“IN DEFENSE OF BROOKLYN” by Murray Goodwin – November 1946

[Note: If it can be proven that the following editor's note isn't the greatest editor's note of all time I will gladly eat not just my own hat but any additional hat presented to me.]

EDITORS’ NOTE!

ONE DAY not long ago, an arrow sped through an open window of the HOLIDAY editorial rooms, bedded itself in a desk top, and stood there quivering before the startled eyes of the editor. Attached to it was a letter, a letter born of a Brooklynite’s bitter hurt at the story Manhattan Holiday, in the October issue of HOLIDAY, and the snubbing it contained of the writer’s beloved borough. We had of course known all our lives of the feud that existed between Brooklyn and Manhattan, warmest rivals among the five sister boroughs of Greater New York. We know how Manhattanites tend to ignore Brooklyn, and snub it, and how Brooklynites grow sullen and hurt under such cavalier treatment. Knowing this, we have made it a firm part of HOLIDAY editorial policy never to say anything against Brooklyn, just as we never say anything against MOTHER, or FREE ENTERPRISE. We do not believe our article insulted Brooklyn, but perhaps we did somewhat neglect her. In fairness, therefore, we are printing hurt Brooklyn Citizen Goodwin’s letter. Further, we have even made the courageous editorial decision to show actual pictures of Brooklyn.

The Editor,
HOLIDAY Magazine.

#

DEAR SIR:

I have always been the jolly type who joins in the laughter when William Bendix, portraying the movie version of a typical man from Brooklyn, simply massacres the King’s English. And I chuckle from the paunch when a top-drawer comedian refers to Brooklyn as somewhere you cannot get to or from without a visa. We Brooklynites have come to expect unusual remarks about our borough, for Brooklyn is unique. In fact, although an occasional cruel twit might raise our hackles, we rather enjoy the unpleasantries about Brooklyn, for these remarks set us apart as people; even though, in some cases, when strangers learn that you originate from somewhere in between Coney Island and Red Hook, their eyebrows shoot up and they fall back a pace or two, waiting expectantly for you to do something incredible.

But the unkindest cut of all to a sane, normal, even intelligent person who happens to prefer to live out his days across the river from Manhattan, is when an article dealing with New York City mentions Brooklyn in only the most casual manner—which is precisely what happened in HOLIDAY. Who is to blame? Is it ignorance on the part of the writer? Or perhaps some fiendish editor sitting with scissors poised, ready to swoop with a low growl at the mere sight of the word? Or is it that the shadow of Brooklyn hovers menacingly over Manhattan’s wonderful skyline, dulling some of its lustre?

Invaders from Gotham

No matter how one may account for it, a simple fact remains: Brooklyn and Manhattan are irretrievably linked together; physically, by bridges, tunnels and ferries; spiritually, by and event which took place on a windy day in 1898. For that was the day when, grudgingly, Brooklyn surrendered her sovereignty and became the Borough of Brooklyn in Greater New York. Previous to that, Brooklyn had been many things and of many names. The early Dutch settlers, in 1645, refereed to her fondly as Breuckelen, after which she was known successively as Brockland, Brocklin, Brookline, and finally, almost eagerly, Brooklyn. In 1816, Brooklyn proudly became an incorporated village, and in 1834, a city. This pleasant state of affairs lasted until almost the turn of the century, when greedy politicians and their ilk made Greater New York a legal fact simply by adding Brooklyn to their cozy little union. How uneasily they must sleep! For today, the child almost rules the parent. And no matter how many intellectual backs are turned upon this premise, the facts are much too obvious to be concealed. (The real damage however, was done in 1883, when the Brooklyn Bridge was completed. Its construction was supervised through a tele­scope out of a Brooklyn Heights window by engineer Washington A. Roebling, who, having sustained a serious injury, was unable to be on the spot. The open­ing of this remarkable all-granite bridge allowed Manhattanites to visit Brooklyn with convenience and carry back with them the innovations and comforts which were commonplace in Brooklyn.)

Brooklyn’s population alone, with more than two and one half million warm and human souls, outnumbers any of the boroughs which form the city of New York, out-peopling Manhattan by a mar­gin of several hundreds of thousands. And why did the writer wish to hide the fact that Brooklyn sprawled quietly and soberly over eighty-one square miles? Is it because such wealth of territory dwarfs the meager twenty-two square miles called Manhattan?

