How Do Writers Who Grew Up in Brooklyn Feel About Its Literary Makeover?
Transplants and natives talk about the early days of literary Brooklyn in the first installment of our oral history
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This is the first installment of the Brooklyn Letters project, a series of oral histories of literary Brooklyn from 1999 to 2009, presented by Electric Literature with support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
This installment of Brooklyn Letters is a two-parter; read part 2 here.
There is the New York where people live and there is the New York of people’s ideas. Sometimes it can happen that the two will overlap, but far more often they will turn out to be wildly different. One day, walking down Greene Ave. in Bed-Stuy on my way to meet a friend, I came across a family milling outside a van with Missouri plates, consulting directions printed on a sheet of paper. The trunk was open and it was piled high with suitcases, folding chairs, chips, plastic toys, and a styrofoam cooler. They seemed exhausted and confused, looking around at the nondescript street and blinking at the sun that was setting over the edge of the brownstones. Seeing me one of them sheepishly approached and told me they were lost. “We came to see Brooklyn,” he said, holding out the directions. “But how do we get there?”
Who hasn’t experienced that confusion in some form, whether visiting or living in the city — of some outsized expectation or ideal, followed by a very sobering realization? When I first moved to Brooklyn I imagined there must be something about the place to account for all the literature that’s been produced here, but when I sat down to write the work didn’t feel particularly different. It was still painful, drudging work, except that it was fueled by better pizza and the backdrop was both pleasant and more costly.
When I first moved to Brooklyn I imagined there must be something about the place to account for all the literature that’s been produced here, but when I sat down to write the work didn’t feel particularly different.
Like Paris in the ’20s, Brooklyn carries a kind of literary mystique, and it’s partly the mystique itself that keeps drawing people in, which in turn allows it to keep perpetuating. But what is that mystique? Where does it come from? What parts of it are just mythic idealism, and what happens to be grounded in reality (it’s factually true that a lot of writers live and make their careers here, in arm’s reach of the publishing industry)? And what exactly are its costs? Because spaces in the borough don’t spring up out of nowhere, and when someone moves in it means someone else has moved out.
Although writers have come from and been coming to Brooklyn long before now (a non-exhaustive list includes Walt Whitman, Alfred Kazin, Norman Mailer, Marianne Moore, Richard Wright, Hart Crane, Henry Miller, Carson McCullers, June Jordan, Truman Capote, and Anaïs Nin), the period in the borough from roughly the late ’90s to the late 2000s had the feeling of a distinct and cohesive literary movement (of which another non-exhaustive list includes Jennifer Egan, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster, and Edwidge Danticat). Or at least it’s been classified, mythologized, branded, and sold that way, possibly at the expense of other movements that happened to be taking place there at the same time. But whether or not the reality of that era has fallen victim to the idea that succeeded it, this ten-year period, more than any other, undeniably cemented Brooklyn’s status as a literary place. As Whitehead himself satirically wrote in 2006, in a somewhat spiky New York Times op-ed, “Google ‘brooklyn writer’ and you’ll get, Did you mean: the future of literature as we know it?”
The first part of this two-part oral history looks at how the so-called “Brooklyn Lit movement” came to be, by talking to some of the literary figures who were present and those who became most associated with it — whether they wanted to be associated or not. In hearing them speak, tell stories, and reminisce, what emerges is a sense that this freewheeling period in Brooklyn’s history truly deserves to be celebrated, but that it also calls for a certain amount of revision and revisitation. Although it’s clear that this was more than just a group of people who happened to be in the same place, engaged in the same type of work, at around the same time, it’s also clear that in the creation of a singular idea of literary Brooklyn other realities were overlooked, forgotten, or even erased. In part one, we’ll hear from early Brooklyn transplants on what drew them to the borough, and from early Brooklyn natives on how it felt to see their hometown turned into a site of literary pilgrimage, overburdened with cultural myth.
Elissa Schappell [author and co-founder, with Rob Spillman, of Tin House magazine; together she and Spillman moved from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Brooklyn in the Fall of 1998]: For years people had been telling us “you’ve got to move to Brooklyn, all of our friends are moving to Brooklyn.” In the beginning it seemed like a default for a lot of people — “we have to move because we don’t have the money.” It’s kind of like what happened when we [Elissa and her husband, Tin House co-founder Rob Spillman] moved to the Lower East Side: people start moving in and places start disappearing, and the artists all go someplace else.
Rob Spillman [co-founder of Tin House magazine]: When I moved to East Village in ’86, everybody was saying it’s over, New York is over. I should have been there five years ago. It’s totally lost its character and feel.
Schappell: A lot of people had been going out to Brooklyn for a long, long time, and were saying, “you need to come here, it’s so groovy.” But in that way that people get married, or they have a baby, and suddenly they’re like, “you need to do this.” And you think, “No! No way! I’m not doing that.” It was the same thing with Brooklyn. But once we ended up there in the Fall of ’98, it immediately felt like home.
