Fare Thee Well, Brooklyn

Something seismic is happening to me today: I am moving out of my beloved Brooklyn, the borough where I have lived for nearly a quarter century and almost half my life. I don’t do such a thing lightly, though I am just as pleased and even as romantically inspired about where I am going next. But the change is nonetheless emotional. My son said, “It’s not like you’re never coming back here.” Which is more than true. I know I’m likely to return countless times. But I’ll no longer be part of it in the same way, and now it will represent a certain part of my life, one I have moved on from.

I moved to Greenpoint in 1994, at a time when artists were only first starting to settle there. In those days, there was bullet proof glass in front of the counter at the liquor store next to the Bedford Street L stop. It was still the frontier. There were no luxury high rises. Though only one short train stop from Manhattan, it might as well have been 20 miles away. From Greenpoint, I moved to next-door Williamsburg in 2002, just a two minute walk from the tremendous Brick Theater, which was kind of a home base for me for many years; and from there to Park Slope in 2011, just two blocks from Prospect Park.

Often my places of employment have been in Brooklyn, as well: I worked at BCAT (Brooklyn Community Access Television) in Fort Greene; at Common Good, a think tank, in the Metrotech Center; and at Coney Island USA. I have free-lanced for the Brooklyn Paper, based in DUMBO, from time to time.

I presented shows and talks in Brooklyn constantly over the years: at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library,  at the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center, at the now defunct Charleston Bar & Grill on Bedford Ave (where I ran the open mic night), at the Brooklyn Brewery with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, at the aforementioned Brick Theater, the old Galapagos in Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Lyceum, the Showboat Barge in Red Hook, at Barbes, at South Oxford Space, and of course Coney Island USAAnd rehearsed for countless hours at the Brooklyn Arts ExchangeAnd I have been privileged to be the guest on several shows on Radio Free Brooklyn, which is based in Bushwick.

As a strenuous walker, day tripper and cultural tourist, it was inevitable that in 24 years of rambles I would touch nearly every section of what I think of as the City of Brooklyn (for an independent city it was once, and all by itself it would stand as one of America’s greatest). I have walked across the Brooklyn Bridge a dozen times; across the Williamsburg Bridge perhaps three dozen, sometimes incentivized by power blackouts, MTA strikes, or even the lack of subway fare. (Stranded in Manhattan on September 11, I feared I would need to also give the Queensboro Bridge a try with my six year old son in tow. The subways were all down, and we were stranded on the Upper West Side, and this would have been the closest route. We would have walked the bridge to Long Island City, and then the Kosciuszko Bridge over the Newtown Creek to Greenpoint. I mention this only because we would have done and could have done it, although that would have been the longest piggy back ride I’ve ever given. But in any event the trains came back on.

I have experienced pretty much the entire Brooklyn waterfront, and walked a huge extent of it, everything between its northernmost stretch at Newtown Creek all the way down to Red Hook, in sections of course,  including of course Brooklyn Heights’ beautiful Promenade. I’ve walked the entire perimeter of Coney Island (except for Sea Gate, which is off limits, although I have peeked through the fence), and also walked sections in Gravesend and Fort Hamilton.

In one direction, I have walked from Park Slope all the way to DUMBO and Brooklyn Bridge Park (and once I walked all the way to the East River docks in Manhattan and back), and have also walked all the way South from Park Slope to Coney Island. I once also walked from Williamsburg to a cemetery in that strange Brooklyn/Queens nether region of Cypress Hills. I have now walked the circumference of my beloved Prospect Park hundreds of times, and have come to know every single inch of it. And I daily walked the stretch between Park Slope and Metrotech for several years, taking a different route every time and I came to know those sections in between (Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, Carrol Gardens, Gowanus) like the back of my hand. Needless to say, I held my breath every time I crossed the Gowanus Canal.

I have marched the entire routes the American and British troops took during the Battle of Brooklyn in the Revolutionary War. I once went to find Betty Smith’s street, the site of the famous Tree that Grows in Brooklyn (and lawdy there sure ain’t any trees there now!) I have gone to pay homage at Clara Bow’s birthplace and the house where she grew up. I have been to where H.P. Lovecraft lived and wrote during his brief paranoid sojourn in this city, and the ancient Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church that so inspired him. I have been to the site of the old Ebbets Field in Flatbush, where the Dodgers used to play (which is now the Jackie Robinson apartments), and have been to Floyd Bennett Field, site of New York’s first airport.

I was fortunate once to get a tour of the spectacular Brooklyn Navy Yard, including the awe-inspiring dry dock (I’m not being sarcastic — it’s the size of a skyscraper laid on its side. It’s like standing on the rim of a canyon, but you’re in the middle of New York.). And I have taken the ferry from the Brooklyn side to Governor’s Island and back many a time, thinking all the while about Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” even though he meant the one that went to Manhattan. For exercise I have climbed to the summit of Fort Greene Hill many a time (you should do it, there’s quite of view of lower Manhattan, plus it is yet another historic heritage site).