Home, Sweet Home

Walt Whitman described Brooklyn as “the city of homes and churches.” And it is true. View any Brooklyn-bound rush-hour subway crowd. The workday is at its fever-wracked end. Fathers, husbands, wives and loving children are anxious to reach the comfort and solace of their families. They want to take their ties off and open their collars. They want to get into their slippers. They want to listen to their radios; to laugh with the high-priced comedians, to weep with the maudlin true-life-story actors. To outsmart the experts. And what is happening in Manhattan across the river at the precise moment? Bartenders are setting them up again. Showgirls are tiredly getting into their muslin and crepe de Chine for another gay evening of smiling at out-of-town buyers on the loose. Waiters are moodily turning the table­cloths and breathing on the silver. Man­hattan flexes its muscles for a night of gaudy and artificial fun, while the good burghers in Brooklyn relax and act with quiet dignity like human beings. For Brooklyn has a heritage of culture and charming society to uphold. It was of national importance when men like Henry Ward Beecher mounted the pul­pit of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church and gave forth a fiery sermon damning slav­ery. The effect is still felt on every young student today, for the colony’s first free public school was opened in Brooklyn in 1661, fathering the modern-day pub­lic-school system in New York City. These are facts not easily overlooked.

Nor is the American premier of the hot dog to be lightly scorned. Here is a delicacy which brings enjoyment to all classes of people—the rich, the needy; the bright; the dull; the beautiful, the plain. Where was this savory social leveler first introduced to America? On a Brooklyn sand bar known as Coney Island, “the world’s largest playground.” A hearty German baker, Charles Feltman, is reputed to have laid the first made-in-America frankfurter tenderly between the fluffy halves of a soft roll, dabbing its succulent body with mustard, back in the happy days circa 1870. To this day, Feltman’s restaurant is renowned for its food and atmosphere.

Brooklyn’s Big Heart

Feltman’s is not the only Brooklyn restaurant of repute. Whenever the fishing fleet stands into Sheepshead Bay it brings tender morsels from the sea consigned to restaurants like Lundy’s, Villepigue’s, McGuinness’, and many another famous sea-food emporium. In these places lobsters, clams and crabs attain such heavenly flavor that many a guest has sworn his particular delectable was served wearing a halo.

Where in Manhattan can the hot and tired gentry plunge into the ocean from a six-mile-long frontage of beach? Seek high and low; you’ll find no spot in Man­hattan which can offer so much comfort to so many people as can Coney Island. From Manhattan, from the Bronx, they pour into Brooklyn laden with children, paper bags, vacuum bottles, water-wings, patched inner tubes. In myriad tongues they sing their happiness at finding a square yard of tan sand to plump upon, just spitting distance from the surf, and where the sun may fall on them in warm embrace. Brooklyn, with a heart as big as its body, bids them all to try the breakers in the daytime, or seek a thrill at night aboard the giddy roller-coasters, giant swings, and midget dodgem cars.

Yet Coney Island, the “nickel empire,” is not the big borough’s only source of en­joyment. Brooklyn offers quieter and calmer ways to get more out of life. you prefer green and verdant thin Hop into a subway or bus or trolley car,and in less time than you can say “Leo, Durocher,” you find yourself outside the justly famous Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Go on in. It’s absolutely free, all fifty beautiful acres of it. Feast your eyes on the horticulture collections and plantings. Take your time viewing the Japanese landscape garden, probably the most celebrated in America. Cared for mainly by expert Japanese gardeners, these landscapes embody the religious and social traditions of Japan. But even if you cared nothing for the symbolism, you can’t help but be impressed by the sheer beauty of these gardens. Besides these Japanese “Niwa,” you’ll find other areas devoted to wildflowers, rock gardens, pools of graceful water lilies. The magnificent buildings spotted among the gardens contain still other collections, in addition to mountains of data on flora and fauna. This material is available to whomever wishes to peruse it.

