Getting Meta – Reading Books About Brooklyn

I have a book that I bought over a year ago. I started it, but didn’t want to carry it around with me, so I stopped. I didn’t want to be seen with it. I didn’t want people judging me. I let it languish on a shelf until I started it again this week.

No, it’s not 74 Shades of Blah. I think you already know how I feel about that one.

It’s The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn. The first time I started reading it, I was in a small park in Cobble Hill. I looked up, looked at the people around me, and hastily put it away. I felt ironic, I felt meta, I felt really weird reading a book about the evolution of my part of the borough. I sat there surrounded by young, Caucasian, white-collar professionals and their children named Jade and Rex, all while reading about the people who were forced out in the name of reclaiming the borough before those evil Manhattanizers filled it with bland skyscrapers. It felt strange. I mean, the subtitle is Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York, for goodness sakes.

For as long as I can remember (and as long as the few short years that I’ve called Brooklyn my home), it’s been gentrified. Some industrial space, to be sure, but those places have been nestled in between brownstones (obviously), small apartment buildings, and yoga studios. Being the naïve person I am, I hadn’t thought about what it might have been before, or why it changed. Which is why I’m glad this book gave me the opportunity to do some research.

As I read the first chapter, I was captivated immediately. I’m fascinated by the history of New York, and of Brooklyn in particular, and am an avid reader of websites like Ephemeral New York and the Brooklyn Historical Society blog. Before you accuse me of being a yuppie hipster (ok, ok, I am by definition a young professional and I do drink the occasional PBR), both of my parents were born and raised in Brooklyn. I felt a connection. That’s why I picked up the book in the first place: someone actually wrote an academic-type account of the history of my favorite neighborhoods, of course I wanted to read it. But as I got further into it, it felt strange toting it around town. Passing by the Park Slope Food Co-Op, where epic battles raged over whether to stock Israeli hummus, or sitting on the F train passing the Kentile Floors sign that symbolized the manufacturing long gone, I felt out of place, like an anthropologist and not a resident. I hadn’t meant to dissect my surroundings, but it was inevitable as street corners and subway stops so familiar to me were rattled off one after another. And so I put it away for a year and a half, because it’s hard to read a book when I’m not willing to bring it around with me.

Don’t get me wrong, I love living here. I didn’t seek it out because it reclaimed the “authenticity” of urban-light living that, ironically, never really existed. I moved here because it was convenient and close to friends, and I haven’t regretted it once. However, as some friends have moved elsewhere (to Astoria, for example, where Greek culture and authenticity are still relevant), I have started to notice the lack of such things where I live. I love the bars, I love the farmer’s market, I love all of it. But to pretend that it came from anything but some idealist young folks back in the 1980’s who thought saving brownstones would revive a culture that had never been there would be fooling myself. Don’t worry, I’ll drown my sorrows about the lack of an authentic neighborhood in a flight of craft beer served to me by a guy in flannel.

Like I said, I’m reading it again. But this time, the book jacket has come off and was left in its place on my bookshelf. I’m still not ready to haul it around town, showing it off in the coffee shops of Park Slope or in front of Bailey’s Fountain (my favorite part of Grand Army Plaza). I’ll keep it to myself.

It’s interesting, though, what I’ve read so far. Except the author seems to overuse the word palimpsest. I had to look it up, because I’d never heard the word before, let alone read it five times in one chapter.

For your reference:

pal·imp·sest/ˈpalimpˌsest/

  • A manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing.
  • Something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.

Well, that got a bit more rambling and incoherent than I thought it would. But I like books that make you think. So if you’re a Brownstone Brooklynite (or were one at any point), I recommend it. If you’re an awkward person like me, though, perhaps you should grab it on Kindle.

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