Samuel Johnson went to what was then and may become again the Near Abroad of Scotland and the Outer Hebrides to discover what a people who were familiar yet distinctive enough to have a distinct culture and social structure were like. He captured the religious quality of the moonlight and the castles as well as the economic opportunities available in that then “underdeveloped” economy. He did not have to travel to the South Sea islands or North America to discover the exotic; it was much closer to home than most travel writers imagined. I have in the past few months begun to understand another Near Abroad. I have moved to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which is some ten miles distant from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I lived for so many years. Here are some observations from someone who is a traveler in that my acquaintanceship with my neighborhood is fresh and catches the superficial aspects of the thing, and so predates a time when a deeper appreciation of the place will settle in.
One way to grasp a new place is to reflect on its local culture. By this I mean that the gods and rituals of a particular locality might be different from the ones which people who were of the same general culture but living a distance away were not familiar. The Israelites who invaded Canaan did not meet something we now call Canaanite religion, but a multiplicity of deities and sacred places all unknown to them and not necessarily known to all of the peoples of Canaan. You need to live in a locality to understand its ways. It is like people in one city knowing the roster of their baseball club but not the roster of the team in a nearby city. This is different from Clifford Geertz’s idea of “local knowledge”, which simply means that everybody comes to their own sense of things out of their own history even though all of those local systems of law and society are similar in that they respond to universal functional imperatives. For me, what is interesting about local culture is the reasons for it being different rather than the reasons it is the same.
One way to take a first cut at understanding a neighborhood or even a city is to look at the way streets and avenues provide a basic map of the neighborhood or city. West of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan is the West Side and east of Fifth Avenue is the East Side. Central Park is a focal point of Manhattan, given that prime real estate looks down on it. And in a city of this scope, City Hall and Rockefeller Center are also focal points. Similarly, the Grand Concourse and Fordham Road are the two great boulevards of the Bronx, their intersection the center of the borough of the Bronx. Similarly, Telegraph Avenue, University Avenue and Shattuck Avenue define Berkeley. You orient yourself along and in relation to these streets.
In my new neighborhood, as best I can grasp, the central axis is a t-square with 86th Street as the head and Fifth Avenue as the shaft. That is maybe because I live off Fifth Avenue and so other residents define Fourth or Third Avenue as the main drag, but I don’t think so. Along most of its length, Fifth Avenue is a shopping street, filled with small shops, like coffee shops, ma and pa groceries, ninety-nine cent stores, ethnic restaurants, bank branches, bakeries, meat stores. What is interesting is that the lines of stores do not spread out over very much space, inhabiting the rental space as it has existed for fifty years or so or longer. Not much improvement except for a bank branch that has re-plastered an entire building and so looks bigger than anything around it. Not much investment, nor any quality restaurants, nor upscale clothing stores. But the bars are open late and there is a lot of street traffic all day long.
The quality of the architecture in the residential streets is very much like that of the shopping street. The bulk of them seem to date from the Twenties, which was perhaps when this community was built, which was when the subway lines opened to down here in Southern Brooklyn. The dominant form is the two story private, attached house, with just a few apartment buildings because, I have been told, zoning laws forbid many high rises, and so even the apartment buildings are mostly only three to six stories high. Some of the separate or attached houses, none of them taking up much room, with perhaps a quarter sized lawn in front or maybe just concrete, have been gussied up with elaborate doors and gates and even marble columns. So people have enough money to embellish their properties as well as the ample interiors, but that doesn’t go for the public spaces. There are too many cracked sidewalks and not enough parks or other public spaces to grab the eye, except for the towers of the Verrazano Bridge, which looms in the distance.
Another way into the neighborhood is to consider the people who walk down the streets. It is a diverse lot. There are Italians and people from the Balkans; there are people from South Asia; and, most of all, there are a great many Muslims, some of the young women dressed in scarves and long dresses, some in scarves and makeup and tight jeans, speaking with less of an accent than I can manage into the ever available cell phones. I also notice that the Muslim girls seem to me to be well brought up in that they will give this old geezer a seat on a bus while the more rambunctious Hispanic girls, while not being rude, do not think to do so. So here we have a New York Muslim enclave, and who would want to make trouble for these girls who are so clearly arrived at being American?
In general, then, this community seems to me to be a throwback to an age of community that existed in the Bronx and in parts of Manhattan seventy years ago, to when I was a child. It is full of ethnic diversity, upward mobility built on solid if not major economic roots, full of ethnic touches in food and dress, not yet displaced from that life by garishness. And, like the Bronx of that time, my current neighborhood is fairly cultureless in that there are no bookstores and only one movie theatre that shows the latest Marvel Comic movies. For everything else, you have to go to downtown Brooklyn just as I, as a young man, had to go to Manhattan, even though a lot of people, as I can see through their windows, have large screen television and so can do their movie watching that way, which is the way I also do it. So, all in all, a community skewed in its own direction and therefore distinct from others. The mystery is not in the Scottish moonlight, although because the neighborhood is so low rise, the light is very good, so much better than that of the Manhattan canyons. In fact there is no mystery, no magic, in the neighborhood except for the mutating younger generation. What will the young Filipino boy who stopped to pet my dog and give me both his given name and his Americanized moniker turn into?
These Johnson like observations can be turned into sociology. A minimalist definition of a community is that it is the geographical area in which one performs one’s daily roles, that definition having to be modified only to the extent that one may go off to work in a different community and then return to one’s residential community, which is what happens in large cities when people go off to work and then return home for their meals, for shopping, for entertainment, and for sleep. Some people have longer commutes than others, but that just means that the tie between where they live and where they work can be illustrated by a long umbilical cord that separates a person’s two communities, that not having been a problem when people were not very able to go far from where they lived to where they worked, which was the case in lower Manhattan before horsecars and trains.
The people who live in my new neighborhood are, I have been told, civil servants or members of the uniformed city services and so are comfortable without being affluent. They travel distances in order to ply their trades. They come back home to go to local supermarkets and doctors but also have available to them Fresh Direct and Amazon. I, on the other hand, have kept my Manhattan doctors and have a long trip to visit them for my checkups. I am dependent on services and economies that are not here. For how many of my neighbors is that also true?
These sociological facts lead to a state of mind. When you live out here, some of the signs on the subway stations say “To New York”, as if you weren’t in New York. It is another place, one to which one relates but is not your home turf. When I lived in Manhattan, I observed that I lived within fifty blocks of everything: the best universities, the best museums, the best libraries, the best theatre, the best restaurants and the best appetizing stores. I may not have frequented these as often as I wanted, but they were there. Moreover, I would regard my living room as “command central”. I was looking at NBC News from not that many blocks from where it was made. Now I look at it from someplace else and am like one of those people from the Midwest who are familiar with Times Square because they have seen it so often on television. I am now on the periphery rather than at the center, a sensation people have had for a long time, certainly from the time when Ovid was sent into exile. It is another life.