On Brooklyn’s Side
New York City does not normally figure in the regionalist imagination, either conservative or liberal. It is self- and other-described as the original melting pot, the place where people move when they are getting away from somewhere else, to land in a no-man’s land of concrete and steel. Conservative regionalists prefer in particular the virtues of the rooted agrarian South or the Yankee North, as against anything so unlovable as New York. Even Russell Kirk, who had nice things to say about Detroit, of all places, had few good things to say about Gotham. Real liberals, on the other hand, the ones not under the spell of the Upper West Side or the legacy of Partisan Review, similarly flee the city.
But this rhetoric, for many urban-born conservatives such as myself, fails ultimately to resonate. Perhaps this is because too often the conversations condemning New York are with earnest folks living far from their own homes, ensconced in some academic library writing defenses of traditionalist living, and about as distant from the traditional life of their ancestors and relatives as one can get. I can’t be too hard on them: You try to live as best you can with what you have. But as a prominent conservative publisher once told me, many agrarian or regionalist (the two are often unfortunately conflated) polemics often neglect the notion of vocation, or rather they universalize the notion of vocation to mean only a back-to-the-land kind of reaction. Yet it is a cornerstone of the Christian heritage of the West that a vocation is an individual calling. If someone has a vocation—a divine calling, in other words—to become, say, an urban doctor, or some other profession that requires living in a city, it is not another’s place to deny it in favor of some hierarchy of ways of living (though I grant you the number of people who seem to have a vocation for hedge-fund manager or urban “artist” is suspicious).
New York, as some strongly localist writers such as Joseph Mitchell knew, can inspire loyalty and rootedness just as much as any other place people call home. An example: Recently the New York Times profiled the scion of a local hardware store family whose business lasted in New York’s West Side for over a century. The son of the patriarch turned down an offer to join the CIA after military service in World War II, preferring to join the family business. During his years as the hardware lord of the West Side, he became a collector of rare books on paint and color. While your average neoconservative sprout might have left the business to serve big government without much of a second thought (assuming it isn’t the family business to serve the state in the first place), that one decision is just as much New York as the anomie and trust-fund agitprop.
It is these vagaries of geography and history that make the vision Bill Kauffman is espousing so appealing, in this issue and in his books, which are a must-read for anyone serious about understanding the appeal of regionalism. His “let a thousand flowers” bloom approach allows for a truly rooted devotion to locality to develop, across a range of circumstances. Of course everyone loves, or should love, where he lives, and we would do well to remember that no place is exempt from sin or human failings. Plenty of bad things can be said of New York, and have been, but that is not the whole story. While he does not hide his own preferences, Kauffman avoids the unfortunate essentialism of much conservative regionalist writing. Even he acknowledges that New York is the city of Dorothy Day, Norman Mailer, and Staten Island secessionists, as well as Vogue editors and hedge-fund managers.
Brooklyn fits even less the New York stereotype. My family, for example, has lived here for four generations, mostly in the same neighborhood. My wife’s family has been across the river in Manhattan just as long, though perhaps I should add that part of her family hails from the South and bore the CSA standard for the state of Georgia. I need not shop at a superstore, preferring instead the many family-run businesses in my neighborhood. We buy produce directly from farmers, do not need to drive a car for weeks at a stretch, and we live within five miles of where my grandparents were married and my ancestors are buried. This is not some “crunchy con” fantasy. Oppressive congestion, dirty subways, and rude pedestrians aside, this is Brooklyn, too.
Some years ago, there was a book published with the improbable title Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism (1985), focusing on the middle-class neighborhood of Canarsie. That is pretty much the Brooklyn where I grew up, though as a good citizen of the adjacent neighborhood of Mill Basin I always thought the Canarsans a little suspect. This is the Brooklyn where “the city” was a long subway ride away, a trip to be taken only in extremis, where mothers called their children home over the hot asphalt on a summer night, where backyard radios murmured baseball scores in the evenings—no one could afford air conditioning, so we were all outside—and where the liturgical rhythms of church and synagogue dominated the chronological calendar.
And that is the Brooklyn celebrated in an otherwise perhaps overly sentimental book titled To Brooklyn With Love, by Gerald Green, who was a prominent writer, co-creator of the Today Show—an institution that has done its share to flatten America into an accent-less blur of malls and fast food chains—and the author of a number of novels. To Brooklyn With Love, published in 1967, is a kind of payback for all the Hollywood fluff; I like to imagine Green, living in the plain-vanilla bedroom community of New Canaan, Connecticut, pouring his heart into this story of his background. The book concerns a Jewish man reflecting on his youth as a doctor’s son, going back into the Brooklyn tenement neighborhood of his youth, where he relives in his memory those days of ethnic solidarity, ball field heroics, and simple survival in his presuburban days. Green’s book is perhaps not the high point of Brooklyn literature, but he captures the earthy neighborhood-ness of it as much as anyone.
Brooklyn, especially the parts closest to Manhattan, are considered literary haunts now, but few aside from Green discuss the Brooklyn of my youth so vividly, though he and I are two generations apart. Like Russell Kirk’s Mecosta or Kauffman’s Batavia, to find the magic of a place, even a place like Brooklyn, takes some persistence and a little imagination. I first read Green’s book as a child in Niagara Falls, home of my mother’s family and another place whose dying neighborhoods and historic communities deserve their own poets and songwriters. Nevertheless, the book has stayed with me for three decades now, fused with my own memories.
Gerald J. Russello is the Editor of
Posted: November 29, 2008 in Essays.
The Humanistic Tradition in Literature