Stoops to Conquer

Growing up here, Ditmas Park was “all the way out in Brooklyn,” a tough place to entice friends to make the trek, let alone brand-new companions.

Over the past five years, though, my home for the last two decades has become remarkably hip—in the good sense of the word. Brand-name and aspiring musicians, journalists, and writers live here, some cheek-to-jowl in the apartments crawling with barbers, butchers, and bakers, the Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Jews, Tibetans, Eastern Europeans, Caribbeans, and Mexicans, the lesbians, bankers, stroller moms, borough historians, political-forum regulars. Others live in detached homes that make you feel far from Flatbush Avenue, Prospect Park, the whole surrounding city.

Coney Island Avenue crawls with mosques; Ocean Avenue three blocks over with shuls. Newkirk Avenue has a storefront mosque catty-corner from a storefront church. The Mormons, for reasons I’ve never quite understood, have a lovely church on the corner of a tree-lined residential block.

The place teems and twitches. West from Dahill Road, which breaks my grid from the numbered streets and avenues that span from Park Slope to Bay Ridge, and South from Avenue J (on the same grid as mine), the Orthodox Jews are moving slowly, block by block, toward Ditmas—and its fancy English names briefly replace the numbered streets. (East 13th for a few blocks is elevated to Argyle Road, East 14th is Westminster, and so on.)

When an up-and-coming Jewish family makes it to one of the Victorians, they often brick up the beautiful porches and replace them with a second-story outside space, a nouveaux-riche or at least pretty-well-off affectation like a face closing up. Back on Coney, the halal stands are actually halal not Manhattan–style with hot dogs on the menu. The Jewish–eats place, Famous Pita, at Coney and Newkirk in the heart of the little subcontinent, is popping at 2 a.m. and serving more or less the same food as the Middle-Eastern places with no crossover in customers but no friction either.

Where the East Village or Williamsburg have a character that’s guaranteed for just a year—the span of a residential lease—the mix of houses, co-ops, and market and subsidized-rental apartments in Ditmas Park has kept any one economic, demographic, or other sort of group from overwhelming the neighborhood. It’s the most diverse neighborhood in America, at least by one reading of the census data, and it feels that way.

After taking my once-a-decade sabbatical from the city (I spent a magic-ticket year in Michigan on a fellowship), I came home to find that the truly young and hip had finally arrived here. They’re almost all single or committed but not terribly—which is what it is to be young, if you’re lucky—and they wear costumes and peacock and have the disposable time and income to get drunk and high and lively and low and not fret too much about the ’morrow.

They look past me the way you look at a tree without really taking it in, just registering “tree.” They register “old.” I am 33 and happily agree with them. The guys who own the hip new bar and restaurant—progress!— are my age, and they complain about the kids today. I sympathize, but I’m glad they’re here. The other kids—the ones who walking home from Erasmus High School at 3 or so—I’m glad they’re here, too. When I started drinking here at 15, the hippest bar (they would all serve, so that wasn’t an issue) was the one that didn’t have the postman there, and the walk-in pizzeria, San Remo’s, was the closest thing to a sit-down restaurant.

We talk about Ditmas Park, about Brooklyn, about New York as though it were one thing, or anything. But again, it teems. People come in as artists on the cusp or the fringe and wake up a few years later as sales-force members or as stars. And they swear, too, that they know the city. And none of us do. Half the mystery is that we each build a map of where things are, then were and ought to still be. So that shoddy new “luxury” co-op is still the stoop where I alternated obscene and poetic mutterings in the thwarted hopes of becoming a man. That building I live in is where, as a boy, I hit all the buzzers to get in and then took to the rooftop to look out over the far Brooklyn skyline.

Joseph O’Neill began his acclaimed Netherland while living next door to my parents. (They live a block away from me.) He and his wife, Vogue editor Sally Singer, “slummed” in a Victorian near-mansion after many years at the Chelsea Hotel. As I recall, she bought a VW bus and had some guy drive it across the country to inoculate herself against the contagions of Archie Bunker–ness, which the wind sometimes carries south from Queens.

They moved back to the hotel—a symbol of bohemianism that years ago had already been squeezed dry of the actual quality—after about three years, and his book about Brooklyn, published after he’d left for richer climes, caught the borough’s wave. President Obama was spotted reading it, the signifier-in-chief finding a tidy representation of his preferred symbol-set to tilt toward the cameras. Anyway, they were lousy neighbors, and they didn’t seem to much appreciate the neighborhood, though he certainly did nicely cashing in on it. I have a copy of the novel but haven’t read it. I’d be crushed if it were any good at all. But I know his New York is every bit as real as mine, every bit as good. And the neighborhood survived his brief stay here, just like it will mine.

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