My first day in Brooklyn, 21 years ago, I took the subway from my Brooklyn Heights neighborhood to its terminus at the tip of Coney Island. I walked the ten miles back, slowly weaving my way through a contiguous collection of extraordinary neighborhoods, each remarkably different, some jarringly so.
Brooklyn then was a loose confederation of misfit neighborhoods, held together by subways and busses.
Now I am leaving, moving to split my time between upstate NY and the Bronx.
Brooklyn has changed during that time, statistically, for the better: It is safer. It is cleaner.
It is, however, less a collection of misfit neighborhoods. Gentrification and wealth have smoothed away and averaged many of the differences.
Yet much of the Brooklyn I saw then, and appreciated so much for so many years, is still there. Some of it barely hanging on.
Pigeon Keepers of Bushwick and East NY(Pigeons over Bushwick)
On most afternoons, above Maria Hernandez Park in Bushwick, flocks of pigeons swarm.
They are beautiful, a mass of birds flying in a tight circle, a flock that forever is morphing, but still moving forward. The wings catch the fading sunlight, glowing. Beauty in a rough neighborhood. They are birds owned by Pigeon keepers.
Pigeon keeping was brought over by Italians in the early 1900’s. Well over a thousand guys (yes, all guys) in Brooklyn used to keep pigeons on the roofs. Now it’s only about a hundred, mostly Dominican and Puerto Rican men, primarily in Bushwick and East New York. Not raised to race (that’s another sport), they are simply collected and bred and then flown to highlight their beauty. It’s part sport, part art, and part therapy.
You find them on roofs, whatever roofs can be used. A few guys are lucky enough to own their own places. Some guys are supers in co-ops and have access to the roof, most, however, find otherwise abandoned buildings and take over the roofs.
The pigeons are kept in coops, home-built structures, where they nest. Keeping the birds happy so they return is half the sport. “You need to be a good dad, otherwise the kids will fly away.”
(Young Pigeon Keeper, Bushwick)
The stories behind the keepers are almost always the same. Almost everyone started young. All of them come from rough neighborhoods. The birds helped to keep them out of problems. Says Whitey, “I would be dead now if not for my birds. Dead. So many of my friends are. Birds, they kept me on the roof and out of trouble.”
Kevin started at eight, a friend of Mike Tyson’s, growing up in East New York, Brooklyn. “I have had a few problems. Growing up here it’s hard not to, but that’s all behind me now. God is now shining his light on me. For the last 15 years I have stayed away from everything. Now I spend my evenings on the roof with my birds. The pigeons don’t talk back to you and my wife always knows where I am. I can put everything behind me when I am up on the roof.”
Slice was a drug dealer when, at 17, he killed another dealer, and spent 20 years in jail. Now he is “locked down by my wife and birds. Both of them keep me out of trouble. When I am up here on the roof, I am in another world. I can leave all the past behind. All that below us, that’s gone.”
On the roofs, many with views of flights leaving JFK, or Manhattan, the breezes blow above the taut humid streets. Live is rough, the streets dangerous, the apartments crowded. On the roofs it’s easy to forget that, to escape in the view.
Artistry at the core is a search for beauty. By that measure pigeon keepers are true artists, creating beauty where few expect to find it, with whatever resources they have. They elevate life in Bushwick and East New York. They do it through their sweat and desire, without concern about money. They do it because it makes them and others happy.
Soccer Tavern, Sunset Park(Regular in front of bar)
Sunset Park used to be filled with Norwegians and other Northern Europeans who had immigrated to work the docks down the hill along the Brooklyn waterfront. That ended after 1969: The docks started closing and Norway found oil. Now the neighborhood, especially around Soccer taverns home on Eighth Avenue, is overwhelmingly Chinese.
The Soccer Tavern, founded in 1932, is the last bar left from that period. It is also the single business on a stretch of fifteen blocks not dominated by or directed at the Chinese population. Across the street from the bar is a market that takes up the entire block, and selling amongst other things, live bullfrogs to be cooked.
Opening the blue door of Soccer Tavern is like walking through a time warp, but one with a malfunction that blends the present with the past.
The bar seats are almost always taken by older residents who moved into Sunset Park long ago from Norway, Germany, Austria, and other parts of Europe.
