We leafed longlingly through this new book at the Brooklyn Book Fair back in September, and Dennis Hamill's paean in today's Daily News has made me even more desirous of owning Brooklyn's Flatbush: From Battlefield to Ebbetts Field, by Brian Merlis and Lee Rosenzweig. (At a hardcover price of $40, it'll have to wait for Christmas to join our library of Brooklynabilia.) These guys are competent amateur historians (in the best sense of 'amateur,' one who loves), but it's their picture archive that rocks--lots of shots of the amazing town of Flatbush, from its rural Dutch roots through its Revolutionary war stories to its postwar urban-ethnic glory days (the ones recalled fondly by Hamill and evoked hauntingly by William Styron in Sophie's Choice).
Many folks, like the brothers Hamill, are drawn back to this nostalgic proto-Brooklyn because it represents their own temps perdu, and they moon after egg creams and stickball and the damn Dodgers like Marcel and his bloody madeleines. As you might guess, I've got mixed feelings about industrial-grade Brooklyn Nostalgia, for a variety of reasons.
First, it just ain't my story. My coming-of-age took place in the Sixties in suburban northeast Queens, a place that, to my knowledge, no one has immortalized in literary amber. I moved to Flatbush as a grown-up, long after the Dodgers and egg creams and Spaldeens had departed, along with much of their era's population, to whiter--excuse me, greener--pastures. My Flatbush is Trinidadians, Yuppies, Haitians, Bangladeshis, and the occasional Hasidim on a long stroll from Borough Park. It's roti and Jamaican meat pies and soca music and soccer players. Head east a few blocks, and it's also liquor stores with Lexan shields, African hair-braiding parlors, 99-cent stores, a police "Impact Zone," and once-grand Gothic-turreted apartment buildings with prison-style grey steel entry gates and busted mailboxes and buzzers. The Loew's Kings movie palace, where Barbra Streisand was an usherette, is shuttered and rotting; Erasmus Hall, the historic high school with its long list of illustrious alumni, sunk into such dysfunction that the Board of Ed broke it up into "smaller schools" (which are, I hear, still no great shakes). An aging housing project sits atop the site of Ebbetts Field. And don't try asking for an egg cream (although it's easy to get great ginger beer--it's like ginger ale on steroids).
And so I get conflicted and crabby when the Brooklyn Nostalgists wax dreamy over Flatbush of yore. Best Friend had a suburban aunt who was delighted to hear that our geographic parish was Holy Innocents in Flatbush. "Oh, that used to be bon ton," she enthused. "That area used to be lovely. It was a very wealthy parish, you know. Yes, it was marvelous years ago." Got it. Likewise, many of the spaldeen-and-stickball dreamers wouldn't dream of setting foot in today's neighborhoods, although they're fond of recalling their streetwise youth ad nauseum. I've seen reunions for once-Irish or once-Italian parish schools announced in the Brooklyn diocesan newspaper--taking place in Florida. Distance, whether geographic or chronological, apparently lends enchantment. (To their credit, the Hamills still hang out in Brooklyn, I'm told--plenty of street cred for those guys.)
Jealous? Yeah, a little. Not for a neighborhood of white faces; been there, done that in Sixties Queens, and it was narrow, stifling, and dull. But it's hard not to long for the ruins--like the Loews, and Erasmus High--to come back to life, for the bon ton to return. We have grown to love this place with a passion, but there is no denying that we (and many others) initially wound up here because we couldn't afford to be somewhere else. And then there is the nagging sense of having missed some historical boat--a time and place so magical that those who experienced them just can't shut up about them. We walk as newcomers among newcomers, over the vestiges of an era that has been nearly erased with shocking recency and thoroughness. We hunt for clues in books, archives, walking tours and websites, as if straining to hear the words of a conversation that ended just as we entered the room.
But part of my resentment for the cult of Brooklyn nostalgia is that its acolytes miss the magical now. I can't romanticize the rough edges, but there is a lot that's bracing about living on the front lines of the American dream. Many of our newest and most struggling neighbors in this community are working way too hard to learn about the past that's under their feet and all around them, but give them time. They'll forge their own marvels, maybe their own golden age.
Maybe when my daughter has silver hair, she'll recall fondly to a young resident of the Ratner Memorial Flatbush Condo City: "I remember watching kids play soccer on that field. Some Mexicans set up a tamale stand opposite our house. There was an Indian doctor on the corner, and a Cambodian temple around the block, and the Russians would take the train from Brighton Beach to shop for bargains down on the Avenue. The Hasidic families would take long walks on holy days, and the Chinese would let off fireworks every Fourth of July. Our next-door neighbor played the Mighty Sparrow every Sunday afternoon, and our other next-door neighbor brought us halal barbecue chicken that he killed with his own hands--or so he told us." And the youngster will think wistfully, "Sounds like fun. Why did I miss all the good stuff?"