A little starved. A little cheated. And vigilant by default. This is how I might qualify the dignity of Brooklyn residents eleven years ago, when I first moved here.
The Bronx doesn’t suffer from a lack of pride, but pride isn’t the same thing. Brooklyn is dignified in the way dignity puffs up its chest when self-righteousness enters the room. A quote from Truman Capote emblazoned on a tourist map across from Brooklyn Borough Hall is more defensive than proud - “I live in Brooklyn. By choice.” I am not convinced. “I live in Brooklyn” once required 5- to 600 words before someone on the other side of the river would let the matter be dropped.
I’d like to say that being away for 7 weeks affords me all sorts of fascinating insights but I’ve got only one right now: the total lack of defenses certain Brooklyn residents display in public. I remember being in front of Long Island University Hospital in 2005 at dusk, walking from some bar in Carroll Gardens toward the 2/3 at Borough Hall.
At the time I was struck by how much more vigilant the pedestrians were than those I would see on my return to Central Harlem, where I was living at the time: Harlem’s half boarded up. Here its downright quaint. Why is everybody so on edge?
Well, I walked that same block today and the linear distance from child to parent - that invisible leash that says “Stray this far but no farther” - had become a full block in length. Men and women in shoes that would entrap them in every petty larceny under the sun sat drifting through their latch-less purses and bags, staring blankly into devices. Everywhere I looked I thought to myself, This is not a city. This is a theme park. If I were a thief, I would mug the shit out of these people. Not because I am a proponent of compensatory crimes for complacent behavior, but because the urban mentality is not learned but reinforced by the behavior of others. The city is a construct of the mind.
In Lima, Pittsburgh, Rome, Manchester, Lagos, or Hong Kong, we maintain an empirical code of behavior irrespective of our place of birth. Vigilance is its simplest component. The city is watching us as much as we are watching it. If the argument were posed to me that Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, and Williamsburg are getting safer I would say the opposite. The people are becoming more comfortable in their surroundings, bolder in their complacency, but by no means more secure. They are becoming suburban. Against my better judgement, I hadn’t even noticed. Knowing that I’ve returned to the suburbs is a little disheartening.