They are proud to be still here, in Sunset Park, representing. “The remaining Norwegians and Danish? Look down the bar. They are all here.”
Some of them are very old and very fond of their drink, “This is my nursing home. If I get too drunk Jimmie knows how to make sure I get home.”
In another corner of the bar, clustered around a few tables, is a large group of Chinese regulars drinking bottles of Budweiser. A few are eating $1 sticks of roast meat from a vendor outside.
Some of the regulars at the bar are not entirely comfortable with the guys clustered at the back, “This neighborhood isn’t the same, since my friends started leaving and those guys started coming into our country.”
Yet any animosity, and it only comes out in the odd drunken soliloquy, disappears when it comes to the horses. The disgruntled regular is happy to place bets with the “Chinese guy who is running numbers.”
Jimmy, the Irish owner, remembers the older days, “There used to be six bars on this stretch, all filled. Now this is the only one. I have only survived because of my Chinese customers. They are great. I run the only Chirish bar in all of New York.”
The oldest regular is Vidar, 89, who had his first drink in the Soccer Tavern in ’43.
He had left Norway on a whaling ship at the age of 15 just prior to the start of WWII. Unable to return because of the war he joined the Merchant Marines, working as a gunner on cargo ships plying the North Atlantic. Four times he survived being sunk, once spending five days in a life raft.
His ships often docked in Brooklyn, and he and his friend would walk up the hill towards Eighth Avenue to drink in the bars. Including the then newish Soccer Tavern.
After the war he immigrated to Sunset Park, where he found jobs on fishing boats. A hurricane in ‘56 led to another rescue at sea. “That was enough. I moved to working on tug boats.” He retired in 1983. He recently was awarded the St. Olaf’s medal by the King for his service to Norway during the war.
Floyd Bennett Field(Children posing with RC plane)
Floyd Bennett Field was New York’s first municipal Airport, and later a naval air station. Now it’s a large park used by a collection of the oddly obsessed, each needing large swaths of empty flat concrete or space.
There are the radio-controlled car and truck guys, mostly black and Latino, who race tiny vehicles down an old runway. In one hand they twiddle a remote control and in another they hold a joint or a beer. They obsess over fine-tuning their little engines, revving them up to high pitches and clouds of smoke.
Uninterested women stand aside, trying to keep the smaller kids from getting in the way. “If this is what makes him happy. I’m just glad he isn’t racing real cars.”
Miniature planes, each lovingly crafted, use another patch of old runway, controlled by another group holding far more elaborate radio controllers. The small planes accelerate down the runway before lifting off, banking over the radio controlled cars and then over the marshes. A tiny homage to the old airfield.
A small viewing stand, dragged seemingly from a little league baseball field, sits next to the runway, filled with the families of the pilots and the curious. A Hasidic man, trying desperately to keep his kids entertained, tests them on their ability to recognize the different planes: “That’s a Folker triplane, circa 1917.” The kids ask for ice cream.
Another old runway is used to train sanitation workers to drive the massive trucks. NYC garbage trucks circle around and around, almost as if playing a slow motion, inertia intense, game of tag.
Another runway is used by NYC police helicopters as a storage facility and landing pad.
Jutting into Jamaica Bay the park also brings in families to fish, trying to catch strippers while dreaming of blue fins.
Further back from the water are others who look through binoculars; airplane spotters watching the planes bank overhead taking off from JFK across the bay. Do old runways feel jealous?
Scattered across the park are old massive hangers, some repurposed as sports complexes. The others sit behind fences, ever so slowly collapsing back into the ground.
Others use the space for personal needs. A husband teaches his wife how to parallel park. A solitary man hits golf balls into the bay. Another man tries to teach his girlfriend how to kiss. Well, that’s what it looks like at least.
Open hydrants, East NY(Children in East NY street surfing)
Most people in Brooklyn do not have second homes and cannot afford vacations abroad. The streets are their summer homes.
As the heat intensifies, the apartment buildings disgorge their residents and block party’s form. The street is closed at both ends with whatever can be found and looks official, maybe old scavenged police barricades or safety cones, but often it is just the residents’ own parked cars.
The women cook on makeshift grills, and the men play dominoes in whatever shade can be found.
The hydrants are opened, either illegally (on almost every block someone knows someone who owns a gigantic wrench) or legally by having a spray cap installed by the fire departments.
