New Brooklyn"?

Whenever and however it happened, the Borough of Kings is back. (Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back.)


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