A pebble’s heave from these gorgeous floral displays lies Prospect Park. Here, at your disposal, are 526 rolling lush acres of trees, green meadows and bluffs, con­taining picnic grounds, a zoo, a colorful lagoon, tennis courts and baseball dia­monds for the young and athletic, band­stands where summer evening concerts surfeit the music-lover, parade grounds, and wide gravel walks. Why, it puts New York’s spindly little Central Park to shame; just a mere collection of thorns and fagots! The site of Prospect Park is steeped in American history. North of the zoo is the Battle Pass, appropriately marked by a bronze plaque which in­forms the curious that General Sullivan made his stand against the British here in the Revolution’s Battle of Long Island. Stroll north to Lookout Hill and pause a moment before the monument commem­orating the bravery of the Maryland regi­ment which held the Hessians at bay in the same heroic battle. Wander south­ward along the East Drive, and you will bump into the Lefferts homestead, built in 1777 by Lieut. Peter Lefferts to re­place his home which was burned to the ground by the British. Mount the steps and go in to see how graciously the early Brooklyn settlers lived the rich paneling, the sturdy trundle beds, the hand-hewn timbers in the attic.

Many Brooklyn homes today bear the same mark of graciousness. Flatbush, long a target for derision by screen and radio writers who likely never laid honest eyes upon it, is a most desirable place to live. There you will find Colonial homes set well back on shaded streets, with large, cool lawns leading to spacious porches. Roomy houses are separated by neatly trimmed privet hedges, something seldom seen in Manhattan outside of Central Park. (And at that, their purpose is to support a sign which admonishes, “Keep off the Grass !”) Even the apartment houses sprinkled in that area give a feeling of ease and comfort.

Rivaling the splendor of the mansions of Manhattan’s haughty Fifth Avenue, but without their ostentation, are the homes of Brooklyn’s “Gold Coast,” dot­ting the quiet, almost chaster streets of the Park Slope district, which have as the hub of their stately wheel the Grand Army Plaza entrance to Prospect Park. Farther west lies another fine old section of Brook­lyn, where the staid, respectable and wealthy enjoy coming home after an ar­duous day in the coin-and-banknote sec­tion of lower Manhattan. Perching high on a bluff overlooking the East River is an old and distinctive section known as Brooklyn Heights. Apartment houses are sparse here, and what few are there accent comfort, not the salmon-packed condition of their tall stone-and-steel Manhattan brethren over the water. There has been extravagant talk of the view one may buy atop the Empire State Building, located somewhere in Manhattan. How dull and boring compared with the vista from any vantage point in Brooklyn Heights! And without the vaguest hint of commercial­ism attached. In Brooklyn it is free—the most breathtaking view in the world.

From these heights a man can see the startling panorama of Lower Manhattan, the sweep of Brooklyn Bridge, Governors Island, the Lady of Liberty and the odd-shaped wharves along the river.

In downtown Brooklyn you will find the shops, the first-run theaters, the civic buildings, the schools of higher learning such as Long Island University, Brooklyn Law School, St. John’s University, Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, and Packer Collegiate Institute. Pratt Institute, one of the finest art schools in America, is located near this intellectual center, while the newer Brooklyn College is somewhat inland.

Frail and Flimsy Manhattan

There is much to tell about Brooklyn. Too much to go into one irate letter. There’s the Brooklyn Museum, for in­stance, with its world-famous collection of primitive arts and crafts; Erasmus Hall High School, the first Board-of-Regents-chartered secondary school in the entire city; Greenwood Cemetery, which more people prefer as their final resting place than any other in the city (among them De Witt Clinton, Horace Greeley, Henry Ward Beecher, Samuel F. B. Morse, to name a few); and, of course, there’s Lippy Leo and The Bums, the most famous baseball team in the world.

In other, and terser, words, Brooklyn is quite a place. True, like any large community, it has its slums, its shabby and seedy districts, its low-down bars, its smoky and dirty industrial centers, its percentage of honky-tonk, its share of crime and lawlessness. There is as yet no established heaven on earth.

Brooklyn is too big, too virile to be pushed around. And much too proud and accomplished to be ignored by Manhattan. For Brooklyn is the sturdy base upon which frail and flimsy Manhattan rests. And, if in the stealth of a dark and quiet night a bunch of Brooklyn boys were to snip the bridges which shackle Manhattan to us and let the whole dang island float off to sea and destruction, it would serve Manhattan right. It was bought in a crooked deal in the first place.

Yours sincerely,
MURRAY GOODWIN.

Is Brooklyn, at sunrise, only a smudge seen across Brooklyn Bridge? Well, it’s more populous than Manhattan and almost four times as large

An ad from this issue

3 responses

  1. Pingback: In praise of Brooklyn - Global Dashboard – Blog covering International affairs and global risks

  2. Pingback: Murray Goodwin: In Defense of Brooklyn | Books I Read

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s