The open hydrants become the focal point. Mothers wash their smaller children in buckets filled from the hydrants. Other mothers march their children out in bathing suits with soap and shampoo. Passing drivers slow down, and steer their car slowly through the spray, turning around to clean both sides.
Elaborate techniques are worked out. A broken table turned upside down and bent, placed inches from the spray, shoots the water in an arc that reaches across the street and into a basketball court. Or a thick plastic tarp is laid across the street, slicked with water and dishwashing liquid, and turned into a giant slip and slide.
On one block, where kids have set up an old police barricade to surf on, George, 85, comes out of the broken motor home he lives in, windows clouded over with piles of junk. He sits in his chair and watches the children. Originally from Honduras, he worked all his life on freighters in the Caribbean, before retiring in Brooklyn.
"I do miss being young, but I don’t mind being old, because when you get to be my age, whatever regrets you may have are hard to remember."
As midnight approaches, police cars break up the crowds, and ask the children to go home. The water continues, running down the street into the corner gutters that collect the afternoon’s detritus; beer cans, vodka bottles, ice cream wrappers, potato chip bags, and a few stray condoms.
Sunset at Sunset Park in Sunset Park
Sunset Park, the neighborhood, is named after Sunset Park, a park that is named because it is a wonderful place to watch a sunset. Roughly the size of four square city blocks, the park is centered on a ridge that faces west towards the water of New York harbor. The view is stunning.
Sunset Park the neighborhood is divided roughly into two. From the water to Fifth Avenue are mostly Mexican and Central Americans. From Sixth to Twelfth Avenues are mostly Chinese. On summer afternoons, especially weekends, it feels as if the entire neighborhood unites in the park.
The park is pitched downwards, sloped in its lower half at an angle that matches that of a movie theater. People, couples, families, sit arrayed across that half, looking west at the sun set, apparently going to rest for the evening somewhere in New Jersey.
At the top of the park, where it flattens, is a huge municipal pool, and sprinklers, and volleyball courts, and playgrounds, and basketball courts, and soccer pitches.
Here the clashes of noises can be jarring. From solitary boom boxes blasting high pitched music not meant for blasting for groups of Chinese women who dance ever so slowly, to the Tejano music of Mexican families picnicking, to the jingles from tiny bells of women selling mangos on sticks, to the yelps of children playing soccer, or tag, or volleyball, or flying kites, or skateboarding.
The park is a public seam connecting two very different cultures that live together because of a shared need for cheap rent. Yet everyone, no matter the culture, enjoys a cool western breeze. Everyone enjoys the soft extended light of summer evenings. Everyone, given enough time in Brooklyn, also wonders, “What the hell is the sun going to do in New Jersey for the night?”
Oneg Heimishe Bakery, Williamsburg(Baker at Oneg Heimishe)
The Satmar Hasidic community of Williamsburg is certainly insular and seemingly uninviting, with little obvious to offer visitors. There are wig stores for the ladies, with strict rules about any man entering. There are Shtreimel (the fur hats) stores for the men, and bodegas that sell Mayim Chaim Cola rather than coke.
Buying a Shtreimal, or a wig, is restricted only to the Satmars. Buying a Mayim Chaim Cola is only for those daring few without taste.
On the busiest street, at 188 Lee Avenue, is a small bakery, Oneg Heimishe Bakery. It isn’t open during the summers because the family that runs it moves upstate to Sullivan County, like many Satmars do. It very much isn’t open on Saturdays. It isn’t open on Jewish holidays high or low or in between, of which there are many.
When it is open, it has the best chocolate bread, made fresh each morning, and almost always sold out by afternoon. Early in the morning is when most buy it, when it is still hot and the chocolate inside is still all melty. Its warmth is held in, wrapped tightly in wax paper and a brown paper bag.
There are other bakeries in the neighborhood that don’t close during the summers, that have longer hours, but as their owners admit, “Oneg Heimishe has the been doing it the longest.”
The bakery sits at the far end of Lee Avenue, the commercial part. The other end of Lee Avenue, towards the water where it runs into Division Avenue is residential. Huge towers of low-income housing mostly Satmar families surround small parks. Sitting in the middle is Roberto Clemente ball field. Kids fill the park, running around playing tag. Asked by an outsider, “Who is Roberto Clemente?” they shrug.
