Brooklyn Has Everything, Including Inner Peace

A while back, my colleague Ron Rosenbaum made what seemed an eminently sensible proposal: that a good way to judge a person is by his or her Jane Austen novel of preference. Ron tended to find spiritual kinship with fans of Persuasion , a bias of which I was reminded a week ago when, rushing out of the loft to catch a plane for Jamaica, I espied that very book-in the venerable, pocket-fitting World’s Classics hardcover edition-atop a pile awaiting reshelving and stuck it in my tote.

There is no better company, and like all worthwhile company, better still on renewed acquaintance. Reading Jane Austen is like hearing a pianist of spirit and technique play Scarlatti or Haydn: grace and directness throughout, even in the biggest passages.

On page 45, I came across the following, which those who center their lives on the sort of matters reported in this newspaper (or Page Six, Vanity Fair, or http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com) might well take to heart. I know I have. Of her heroine, Miss Austen writes: “… she believed she must now submit to feel that another lesson, in the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle , was become necessary for her.” (Italics mine.)

For some reason, these words reminded me that it is a year exactly since I “derusticated” myself from Sag Harbor and came to live in a Brooklyn loft located between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges in the neighborhood unfortunately known as DUMBO. Readers of this paper, including those who purchase it at selected Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill newsstands, are given less to read about Brooklyn than they are about Santa Monica. To cross the three bridges and one tunnel that link Manhattan to Brooklyn is to venture into Jane-ite “nothingness” as far as the chic media are concerned. It is not that “there is no there there,” in my opinion, but simply that there is nothing to be “inside” about.

Occasionally, of course-as in the latest contretemps between Mayor Giuliani and the Brooklyn Museum-mention of Brooklyn will interrupt the ritual fatuities of Knickerbocker conversation. My colleague Hilton Kramer deals with this in a nearby space, and it would be impudent of me to gloss his observations with my own two cents, save only to voice my conviction that the pop-cultural aspect of the museum’s strategy to achieve community relevance (if that’s what we can call it) seems awfully random and un-thought-through, both as to content and presentation.

In commenting on Brooklyn, I make no claim to be an expert. One year doth not a native make. To know Brooklyn may not be the exclusive province of the dead, as Thomas Wolfe asserted, but half a lifetime seems about the minimum credential. I’ve done what I can to catch up: I have assembled a shelf of Brooklyn lore; I drive around and walk around and look and wonder. My consort, Brooklyn-born, is an unflagging source of information and discovery. But the fact remains that I’m a newcomer, an émigré.

What I do feel competent to comment on are those aspects of Brooklyn that a Manhattan dweller contemplating migration across the East River is likely to consider important. Brooklyn is known mainly as a place people come from, a place that they leave behind, frequently with some embarrassment. In recent years, however, it has started to be a destination rather than a point of departure-especially for Manhattanites who are fed up or priced out of the zip codes that begin with 100, who can no longer endure the noisy solipsism that is as pervasive, and depressing, a fact of existence between the East River and the Hudson as is rain in the Pacific Northwest.

The reasons are various. I prize my Brooklyn for what is here, and for what is not. Spaciousness, simplicity, relative quiet and variety-all at a fair price-are what come to mind in the plus column. Manhattan stinks of “by invitation only” striving; Brooklyn doesn’t. Zip 11201 isn’t the same as 10021 or 10028, home to a wealth-denominated gratin that considers itself cosmopolitan but is, by any knowledgeable reckoning, as shallow and provincial a lot as ever existed outside the imagination of Sinclair Lewis.

For better or worse, the shopping in Brooklyn isn’t what it is across the way. But nothing in Manhattan is farther than a 20-minute subway ride, so I happily hop the A or the F to West Fourth Street to Murray’s on Bleecker for cheese, or farther north to Fairway or Eli’s. Sahadi, Two for the Pot, North Heights Video and a bunch of good used and new bookstores can go shelf-to-shelf with anything I know of in Manhattan. Jacques Torres’ chocolate shop downstairs here at 66 Water Street is already drawing a pretty tony-looking clientele, as you’d expect of an enterprise founded by Le Cirque 2000’s former dessert magician. The cooking is first-class at restaurants like Banania and Saul, but the clientele’s anxiety meter ticks less furiously and frantically, and one’s fellow diners are manifestly younger and less appetite-killing than the surgically altered varicose horrors that greet the eye at Swifty’s or Orsay.

Naturally, gentrification is an issue here. Real estate values are on the rise, thanks to young families and entrepreneurs fleeing the Trump-style gouging and desecration across the way. To a veteran of Sag Harbor, world capital not only of NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) but NIYBY (“not in your back yard”) as well, the uproar is small potatoes.

The really big money is in Manhattan, and there it is going to stay, is my guess. I doubt more than two, if any, members of the Forbes 400 reside in this borough. Big money likes-hell, seems to need -the company of other big money. Vast transfers of limousine-borne wealth from Park Avenue to Flatbush are not in the cards. Among Brooklyn institutions, only B.A.M. and Bargemusic-as well as the River Café and Peter Luger-draw important Right Bank (looking south) patronage, and Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris doubtless will, too. (That said, Bargemusic is the place in all five boroughs to experience chamber music as it should be: performed at the highest level of artistry, in a setting that combines foreground intimacy and panoramic magnificence in the distance.)

For the rest, Brooklyn is going to have to grow its institutions by itself, in keeping with its own character. Hence the dilemma of the Brooklyn Museum. What are the indigenous resources it can draw on? There’s a lot of money changing hands in the borough, as in any teeming hive, but not all that much wealth being created; the hope for the latter is probably in the high-tech incubators being proposed for the historic district across the street from me. Another wealth generator may be intra-city tourism. My guess is that the new waterfront park, when and as built, will draw as many visitors from the other river bank as from its home borough.

For those for whom life is still a sandbox, and attention-getting an acceptable substitute for accomplishment-Manhattan will remain the place to which those in flight from themselves should fly with all haste; the place where they have the best chance of becoming that somebody else they wish to change themselves into. For those of us of a certain age, who have learned who we are simply through time in the outfit, or who have had enough of the manifest betrayal by Manhattan’s elite of the small virtues and qualities that are indispensable to a truly cosmopolitan urban civis , there’s a lot to be said for Brooklyn.

When I look out the window at the Manhattan Bridge, the Hamptons cretinage of noise and nosiness seem but a bad memory. I’m happier here than I have been since I lived at 20 East 65th Street as the tenant of Irene Silverman, later murdered by the Kimeses. I was fuller of fight then, and unrealistic expectations, and could handle the borough I was born in. Too much has changed over there. Manhattan has gotten younger and cruder. Money matters too much. In Brooklyn, I can live outside the physical and psychological borders of a world I no longer belong to, a land of “lost content,” but I’m still proximate enough to its resources and pockets of recollected joy to use those at will. Two worlds-and the best of both.

NOTE: The foregoing was written just before my Beloved Stepmother, Martha Paula (Poppi) Thomas (1915–2001), died without warning in her cherished Jamaica. It was this past Sunday morning, around 11. We had had a good snorkel; she was making her way to shore-and then, suddenly, that was that. She went without pain, literally in the arms of family and dear old friends, in the place she loved best in all the world. Readers of this column who knew her personally, as well as those who didn’t, cannot but have been aware of how much she meant to me and my brother and our children and her legions upon legions upon legions of friends. Under the instant circumstances, it is impossible for me say what’s in our hearts-you’ll understand that the keyboard is difficult to make out-but in the next column I will try to do her justice.