People get married, or they have a baby, and suddenly they’re like, “you need to do this.” And you think, “No! No way! I’m not doing that.” It was the same thing with Brooklyn.
Spillman: It was a really good time to be out here, because there was sort of a mass exodus of writers. The East Village was becoming untenable and noisy, and NYU was encroaching. Brooklyn was a quieter alternative, especially with people having families. Better schools, safer, quieter. A lot of people wound up out here. David Grand, Jenny Offill, Karen Russell. [Donald] Antrim was here a couple years before we moved. Rick Moody.
Schappell: Where we were living, there’d be times when I would be home and hear this noise. It was like a pounding keyboard. Clack clack clack clack. Typing, incessant typing. I would look around. I knew no one was home next door, I looked into the neighbor’s yard, but I couldn’t see where it was coming from. I’d be out cutting roses or something, and every time I was doing something when I should’ve been writing, I would hear the noise. It was like being trapped in a Kafka story. So then one day I’m sitting out on the steps, and Paul Auster comes out of our neighbor’s building. It turns out he’s rented their entire top floor to use as an office. I hate to even imagine how much money he was paying so he didn’t have to work in his own gigantic brownstone.
Spillman: It was just his writing studio. Every day we would see Paul Auster coming in. And he used a manual typewriter, so if I was out in the garden I would hear Paul Auster hammering away, making you feel guilty for not working.
If I was out in the garden I would hear Paul Auster hammering away on his manual typewriter, making you feel guilty for not working.
Schappell: I could barely forgive him for that. It really drove me insane. When we met I was doing an interview with him, and I told him that I used to call him Mr. Keys, because the sound of those banging keys would follow me everywhere.
Jonathan Lethem [author of Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn]: There are a couple of writers who are older than myself, who aren’t Brooklyn natives but who made themselves comfortable there — most specifically Paul Auster. He’s a real part of this story, and it’s because he writes in a really charming way that wasn’t uncool, but was honestly kind of sentimental or embracing about Brooklyn.
Schappell: But I only tell you that by way of saying that everybody needs a place to work, and there was no way in the world I could rent out an entire apartment to write in. So in 2002, when Scott Adkins and Erin Courtney started the Brooklyn Writers Space [on 1st Street in Gowanus], it was an absolute revelation. To be able to leave your house and go to a place where there are just desks, and a kitchen, and you can’t talk, was remarkable.
The first people to join I think were me and David Grand, but eventually tons and tons of now well-known Brooklyn writers joined that space. For a short period of time in the beginning Jonathan Lethem was working there. Lethem used to type really fast. You would be sitting there, in your little cubicle, and it was silent. And then you’d just hear this pounding pounding pounding pounding — you know, really fast typing. It drove everybody crazy. Like, oh my god, what the fuck is he doing over there? But that first winter in the Brooklyn Writers Space, Lethem gave us all space heaters. I remember having one under my desk, wearing a hat, hunched over and working. I can’t imagine how many Brooklyn writers actually have careers because places like that started opening up.
Lethem: The whole Brooklyn Lit movement made me say, “Wait. Wait, what?” I really never stopped saying “Wait, what,” even as I started making friends, and was enjoying the work of some of the people who were being tagged that way. I don’t deny that I probably benefited from being tagged that way myself.
I was fascinated by what was happening. It was a jubilant time. I was, to be blunt about it, arriving as a public writer, at the same time as this notion of the Brooklyn literary scene was so attractive to people, and it hadn’t started to become overdetermined or oversold. It didn’t seem gross yet, and I rode that crest. But everywhere I went I had to flash my street cred. It became really dull and exhausting, even if it was (and here’s a word that doesn’t work anymore) my trump. I had this trump card to play all the time, and I would play it, because it made people go, “Whoa!”
The whole Brooklyn Lit movement made me say, “Wait. Wait, what?” I really never stopped saying “Wait, what.”
I grew up on Dean Street, almost at the corner of Nevins [in the neighborhood that is now called Boerum Hill, formerly North Gowanus]. I went to all the public schools, and I had friends who were in the housing projects. I lived on the streets when there were a lot of bricked-up houses still around. When people felt they were experiencing gentrification in the years between the late ’90s and the mid-’00s, it took me a while not to just laugh at them, because I saw the issue of culturally similar white people incrementally pressing other, more or less culturally similar white people out as being a non-issue, compared to the things I’d been party to growing up. That was a raw, crazy, violent gentrification, from a very different reality. It was like a slow motion collision of two different worlds. My parent’s generation, these weird-sounding white people, were in on the creation of even the name “Boerum Hill.” It was invented, and invented by a woman I knew named Helen Buckler. She lived two doors down from me. There was no Boerum Hill — there was Park Slope, there was Carroll Gardens, and there was Cobble Hill. But Boerum Hill was a propositional thing. They went and they found the name of a little Dutch farmer who owned part of that area named Simon Boerum, and they were like, “Sure, we’ll use that name.” Then they added Hill, because you have to have a Slope or a Hill or a Heights or something. There’s no hill; you can look as hard as you like, but you won’t find a hill. It was an invention, because they needed to convince the city and the banks to cut loans to private citizens.
