William R. Everdell
NEIGHBORHOODS OF BROOKLYN by Kenneth Jackson 180 b/w illustrations + 45 maps. 293pp. Index? Notes? Appendices? $29.95. New Haven Yale University Press. 1400 words, copy due 1Sep (1665 wds on 21 August) By WILLIAM R. EVERDELL More like a catalogue than an encyclopedia, "Neighborhoods of Brooklyn" consists of short illustrated chapters on forty-seven big city neighborhoods, a ball team and a bridge. The bridge is a century old; the ball team is long gone, but the neighborhoods are alive and kicking. Brooklyn is on a roll these days, "an urban delight," as this book says; and these neighborhoods, with their fuzzy boundaries that so rarely show up on a map, ARE Brooklyn. Each one has a real existence, streets full of people, a history, and a separate state of mind. And beyond the forty-seven that rate their own chapters are the scores of smaller ones (like Homecrest) that only appear in parentheses. Shaped since Brooklyn's birth in the 1630s by the different ways residents have used to get in and get out of them (the ferry, the horsecar, the trolley, the bicycle, the brisk walk, the subway—and even, southeast of Flatbush, the automobile), the "hoods" have had three centuries to evolve, and have come to expect a long and vigorous future. Indeed since something they call the "Renaissance" began in the late 1960s, Brooklynites have become tireless and almost tiresome in their boosterism. Neighborhoods of Brooklyn is hardly the first book in this vein. Now, forty years after the Dodgers' betrayal and the Eagle's last issue and a hundred years since the city's absorption by New York, a new Eagle appears daily, and stacks of folio Brooklyn books threaten to punch right through the old hardwood floors of all those old row houses. But this Brooklyn book comes, not from a neighborhood association or a real estate sales campaign, but out of an ad hoc scholarly program, a civic-minded effort to reintegrate the great American cities into American culture. The task is surprisingly difficult. We Americans have always tended to insist that "nature" civilizes better than the cities that created civilization and still sustain it, though this is a very strange idea in the ancestor culture of Europe. When the departure of the Dodgers and the folding of the Eagle occurred American history was at just the point where the population of cities, as defined by the census, was exceeded by the population of non-cities, suburbs and the like. It was then that the political agenda of the cities, the "New Deal liberalism" which had flourished between the 1920 and 1960 censuses, began to be replaced by the "emerging Republican majority." This is a major event in American history, though it is now overshadowed in the history texts I teach from by the contemporaneous Cold War. If the textbooks ever change their emphasis, Brooklyn will be a major example and the "further reading" will be books by Kenneth Jackson. Jackson is a scholar and scholars cannot command much better placement in national media than the rest of us. One form of scholarly ambition is to be known beyond the boundaries of one's own small subdivision of a discipline—to be read, listened to and made use of in the towns and counties of scholarship spread over more than one of its states. By this measure Jackson, a "contemporary US" historian, is a major American voice, with well over 300 citations in the past ten years in publications covering fields that neighbor history and employ it, including archaeology, antiques, geography, political science, ecology, economics, urban studies, and law. It has taken time. There were far fewer Jackson citations in the previous decade and most were for a book called Crabgrass Frontier (1985) which was the first comprehensive history of suburbanization in the United States and stands, with John Stilgoe's Borderland, as the best. Other living scholars are more widely cited—more "famous" in this measurable sense—but Jackon is cited for things that are notably unpalatable to those who control public access to the national debate. His work makes cities look good, cars look bad, and privatization seem a decidedly mixed blessing for democratic republicans—or for a citizen majority. Crabgrass Frontier, its fuse ticking away in the obscurity of scholarly exchange, is a mine set under some of the more important load-bearing pillars of the current social order. No mere theorist, but an established, unpolemical historian who knows cities inside and out, Jackson is a New Yorker by choice, not inheritance. Born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee and a graduate of Memphis State, Jackson in his first book, The Ku Klux Klan in the City (1967) devastatingly anatomized how an American fascism was organized in cities like Memphis by people who hated city values. After a stint in Chicago, Jackson came to teach at Columbia University in the year of student upheaval, 1968; and he is still there. By now, his contributions to his adoptive city have made him what was once called a "leading citizen"; and the big folio Encyclopedia of New York City that he edited in 1995 has become an instant classic, its authoritative details turning up in ever larger numbers in the gamut of New York's journalism. In each book, Jackson has conscientiously plumbed