Intro to PIECES OF A DECADEby Williams Cole and Theodore Hamm
It was in the spring of 2001 when Williamsburg-bred basketball legend Red Auerbach first asked “What the hell is the Brooklyn Rail?” Not long afterward, that very same question was posed to the two of us by a current Brooklyn figurehead, who followed it by saying, “You’re the guys who want to live here; we’re the ones who couldn’t leave.” Such bitterness, a legacy of Brooklyn’s decline during the ’70s and ’80s, hardly negates the first half of the statement—indeed, like the Rail itself, each of us has gladly chosen to set up shop in the Best Borough. In fact, nothing makes either of us happier than a day when we don’t have to cross the East River, into what the poet Lamont Steptoe calls the “land of steel and stone.” Shocking as it may sound to older Brooklyn ears, over the last decade we have even grown to appreciate the G train, not least because it doesn’t cross the water.
Unlike the relatively placid ’90s, the world has been a rather tumultuous place in the decade that followed the Rail’s print debut in October 2000. A stolen election, two fallen towers, a pair of endless wars, and the first black president—and we’re still chugging along, fighting battles at home and abroad. For all but the first six of our 85 (and counting) issues, the most powerful figure in our fair city has been Mayor Michael Bloomberg. By all rights his reign should have ended in 2009, but abetted by a mostly pliant body called the City Council, the king granted himself an extension. Unlike other local media outlets, the Rail has never given the mayor a free ride. Bloomberg’s attempts to thwart early protests against the Iraq War, as well as the civil liberties disaster that was the 2004 Republican National Convention, must never be forgotten. In our view, Bloomberg’s more sophisticated version of the Giuliani agenda, in which an increasingly privatized city is protected by discriminatory policing, has only increased the city’s growing inequalities.
But our perspective has also been shaped indelibly by geography. The Rail’s growth coincided with the transformation of the Williamsburg/Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, where our headquarters remain. Though touted on the front-page of the New York Times as the most noteworthy re-zoning ever, that 2005 overhaul paved the way for a new mini-city of towers. By decade’s end, there was plenty more steel and stone, but the recession had also created plenty of empty condos and vacant lots. As we watched the frenzy of overdevelopment from our respective back windows, there was simply no way we could get on board. How, exactly, one climbs aboard a frenzy is anybody’s guess, but this much is certain: when it comes to touting the developer-friendly “new Williamsburg,” the Rail has never been on the bandwagon.
Our coverage of the County of Kings is by no means limited to its northernmost outpost, however. Long before the G train made the connection, we figured out how to get to Coney Island. And the Rail has always kept a close eye on the goings-on in Central Brooklyn. Meanwhile, three of our Local section mainstays—including one of us—are now based in Southwest Brooklyn, near the R to Bay Ridge. Across the borough there’s an ongoing struggle between older Brooklyn and new. To put it a bit more pedantically, there’s a whole lot of gentrification going on. While the two of us, along with most of our writers, have been known to enjoy the fine craft beers and sustainably sourced meats hyped by the newcomers, we have also sought to understand the existing, and even more organic, cultures of Brooklyn. When adrift in a sea of milky hipsters in the greater Williamsburg area, it’s sometimes easy to forget that over one million black people call Brooklyn home. And it’s safe to say that circa 1990, nobody would have predicted that the Morgan L stop near mostly Latino Bushwick would become a hot spot for “Missed Connections” Craigslist hook-ups; there’s a joke in there about the Internet, but we’re trying to keep this snappy. The point here is that amidst the dizzying pace of change we’ve seen over our first decade, the Rail has tried to build a bridge to the 20th century. And if that reference rings a bell, you’ll understand our age.
As for the national and international agendas of the United States in the years 1-10 A.B.R. (Anno Brooklyn Rail), war has been the M.O. George W. Bush ran as an “isolationist” in 2000, but surrounded himself with people fired up and ready to go into Iraq even before 9/11. Four years later, Karl Rove turned a war hero into a seeming traitor. And even though Barack Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War helped him defeat the hawkish Hillary Clinton and John McCain, we’re now even more deeply buried in the Graveyard of Empires otherwise known as Afghanistan. Unless you’re a defense contractor or a politician, war continues to be good for absolutely nothing. Say it again? Yes, we will. (Note: We may be two of the brawniest peaceniks this side of Old Europe, so if you’d like to talk about it in person, bring it on!) On the home front, the subprime loan scandal was the most insidious form of the larger class war initiated by George W. Bush. On this note, we urge you to read Nicholas Jahr’s “Subprime Crimes: From Wall Street to Brooklyn and Beyond” in the March 2008 issue of the Rail. We would have loved to include it in this volume, but it was just too long for our word cap and not easily trimmed. Wait, did we say “love” in a paragraph about war? Now we’re really dating ourselves.
Whether the fight is at home or abroad, the Rail has never been afraid to mix it up. Call us naïve, but we still hold out hope that the keyboard will one day prevail over the unmanned drone. And so we chose to structure this collection around the theme of battles, at home and beyond. In selecting the pieces, range—both geographic and stylistic—was our primary goal. We have always been open to almost all writerly approaches, a sensibility that we’d like to think places us in the tradition of the early Village Voice. In fact, if we had a few bucks for every time someone has told us that “The Rail reminds me of the early Voice,” we might be able to pay our writers/ourselves on a regular basis. Fortunately, our limited means have not diminished our ends, as these stories—several of which have won various awards—illustrate. Our hope is simply that these pieces will at least help answer the late Red Auerbach’s question. And by way of closing, we’d also like to assure you that we still read the current Village Voice—but only for the articles, of course.
Pieces of a Decade is available at McNally Jackson, Spoonbill Books, Greenlight Books, and Unnameable Books. Available online at store.brooklynrail.org and via Small Press Distribution at spdbooks.org.