Brooklyn: A Melting Pot of Cultures
No New York borough can be neatly summarized and certainly not Brooklyn. The beauty and uniqueness of this place is that it can’t be defined tersely. But it can be explained by two words, its people. The people who live in Brooklyn define its spirit, grit and beauty. It's diversity in its truest form -- organic and human. It’s about the people, their differences, similarities, idiosyncrasies and their craziness too.
Brooklyn has been called the borough of churches or the borough of buildings, and if you’re obsessed with unique architecture, these nicknames are true. But more importantly, this hodge-podge, potpourri, pastiche... this strange stew of humanity all living in one place is Brooklyn.
Growing Up in a Melting Pot
Bonnie Bellows never thought about the potpourri of humanity she grew up with. She took it for granted because it was a part of her Brooklyn reality. Owner of Bonnie’s New York, a trendy women’s accessory and jewelry shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Bellows grew up in the Ditmas Park section. She remembers watching her parents play handball on Sunday mornings in Brighton Beach when she was a child. That’s right -- mom donned leather gloves, sneakers and shorts and was slamming a little, hard black handball (not a soft Spalding, mind you) with the best of them.
Handball today, and certainly in the 1950s, was not a game for wusses. These folks put their heart and soul into it; losing a game was almost a personal affront. On any given Sunday, you’d hear big, grunting, sweaty, hairy men swearing on Brighton Beach handball courts in six different languages -- Italian, Yiddish, Polish, Russian, Spanish and English. Talk about a multicultural experience.
On weekends, Bellows remembers walking Coney Island’s Boardwalk, starting at the old parachute jump -- now a rusting, rotting, decrepit reminder of Coney Island’s heyday -- and walking to its end in Brighton Beach (a thriving Russian community dubbed Little Odessa). Her father timed their walks around lunchtime so they could stop at Nathan’s for a hot dog and fries. Dessert was cabbage knishes at the legendary Mrs. Stahl’s on Brighton Beach Avenue.
Not surprisingly, Bellows married another Brooklynite, from Bay Ridge. “It was like meeting a guy from a different state,” she says. “That’s how different his childhood and experiences were from mine. I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood; he grew up in a mixed-bag community of Scandinavians, Italians and Irish Catholics.” The couple never considered moving to another part of the city or another state. Instead, they moved to Brooklyn neighborhoods -- first Brooklyn Heights, then Cobble Hill, finally Carroll Gardens.
As Bellows sees it, Brooklyn is still evolving and changing, while never losing its essence -- its worldliness. Even though Bellows’ South Brooklyn neighborhood has become gentrified and cosmopolitan, it continues to attract people from all over the world. “It’s fascinating to me how Brooklyn was and still is a magnet for all people,” she adds. “In a world fraught with tension, Brooklyn’s communities have never condemned or judged people; they’ve always accepted them just as they are.”
A Working-Class Haven
When I was a teenager growing up in Bay Ridge, the neighborhood was pretty much like it was portrayed in the 1977 blockbuster film "Saturday Night Fever" where a slim young John Travolta playing disco dancer Tony Manero agilely glided about the strobe-lit dance floor dancing to the Bee Gee’s smash hit sound track by the same name.
My friends and I thought that Brooklyn was the borough of bars -- as absurd as that sounds. Third Avenue, which is now lined with trendy restaurants, was strewn with bars -- mostly Irish working-class bars. On a short block, two bars were strategically positioned on either corner. At the end of a long day working on the docks, on construction lots, or in hot and dirty factories, a man needed a long, cold tap beer -- better yet several -- to cool off and relax.
Like most Brooklyn sections, Bay Ridge was swept up by the waves of change. That once blue-collar neighborhood became one of the hot real estate sections sought by young professionals and their families.
All over the vast borough, Brooklynites return to their homes at the end of the working day. And if you followed every one of them to their respective neighborhoods, it would seem like you were entering every country on the globe.
Loyal to the Borough
Native Brooklynite Mike Caccioppoli, 67, a retired stockbroker who lives in Carroll Gardens, never wanted to live anywhere else. “Everything I want and need is in walking distance of my home,” he says. “Within a 15-block radius of my home, there are Italian, Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Thai restaurants. Pizza, fuggedaboutit -- the best pizza in the city is three blocks away.”
“The best thing about Brooklyn,” Cacciopppoli adds, “is that the old-timers like me never change. I’ve been hanging out with the same people for almost half a century. We watch each other’s backs. In a crazy world where people are killing each other every day, it’s a nice feeling knowing I can crawl into the sack every night and sleep like a baby.”
Recently retired Colette Deland feels pretty much the same way. “The fact that I’ve lived on the same block my entire life tells the whole story,” says the 62-year-old former Wall Street back office worker. “And I’ve only lived in two houses in all that time."
Unlike Caccioppoli, who used to travel extensively for his job, Deland has never strayed too far from her neighborhood. She doesn’t drive and has never wanted to. As she sees it, “Why bother, when public transportation can take me all over New York City? For two bucks, I can go anywhere safely, with little hassle. Another two bucks will take me home. Even in these expensive times, that’s a pretty good deal.”
Remembering Brooklyn's Past
Deland says there have a been lot of changes in her Midwood neighborhood during the past six decades. Like a lot of native Brooklynites, she misses the Italian bakeries, greengrocers and tiny delicatessens that lined Avenue M. She especially misses the candy and soda shop she used to work at when she was a teenager. “I was the egg cream queen,” Deland boasts. “Nobody could make an egg cream like me. My malteds and ice-cream sodas were pretty damned good also.”
An egg cream cost about a dime in the late 1950s. Deland will never forget Golde’s Knishes on East Second Street and Avenue M. “A mother and daughter co-owned the shop, which made the best potato and kasha knishes in Brooklyn,” she says. “I’ll always remember how delicious they were. I’ve never had a potato knish that was as good as Golde’s.”
Deland nostalgically remembers the Coney Island of her childhood. “I had a locker at the beach, and used to go there every day with my friends,” she recalls. While the Coney Island of her youth has all but disappeared, and the small mom-and-pop food and soda shops she loved so much have given way to sprawling supermarkets and chain stores, Deland’s memories keep the taste, smells and ambiance of these neighborhood institutions alive. “Everything changes over time,” she adds, nostalgically. “But that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Yet the block I grew up on is still pretty much the same. And that’s a good thing.”
Defined by its People
Brooklyn’s claim to fame was and will always be its people. It’s its greatest asset and treasure. It’s not only the way they talk, it’s also the way they express themselves with their entire body. Handcuff a fanatical Yankee fan after his team lost a big game and he’ll turn into a veritable version of the Hulk because he can’t use his hands to punctuate his frustration, anger and desperation. They take their team’s losses personally. It’s an insult, a temporary embarrassment until the team redeems itself. Just talking about their upset doesn’t do it; they must do this native dance; jab at some imaginary target, punctuate and drive home their thoughts with their right hand index finger pointing dead ahead.
What makes Brooklyn significant? Look beyond its art, music, literature and its industries and start talking to the people who were born, raised and live there. Ask them what defines Brooklyn. They may throw their hands up in the air, come back with a frustrated “fuggedaboutit!” and tell you in their own way what it means to them. Ask 500 locals the same question, and you’ll get 500 different answers. You might not fully understand everything they say, but rest assured it’s important and delivered con passione.