That’s My Dean St.! Brooklyn Native Goes Home, Sniffs

In the wake of Boerum Hill’s “It”-ification, my father and I recently decided to ring the doorbell of our old house on Dean Street. The visit was odd for several reasons, the first being that the nice couple living in the house initially thought that I was my father’s wife. After I made it a point to refer to him as “Dad” in every sentence, there remained about me a feeling of unease. The house was exactly as we had left it—same brown carpet lining the front hall, same tenant living upstairs, same prehistoric alarm system that used to give me nightmares—but the neighborhood was not.

Back in middle school, when people asked where I lived, my 12-year-old status-conscious self would say “Dean Street,” followed very quickly by: “It’s what Amity Street turns into after Court Street. I basically live in Cobble Hill.” But now, Boerum Hill was nothing to be ashamed about.

During the summer of 1996, my parents and I crossed the pond, as it were, and moved from Boerum Hill to the Upper East Side. Several months later, Patois opened up on Smith Street, inciting the so-called “Smith Street Restaurant Revolution,” which went on to incite a full-on Boerum Hill revolution. A year after we left, Boerum Hill (née Gowanus) had transformed itself from Cobble Hill’s pockmarked younger step-cousin to a full-fledged swan of a neighborhood.

Even after leaving those quiet, brownstone-lined streets for Bloomingdale’s and doormen, I still made my annual Atlantic Avenue Salvation Army pilgrimages. I’d mutter under my breath that things sure ain’t what they used to be. Like the burnt-out punks who wax nostalgic for the East Village of yesteryear—when you couldn’t walk an inch without stepping on a crack vial—I did my own back-when-ing.

“Back when I lived here, Bar Tabac was a Chinese restaurant—with pictures.”

“Back when I lived here, there was a drunk guy who sat on the stoop across the street from my house and shouted obscenities at me.”

“Back when I lived here, I had a gymnastics birthday party at the YWCA on Third Street and Atlantic Avenue, and it was too dangerous to walk there, so we drove.”

But New York real estate is a fickle thing, and associate editors at Esquire need housing too. Brooklyn is no longer the Brooklyn of my youth—American Apparels were replacing corner bodegas the borough over—and I had sort of come to terms with that.

Then I read The Fortress of Solitude.

Jonathan Lethem’s much-touted and highly excellent novel is a coming-of-age bildungsroman featuring jazz, comic books and a little bit of magical, super-hero-related, Brooklyn-based realism. But the star of the novel isn’t so much its central Lethem-vessel, Dylan Ebdus, as it is the 600-foot stretch of Dean Street between Bond and Nevins, where Messrs. Lethem and Ebdus both grew up—and, incidentally, one block over from where I grew up. The evolution of the street, from a drug-infested den of S.R.O.’s to a haven for young, hip artist types priced out of the Upper West Side, is carefully and movingly recounted by Mr. Lethem (certain descriptions in the book actually gave me the chills). Mr. Lethem often has Dylan walking west on Dean Street to Smith Street and then to Court Street, where he makes a right and heads to Brooklyn Heights. It was a route I had traveled almost every day of my young life.

But when I finished reading Fortress, I was left with the slightly irrational feeling that Mr. Lethem had stolen Dean Street from me. A corner of my life was apparently someone else’s corner as well.

I hadn’t written my memoir, yet I felt like a part of my childhood was now exposed and, as a result, had morphed into some sort of universal experience. I felt the way I imagined someone who had seen his childhood best friend grow up to be Brad Pitt might feel. Maybe it was that now I couldn’t pitch my own coming-of-age memoir about growing up on Dean Street to Random House—but whatever it was, seeing photos of Jonathan Lethem standing on Dean Street with a smug grin on his face brought out feelings of resentment.

To hammer it all home, last year Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams bought a brownstone on Dean and Hoyt. Seeing paparazzi photos of the happy couple canoodling on Court Street wasn’t only an intrusion into their lives; it was an intrusion into mine. This Hollywood couple thought that they had discovered an idyllic nook of New York City, and, as a result, the entire New York magazine–reading public now thought that it had discovered an idyllic nook of New York City. Then Emily Mortimer (Match Point) and her husband, Alessandro Nivola (Junebug), shacked up on Dean between Hoyt and Bond. Everywhere I turned, it was: Isn’t Boerum Hill adorable? Isn’t Boerum Hill so shabby-chic? Isn’t Boerum Hill just so literary?

Yeah, but who was schlepping all the way to Montague Street to go shopping because Johnny’s Bootery was the only shoe store in Boerum Hill? Who was eating at Antic’s once every other week because it was the only good restaurant within a five-block radius of our house? Who was warming things up for all you book publishers and fashion designers now moving in with your babies and movie-star husbands? Me, that’s who.

Whenever people ask me why I don’t live in Brooklyn anymore, I say, “I’m not ready.” I’m a little intimidated by what it’s become. I live above a Duane Reade in the East Village, a neighborhood that is moving closer and closer to Fratsville as we speak. It’s hard for me to think about the boys with calculator watches and girls with WNET tote bags, drinking Stellas at Boat on Smith Street and browsing the paperback section of Book Court, without feeling a little left out. I feel like the girl who was best friends with the fat kid, who then started being mean to said fat kid because that was the cool thing to do, and now that fat kid has grown up to be Philip Seymour Hoffman. But enough slippery celebrity metaphors.

Back to the hallway. After my father and I stood around awkwardly for a few minutes, both of us wondering what exactly we were doing here, I decided to head downstairs. It was there that I met the little girl, a blond ball of adorableness, who happily showed me to my old room, now her room. I pointed out the fingerprints on the ceiling from when I naughtily jumped on the bed as a 6-year-old. We talked of the hole in the floor in the living room.

“I used to think a mouse lived in the hole,” I told her.

I used to think a mouse lived in the hole!” she told me.

Turns out that just like mini-Alexis, the new young Dean Street-dweller did gymnastics and played the flute. Standing in front of me was a little tree growing in Brooklyn. And she too would grow up, go to college and have her own muddled and loving memories of the Hill. And so what if she ends up being Matilda Ledger’s maid of honor? By that point, Maddox Jolie-Pitt will be buying a house in Staten Island.