History of World War Two Told Through Letters
I want to point out that while this blog may have the presumptive title “Brooklyn in Love and at War,” what we are reading is the smallest sliver of a picture of Brooklyn/New York. This is Brooklyn through the eyes of one woman and we walk down only the paths that she takes us down (baby in tow). The New York Sylvia experienced was in some ways a prime example of her time; a husband at war, an apartment in the projects, Jewish relatives in Brownsville and on the Lower East Side. Her life and habits were class, race, age, and gender specific. We are capturing, through a number of filters and distances, something that is drenched in “Brooklyn-ness” yet can barely scratch the surface of what Brooklyn is/was/will be.
Last week’s issue of New York Magazine rated “The Best of New York” in a large variety of categories. It published discussions about the best NY Mayor, the best NY sitcom, the best NY song and even the best year to be a rat in NY (1968 during the 9 day sanitation strike) and it was a great read. Of course, these articles had me saying, “Here, here!” for some arguments and shaking my fist at others. I suppose that is the beauty of New York: Its value lies in different places for everyone.
The first category up for discussion was the single best year to have lived in the city. The first two years nominated were 1898, when Brooklyn and the other five boroughs came together to form the current metropolis, and 1947 “because it all seemed to work ” according to Daniel Okrent. Mr. Okrent’s reasons included Jackie Robinson, the Health Department administrating smallpox vaccines at a staggering rate, Bronx Science having four future Nobel laureates in its student body, and the fact that the bustling subway cost only a nickel – 49 cents today. (Maybe it was because my dad was born that year.) What makes this debate so difficult is that no single year is without imperfections – even epic failures. After all, in 1947 white flight was about to take off, Robert Moses was tearing down slums, Jim Crow Laws and housing segregation were in full swing. The other issue is that what people value about New York varies so drastically. For instance, I have an inkling that in 1898 everyone didn’t agree that consolidation was the best path for the city. Nor would I be sure that the thousands of people living in tenements would call 1898 the best time to live in NYC. And while I may frequently find myself relishing the past, I get frustrated by purely nostalgic looks at a city that is flawed and always has been. For example, sometimes people say the city was more “real” in the 1970s when what they really mean is drug-infested and impoverished.
New York’s charms and pitfalls can be both illustrated and predicted by the media’s portrayal of the city. New York movies can show what a person hopes a city might be, or what it is at its worst. Any movie that attempts to frame a part of the quintessential New York cannot at the same time claim to encompass the entire eclectic nature of New York itself. Who would believe that Annie Hall, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Do The Right Thing, Rear Window, Dog Day Afternoon, or even Sex and the City all take place in the same urban area? And yet each can claim to be truly “New York.”
So as we dive back into the past and into Sylvia’s world I want to consider what she does repeatedly and what she never seems to do. My argument is that a person can feel ownership over parts of New York, and as a New Yorker be protective of that knowledge and space. But if you feel ownership over some idea of a single, unified New York, then you live in a very comfortable and closed imaginary city. Without doubt, there is always more of New York out there to test your limits and make you squirm.
All we can do is try to grasp Sylvia’s New York one letter at a time before we try to make any other claims.