Sunday, April 18, 2010


I think this is a post about gentrification, though that's not what I intended. I thought I'd stage a return to Jonathan Lethem, or walking, or food, or... While I've touched on all these things, the result is not a review of anything except what's apparently my new favorite topic.

I first tried to read JL's gentrification epic* The Fortress of Solitude the summer after my freshman year, but only got about a hundred pages in before I quit. I tried again, and tried better, this past week. For a variety of reasons, it felt urgent and relevant to me in a way it hadn't the last time around—my Brooklyniness, for one; my job, for another, since a decent portion of the book's final section takes a look at the NY prison system; also, a series of weird resonances, including:

In the past month or so I've encountered some songs by Gabriel Kahane, a musician from my neighborhood. Underberg** is my favorite track—I've found myself listening to it a few times in a row lately. Turns out that Underberg is also the title of the first and longest section of Fortress; both seem to refer to this building (aw geez, don't get me started on Atlantic Yards) and to evoke a sense of nostalgia, though if you listen close, not everything was so great back in the good old days.

I'd been meaning to pay tribute to Fortress by walking down Dean Street, the site of much of its action. Today I wound up there by a circuitous route—touched down in Carroll Gardens to pick up a chocolate croissant from Mazzola (go go go! if you are in CG; I got addicted while catsitting), decided to thread through Cobble Hill to charming little Iris in Brooklyn Heights. Last time I went to Iris it was basically a snow day: quiet Saturday, latte and book, ham-and-cheese biscuit with egg, picturesque flakeshow out the window. But not this time. This time the place was mobbed with people: angling for tables, snatching chairs from the unwary, hovering over the counter. I got a sandwich to go but it was nothing like the idyll of my winter visit just a few months ago. I am pleased for the Iris folks, since it's a lovely cafĂ©. And I recognize I am part of the very problem I complain about here. But it's no fun to go somewhere everyone wants to go. Even if I could've gotten a seat, the loomers would have spoiled the mood. Success is a mixed bag, I suppose.

These musings in mind, I walked along Dean. It has to be said, the block JL describes in its infinite variety throughout the 500-plus pages of Fortress is these days one of the most immaculate in Brooklyn. Charming restored brownstones, cherry and magnolia trees, stoop gardens, clean streets. Throughout much of the (to some degree autobiographical) novel, it's a morass of decaying buildings, lunch-money robbers, and uneasy neighbors, a mixture of Puerto Ricans, blacks, and white hippies. By the story's end, it's well on its way to becoming the cleaned-up place it is today. As Lethem's hippie-raised protagonist, Dylan, muses, "I considered now that what I'd loved in [Brian Eno's Another Green World album], and certain others...was the middle space they conjured and dwelled in, a bohemian demi-monde, a hippie dream... It was the same space the communists and gays and painters of celluloid imagined they'd found in Gowanus, only to be unwitting wedges for realtors, a racial wrecking ball. A gentrification was the scar left by a dream, Utopia the show which always closed on opening night." I sensed the echoes of his words on my walk, caught up as I was in frustration at the overrun Iris. The block is beautiful now, but it's no longer the dream it might have been.

I turned onto Dean's next-door neighbor, Bergen, for the walk back toward Smith. On the way, I passed a dead ringer for my mind's eye's Dylan—all grubby t-shirt and shorts, little-boy-long hair—and stopped at one of the stoop sales that proliferate these days. I can never resist looking at a box of books, and what was in this one but Fortress. Of course.

And so, the tides, they turn. I wonder if the woman selling the book had read it or if she, like nineteen-year-old me, got stymied. I wonder how much she was selling it for. I wonder if she found a buyer for it—it's worth buying, worth reading. Maybe she did. Maybe it could have been you.

*The novel defies my attempt at five-second summary, but let's say it's the story of a white boy and a black boy growing up on the same block in Brooklyn in the '70s, and a snapshot of race relations more generally from the '70s up 'til just about the present. It includes such highlights as a stint in California, a ring that confers superpowers, and a whole lot of drugs.

**For what it's worth, the link said I had to be logged in to listen the first time I clicked; the second time it let me, though.

1 comment:

  1. Hey! A. just bought that book for me (for both of us, actually, since he wants to read it too) this afternoon at Greenlight. Now I'm extra-looking forward to reading it sometime next month (post-exams), because then I can discuss it with you. We need more me-and-you book talk.
    Success is totally a mixed bag. And I have to say, (maybe because I'm becoming a historian?), I wish that more people would acknowledge that the past was a mixed bag too. You're talking about all of these issues surrounding gentrification and historical change in a very thoughtful (and nicely written!) way; I get annoyed at the people who say things about how 'real' or 'gritty' say, 1970s NYC was. Yes, getting stabbed is really gritty. There are certainly places in 2010s NYC that are plenty 'gritty,' if that's what people want.
    Okay, I deleted a bunch of stuff where I started to go into a long rant there. Woops.