The other end of the bridge; Brooklyn moves out of Manhattan's shadow
Brooklyn, N.Y. — It'd take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t'roo and t'roo. An' even den, yuh wouldn't know it all. - Thomas Wolfe It's 89 degrees at 8:30 p.m., and it seems the entire population of Brooklyn is fanning itself on the stoops of its row-house brownstones. The best refuge from this city-ripe humidity is to sit still and switch the boom-box (portable stereo) from disco to the Mets. Pitcher Tom Seaver has two strikes on somebody, but these Haitians, Italians, and Poles on lower Flatbush Avenue say he won't get three.
If it's human nature to root for the underdog, it's second nature as well for these Brooklynites. The stigma of playing second-string borough to Manhattan and the indomitable spirit to overcome it are what define this much-maligned hodgepodge of homes, churches, synagogues, and humanity.
These 2.2 million delegates from 90 ethnic groups scrambled across 78 square miles would be America's fourth-most-populous city. An industrial colossus before joining New York in 1898, the area became a way station for immigrants and a bedroom community for the neighboring borough of skyscrapers. But if it has always been, like the unknown batter, two strikes down, the borough has just been thrown a homerun pitch.
It has come in the form of worldwide attention focused on this spring's Brooklyn Bridge centennial. Moving into the spotlight has helped the borough stand up and take account of itself, examine the wrinkles, and get out the iron.
For the past dozen-or-so years, Brooklyn has been experiencing a renaissance: the architectural ''brownstoning'' revolution, the influx of a young middle-class, the cleaning up and renovating of neighborhoods with burgeoning citizens' associations, the growth of commerce and industry.
But now the effort is more unified. The phrase ''Brooklyn pride'' is being heard again. It had all but died out when their beloved Dodgers left in 1957 for greener pastures in Los Angeles. And the even newer cry ''Brooklyn is on a roll'' is heard from downtown's borough hall to Brighton Beach on the southern shore.''
If Brooklyn were a person, it would be Woody Allen.
Looked at superficially, it embodies all the same self-doubts and visions of frailty - even the wish to be Bogie (Manhattan). Historically, it has always seen itself - and been seen - in the unflattering terms of its northern neighbor.
But, as with Allen, self-doubts can hide the pure genius underneath. Recently, many have realized that though Brooklyn will never measure up to Manhattan, neither will any other city in the world. One upbeat result: The mood has shifted from suffer-by-comparison to celebrate-the-differences:
* Manhattan is condominiums and high-rises. Brooklyn is townhouses and neighborhoods.
* Manhattan is the bastion of the upwardly-mobile single - the majority rent. Brooklyn is status quo, with roots firmly rooted in family life - the majority own.
* Manhattan is the cutting edge of fashion and trends. It changes. Brooklyn lives on the bedrock of history, tradition, and stability. It stays the same.
Some 300,000 Brooklynites work in Manhattan and use the four umbilicals that reach north - Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges. But these are as symbolic as they are useful. The dream to rise above the gang-toughened street life and ''make it'' was almost always synonymous with the final transition to Oz. Even the move (or ''theft'' as some call it) of the Dodgers reflected the once-prevalent ethos that if you were finally successful (they won the World Series in '55), you left Brooklyn.
But so many have left Brooklyn and everywhere else for Manhattan that soaring real estate prices there have sent refugees back across the bridge. Commercial space in Manhattan averages $45 a square foot, compared with an average $12-$14 in downtown Brooklyn.
The obvious selling point to commercial and retail, as well as residential, fugitives: Move to Brooklyn and get all the benefits of proximity to Manhattan, without the cost or hassle.
Governor Mario Cuomo recently forbade state offices to locate in Manhattan's World Trade Center. Brooklyn is vying for those - and any others that are leaving. The New York State Finance and State Workman's Compensation offices have relocated to downtown Brooklyn. Others are looking. And the New York City Fire Department and the NAACP National Headquarters have also recently moved in.
The brownstone revolution began with the great disparities in real estate values. About half of Brooklyn's 26 neighborhoods contain what are considered the country's largest and most varied collection of Victorian homes.
''Up until 10 to 15 years ago you could have picked up many of these for around $25,000. And today they're selling for $450,000 to $500,000,'' says Mike Stein, managing editor of the Prospect Press. Over the course of a decade, ''renovation went like a domino out from downtown - from Brooklyn Heights to Park Slope, to Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene,'' he says. ''Each month the dumpsters would be on the next block.''
