In Fort Greene
We take a stroll through one of Brooklyn's most diverse neighborhoods
by Sarah Nicole Prickett photography Alex John Beck
People in a city are like other people in other cities; people in a town are like other people in other towns. And in truth, we're stratified by the size and scope, not the coordinates, of where we settle – where there’s a difference of scale, and necessity, and possibility. In Manhattan there are vastly more people and more things to do, but people seem of generally the same types and generally of the same nature as other cities and towns. So, even with Duane Reades and Starbucks and gas stations and pizza places littering all the corners, “the city” doesn't feel like America. It just feels like a city. In the hot flooding light of rush hour, it feels like the city.
Which is why it's funny-strange to take three trains, lose direction twice, and get found in what feels like the country, less than four miles away from where I began. In Brooklyn, on De Kalb between Vanderbilt and Clermont, in Fort Greene. A place that my grandparents would enjoy. A place where there is no rush hour, and possibly no rush and if you moved in there a neighbor might not only loan you a cup of sugar, but also tell you what to bake with it and how.
I am there on a Wednesday in March. It is prima facie summer. It is madness. By the middle of that day I'm sure that if I stay much longer I will take off my shoes and get married.
“Dear Mama,” the postcard would say. “Dear Papa. I have something to tell you. I am writing to you from Fort Greene...”
In 1776 during the American Revolutionary War, a general named Nathanael Greene built himself a fort. When the war was over, a park grew around the fort, and for a time they called it Washington. Now it's Fort Greene. It was the first park in Brooklyn, just like Coloured School No. 1 (now P.S. 67) was Brooklyn's first African-American school, two blocks from the park. Both were built in 1847. That was a big year for Fort Greene. Rich people moved there, 19th-century yuppies with Italianate homes, but so did poor people. Walt Whitman lived there. So did Marianne Moore.
A dude-child rides by on a unicycle. A squat woman trawls the block carrying clouds of cotton candy and girls go to school in technicoloured dream outfits. An old painter takes me around a corner to see his work at the cafe that's still open, which is not Tillie's, that institution sadly having closed.
“Fort Greene is the bellybutton of the universe,” says Harvey the painter as he drinks hot chocolate on a bench in the apocalyptic sun. “[This neighbourhood] is full of marvellous people who are very diverse on many levels. Everything is here. Even the people who buy my paintings are here.”
Harvey collects antique Hawaiian shirts, although he doesn't like to call them that. He knows most things about most people and, like a good “mayor,” refuses to pick favourites among lunch places or bodegas on the block. “There were two restaurants,” he says, “and now there are five, and each has its own special quality.”
Wherever there's gentrification there is also a number of white people complaining about it. Harvey has decided not to be one of them. “I've changed as the neighbourhood has changed. It lost decent rents, but it gained a very fertile human landscape.” Pressed for clarity, he produces an enigmatic smile. “It is going up in a very up way, and down in a very down way.”
It's getting very hot on De Kalb and it seems the ice cream shop may open before the flowers do. It's in the same building as General Greene, a small, rusticky, put-it-in-a-Mason-jar-type restaurant that opened in 2009 and could be anywhere, but is here.
If you’d like to know what General Greene or any other new place used to be, go into the corner pharmacy, which has been there for 157 years. Rafiz, the pharmacist-owner, has occupied he-will-not-say-how-many of those. The defunct Tillie's, he tells us, was a candy store. Before that, a bike repair store. The upscale pet store was a hardware place; next door was a video store; the bookstore closed before the beauty salon. “Nobody stays very long,” says Rafiz.
I stay for one drink at the newer bar, Roman's, which opens sharp at five p.m. Near six, I am still the only person here. Most proprietors in Fort Greene are suspicious of outsiders, but the bartender is friendly; she's recently moved from elsewhere. “It's quiet now,” she says. “But later? Just you wait.”