Saturday, May 31, 2008

What I'll Miss About New York:
#18 — Occasional Brooklyn

I won't pretend that I visited Brooklyn frequently during these past three years. Truth be told, I think I visited the borough maybe a dozen times. I could blame law school for keeping me away from Brooklyn, but I think that travel time is the greater culprit. On the weekends (when I'm most likely to harass friends living there), the exclusively-local-running subway trains translate into a trip of greater than an hour each way. Of course, the trip is longer if there are glitches in the system. (Note: There are always glitches in the system.)

So I've been to Brooklyn only as many times as I've been to LA. Yet, I'm comfortable passing judgment on LA (Verdict: I hated it until visit #9. Now it's like the cousin whom you appreciate for who he is.), so I guess I'm comfortable opining on Brooklyn.

In a nutshell, Brooklyn is to Manhattan as San Jose is to San Francisco. That is, if San Jose were cool.

You see, although San Francisco captures the public's imagination, it's San Jose and the communities that surround it that really supply the engine driving the Bay Area economy. Google, Apple, eBay, Yahoo, HP, Cisco, Venture capitalists and start-ups A thru Z — are they in San Francisco? Not even close. They're all tightly clustered in the area around San Jose.

San Jose – the more populous of the two cities by 100,000 – is as bitter as a rural Pennsylvania voter, forced as it is to linger in the shadow of San Francisco. Yet, there's a reason that San Francisco came out on top of this sibling rivalry. For all San Jose's economic might, San Francisco has that certain je ne sais quoi that San Jose is most definitely lacking. San Francisco is a global city, brimming with culture and sustaining its own distinct lifestyle. It is a beautiful city populated with strange and fascinating people. The greater San Jose region? Well, it is home to low-slung offices and worker bees. (Even if those worker bees are multimillionaires and are reinventing the world economy as we know it.)

This state of affairs is mirrored between Brooklyn and Manhattan. First, there's the chip on Brooklyn's shoulder. A slight majority of Brooklyn residents voted in 1894 to merge with the City of New York, and the wound to the Brooklyn identity was referred to at the time as the "Great Mistake." Mourning the loss of an independent identity is hardly an exaggeration. One need only glance at a map of the New York City subway to see that all roads (with the exception of the G line) lead to Manhattan. How can another borough truly have an independent identity when even the subway reveals the point of the city's story?

Although the epicenter of New York City's economy is undeniably Manhattan, Brooklyn's status as the most populous borough means it supplies the people required to keep the city going. According to the last census, Manhattan's population was 1,620,867, while Brooklyn's figure was 2,465,326. The only other borough with a population comparable to Brooklyn is Queens, with a population of 2,229,379.

Despite Brooklyn's second-city similarities with San Jose, this is where the comparison breaks down. San Jose, I love ya. But Brooklyn in cool in two ways that, well, you're not.

First, Brooklyn in a cultural force in its own right. Starting with Walt Whitman, Brooklyn has served as a home to writers looking for a little perspective, a place apart from the cacophony that sometimes makes Manhattan too frantic. The trend continues. In last summer's New York Times, Arthur Phillips noted in passing that "new zoning laws that require all novelists to live in Brooklyn." Brooklyn has a siren song that the creative cannot resist.

Second, San Francisco yuppies don't grow up and move to San Jose. Conversely, Manhattan yuppies do grow up and move to Brooklyn. Sure, this migration of thirty-somethings to Brooklyn occasionally draws the ire of committed Manhattanites, but the lady doth protesteth too much. Are these frustrated urbanites afraid of losing their youth by proxy when they see their friends head to the outer boroughs?

Steph & I felt the pull of Brooklyn strongly during a trip to a friend's Park Slope home for brunch a few weeks ago. On the way back from brunch, we walked down 5th Avenue to return to the subway. As we progressed toward Bergen Street, we both got the feeling that – were we to stay in New York – this is where we'd be headed. Turning 30, having a child, and staying on Manhattan means that someday, if you work hard and are lucky, you might have an apartment where TWO (yes, TWO!) people could shower at the same time IN DIFFERENT BATHROOMS. Alternatively, moving to Brooklyn means staying connected to the heart of the city while living in a community that permits you a little more space. To me, the choice would be easy.

What's this? After living in New York City for three years, I'm returning to California. These are the parts of my New York experience that I'll miss the most.

1 comment:

Slightly Amiss said...

Yep. As a committed Brooklynite after only one year, you've got it about right. Except a lot of us consider Park Slope an extension of the West Village... a little white-washed. But pretty. Stroller-dodging is the sport of the day there!