I’m often told by my friends that I live out there. A shapeless, faceless, undefined place in south-central Brooklyn; too far from Manhattan, too far from the hip parts of Brooklyn, too far from anything that matters, too different. At first I resented that description. Now I enjoy it.
I have lived out there (Kensington, precisely) for more than a year now (14 months to be exact), and everything about it makes me feel at peace. Henry Miller wrote in “Air-Conditioned Nightmare” about feeling at home in the slums of New York, because these are where the immigrants are, and they’re European and hence not American in quality or outlook. I don’t live in the slums; in fact it is an unbelievably diverse, working-class, family-oriented community with folks who have landed from Tibet, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mexico, and a dozen other countries I’m forgetting. There is a timeless quality to living out there; a satisfaction and contentment among folks who aren’t worried about getting their kids into an expensive private pre-school, or moving to a hipper neighborhood, or how they should spend their weekends according to what New York Magazine says. What’s better than living on Ocean Parkway? Playgrounds for your children, a tree-lined boulevard to stroll, concrete tables to play chess or backgammon, the sounds of dice competing with vehicular noise.
Many weeknights since I moved, I have jumped the B train to Brighton Beach for an evening swim or to walk the boardwalk. To be near the sea. This feels incredible to me, that I can get on a train and be on the sand in 15 minutes. Makes me think of early Lou Reed, singing “Coney Island Baby.” I took that above photo one night in the spring. An almost waif-like woman walking alone on the beach. Some nights I walk through Borough Park and feel transported in time. I see art-deco buildings and neon signs and think people would pay big bucks to live in these places, if it weren’t out there. People who tell me New York is dead are missing the picture. I mean, many parts of it are, and we all spend too much money to live here — Manhattan, save for Chinatown, feels like a foreign land to me now, a museum city, preserved in Formaldehyde. But out there, there’s a wildness to life. People fill the streets at night. When I lived in Cobble Hill for seven years, I used to walk through Brooklyn Heights on a summer night and see nobody on the street or on their front steps. Were they inside watching television? Upstate? They weren’t on the Promenade, which was rarely crowded. I never understood this. The playground next to my current building is like a children’s United Nations. On Coney Island Avenue, you can get a haircut or Sugarcane at any hour of the night. Men gather in small groups on Ocean Parkway, or outside cramped apartment houses. You almost never hear English, and I like that. On Ditmas Avenue, dozens of men, probably Russian or Azerbaijani, play backgammon late into the night at Brandon’s Tea & Grocery. They don’t sell produce there. Some nights, I have seen 40 people waiting to get on a table, or just watching the action. The other night at a new Turkish gyro place, four Russian men poured shots of vodka out of a porcelain tea kettle. It was 6:30. My friend and I call our neighborhood the Fertile Crescent; if you want to see what people looked like 3,000 years ago, come to Ditmas Avenue and Ocean Parkway.
If I want tranquility, I walk a few blocks into Ditmas Park. Down sycamore-lined Argyle Street, past the weeping willow on Dorchester, up streets with spacious front porches and privet hedges. It’s like walking through one large botanic garden, and I imagine it felt that way in the early 20th century when these districts were carved up from farmland. Some of these houses have turned over two or three times in a century. I tell people that I can see the stars at night, and they rarely believe me. And when I leave the Cortelyou Road station it’s like coming into a small village. Cafe Tibet looks like it’s about to tip over onto the tracks, at Vincent’s barbershop across the street prices haven’t changed in 25 years, and a few blocks away San Remo sells slices out of its window. I was sold on this area two years ago when I came on a Sunday, the farmer’s market was open, and I had never seen such humanity in my time in New York. This is what Old New York feels like.
And the food…I’ve never eaten so well in my life: Trinidadian, Pakistani, Tibetan, Turkish, Moldovan, Uighur, Uzbeki, Mexican, take your pick. I will write another essay on Shayna’s on Church Avenue, run by the matronly Joyce Bittan, one of my favorite people and favorite restaurants in the whole world. All cheap, all fresh, a little dirty, and bursting with life and character. No white tablecloths here, or fancy ratings, or preciousness.
Out there is not for everyone. It is not conventional, it is ageless, and I hope it stays that way.