The outsider smiles, “He was a famous baseball player.”
They children ask back, in unison, without irony, “What is baseball?”
Bait and Tackle bar, Red Hook(Looking out from Bait and Tackle at Red Hook)
Red Hook, severed from the rest of Brooklyn by the BQE and without subways, has always struggled to keep pace.
The difficulties of Brooklyn during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, hit Red Hook as hard as any neighborhood. The recent upswing in Brooklyn, now shifting into euphoria, has been slower to make its way to Red Hook. Some of the better changes have, include a drop in crime and an uptick in jobs.
The euphoric part hasn’t, and that is a good thing. Red Hook is still just barely affordable enough for a few working artists. Co-ops haven’t entirely replaced working industry, and the few destination restaurants, serving whatever the fuck is in vogue, still have much of the neighborhood in them.
The few visitors to Red Hook, attracted by the views and to the newer restaurants, or brought in by a perverse desire to make a day of IKEA, generally make their way to Sonny’s Bar, drawn by its impressive history, and by the guidebooks.
As great as Sonny’s is, and it can be great, it suffers for the attention.
Bait and Tackle bar doesn’t get the attention, partly because it doesn’t have the history (only ten years old, not like a hundred). For that it is better.
It has everything a great bar needs: Cheap drinks, interesting regulars who are slightly irregular, forgiving bartenders, an Irish owner, great music, enough quiet to have a real conversation, and long hours.
(Bait and Tackle during storm)
It is also, along with Sunny’s Bar, very much part of the Red Hook community. After Hurricane Sandy flooded Red Hook, sending water well over the top of Bait and Tackle’s bar, the regulars together with one of the owners, Barry O’Meara, worked to rebuild, within days.
Barry stayed in the bar that night, as the water edged higher, trying to rescue as much as possible. “I really didn’t have a choice.”
For the next few months, as crews worked on restoring power to Red Hook, Bait and Tackle with the help of generators, became a community center, with beer.
One of the only bright spots in otherwise dim neighborhood.
Yemeni restaurants, Cobble Hill(Waiter, Yemen Cuisine)
Atlantic Avenue, especially near the intersection with Court Street, has long been a center of Middle Eastern culture in New York City. Once primarily Syrian and Lebanese, it is now equally Yemeni, following an influx over the last thirty years.
“Influx into Brooklyn” is usually is a sign of bad things back home, and for the Yemeni it is no different. The poorest of the Middle Eastern countries, they have had, even by Middle Eastern standards, a rough recent history.
They come to Atlantic Avenue as it is being changed in a different direction, with the arrival of Trader Joe’s solidifying brownstone Brooklyn’s “You can work in Manhattan, raise you kids in Brooklyn, and be as happy as in the suburbs” claim on the street.
Three Yemeni restaurants cluster close together, sharing the same block as Trader Joe’s: Hadramout Restaurant at 172 Atlantic, Yemen Café at 176, and Yemen Cuisine around the corner at 145 Court Street.
Yemen Café, up a flight of stairs, the oldest, is also the most comfortable for the Trader Joe’s crowd. It is well lit, well acquainted with US tastes, and fluent in English.
Hadramout, down a flight of stairs, is less so. It serves almost exclusively Yemeni, and at times open till 6 am, for the late night workers. Sometimes, depending on various issues, it closes for long stretches.
It is harshly lit, with schoolroom-like tables littered with newspapers in Arabic. A TV in the corner, above the self-serve tea table, runs continual loops of Middle Eastern news.
(Gathering at friends house)
Over the last twenty years Yemenites have started buying many of the bodegas in Brooklyn, especially in the remaining ungentrified neighborhoods. Many owners don’t close their stores until midnight and then come to Hadramout for a meal before going home. Or they gather on Sunday nights at friends house, to share a communal meal.
“We come to talk politics, business, to gossip. Many of us are related, we all try to help each other. Running stores. It is not very easy. It requires the whole family to work. I take my kids to Yemen every other summer. But I don’t want them to be Yemeni. I want them to be American. To be Yemeni only in spirit. To be faithful to the religion, the food, but not the craziness.”
(Atlantic avenue Mosque)
They talk and eat, scooping up stews and large metal platters of meat, mostly lamb, with hot fresh flat bread. They sip sweet milky tea.
