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I have always been a lover of James Agee’s writing. He was a film critic, screenplay writer, poet, luminous novelist (A Death in the Family), journalist of the most singular sort (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), and essayist. Agee was a writer enraptured with words who could be majestic and grandiose in the same paragraph. Alternate sentences could sing brilliantly, and could sometimes turn windy and excessively prolix. But though he had his limits, he was for me a dark, eloquent romantic who, at his best, could transform the daily into the sublime.
In 1939 he wrote an essay for Fortune on Brooklyn, which was rejected for creative differences. It was later published in Esquire, and has just appeared for the first time in hard cover—Brooklyn Is (Fordham University Press).
Agee’s rhapsodically detailed essay/prose poem is a Whitmanesque catalogue evoking a Brooklyn of ordinary people—“a profoundly docile, and stable population.” He can see the borough as a horizontal, featureless, static place that “Manhattan’s mad manic energy” sucks dry and makes “provincial,” at the same time he senses its hidden grandeur. Though the Brooklyn he writes about may feel insecure in relation to cosmopolitan Manhattan, Agee suggests that the mass of people in this heavily populated borough create, just by living their everyday lives, something vital and stirring; and from the “the wood tenements, bare lots and broken vistas” of Williamsburg and Bushwick to the “seas of lawn” where “the sloped light is turning gold” in Prospect Park, worth paying homage to.
The Brooklyn of 2005 is clearly a different place from Agee’s parochial borough. In fact, it has neighborhoods (e.g., Park Slope, Fort Greene, Carroll Gardens) populated with corporate and artistic types who in the past would have never thought of living in Brooklyn. Thriving Manhattan-style restaurants, cafés, and boutiques have accompanied them. And the borough’s intellectually adventurous cultural center BAM (America’s oldest academy for the performing arts) offers a variety of programs that can’t be seen in Manhattan. The city’s cultural institutions and nightlife, however, continue to remain centered in Manhattan, and many Brooklynites still commute there for work. But it’s clear that today’s Brooklyn no longer can simply be depicted (the William Bendix Hollywood version of the 30s and 40s) as a place solely inhabited by kind-hearted, gum chewing, and comic urban ethnic men and women—“the salt of the earth.” It always seemed to me that at a time when unions were militant and strikes were a commonplace, the movies’ cab drivers, soldiers, and waitresses were seamlessly in step with the American ethos.
One of the most dramatic transformations in Brooklyn neighborhoods has occurred in Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). The area, once dominated by working warehouses (there are still freight train tracks on one of its cobblestone streets), and bounded by the East River, has now been extended to the Brooklyn Bridge overpass. In the 70s Dumbo became a community of artists with dark dangerous streets and few amenities.
In 2005, though it still contains ancient abandoned, graffiti-daubed, red brick warehouses whose arched windows are steel shuttered, Dumbo’s now home to a chocolate factory, an experimental theater, a grassy waterfront park with a modernistic children’s playground, Prague Kolektiv (a shop specializing in Czech furniture and glassware from the 20s and 30s), renovated luxury lofts, and new million dollar condominiums with balconies. Dumbo’s streets are clean and serene, and filled with young artists tenderly taking care of their young children. The area also offers the exhilarating daily pleasure of gazing up at the two bridges, especially the Brooklyn’s exultant twin Gothic arches and its network of steel cables that soar over the East River and Dumbo.
But the painter who said to me that he liked the fact that Dumbo is relatively undeveloped also knows that it will soon go the way of SoHo. Dumbo will ultimately become so dominated by boutiques and condos that young painters like himself will no longer be unable to afford to live there. That’s the usual cycle that neighborhoods, which become hip and charming habitats inexorably go through.
After walking about Dumbo my friend and I drove to Bay Ridge to get the feel of a classical Brooklyn neighborhood that hasn’t changed that radically since Agee was writing about it as “a sweet quiet distance from the city.”
Bay Ridge remains pleasing to the eye. It has an expansive city waterfront with striking views of downtown Manhattan and the harbor. The neighborhood’s premier residential boulevard is Shore Road (it resembles the Upper West Side’s Riverside Drive), which curves in a semi-circle parallel to the New York Bay shoreline and is stocked with trees on its west side and a few mansions and a string of attractive apartment buildings on its east side.
The rest of Bay Ridge’s housing is as variegated as its ethnicity—attached cookie-cutter red brick houses, unattached single-family homes on 50-by-100-foot lots, art deco apartment buildings, and grey stone, bay windowed row houses. Bay Ridge may have few upscale boutiques and art theaters, but it has a wide range of small shops—Italian, Greek, and Vietnamese restaurants, Moslem halal butchers and fruit stores, Irish pubs, and bargain seekers can flock to Century 21, the discount clothing store, located on one of the area’s main shopping streets.
With the filming of Saturday Night Fever, Bay Ridge became synonymous in the popular mind with working-class Brooklyn. But today, though embodying much of the old Brooklyn (of stable lower middle class neighborhoods), it is a more complicated milieu in class and ethnic terms than the film ever suggested. And Brooklyn itself defies being encapsulated by any single social category. Agee saw the essence of Brooklyn in its domesticity, but the borough today is both too volatile and too chic to be viewed that way any longer. Nothing in this city ever stays the same.