Brooklyn Union Gas sponsored so-called ''Cinderella'' renovations to the tune of $700,000 a year, starting in 1966. And Consolidated Edison, started a renaissance project of its own. Both projects took off in the '70s.
Younger artists, doctors, lawyers and Wall Street brokers who couldn't afford astronomical down payments for condominiums were among the emigres from Manhattan. Many chose to pay a mortgage that created equity rather than pay rent they'd never see again.
And ironically, a deteriorating train system has caused significant numbers of exasperated commuters from such outlying areas as Long Island and lower Connecticut to join them. Young marrieds who are not ready to leave urban life behind want the neighborhoods for their children. This has brought a stable family-oriented middle-class into many neighborhoods.
Carol and Bill Oliver purchased a $100,000, five-story brownstone in Brooklyn's Park Slope after living nearly three years in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. They wanted more space and an investment they could afford. ''Our landlady made us realize she had a great deal, owning a building and renting it out,'' says Carol, ''but we couldn't afford one in Manhattan.''
Bill and Carol are making cosmetic changes themselves, the minor plastering and trimming, contracting the rest. ''We've had an Israeli electrician, Sicilian plasterer, Jamaican decorative plasterer,'' says Carol, who grew up in the Midwest. ''And we had an Australian carpenter for sheet rocking. This is ethnic Brooklyn.''
Four months ago, the Olivers had their first child. ''The child came along after we discovered that this was a very good neighborhood to have children in, '' she says of the tree-lined streets just blocks from Frederick Law Olmstead's favorite urban common, Prospect Park. ''This is where everybody in Manhattan comes to raise kids. It's the baby brigade on 7th Avenue at 3 o'clock.''
Brownstoning has brought gentrification (with longtime tenants forced out by soaring land values), but city planners say many evictees have merely decided to renovate in adjacent neighborhoods themselves. The result has been to extend the renovation surge into a seemingly inexhaustible wave.
Unfortunately, not all of Brooklyn has had the transfusion of renovation. Acres and acres of burned-out buildings and vacant lots dot its whole eastern side.
''Almost any solid middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn is getting stronger, '' says Mike Stein of the Prospect Press, ''while the really poor neighborhoods - the East New Yorks and the Brownesvilles and the Bushwicks - are getting worse.''
For these neighborhoods, a coalition of 11 denominations (42 parishes and congregations) has gathered together under an umbrella Nehemiah Plan, named for the Biblical prophet who rebuilt Jerusalem, to construct 5,000 quality-construction single- and two-family homes. On land given to the low-income project by the city, these $70,000 homes are being made available for around $40,000, with interest rates well below the prime. The project has also sponsored a neighborhood watch to keep an eye on such things as missing street signs, demolition and resealing of abandoned buildings, and improvements in local parks (police have helped set up thousands of other such watches, boroughwide). Architects, consultants and lawyers are working on the project for a third of their usual fees.
Industrial parks are another significant development in some Brooklyn neighborhoods. At least three have ideas for more.
Beth Goldberg of Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation describes the largest, East Williamsburg Development Corporation: ''The area has been designated for infusion of state, local, and federal funds to give a sense of unity and cohesion to the over 800 firms in the area.'' Fencing, lighting, security, greenery, and maintenance all help small businesses feel part of a greater whole. ''The program is a way for Brooklyn to retain its 33,000 firms,'' she says.
Since Brooklyn lost 370,000 people in the 1970s, providing jobs is the most crucial step on its road to recovery, planners say. Commerce and industry beget those jobs, jobs beget people, people beget a tax base, interest in schools and public welfare blossoms, more commerce. . . .
Local newspapers say borough president Howard Golden has been successful since he took office in 1977 in securing more jobs. He was instrumental in attracting the Navy's Surface Air Group to nearby Staten Island. That will bring back millions in revenue to Brooklyn residents, filling the vacuum left when the Brooklyn Navy Yard closed after World War II. The battleships Maine, Missouri, and Arizona were built there.
Though all of greater New York's five boroughs are governed in common by the mayor and city council, each has its own borough administration, headed by the borough president, whose duties are primarily in maintenance.
Mr. Golden decries the arrangement in part: ''My complaint has always been, and I say this right to their faces, there hasn't been enough initiative taken by the city administration to push Brooklyn, and Bronx, and Queens, and Staten Island.''
For years he pushed, and recently got, plans for a $36 million renovation of the enormous (2 million square feet) Brooklyn Army Terminal and other waterfront property. After standing idle for years, it will now house light industry.