When they leave, often after midnight, they pass two huge dumpsters on the sidewalk in front of Trader Joe’s, recently filled with bags and bags of food beyond its expiration date.
Sometimes young Brooklynites climb out of the dumpsters, holding the bags. The Freegans have also found Atlantic Avenue.
Tatiana Restaurant, Brighton Beach(Host, Tatiana Restaurant)
The Russian speakers who first settled in Brighton Beach, mostly Jewish refugees in the ‘70s, couldn’t believe their luck. “Such a beautiful location, and nobody but us and the poor seemed to want to live here. The beach is better than the Black Sea, and the weather warmer than Kiev.”
The pattern of immigration, first wave moves into neighborhood, gets wealthier, moves out, hasn’t fully played out in Brighton Beach.
“I am not moving. I am happy here. I have everything I could want.”
Brighton Beach is fully formed. Newer immigrants still come, but they are often from Russia and Ukraine or places close to it, like Azerbaijan or Tajikistan. Everyone speaks Russian.
It is a beach town in more than just name. So much of its life is played out along the wooden boardwalk. Of the restaurants lining the boardwalk, Tatiana’s is the largest and best.
The summer brings in the rest of New York, or at least those without access to cars and second homes. The boardwalk changes its identity, with other languages mixed in with Russian, but only until the sun sets. Then families come down from the apartments that hover over the boardwalk, to celebrate whatever at one of the outdoor tables.
It is also still a beach town in the fall and winter, when the visitors leave. On those afternoons and nights, families still gather to celebrate underneath Tatiana’s large green tent on the boardwalk. Platters of food come in waves, smoked fish, soups, and seafood, all huge portions.
Playing to type, vodka and water are drunk in almost equal measure.
If the night starts to turn cold, the waiters and waitresses offer guests blankets, wrapping them around their shoulders.
Between courses, smokers lean against the boardwalk railing, across from the restaurant, looking off to the ocean.
On a cool fall Sunday night, next to Tatiana’s, a group of students hang a white blanket on a wall. Plastic chairs are dragged out, and a Russian art movie is played onto the blanket. Each blast of wind distorts the movie just a bit.
An older man, taking a smoking break from dinner, stops to watch the film. One of the students offers him a hit from a joint. He waves his hand no. He disappears, later to return with a bottle of Vodka. He hands it to the students, smiles, and goes back to join his family for dinner.
Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge(Michael, coming home)
Before Brooklyn became a brand, the Brooklyn Bridge, to most, was Brooklyn.
Tourists would walk the pedestrian walkway, along a bouncy wooden track riding between two gently arced cables, up to the apogee, stop and take pictures that have been taken a million times before, and then walk back to Manhattan, determined to get back in time to shower and dress before their Broadway show began.
The few who walked the entire length were almost always from Brooklyn: People coming and going to work very early in the morning or late in the evening. People who understood that crossing over the Brooklyn side of the East River didn’t mean certain mugging.
Those commuting where a small group that rarely changed, many who knew each other from the walks. Another reminder that Brooklyn is just a big small town. There was a Chinese woman, always dressed in the same sky blue sweat suit, regardless of the weather, who walked to Brooklyn and back. She waved to everyone she passed. There was a Jamaican man who rode his modified moped, cheap radio duck-taped to dashboard, who almost hit and angered everyone he passed. There was Michael, who would walk back to his Cobble Hill home from his night of collecting cans and bottles from the just closed bars of Manhattan. His tower of cans always seemed close to collapsing, but never did.
As Brooklyn became popular tourists no longer stopped at the top. They started coming to Brooklyn. For Brooklyn, not just for the view. The increase in tourists attracted merchants. Some selling sodas. Others selling sad NYC art. They cluster near the top, the middle of the walk, turning it into a Brooklynland spin-off of Disneyworld.
Still now, if you walk the bridge early or late enough, the tourists and merchants are gone. A few commuters are still there, walking from their homes in Brooklyn to work in Manhattan.
At the top, during those empty hours, you can be close to alone and find a quiet. Below you is a tableau of so many tiny scurrying people using so many forms of transportation. The distance and perceptive turns them beautiful, masquerading their intense determination to get somewhere fast.
An edited version of this appeared in the Awl