High life

A love letter to Brooklyn Heights

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

3 November 2018

9:00 AM

New York

I now know it by heart. Brooklyn Heights, that is. It takes 35 minutes by cab from where I live on the Upper East Side, and approximately $30. I even walked to the Heights once. One hour down the FDR, turn left on to Brooklyn Bridge, dodge the aggressive bikers and avoid the vendors; it’s a 20-minute crossing, give or take ten minutes depending on the crowds. Once you’re over, turn right and you’re there. The Heights are sedate, leafy streets with fine old homes turned into apartments, lush gardens and lofty harbour views. It feels like a staid patrician neighbourhood where time has stood still since the turn of the 20th century.

Brooklyn Heights was farmland when enterprising Heights property owners began to sell off plots for country retreats to the Manhattan elite. Mansions of brick and stone went up and in 1883 came the Brooklyn Bridge. With it came rooming houses, machine-shops and factories. Waves of immigrants poured in. The Brooklyn Navy Yard went up. There were bohemians and hustlers and hookers and muggers too. The patricians fled, as they always do. Bars and rowdy taverns greeted the sailors and ruffians down by the water. This was the place that Norman Mailer’s mother chose to buy into, and where the novelist lived until his death in 2007. His son Michael still lives there, hence my acquaintance with it. The Heights were the fictional home of Clark Kent, Superman, and also the fictional setting for Willy Loman’s adulterous affair in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Miller lived nearby before heading north where he met Marilyn Monroe.

The social terrorist Truman Capote lived in a basement flat at 70 Willow Street at a time when he could write good fiction. He moved to Manhattan, where he met all sorts of swells. He took pills and drugs and drank like an Irishman, and his talent went missing. He died bloated and unable to string a sentence together verbally or on paper. That should be a lesson to all of us. In 1950 the greatest destructionist since Genghis Khan, Robert Moses, proposed to obliterate the Heights with an expressway straight through them, but Mailer and his ilk managed to limit the damage. Still, the city planner wreaked havoc. Houses that were once home to W.H. Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten and Paul and Jane Bowles went down the tubes. Walt Whitman and Hart Crane lived in the Heights and, as I wrote recently, if General Howe had been looking down at the East River back in 1777 instead of carousing with his beloved brother, the admiral, he would have seen the ragtag army of George Washington fleeing the Heights in silence for the safety of Manhattan.

Brooklyn Heights is back in fashion now because there is no more east village, as in Greenwich Village. The one-time haunt of every bohemian artist and writer, it has now been ‘gentrified’ by social climbers, film stars and billionaires who wish to be looked on as cool. Prices have gone through the you-know-what. Hotels in the village are packed with tourists. The streets are jammed with shoppers, the restaurants and clubs filled to the brim with freaks and wannabes. The French Connection was filmed in Brooklyn Heights, including the crucial drug-smuggling scene on the waterfront below the Heights. As was that wonderful movie Moonstruck, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage.

The ideal city living is the village life. As in London of yesteryear, where communities knew each other from birth to death, and sections of the city felt like urban villages, New York’s varied boroughs — Chinatown, Greenwich Village, Germantown, Hell’s Kitchen, Little Italy, even Park Avenue — felt like a village. No longer. I will never forget when one of my father’s employees took me to Brooklyn as a teenager, to a crumbling edifice called Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Locals back then spoke Brooklynese: a bird was a boid and Thirty-third street was toirty-toird. People drank beer in the bleachers and a ticket cost 65 cents. The scoreboard was hand-operated and when a particular disaster took place on the field, the operator sometimes didn’t put it on the board until ordered to do so by the umpire. Abe Stark’s haberdasher sign advertised that if you hit the scoreboard with a home run, you would win an Abe Stark suit of clothes. Not many did. Fans would scream at the opposition benches after a rare Dodgers victory: ‘Eatcha heart out, ya bum.’

The place was heaven, though I was a Yankees fan. I had met Joe DiMaggio and become friendly with Mickey Mantle, two of the greatest ever, but still I felt bad for the beloved bums of Brooklyn — until they committed the greatest betrayal ever by going Hollywood on us and moving to Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Dodgers are now big-time and have just been to the World Series, as it’s called. They draw millions each year but have as much soul as Anna Wintour. Their announcer speaks perfect English and I hate him for it. I’ll take Tex Rickards any day, the grammatically challenged Brooklyn announcer who regularly reminded fans: ‘Don’t throw nuthin from the stands.’ And when he spotted overheated fans hanging their coats on the outfield fences, he warned them: ‘Will the fans along the left field please remove their clothes?’

Ah, Brooklyn! I miss you.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments