The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2012

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JUL-AUG 2012 Issue


A Real Relic

I just picked up a great “new” book about the old Brooklyn. And better yet, I found it in the lobby of my apartment building. Indeed, the latest edition of the Brooklyn Yellow Pages provides nothing short of an Old Brooklyn pageant.

For those of us Internet-oriented folks, the book itself seems an anachronism. Most people I know search for any and all information about local businesses via Google, which invariably leads to sifting through the reviews on Yelp. And of course, many New Brooklynites are rejecting bound printed matter altogether, choosing instead to download books and magazines on their e-readers. Yet sure as the post office still delivers on Saturdays, along comes this 826-page directory for those who still rely on the telephone.

In the world of micro-niche marketing, a simple list of names under a business category seems utterly random. I mean, most folks I know would never choose a dentist, doctor, or podiatrist simply by his or her last name and/or address. Then again, I’m not part of the Old Brooklyn world organized around group identity. But there are indeed many such folks who would pick a dentist named Hernandez, Mermelstein, Oskotskaya, or Taglianetti. Meanwhile, places called something futuristic—such as New Millennium Dental Studio or New Wave Dentistry—sound anachronistic to my ears, like time capsules of the late 20th century, when no one quite knew just how new Brooklyn would soon become.

Nowadays, it’s trendy to attach a vaguely artisanal term to your business; but when searching for entries under “Hand Crafted Merchandise” in the Yellow Pages, one is instructed to “See Gift Shops.” In the most recent century, when many more things were actually handmade, the goal in choosing a company name often had everything to do with prominent placement in the phone book. How else to explain A-1 Iron Works, A & B Bedding, or that 11 private investigative firms begin with the first letter of the alphabet? Such a pattern was not specific to Brooklyn, of course, yet we do have plenty of our own unique history and traditions, as can be found at establishments like Brooklyn Customs, Brooklyn Renaissance, and Brooklyn Soap Products.

It’s rather fitting that here in the “Borough of Churches,” houses of worship comprise one of the longer entries. Indeed, if we combine the number of listings for “Churches” with those for “Clergy,” the total sum of Brooklyn spiritual advisers would almost match the amount of legal counsel found in the Yellow Pages. (And there are more than a few one-stop advice and counsel shops, to be sure.) In any case, if the originality of its name was the sole/soul criterion in selecting which church to attend, for me it’s a toss-up between I’m Blessed in New Lots and Most Precious Blood in Bensonhurst.

And then there is that other sacred institution in Brooklyn life, the pizzeria. Few of the names here qualify as wholly original—although several Old Brooklyn folks have told me that the pies that grow in Spumoni Gardens are very tasty. Located in Bushwick, of course, OMG Pizzeria suggests that the New Brooklyn is also trying to offer its services in the Yellow Pages. Besides making one hungry, the pizza entries tend to raise metaphysical questions, such as why is Tasty Pizza on Third located at 20th Ave. and 72nd Street? I’m not the only one who was puzzled by this—according to Google, it’s now called Joey Pepperoni Pizza.

Rest assured that there are many more mysteries to be found in these Yellow Pages, among them: Why is Asian Pie not listed among the bakeries? And why does the entry for Hot House Builders not offer up a roster of carpenter studs? This treasure chest yields the answer to these questions, and many more. And while it used to be that saying something was “like reading the phone book” meant it was really boring, I now look forward to the day when a barista says to me “Don’t bother me, man, because I’m, like, reading the phone book.” At that moment, perhaps, New Brooklyn will truly begin to understand where it’s at.

The Costs of Creativity

In Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s, Malcolm Cowley outlined the life of an aspiring young writer (in this case a literary critic) in New York City just after World War I. An editor Cowley knew would give him “a half-dozen bad novels” to review. For his short takes, Cowley would be paid exactly one dollar, but only after they were published, which “mightn’t be for weeks or months, and meanwhile you had to eat.” Thus, after sitting in Union Square jotting down notes on each work, the young critic would take them nearby to a used bookstore located on Fourth Avenue’s Book Row, where he would receive 35 cents for each review copy. From there, as Cowley writes:

With exactly $2.10 in your pocket you would buy bread and butter and lamb chops and Bull Durham for cigarettes and order a bag of coal; then at home you would broil the lamb chops over the grate because the landlady had neglected to pay her gas bill, just as you neglected to pay the rent. You were all good friends and she would be invited to share in the feast. Next morning you would write the reviews, then start on the search for a few dollars more.

In the world of the Greenwich Village bohemians that Cowley describes, one could be a starving writer and not actually starve.

In Fug You, his recent memoir of the 1960s in New York City, Ed Sanders of the Fugs recalls renting an apartment at 203 Avenue A (at 13th Street) in August of 1963. The two-room unit, which would serve as the “Secret Location” from which Sanders would publish Fuck You Press, went for all of $27.49 a month. Better yet, Sanders says, “It was a rent-controlled pad!” In his view, the system of rent control established after World War II “helped make artistic effort in New York City a thing of glory.” Time and again, Sanders drives home the point. In 1964, Allen Ginsberg and his partner, the poet Peter Orlovsky, rented a three-room unit on 5th and C for $35 a month, or real poets’ wages—prompting Sanders to proclaim “Hail to Thee, O Rent Control!”

A half-century later, rents are pretty much out of control, especially in Manhattan, where the average rent now exceeds $3,400 a month, a record high. For any author, let alone a critic hustling review copies, that’s a lot of units to move. (Rent stabilization, a watered-down form of rent control, has many problems—one of which is that most newcomers to the city rarely move into apartments covered by it.) And so one wonders what will happen to Brooklyn’s literary renaissance or its arts scene when one-bedroom units in Bushwick go for two grand. Next stop, West Egg?

Guilt by Geography

From North Waziristan to East New York, it’s really hard to be an innocent person in certain places these days. After all, by simply inhabiting an area where criminal and/or terrorist activity exists, one can be branded accordingly. In such dangerous havens, the assumption is guilty until proven otherwise. Alas, such seems to be the tortured logic driving both the Obama Administration’s drone policy as well as the N.Y.P.D.’s stop-and-frisk policing.

In late May, the New York Times ran a lengthy front page piece about the Obama administration’s use of drones (a policy that the White House openly acknowledges yet officially denies, in a manner that Joseph Heller would have appreciated). As the article states, in response to concerns about drones missing their targets, Obama adopted a policy that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” Various unnamed counterterrorism officials explained the rationale, which is that “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” Thus, anyone in a target area is viewed as being equally culpable as a member of an Al Qaeda shotcaller’s entourage.

During the weekend after the Times story came out, three U.S. drone strikes rained down in Pakistan, killing nearly 30 people. The White House quickly championed its justification, which is that in the process, Al Qaeda’s number two honcho, Abu Yahya al-Libi, was killed. No one is shedding tears for him, but what of the others who died? Between 8 to 15 of them were mourners attending the funeral of the first victims of the weekend strikes. In its pointedly titled editorial, “Drone Strikes: Playing God in Pakistan,” the Guardian wondered whether “inhabitants of North Waziristan have a point when they say the strikes are pulling their province apart. Many people have moved to escape the drones, and anyone who stays lives in terror of being killed.” The notion that those living with such fears can be posthumously proven innocent is pretty much the definition of cold comfort.

While drone target areas are called strike zones, few proponents would want to make a baseball analogy—even the automated pitching machines in batting cages can miss their target. Despite the billions poured into creating them, drones can also miss the bull’s eye. Three days after his inauguration, for example, Obama ordered two strikes that mistakenly killed at least 15 civilians. Unlike in batting cages, human error can play a role when drones misfire. The stakes are just a bit higher in the strike zones where innocent people also live, meaning there really is no margin for error.

Closer to home, the N.Y.P.D.’s stop-and-frisk approach is most widely applied in what the department calls “impact zones” or “hot-spots.” The rationale is that in order to reduce crime in these high-crime areas, police need to be proactive. “Stops are an integral part of the N.Y.P.D.’s overall hot-spot policing strategy,” Mayor Bloomberg said in May. The problem—at least in the eyes of civil libertarians—is that in such areas a great number of innocent people (overwhelmingly young men of color) become targets. Simply inhabiting a hot-spot, and fitting a certain demographic profile, now creates the need to prove one’s innocence.

Profound differences obviously exist between the two policies: one is high-tech, the other low; and there is no way to recover from a drone strike. But casting judgment about people simply by virtue of their location strikes me as something less than state-of-the-art thinking.


Pool of Dreams

Upon moving to Williamsburg in the late ’90s, I got a crash course about the borough’s bad old days from my Italian-American landlady on Withers Street. Mary and her chain-smoking pal Jean had both lived on the block for the better part of a century, and they used to sit outside the front stoop in the summers on the lawn chairs holding forth about anything and everything. They shared many dislikes—among them Reverend Al Sharpton and natural vegetation of any kind—but they reserved a special animus for McCarren Pool.

Mere mention of the place located just a few blocks up Lorimer would raise their dander, causing them to issue forth a flurry of racially charged anecdotes about teenagers from Bed-Stuy. Emily, the Rail’s theater editor (and my ex-wife), recalls that Mary remained truly enraged that the folks she viewed as miscreants had traveled from Bed-Stuy on the bus “without even paying the fare!” Invariably, the legendary incident in which a car somehow ended up in the pool always came up.

Colorful stories aside, I really wanted the pool to reopen. I love to swim, and a fine WPA project lying in ruins seemed unnecessary. But when the Rail prepared to become a full paper in 2000, I mentioned my interest in advocating for the pool’s renovation to the local city councilman’s chief of staff, who promptly warned against doing so. Essentially, he said that I would be walking into a minefield, precisely because there were a lot of Mary and Jeans in the area. So in our debut print issue, I played it safe.

But soon thereafter, we began to get our feet wet. And before too long we were in the deep end. In fact, “can’t wait for another feature about McCarren Pool” eventually became a favorite crack from another Rail section editor, who shall not be named (but let’s just say he’s not beholden to the dictates of nonfiction). To keep a short story short, the pool has reopened. While I hope that Mary and Jean are resting in peace, something tells me they are turning in their graves. It’s up to the rest of us to just enjoy the water.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2012

All Issues