I have ambled around Green-wood Cemetery to find graves notable and obscure more times than ought to be wholesome or mentally sound. And once I trekked all the way out to the Old Gravesend Cemetery, one of the oldest in the city, where some of my ancestors are buried.

In 1989, the 200th anniversary of the Constitution, I watched a flotilla of tall ships come into New York harbor from Sunset Park, one of the first times I ever visited Brooklyn. I have gone to see the legendary Christmas decorations in Dyker Heights several years running.

I have kicked around Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights and the Medgar Evers College Campus to see what I could see (lots of West Indian people and Hasidim, it turns out), and to events at Pratt in Clinton Hill. I recently had an opportunity to visit Arts East New York, which I must say I thought was mighty slick and well worth the trip (and best of all took me to East New York, one of the last remaining Brooklyn neighborhoods I hadn’t visited.)

I lived among Poles in Greenpoint, and Italians in Williamsburg (I have seen the annual Giglio Dance probably ten times). I have been to Sunset Park’s Chinatown, New York’s largest outside Manhattan, for a political fundraiser. On one exhilarating occasion, on one of my multi-mile strolls, I walked through not only black and Jewish neighborhoods, but Pakistani, Caribbean, Latin (mostly Dominican,I think), and Russian. It was like striding across the entire globe in just a few steps. I served on three juries in civil trials in the Kings County courthouse, and encountered people of every conceivable race, religion, ethnicity, class, and occupation. It taught me more about Brooklyn than probably any other experience.

Brooklyn’s two big pillar arts institutions are the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Brooklyn Museum. Like many New Yorkers, I have attended both of these joints dozens and dozens of times. I found myself heading over to the latter place on New Year’s Day. I did the whole museum floor by floor all day with the full consciousness that it would be the last time I would be doing so when the Brooklyn Museum was still my local museum. I took it for granted when I was here. Now I’ll have to make a special trip and it will be rare.

Smaller Brooklyn arts organizations and venues I have loved to patronize beyond the ones already named include the New York Transit Museum, St. Anne’s Warehouse, the Morbid Anatomy Museum, the Brooklyn Reliquary, the Gemini and Scorpio Loft, the Gallery Players, the Way Station, Montero’s Bar and Grill and countless more I’m forgetting, I’m sure. I attended a strange theatrical event Kirk Wood Bromley staged in his own Gowanus living room one time.  I once got stoned at Goodbye Blue Monday and had to find my way home on foot through the unfamiliar streets of Bushwick — a happy and terrifying memory only some of you will understand. I wouldn’t trade such experiences for the world. It’s what I moved to the city for. I didn’t come here to write about dew drops.

I stood with all the gawkers at a ten alarm warehouse fire in Greenpoint in 2006; I don’t know what hell I was doing over there, I’d moved to a different neighborhood years earlier. I saw a guy get stabbed to death at the Brooklyn Brewery in 1997, and testified in the murder trial a couple of years later.  I remember two blizzards I experienced in Brooklyn in particular: walking through the Greenpoint streets with my infant son Cashel in tow when the snow stopped falling in the blizzard of 1996; and braving the blizzard of 2010 to go visit Cashel and his brother Charlie upstate. And I have been in Park Slope during the last two hurricanes: Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012). My boys were here the first time; they gave me a fright by going into the park to look at the downed trees. I walked from Park Slope to DUMBO after Sandy and took these photographs; I took these pics of Coney Island a few days later.

The playground at McCarren Park was the center of my life for awhile. I was there all the time with my kids. The other artist/stroller moms and dads became our circle of friends. They were the first people we saw after 9/11, but I have much happier memories. I played Santa Claus at a tree lighting in McCarren Park, and presided at an Easter Egg Hunt there! (i.e., “on your mark, get set, go!”) To go back to that old ‘hood is always bittersweet for me now. My kids are grown men!

I ironically only learned recently that I actually have some Brooklyn roots and ancestors. One is the Quaker woman Penelope Stout who was nearly killed by Indians in Gravesend in 1643 and later moved to New Jersey. Another is New York’s first Italian American Pietro Cesare Alberti (1608-1655), who had a 100 acre farm in Brooklyn, and was killed by Indians in 1655. (I am almost completely WASP; he is one of my few ancestors who stray outside a rather narrow ethnic range). And I learned recently that I am related to Henry Chandler Bowen, who underwrote Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church, a hotbed of abolitionism prior to the Civil War. I visited it for the first time just three months ago. 

So I am moving away at my time of maximum attachment, but maybe that’s best. I think I can move on with very few regrets about what I haven’t seen or done here.

And now I am moving to Great Neck, just over the Queens Border in Nassau County. Queens and Nassau Counties used to be one entity prior to the incorporation of modern day NYC in 1898. I have roots there, too, I have learned, so it inspires me to be moving there. And I look forward now to sucking the marrow out of my new stomping grounds (ugh I know that’s a terrible mixed metaphor) with the same thoroughness with which I have explored Brooklyn, and I look forward to oversharing with you every step of the way. Now, onward! Onward!

Last photo of me as a Brooklynite, in my beloved Prospect Park, the morning of my move