sources both vast and various, from statistical abstracts to dusty local histories by provincial patriots (Brooklyn has more than its share of those), and made them part of a national—even a global—story about the rise, sprawl and decline of big cities. Jackson's new book, Neighborhoods of Brooklyn, continues the project of a pro-urban urban history, this time by detailing in charming and highly accessible form the facts about a city that works. Once a county of six farming villages, now more populous than Boston, San Francisco, St. Louis and Atlanta combined, Brooklyn has been around since the story started. It was, in fact, created by suburbanization—of the pre-automobile variety. (Would-be escapees from the suburbs to Brooklyn Heights should know that Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier correctly identified this neighborhood (my own) as the first true commuter suburb in the world, dating from the opening of Fulton's ferry to New York in 1814. (CgF, p25-32)) Yet even after King's County's 81 square miles were all built on, low-rise Brooklyn still found itself densely settled enough to be a city. By comparison with later burbs, its transportation links, wharfs, streets and rails, took up little of its space. Its manufacturies, though collectively strong enough to have made Brooklyn one of the most productive cities in the world until the 1940s, were individually not so big. The lots Brooklynites built on were relatively small, and public land was sparse, even by comparison with Manhattan. The tree that grew in Brooklyn grew on a street (in the Williamsburg neighborhood); and even today the best way to survey the public spaces of Brooklyn is from the seat of a bicycle. Pictures of greensward in this book emphasize how precious parkland still is, and make Bay Ridge, Cypress Hills, Brooklyn Heights, Flatbush, Fort Greene, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Prospect Park South, and Windsor Terrace look like dogs in a manger. There are, of course, beaches, which is why the former summer colonies of Bath Beach, Bergen Beach, Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Gerritsen Beach, Manhattan Beach, Mill Basin, Sea Gate, and Sheepshead Bay only miss playgrounds in the winter. Perhaps the only real dogs in the manger are Dyker Heights and Marine Park with beaches on one end and parks on the other. In any case, the principal public spaces in this city of former suburbs are not parks, but streets, and the streets show every kind of variety. Their complicated history has given these neighborhoods the kind of public civility and cooperation among strangers that makes cities livable and prevents citizens from moving out. Brooklyn is so determinedly provincial, so conspicuously lacking in resident celebrities (even Richard Wright and Spike Lee eventually left Fort Greene), and so peaceful in recent years, that outsiders don't take much account of its astonishing mix of peoples; but that mix is still world-class. With the exception of Sea Gate (one of the nation's earliest private, gated communities), the Brooklyn neighborhoods constitute the most wide-open multi-ethnic settlements anywhere. Whatever it is that makes up the state of mind of a Sunset Park or a Boerum Hill, it has repeatedly shown itself capable of trumping other loyalties, including creed, color and even class. Crown Heights was settled in the 1600s, like South Africa, by Dutch farmers and their African slaves. It blossomed in the 19th century with freedmen's villages, and a suburb that mixed otherwise feuding european-Americans from England, Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Scandinavia. Now its majority is about evenly divided between english-, spanish- and french-speaking Caribbean-Americans on the one hand and Lubavitcher Chassidim on the other, two subcultures now slowly backing off from a 1991 confrontation that made headlines, and cooperating in a neighborhood-wide citizenship project named CURE [Communication, Unity, Respect, Education]. So it is only right that the neighborhood should be the organizing principle for this book. The alphabet might serve for Jackson's New York encyclopedia, but for Brooklyn only the neighborhood can make the myriad details cohere. The details are mostly accurate, but one can't demand the same sort of precision as one might from the Britannica. Local history drips myths and although Jackson is conscientious about dismissing them, a few creep in. The "Vin Fiz," for example, did not take off from Sheepshead Bay Race Track on the first successful transcontinental flight in 1912 (p274), but in September 1911. Similarly, Buffalo Bill's Wild West show played in Ambrose Park (now Bush Terminal in Sunset Park), in June, 1894, not 1892; and St. Ann's School in Brooklyn Heights ceased being a church school more than fifteen years ago. On the other hand, Thomas Wolfe, who never again lived in Carolina, did indeed write "You can't go home again" in Brooklyn Heights and "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" in Cobble Hill. Now, thanks to Kenneth Jackson, you can find out where those places are even if you are still alive. William R. Everdell teaches History in Brooklyn and is the author of The First Moderns.
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