Beyond the Pansy Patch

In the future shadow of the Nets, a Brooklyn nabe remembers what's at stake

But not in the visible way Lethem's old block has. In the five-plus years we've lived here, this stretch of Dean has remained caught between Boerum Hill and Gowanus, between the legend of a reborn city and the reality of the neighborhoods left behind. We don't have a block association. There's a Medicaid office at either end of the block, one of which shares space with the city's AIDS services program. Fifth Avenue may be crowded with new boutiques and restaurants, but Fourth Avenue is still a daytime hangout for veterans of the methadone programs that used to line it, and Third Avenue is hopeless. Sarah J. Hale (itself a shady character in Lethem's last two novels) was deemed an irredeemable failure by the Board of Ed and terminated in 2000; the building is now home to two new experimental schools.

Hardly any of the former residents still live here, but it's not simply a matter of a rising tide wiping away the past. Our immediate neighbor grew up with Lethem on his block, went to med school, and came back to raise his family. Liz and Vanessa and Louisa Tetrazini and Lina Moskowitz, Elliot's partner, have all died, but Elliot isn't sure they'd still be here even if they'd survived. "We were young then," he says. "A lot of people moved to Florida." Elliot has to move, too: Lina died intestate, his family wants to sell, and Elliot can't afford to buy them out. Just one member of their old crowd remains, and that's only because South Brooklyn Legal Services took his case when his new landlord, a speculator, tried to empty the place. The Gardener still works around the corner, but he lives in Manhattan. When my partner bought a kitchen table at a Third Avenue junk shop, the man who delivered it looked around for a few minutes and then burst into tears when he realized that in his 1950s youth, his entire family had lived in our common room.

The only remaining rooming house is the one that was Elliot's, although it now belongs to Frank, the speculator. Last year Frank bought and emptied two others; he keeps the buildings vacant so he can sell them with a Certificate of No Harassment, a Talmudic legal document that the City issues to enable a landlord to convert an SRO to a more marketable status. One has a grove of ailanthus trees (the ones that "grow in Brooklyn") sprouting from the basement. Right after his men boarded it up, someone painted "Willie Sutton RIP," in memory of the quotable outlaw ("Why do you rob banks?" "That's where the money is") who once lived there and supposedly hid his money in the basement of what is now the corner halal Moroccan joint.

Nameless Brooklyn: what's worth saving
photo: Anna Barry-Jester
Nameless Brooklyn: what's worth saving

Anywhere else in New York, time would pass too fast or slow for us to notice this unfolding history. Most of the city has such a high turnover rate, no one would ever bother to learn anything about the prior residents, while those places that pride themselves on their constancy, like Carroll Gardens or Fort Greene, are desirable because they haven't changed. Now that Ratner and company have awakened us to the possibility of upheaval in our backyard, we're feeling very protective of what we have: a comfortable community that doesn't feel bourgie or exclusionary, that makes room for its past while slowly evolving into most people's present. It's the best kind of New York, and it's why we chose to live here. We want our son to feel at home on the block, but we want him to think everyone he meets belongs here too.

Josh Goldfein is a lawyer and writer; the U.S. Post Office says he lives in "Times Plaza."

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