Too-easy-by-half portrait of New York City’s most famous toehold on the mainland.
The book is an oral history of a teeming, immigrant-packed American city that looms large in the nation’s psyche, but this is no Division Street, and pop biographer Eliot (Jimmy Stewart: A Biography, 2006, etc.) is no Studs Terkel. He begins poorly with a hokey introduction that seems to be trying to set a cliché record in describing just how awesome (AWESOME!) Brooklyn is. The first chapter, on Coney Island, offers little better, as “the cyclonic roller-coaster ride that is Coney Island’s future continues to soar and dip.” Subsequent, crudely slapped-together sections on Sheepshead Bay, music and Dem Bums (the Dodgers) prompt fears that the entire book is going to be like that. Then, at about the halfway mark, comes a man speaking his mind about Brooklyn: “It’s a shit-fuckin’-hole of roaches and rats,” he declares before laying into “all of that candy store nostalgia and egg cream crap.” Unfortunately, Eliot gives far too much space to that crap, with long-gone-to-Hollywood entertainers getting teary-eyed about stickball and tenements and dear old Mom. Finally, in the book’s second half, he starts to include occasional voices of dissent speaking unpalatable truths. Acknowledging the borough’s racism, a rabbi talks about how an entire block would shift from white to black within a month. Blunt recollections of gang violence dispel the impression conveyed earlier that it somehow didn’t exist back in the Good Old Days. There’s some sadness here, and a more hard-hitting type of nostalgia: not for the old days of the Dodgers and trolley cars, but for a time when neighborhoods of different ethnicities still interacted out of necessity. Brooklyn comes across in the end as a crowded, sprawling, beautiful, ugly dream of a place that people can’t wait to get out of and then spend the rest of their lives unable to forget.
A sappily sentimental but nevertheless vital look at America’s neighborhood.