Brooklyn No More
In the 1980s, when I was a kid, the section of Court Street where it meets Atlantic Avenue was broken-down and unhappy and full of crazy old men stumbling out of bars and nothing shined and you could get a plate of yellow rice with a half-chicken on the rotisserie for three dollars with a forty of St. Ides for a dollar more. I have a real nostalgie de la boue for it, which is unhealthy and self-deluding and I admit this freely.
There was the stretch between State Street and Schermerhorn that I liked to walk up and down, where Julio’s Bar clung to its foundation at the corner of State with the drunks clinging to the door looking for home, and there was a Blarney Stone where sunlight could not penetrate even with the doors open and windows wide and so I never knew what went on inside. And there was Pandora’s Box, the pornography shop with windows spray-painted orange and green and black in sorbet swirls so here too you couldn’t see in…until you went in, and there were little peep booths with black curtains where for a quarter you could watch girls fucking on a tiny screen and there was a tickety-tickety disco soundtrack and at the counter you could buy amyl nitrate, an inhalant that caused head to spin and swell up like a golden balloon—13 years old, we’d do the peep booths, buy the amyl nitrate…smoking marijuana or dropping acid on a stoop on State Street and no one yelled at you or called the cops for this, because sitting on stoops quietly doing drugs was considered neighborly.
Next to the Pandora’s Box, there was an actual porn theatre, with rows of seats and the names in lights, but which by the time I was 14 had been burned out or arsoned and lay there with its charred doors and its marquee gone limp. Next to the porn theatre was a fish-shop that stunk of fishguts and had sawdust on the floor that glommed in the goo of the catch and onto the soles of your shoes…and next to that was a butchery and hot-dog shop run by an old Jew in an amber-flecked apron….and then an abandoned storefront—hang-nail, rotten tooth…all gone now.
The humaneness of this stretch of Court Street., the welcoming normality and easefulness and laziness of it was brought home to me when on a summer Saturday in 1987 I saw my cat, Crockett, wandering along sniffing at the boarded-up storefronts or coming out of Pandora’s Box. Not running away or skittering on claws with that hunted look of cats underfoot—no, here he was like a mayor, unspayed as Zeus, his two tom balls carried high as pompoms. The point being: it was quiet and crowdless enough on a Saturday afternoon that a cat could walk unmolested and at leisure. Now on old sleepy Court Street there’s the Barnes & Noble and the American Apparel and the Loews super-mega-hyper-hypo-whatever, and the ceaseless making of money, the growing of business, and all is well-tended and clean and slicked-down and too expensive, and there’s no room for cats to walk.
I mention all this because I am bitter and foolishly cling to the past, a decadent state of mind better suited for old men on their last legs and surely tiresome for newcomers to read about, who have no context, who can’t know or care how things once were, how the bereft places one loves as a child get sucked all and sundry into the cocaine-nose of commerce.
Here for example was a little park full of rats where the Marriott Hotel stands across from the towers of Metrotech Plaza. (Does anyone out there remember it? Should you bother?) The park, tiny in its footprint, perhaps the size of half a city block or a zocalo in Mexican towns, was officially known as Columbus Plaza, but for many years it had no name, real estate records referring to it as “public place 140A.” Raised somewhat like a dais, it boasted a crumbling vista down Myrtle Avenue, which back then was a drunk’s row that made easy way for the purpose and beavering of Metrotech. Aside from Polytechnic College and one or two businesses—chiefly Sid’s Hardware, which had an open lumber yard in back that got muddy in spring and dusty in summer—this stretch of Myrtle was given over to the buying and selling of contraband.
Us kids went to the Old Man on Myrtle, who sold nickel bags of marijuana for three dollars and liquor in unmarked bottles and occasionally stolen hi-fi equipment. He lived in a two-story brick disaster on the corner of Bridge Street, which if it were still around would probably be landmarked and the home of lawyers. You rang his bell, which hung off a wire next to a steel door hung on half a hinge but lashed with Fort Knox gearing from inside. You rang, you waited, for the Old Man took his time, and when he opened the door a crack, his big shirtless shadow filled a bombed-out space. “Wha‘ ya wan‘?” A minute later a white gardener’s bucket on a twine descended from the second-story window. Put the money in it, up went the bucket, down came the drugs.
Fitted thus, we went to Rat Park, where in winter it was mud and mess, and in spring the linden trees lining its walks budded white, falling like snow when the wind blew. In summer, it was a hothouse of life. There were rain-smelling stinkweeds that flared like green fire, and there were mature cherry trees that shaded us from the sun and breathed out sugars plus urea and sweat and a smell of orange peels and loam and garbage rotting, which brought the big fearless rats on all sides, wanting nothing to do with us as long as we drank the liquor and smoked the weed and came nowhere near the garbage. It was a stain of a park and mostly useless and unpeopled and odd and unremarkable and certainly not worth an investment and to me, it was very beautiful.
When, in 1999, I came back from overseas and heard the Marriott had swallowed Rat Park, I sped over on my bicycle and stared at the thing. A doorman stood by. I asked when the hotel went up.
“This used to be a park.”
“Well, it’s a hotel now.”
That was an awful feeling, standing there with the doorman looking at me like I had some kind of eyeball leprosy and with the people pouring out of the glass doors and the cabs drawing up and not one person protesting that Rat Park had become a Marriott in a moment no longer than it takes an atom bomb to wash over a city.
Brooklyn is getting nuked like this more and more. This spring I took my bicycle down to Red Hook, along Beard Street, where there were old piersheds and an unbroken line of warehouses built of a blood-red brick dating from who knows when—Civil War-era perhaps?—where shippers and dockworkers once, decades ago when the ships were legion, kept their offices and where as a teenager I used to break in at night and wander among the ghosts of the piers. Beyond the façade was a graving dock where broken hulls were raised from the sea and patched together, and until recently a few men still worked there and made a living.
Now the warehouses were gone and so was the graving dock, wiped off the map, and there was barren sky. Soon an Ikea superstore will rise on the site, and there will be a waterfront esplanade with railings and trimmed trees, and the young of Brooklyn, this peculiar generation of money-heads and ambition-addled professionals, will have a direct supply of their very own furnished line of sameness.
CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM, a freelance writer for Harper's, GQ, Mother Jones and many other magazines, divides his time between Brooklyn and the redrock country of Utah. He can be reached at email@example.com.