Pete Hamill's Brooklyn

The following text is the introduction to The Brooklyn Reader written by, in my estimation, the greatest wordsmith Brooklyn has ever produced: Pete Hamill. Enjoy.

You begin with the light. If you want to make Brooklyn in words or film or paint, you must see the way the sun defines the silent streets on an early Sunday morning, sculpting trees, buildings, fire hydrants, stray dogs, and wandering people with an almost perfect clarity. You can see the Brooklyn light on summer afternoons, on any morning after a snowfall, in the glittering chilly days of October. You can see it in the elegant photographs and artless snapshots, in paintings by Edward Hopper and William Merrit Chase. But the Brooklyn light is not unique: the same luminous quality suffuses the work of the Dutch masters. I gaze at Vermeer and feel the presence of Brooklyn; those first seventeenth-century Dutch settlers must have looked at this empty western end of Long Island and seen the lowlands of Holland.

If you have ever lived in Brooklyn, or if you grew up on its streets, you carry that light with you forever. The distinctiveness of the light does not explain why so many writers came from this largest of New York’s five boroughs; no single element ever explains a writer. But that Vermeer light always seems to find its way into the work. That, and other things.

The most powerful of all factors is also the most American: the pull of the past. Writers are rememberers, or they are nothing. Millions of older Brooklynites, those who stayed and those who departed, live with a sense of a lost Eden in their imaginations, a collective memory of a time and place in which they were young and innocent and happy. Some of this is delusion, of course; but the delusions are as vivid and concrete as any great fiction. The details of such powerful nostalgia are different for every generation, often for every neighborhood, but the impulse is persistent. A voice seems always to whisper: There was another place here once and it was better than this. When I was a boy in the 1940s and 1950s, I sometimes met old-timers who traced the ruin of Brooklyn to the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1888 or to the forced melding of Brooklyn to Greater New York ten years later or to the driving of the subways out past Prospect Park around the time of World War I. They talked with regret about the farms that had vanished, the families ruined, the strangers who had come among them. To them, I envied their knowledge of that lost Brooklyn and was certain that my own Brooklyn of cement and street gangs was the vast borough’s final form.

My certainty had its reasons. Until the mid-1950s, my Brooklyn never changed in any major way. The Second World War had combined with the Great Depression to freeze all of us in place. Men went away to the war; most of them returned; but nobody ever moved more than three blocks. We played stickball on the same streets where the veterans played when they were boys. We went through eight grades of school with the same kids, year after year, getting to know each other better than we ever knew anybody else. Every day, the Brooklyn Eagle arrived at the door, and every spring, the Dodgers returned to Ebbets Field. In the summer we took the trolley south to Coney Island, with its honkytonk midway, hot dogs, and orange drinks, sand and sea. We thought that world would last for the rest of our lives.

It didn’t. Highways opened up eastern Long Island; the GI Bill provided low-cost mortgages; the great flight to the suburbs was soon under way. The Brooklyn Eagle folded in 1955. The Dodgers fled to California two years later. Heroin arrived in the neighborhoods, followed by the plague of guns, and nobody played stickball anymore. Factories began closing, as New York’s economy shifted from manufacturing to services, and the humiliation of unemployment started to destroy families. The European immigrants and their children left Coney Island for more prosperous beaches; the slums expanded; crime and the fear of crime became as prevalent in Brooklyn as the light. The Coney Island of my childhood became part of the past, beyond recovery, depending for its existence upon the untrustworthy power of memory.

But the almost tidal pull of the past doesn’t account in full for all those writers who were spawned in Brooklyn or were deeply touched as they passed through. One possibility is that essential Brooklyn style is often an irresistible (for a writer) combination of toughness and lyricism. The tough guy myth had incredible power. On the streets, the kid who was “good with his hands” was respected, even honored. Most values were stoic. If you were poor, your pride was based on the ability to endure hard times without whining; the true tough guy didn’t simply throw a punch, he could take one too. There were other tough guys among us, sallow-faced men with pistols and pinkie rings. They too inhabited a world of myth. I remember in my youth going to see the house where Al Capone grew up, thrilled that a guy from the neighborhood had made his way into the big world. A few blocks away was the restaurant where Joe Adonis ran the Brooklyn rackets with grace and style. One afternoon, when I was 10, I traveled with my father and his friends to a gym in Brownsville where a tough middleweight named Bummy Davis trained; it was full of hard-eyed Jewish hoods who had once been soldiers for Murder Inc. It was no accident that dozens of hard guys from street gangs in my neighborhood graduated into full membership in The Mob. We read about these people in the newspapers; we heard them discussed in the language of myth. So did young hard guys. And so did many apprentice writers.

The tough guy style was tempered by the accidents of geography. In the heart of Brooklyn lie the 526 acres of Prospect Park, designated by Frederick Law Olmsted as a verdant refuge from the harder places of the city. Olmsted succeeded gloriously. The park is full of broad meadows, clusters of forest, hills and valleys, mysterious stone paths, stairways and monuments. If you came from tenements, as I did, the park was a theater for the imagination. You could be Pete Reiser, hammering triples down the first base line, or Bomba the Jungle Boy, searching the wilderness for the Giant Cataract. For many of us, the park remains the secret heart of Brooklyn, the first place which we experienced the beauty of the world.

The other splendid accident was the beach. New York City is basically an archipelago, its boroughs lashed together by bridges and tunnels (only the Bronx is on the mainland). But only Brooklyn had the great beach at Coney Island. We knew that the Bronx had Orchard Beach and Queens had Rockaway, but they made movies about our beach, they wrote songs about it, they showed photographs of its dense crowds in the newspapers. For all of us, middle class or poor, the beach was another glorious fact, its throbbing sensuality a goad to the lyric impulse. Under the summer sun, we gazed at the immense variety of the human body. We fell in love with strangers. We plotted a thousand versions of the fall into sin. We found solace or relief in chilly tides of the sea. On the beach, every weekend was an occasion for wonder, surprise, hedonism, failure, and sweet lies: the raw material of art.

In this book, you will encounter those poles of Brooklyn toughness and lyricism, along with the occasional merger. There is provincialism too, along with its twin, the romantic desire for escape and possibility. But somewhere in each text, stated or implied, is the presence of light. There is no Brooklyn without it.

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