On Wednesday I went the library to return a stack of books I had lying around my apartment. One of them was How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? Being Young And Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi. I originally checked it out because the cover drew me in. Yes I judge books based on their covers:
Because of classes, work, and packing, I never got to read it. On the subway ride to the library, I read the preface. After reading the following passages about Brooklyn, I decided I would just have to renew this book and keep it around for another few weeks, even if it means taking the train from my mom’s house to Brooklyn solely for the purpose of returning it the library.
Brooklyn is “chiefly no whole or recognizable animal,” writes James Agee, “but an exorbitant pulsing mass of scarcely discernible cellular jellies and tissues.” With more than 2.5 million residents, it is the third-largest metropolitan area in the country. Size alone does not account for its energy. Robber barons, refugees, free blacks, and the international working class have all settled here, whether in leafy Victorian mansions or in limestone, brownstone, or Federal-style row houses, making the story of Brooklyn a short history of human escape and reinvention flattened through geography and narrated through architecture. Walt Whitman once called it the city of “homes and churches,” and yet it is more. A country on its own, Brooklyn continuously repopulates itself, first by boat and ferry and now by planeloads of the world’s exiles and emigres, and it brims with the rhythms and pageantry of twenty-first-century American life.
Today Brooklyn is Prospect Heights with its late-night barbershops, all fabulous hair and atomic white light at 12:00 am, or Coney Island, a seasonal experiment in radical democracy held in a riot of colors and soundtracked to amusement-park songs. It’s the Friday-afternoon call to prayer in Bedford-Stuvyesant. Brooklyn is a tourist-free Chinatown in Sunset Park or the dollar stores of Flatbush Avenue that spill their wares onto the noisy street and away from their weeping, scarred, and aching buildings. It’s the dreadlocked West Indians flying kites in Prospect Park or the colony of Middle American defectors in Williamsburg, urban hipsters costumed in androgynous jeans and monotonous tattoos. It’s the bourgeoisie of Brooklyn Heights, living in stately grace but with barely suppressed feelings of self-loathing for not owning a 212 area code. Brooklyn is the slowly dissolving Italian hub of Bensonhurst, the Syrian Jews of Ocean Parkway, and the Pakistanis of Coney Island Avenue. It is the birds of Green-Wood Cemetery singing their songs to the Civil War dead, upper-crust Haitians living well in Midwood Estates, and intrepid diners visiting Bay Ridge’s transplanted Mediterranean coast, where, high on the old Nordic Third Avenue, sea air mingles with the garlic aromas floating out of the Arab, Greek, and Italian eaters that line that street. Brooklyn is the informal urban apartheid of Eastern Parkway, the soft socialism of Park Slope, the Russian capitalism of Brighton Beach. Its the Salt Marshes of Marine Park, the roast beef sandwiches on Nostrand Avenue, Di Fara’s Pizza, Vox Pop, and Vinegar Hill. Brooklyn is the dangerous rush of traffic on Atlantic Avenue, where bus exhaust mixes with the smells of fresh bread and Arabic spices; it is the madness of Pacific Street, where parents seek refuge from the urban cacophony in its tiny community garden, and Dean Street, where the Chinese food is halal. Brooklyn is the concentrated, unedited, twenty-first-century answer to who we, as Americans, are as a people.
Today was my last day of living in Brooklyn. Tomorrow I pack the rest of my stuff into my dad’s minivan and return my keys. If I’m lucky, I’ll be back here in two years, with a masters degree.