Golden was a prime mover behind persuading the state finance, city fire, and state workman's compensation departments to relocate in downtown Brooklyn. He started an economic development association that helps existing enterprises obtain expansion loans - and attracts outside firms. He worked for six years to attract a major hotel, and he recently announced plans for a downtown Sheraton.
The bridge centennial has given him ample opportunity to polish his ''Brooklyn: a great place to live'' sales pitch. That includes plugging the world-class museum, botanic gardens, library, and park.
''We've got affordable, first-class Victorian houses eight minutes from Manhattan; a one-day truck drive to a market of 60 million people; the second-largest crossroads (Atlantic Terminal) in America; the US's fifth-largest shopping mall (Fulton); and the largest number of commercial revitalization plans - 24 - of any borough.'' And, he says, a recent study by the Regional Plan Association declared downtown Brooklyn the third major business node of New York City (Midtown and downtown Manhattan being the other two). This is crucial to attracting outside investors to Brooklyn.
He doesn't mention the downside: a loss of 8,000 manufacturing jobs over five years. Clothes, shoes, textiles, chemicals, lumber, glass, and paper have for years been the industrial base.
For the first time the borough in 1981 had more jobs in services than manufacturing: health care, social service, education. Brooklyn already has Brooklyn College, the Pratt Institute, and Brooklyn Academy of Music. The Polytechnic Center of New York now is designing a $210 million Metropolitan Technology Center for downtown Brooklyn.
Golden also doesn't say that employment dropped each year from 1969 to 1977 in all of New York then stopped - except in Brooklyn. Only recently have there been hopeful signs here, with a slowing in the rate of decline.
Besides its great diversity of people and wide base of commerce and industry, Brooklynites say the borough's assets are its neighborhoods.
Flatbush Avenue cuts across this westernmost fist of Long Island, dividing 26 neighborhoods almost in two. Though much of this is a deteriorating commercial strip, city officials emphasize tourists must turn down the neighborhood streets to witness the borough's true flavor. And Brooklynites, it is said, know only about their own area of town - next to nothing about the rest.
A few of the more noteworthy neighborhoods:
* Brooklyn Heights - New York's answer to Boston's Beacon Hill. This most arboreal neighborhood has carried on the battle of the architectural revivalists - Greek, Romanesque, Renaissance and Gothic. The oldest structure was built in 1820.Overlooking the harbor is the Promenade, Brooklyn's proudest possession - after the bridge - a three-level, cantilevered esplanade extending out from the high level of the Heights, facing Manhattan's financial district. Two levels carry traffic (one in each direction), and the top holds people and park benches overlooking the harbor, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Brooklyn Bridge.
* Flatbush. South of Prospect Park are more suburban-size estates, quiet streets, and the pastoral atmosphere described in William Styron's ''Sophie's Choice.''
* Borough Park. Droves of Hasidic Jews are seen in traditional black-only garb. There are many storefront synagogues. Shops sell kosher pizza, gefilte fish, knishes. Last season's film about orthodox Jews, ''The Chosen,'' was filmed in this neighborhood.
* Bedford Stuyvesant. Home to 133,000 blacks - a third of New York's black population - this is the site of a model restoration plan involving local resources, federal funds, and city financiers. Centerpiece is a plaza of shops, offices, corporate headquarters that borough historian Elliot Willensky calls ''Brooklyn's answer to San Francisco's Ghiradelli Square.''
* Coney Island. When you take the Belt Parkway surrounding Brooklyn south under the Verrazano Bridge, you wrap around to Coney Island. Before the 1920s advent of the subway, which brought New York's poor to its shores, this was an affluent gambling resort. After the subway put it within a 25-minute ride of Manhattan, the hot-summer Sunday population rose from 100,000 to 1 million.Today Coney Island stands in disrepair. The Cyclone Roller Coaster is still here, but many of the amusement park rides are permanently shut down. Others run intermittently. The long boardwalk is in good repair, and thousands still crowd the wide beaches.
''If the Dodgers took the wind out of Brooklyn,'' says one office worker at borough hall, ''then the centennial is putting it back in.'' Though the breeze has filled the sails, most agree there's a long way to go. In the eyes of most, one large hurdle is the image problem not within but beyond the borough: ''Be careful when you go into the New York City subway,'' the old saying goes, ''or you might end up in Brooklyn.'' The rest of the world needs to notice that those who are coming back are doing so by choice - and apparently to stay.