There was a while there when I was making some money, and when you’re making some money in New York, it begins to cross your mind that maybe you should move to Manhattan. It’s a reasonable expectation, the reward that follows all the hard work—you get the sickness and the cure, all on the same tiny swatch of island. I was, indeed, quite tempted.
When I leave town, I tell people that I have lived in New York for eight years. That’s wrong on two counts:
- I’ve lived in New York state for nearly a dozen years, having spent four years in the mud upstate at Bard College before moving to New York City, but that’s just a technicality.
- I actually live in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn wasn’t a borough until 1898, when the city of New York snapped up the surrounding municipalities (by a proper vote, though there’s tension in that statement that I’ll explain in a moment), including the Bronx, part of Queens County, all of Staten Island, and Brooklyn. At the time, “Brooklyn” was a fairly unstable concept. The City of Brooklyn had, just two years earlier, annexed all the independent towns in Kings County—a process that had itself taken 200 years to accomplish; Williamsburg, where I live, has been part of the City of Brooklyn since 1854, having tasted freedom for a scant three years after seceding from the Town of Bushwick. The resulting cultural and zoning hodgepodge of that annexation is visible to this day, even in the street plan, which shifts dramatically in both layout and direction at the edges of the eight former municipalities that make up Kings County. The vote to combine New York City with its neighbors proposed an even more controversial and tumultuous beast. Manhattan, as New York County, stood to gain a hell of a lot; as the smallest borough, it would be the jewel in the crown of New York City, or the snobby monkey on New York’s back, depending on how you saw the issue; and how you saw the issue depended on where you lived. When the count came in on the referendum, the outer boroughs were pretty literally split on the annexation, with Brooklyn voters favoring the measure by a margin of just .1% (that’s “point-one percent”). If history proves anything for a democracy, it’s that the majority rules, and that the 49.9% minority will never forgive them for doing so.
There’s a general sense that Brooklyn still kind of hates Manhattan. The city takes all the taxes, and the credit, for the hard work that New York’s most populous borough puts in. And while Brooklyn residents cross the bridge into Manhattan in droves every day, Manhattan’s populace seems quite content to stay home, lending a “red-headed stepchild” air to the County of Kings. “That’s fine,” Brooklyn says, “Stay home. I was fine with my short buildings anyhow.”
When the time came to find myself a new apartment to match my new job, my new money, and my new kicked-out-of-ex-girlfriend’s-apartment status, I gave Manhattan some thought. I had spent a good four years in a borough that plenty of us think of as the Farm League, a plot of land with lots of nice brownstones and good ethnic food, but ultimately the spot to save money for later wasting in The City. I looked in all the right Manhattan locations: East Village, West Village, Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, Gramercy—a veritable downtown wish-list for the up-and-coming New Manhattanite. The result of that search is best summed up in the statistics of one apartment I looked at, on Orchard Street in 1999:
- 90 square feet
So I went crawling back to Brooklyn, whispering apologies as I crossed back over the Manhattan Bridge to intensify my search for a home closer to… “home”. Within three weeks, I had pinned down a nice, $1,050 one-bedroom on Atlantic Avenue with maybe six times the space of the refurbished tenement I’d seen in Manhattan. I spent a year in that apartment falling back in love with the borough that had sheltered me on tree-lined streets from the confusion of the city and my post-graduate life. When that landlord raised my rent, I sought out the pastures of North Brooklyn (a batted eyelash from Queens), which means I’ve now lived in North, Central, and South Brooklyn. In a sense, I’m a greater Brooklynite now—living at once in all the neighborhoods in which I’ve had a home here. I feel as comfortable on 7th Avenue as I do on Avenue U, and I can find the handball courts in Williamsburg’s McCarren Park as easily as I can in Park Slope’s Prospect Park.
I’m not interested in living in Manhattan now, for reasons that extend beyond ratios of price to surface area. When I think of Manhattan—“the city”—I imagine river rapids. I see taxis careening through narrow passes between rocky outcroppings of franchise retail, men in grey suits rushing up escalators like salmon fighting the current, the constant erosion of sidewalks under the tumble of passing humanity. And I am there, negotiating the empty spaces between people on the L train platform in Union Square, seeing ten steps and five bodies ahead, growing tired. Manhattan is hard work. Brooklyn is long stretches of quiet street, proud distance, and hopeful sacrifice. There are families here that never cross the bridge, or send a single representative to do the hunting for them. I know it isn’t necessarily true, but it feels like Brooklyn has more laundromats, more butchers, more children than Manhattan. It moves in small circles, calls you by your first name. I live here to rest, to find a counterpoint to the manic grandeur of the Other Side in a place where more people are trying to eat than work. I have had countless homes in my life, like so many other people who live here, but when someone asks me where I’m from, I say Brooklyn.