This is a free edition of Brooklyn, Everywhere, a newsletter where I ponder the many meanings of gentrification, and what we lose in our relentless pursuit of “the American dream.” Sign up here to get it in your inbox. For access to all editions of the newsletter, including subscriber-only exclusives, subscribe to The Atlantic.
Past editions I’ve enjoyed include: And Just Like That... Is A Mirror Image of the New NYC, On Gentrification of Self: An Ode to Jeremy Strong, and America's Inside Voice.
I grew up on 60th Street, in a little patch of South Brooklyn that sits between Sunset Park, Boro Park, and Bensonhurst. My grandparents worked at a public school in Sunset Park—as a lunch lady and a janitor, respectively—right across from the 36th Street subway station, where the shooting occurred yesterday.
Growing up, I was always desperate to be in “the city,” where the action was. Where the new and the cool was always happening. This desire was at direct odds with my old-school upbringing: My grandparents, like most of our family and neighbors, saw ventures into Manhattan as hunts for trouble. Their frustration often bubbled over on Saturday afternoons; they wondered why we couldn’t just stay in Brooklyn, where it was “safe.”
When I moved back home after college in Rhode Island, I found myself agreeing with them, albeit for different reasons. It turned out that it was the emotional safety I needed. I was tired of pretending to be smarter/better and more ambitious, and I was eager for a chance to come home and just be myself. After graduation, I ran back home to New York like the I-95 South was on fire, desperate to get back to South Brooklyn. Real Brooklyn.
In the late ’90s, life in South Brooklyn was not dictated by the ever-mutable goals that defined Manhattan living: moving up a corporate ladder, getting reservations at the trendiest restaurants, finding work in the “hot” new field. Nobody in Manhattan (or its leadership) was ever too interested in what happened in South Brooklyn, particularly not in Sunset Park. And the residents of South Brooklyn, in turn, were never too concerned with Manhattan or its values either. In South Brooklyn—then, and in some places, still now—what was valued was time. More specifically, the time you had to be “home.” Time that you could spend with your family, your community, and on your friendships (the longer held, the better). In these neighborhoods, Manhattan was seen as a place for a job, and the lack of drama and commotion in daily life was seen as part of the point.
So I eschewed Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, with their blossoming nightlife, and moved into the basement apartment an uncle rented only to family in Sunset Park, off Third Avenue under the BQE. My commute to Manhattan for work was relatively abysmal, and so for me, like many others, life became ensconced in this Brooklyn bubble. After work, I’d slog it home and meet old friends in the dive bars of South Slope. On weekends, too tired to bother getting into “the city,” we’d hit up clubs and lounges in Bay Ridge. Nobody from outside this remote part of Brooklyn was clamoring to get into our world, and I loved that. It was home. And it felt safe.
On September 11, I was living in a floor-through apartment in a limestone building on 54th street with my childhood best friend. In those days, we were into walking, and that morning—that gorgeous, beautiful morning—we walked from Sunset Park, down Fifth Avenue, down Atlantic, and over the Brooklyn Bridge before hopping on the N train at Chambers. When we emerged at the 23rd Street stop, it was to the strangest sight: smoke coming from one of the Twin Towers. I stared from the traffic meridian in front of the Flatiron and, since online news didn’t exist in those days, ran to my office, waiting for 1010 Wins or Hot 97 or New York 1 to tell me what it was that I had just seen. Later, from my office building, I watched the first and then the second tower collapse. Soon, my roommate and I were putting on our walking shoes again to make the long trek home to Sunset Park, this time among thousands of other Brooklynites and city residents, amid a sky of dark smoke.
For days, we holed up in our Sunset Park apartment, watching the news and crying, like everyone else. Eventually, we ventured around the neighborhood, and around South Brooklyn, but we mainly stuck close to home. I remember feeling remarkably safe in the aftermath of this terror. Talking with our neighbors, almost all of whom were families we got to know or friends of family and old friends of ours, we agreed that this felt like a place that, in the best possible way, nobody cared about. We were not a tourism center or a beacon of industry. We were a tiny pocket of a borough made up predominantly of immigrants and the children of immigrants—a place almost always forgotten. It wasn’t that the terrorist act didn’t feel close or impactful: From the top of Sunset Park itself, you could see the smoking of Ground Zero for days afterward. The area was home to countless first responders who died or worked the pile in the months that followed. But somehow it always felt like a place where one didn’t anticipate experiencing trauma as much as one expected respite from it.
And not just middle-class, bougie respite like the kind I was seeking, coming home from being poor and Latina at an Ivy and just wanting to feel normal again. I mean respite from working a hard, low-paid job because you are undocumented. Respite from the indignities of being ignored in “the city” because of a language barrier. Respite from your office not seeing your potential because of your race or ethnicity or the color of your skin or the school you didn’t go to or the prison that you did. Respite from people thinking you weren’t all that you could be because of the way you talked (or tawked). Respite from the ridiculousness of $5 cups of coffee and $20 salads and an hour-long commute where the one benefit was that you were so far out from Manhattan that you almost always got a seat on the train.
Sunset Park felt safe because everyone could just breathe. Breathe and be themselves. People could cook and eat the foods that made them happy. Teens could sit on a stoop on a Saturday night with their friends. Families could grab empanadas and sit in the park on a Sunday after church. On a weekday evening, you could almost feel the sighs of relief as people got to the top of the staircase when they got home. And on a weekday morning? You had to love the pleasantries people exchanged as they grabbed their coffee and their papers or opened up their books and blasted music in their headphones before they left it all behind and sucked in their breath, preparing to face this “outside” world.
A lot of South Brooklyn has changed, fully ceding to gentrification. In many areas, original values have been replaced by those more reflective of Manhattan life. But Sunset Park, to my delight, has always largely remained the same. Once home to Norwegian immigrants, in the ’60s and ’70s it then became an enclave for Puerto Rican and Chinese American families, who divided the neighborhood up beautifully by claiming Fifth Avenue and Eighth Avenue as their respective retail strips. In my youth, Saturday afternoons along either strip could be spent finding all the ingredients needed to make your favorite dish “from home.” In recent years, the area has diversified again. Fifth avenue now reflects the pan-Latinx community. There are, of course, increasing sprinklings of gentrifiers seeking cheaper rent, but it is still a place whose central point of gravity is a local one. One far from the lures of Manhattan—and, many of us had thought, from its dangers
Nobody deserves violence. It is a horrible, disgusting thing whenever it happens. Mass violence like this is so insidious precisely because it injects terror into spaces where one anticipates safety. So to be clear, this attack is not worse because it happened in a place I love and think of as home. It just cuts me a little deeper, because this is a community that doesn’t ask for much—not trendy restaurants or buildings with amenities. They just want to feel safe. To feel that sense of respite, that ability to freely breathe. And now that is gone.