Notes for a prehistory of the gentrification of Gowns
“If you happen to be curious about the Indians of Venezuela, you can supply yourself with credentials from the Ministry of Education and letters from various oil companies to their representatives in field camps. With your personal belongings and scientific instruments, including excavating tools for, say, a crew of twelve men… you can start digging and with luck unearth pottery and skeletons that have lain in the ground since around A.D. 1000. The very poverty of evidence will lead you to brilliant and far-reaching hypotheses.
To arrive at some idea of the culture of a certain street in a Middle Western small town shortly before the First World War, is a much more delicate undertaking. For one thing, there are no ruins to guide you. Though the houses are not kept up as well as they once were, they are still standing… The people who live on Elm Street now belong to a different civilization. They can tell you nothing. You will not need mosquito netting or emergency rations, and the only specimens you will find, possibly the only thing that will prove helpful to you, will be a glass marble or a locust shell split up the back and empty.”
— William Maxwell, Time Will Darken It
1. First of all, I know nothing. Your native informant’s a pretender. I grew up in the neighborhood, sure, and I wear my local provenance on my sleeve – actually, I’ve fashioned my whole garment out of the stuff – but I’m dreaming my way back. In the neighborhood of Gowanus, Boerum Hill, I’m forever a child (my family moved to Dean Street in 1968, when I was four). These, then, are the cribbings of a dreamy child.
2. After I’d left Brooklyn for college, I had a particular pride in having been at the first Atlantic Antic – the street festival that stretches from the BQE to Flatbush Avenue – and also at having been at the first seven Atlantic Antics in a row. I think I missed my first my second year of college. And I took further pride in always walking the whole length of the thing, feeling the evolution of it, block by block, hearing the music on each of the several bandstands, tasting the scent in the air, now Dominican, now Arabic, now Italian. Yet the recollection is a corridor of ghosts, ghosts with blank faces. Can I name even one vendor? One band? Once, I remember, I strolled so close behind Mario Cuomo as he politicked hopelessly for the mayoralty, that I was mistaken by a passer-by for his son. There was certainly a stall for The Melting Pot, Nancy Cogan’s batik t-shirts, with their pink alligators with tails running over the shoulder (in love with Nancy’s daughter, I’d helped melt wax off shirts in their Dean Street backyard once or twice). So, a proposal for some enterprising anthropologist: a reconstruction of the first Atlantic Antic, block by block, vendor by vendor.
3. Speaking of Atlantic Avenue: the row of art galleries between Henry and Hicks in the 1970’s. Were there as many as five or six of them at the peak? One was called Henry Hicks Gallery, another The Sixth Estate. The galleries were run by artist’s collectives, for the most part. Brave clans of idealists squabbling at meetings. They’d coordinate their opening parties, open all their bottles of wine and put out their plates of cheese on the same summer evenings, so the street could fill with browsers moving from gallery to gallery.
4. And: a boutique on the block of Atlantic between Hoyt and Bond, run by a hippie housewife and featuring a smattering of items handmade by her friends – pottery, beads, colorful woolen belts woven on inkle (sp) looms. From a time when a storefront on Atlantic went for such a pittance that plumbers would rent one just as a place to keep their tools. The only offering I recall is hand-cut jigsaw puzzles, made by the hippie husband in his workshop behind the boutique.
5. Gone too, a combination bookstore and puppet theater, on Atlantic between Nevins and Third. The bookstore, which lasted for a couple of years at the end of the ’70’s, was called Brazen Head Books (and now a pub on Atlantic takes the name The Brazen Head, without anyone recalling the local precedent). Every weekend the books gave way to the Hudson Valley Marionette Company, which put on The Sorceror’s Apprentice, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Aladdin, to often miniscule audiences of local children. Elsewhere, on Atlantic between Court and Boerum Place, a tiny bookstore just for children. I’ve forgotten its name.
6. Malcolm X’s family was hidden, in the hours and days immediately following his assassination, in a safe house on the corner of Dean and Nevins. Willie Sutton (“Why do you rob banks?” “Because that’s where the money is.”) was apprehended on the corner of Pacific and Third.
7. Somebody needs to revive the novels of L.J. Davis, mordant genius of early Boerum Hill. He still lives on Dean Street, but the books, savage documents of the brownstoner mindset, are forgotten. Walking Small tells of a tenant who resolutely clings to his rooms in a row house sold for renovation; the new couple decides to renovate around him, leaving his apartment dangling in the middle of their excavation (a situation that I hear has replayed itself in the neighborhood quite recently). A Meaningful Life, set in Fort Greene, introduces a renovator grown so paranoid he kills a local intruder and hides the body in a dumpster.
8. We used to plunder those dumpsters, into which whole urban histories were being deposited, for treasure: false teeth, false legs, twine-tied bundles of Sexology Magazine.
9. More fictional evidence: Rosellen Brown’s early short story collection, Street Games, depicts life in Gowanus at the end of the sixties. Reading the stories, I recognize the neighborhood of communes, (many filled with genuine communists) artists, homosexuals and other Manhattan outcasts, who in many ways broke the ground for white faces in the neighborhood, and preceded the middle-class influx that followed on their heels and which mostly forgot them.
10. Of the many lies, or at least oversimplifications, a gentrification tells, the most egregious is this: that by coming and replacing a something, that the something replaced is in any way simple or comprensible. This sentiment, which extends from the honorable conviction that communities ought not to be displaced, is nevertheless complicit with the American preference for believing in a pastoral ideal, a past somehow unified and placid. That notion certainly isn’t true in Gowanus, which seems to me to always have been a sort of patchwork planet, a miraculous and shabby crossroads. A contradiction. The Native Americans who built the skyscrapers came to live on these blocks (Hank’s Saloon, on Third and Atlantic, was once The Doray Tavern, a Mohawk hangout). Bergen Street was once the exclusive province of physicians and lawyers, a sort of millionaire’s row. The neighborhood as I came to know it in the early seventies was wild with difference. It altered block by block. Pacific Street a gay preserve, for instance. Dean Street’s rooming houses full of old sailors. The veneer of gentrification wasn’t laid over a solid substance. It was laid over old veneer.
11. The communes, then. Each with its different flavor. One druggy, with lurid, happy parties. Another grimly Maoist, dedicated to China, the whole house gathered for earnest slide-shows in the living room.
12. A community center in a storefront on the corner of Bond and Bergen (now bricked up), called The Local Level. There I stretched my 12-year old spine in yoga classes, there I took remedial Spanish from an amateur teacher. There, I’m certain, revolution was discussed.
13. And a youth center, even harder to remember, on the corner of Atlantic and Bond. They had a famous steel drum band, which, I imagine, played at the first Atlantic Antic.
14. A food coop, rival to the then-nascent Park Slope Food Coop, which operated out of the basement of the Colony South Brooklyn Houses Day Care Center on Nevins Street. I recall placing cabbages, one each, into a long row of cardboard boxes along the floor.
15. Isaac Asimov lived in 213 Dean Street for a year in the 1940’s. Biz Markie lived somewhere on Bergen in the ’70’s.
16. The restaurant that dared to prefigure the Smith Street culinary boom: Hubert’s. A french bistro, situated in the elegant barroom at the corner of Bergen and Hoyt, now known as The Brooklyn Inn. Bewildering to many locals, Hubert’s succeeded wildly, then graduated to Manhattan, leaving a promise that wouldn’t be kept for twenty years.
17. Some of us – or I should say, some of our parents – fought on either side of a harsh political divide. Gentrification against diversity – the choice felt absolute. Now the combatants are all unified in time’s shrinking keyhole – peek at them there, the motley early brownstoners, all of them voluntary or involuntary displacers of something, many themselves displaced eventually. No ideals could keep Reaganism from breaking the last of the ’60’s vows to the disenfranchised. So, Gowanus or Boerum Hill wasn’t the real battlefield; it was a peculiarly naked microcosm, a playlet. A one-act in thirty-five years. To quote Leonard Cohen (who never lived in Gowanus), “There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t.”
18. Enmeshed in the politics of time, I find myself fighting in another, perhaps safer, war. Certainly it is a more private one: a writer’s war against the tyranny of the present moment. Remembering Brooklyn is a full-time job. I’m certain I’ve got it all wrong. The only consolation is thinking that getting is all wrong is as close as anyone’s ever been to getting it in the first place.
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Brooklyn Magazine, 2004