Before that Gowanus was a redline neighborhood. My grandmother had to loan my parents $5,000 for a downpayment on that house on Dean Street, which is now worth god knows how many millions. Their bank wouldn’t loan you money to do that; they saw it as a mistaken investment. That neighborhood was industrial, it was rooming houses, and it was brown people. Sorting through my feelings about that is something I never finished doing. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t come around to seeing that there have been extraordinary, substantive changes, when a place like Gowanus became a boast-worthy, fashionable, hip signifier, as opposed to a deep bruise on the mind of the Brooklynite.
I don’t mean to throw any shade. It’s just that a project like this probably needs a troll under the bridge like me to say these things.
Naima Coster [author of Halsey Street]: I really value respect and being respected. Growing up in Brooklyn, in a way, forced me to be on the alert for disrespect. Part of it was that, although there were lots of things I cherished about the place I was from, this was a place that was disrespected outside of its borders. Like, Fort Greene having a reputation — in addition to Richard Wright writing his book here, and this beautiful park, and the neighborhood being this site of rich cultural heritage, it was also a place that had a bad reputation and was often devalued. Ideas about a place are also ideas about the people who live there. Growing up in Brooklyn I was very aware of that; even as kids we had a sense that we might be disrespected elsewhere. We felt on guard and aware of that, and we took it upon ourselves to validate one another. We all wore being from Brooklyn like a badge of honor.
Ideas about a place are also ideas about the people who live there. Growing up in Brooklyn I was very aware of that; even as kids we had a sense that we might be disrespected elsewhere.
Lethem: When I go to a literary festival, and they want to put me on a Brooklyn literature panel, what I feel, compared to what I think that panel is supposed to mean, has to do with providences that I just experience differently in my body. I can celebrate what Brooklyn became in some ways; it’s a gas that it’s such a hot ticket, that there are so many beautiful restaurants and bookstores. But that’s not where I’m from. The younger cohort, many of whom wrote wonderful novels that I really enjoyed, and many of whom became real friends, they were using Brooklyn as a really attractive destination to live and create their lives in a way that… Well, it was like I was a Martian, and they came and founded a Mars colony. Like, that Mars colony is amazing! But I’m still a Martian.
Spillman: Tin House’s first issue came out in ’99, and our first office out here [the magazine’s other office is in Portland, Oregon, in a Victorian house covered in zinc siding called the Tin House] was on the corner of 3rd Ave and 8th Street in Gowanus. It was above the Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie store. It used to be a machine shop, which would send up fumes into our office, but then two sisters from South Dakota opened this small pie shop below us. We shared an entrance so we’d have to walk by their kitchen to go upstairs, and they would use our office for their overflow during the holidays, so we’d come in before Thanksgiving and our place would be filled with pies. And they paid us in pies, too.
It was a time when literary magazines were really stodgy. They were supposed to be good for you, like medicine. There was no design, it was all very flat. When we used pull quotes people were like, “Oh god, they’re lightweight, they can’t be serious.” The first issue of McSweeney’s came out six months before us. Dave [Eggers, founder of McSweeney’s] was living on 9th Street at the time, and I was living on 5th Street, and we would compare notes. The original idea for his magazine was that each issue was going to be a handcrafted thing, so it reinvented the wheel every time: the first issue was a cigar box, the second one was a pressed-tin frame where we hammered in the sides. What was in the air at the time was a feeling of going against that old self-seriousness, and trying to have fun.
Alexander Chee [author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel and The Queen of the Night]: McSweeney’s opened a store early on, on 7th Avenue [in South Park Slope; called The McSweeney’s Store, it sold such items as a surgical mallet for $11.50, or a 4-oz. bottle of ferret ear cleaner for $11.14, as well as books]. It was this store where it was very difficult to tell what they did. I remember walking by the window one time and seeing a writer playing a fiddle. In my mind, he was a kind of marker of the Brooklyn writer’s group that was out there.
I actually recall deciding at some point that I was not going to play a fiddle inside of McSweeney’s for a reading. I thought, “Isn’t it enough that I wrote the thing?” Playing the fiddle on top of it felt like a step too far.
Lethem: When I talk about Brooklyn, I realize I’m not an early patient. I’m not patient 0, or 1, or 2, or 3 of the new literary Brooklyn. I’m the last person, the one who hasn’t quite gotten wheeled off to the cemetery from the Brooklyn before it. I’m more connected to the world of L.J. Davis, Paula Fox, Rosellen Brown, Gilbert Sorrentino — people who wrote about the exact time and place that I come from, and named the murkiness and the complexity and the awkwardness of the gentrification years, the 60s, the 70s, the early 80s. When I read them I thought, “Yes, I recognize this.”
The first thing I knew about Paula Fox was that she had saved my best friend Jeremy’s life when he was falling off a stoop. She caught him. She was buddies with L.J. [Davis], and I was in L.J.’s house because I was friends with Jeremy. L.J. was the first real writer I knew. He was on Dean Street, regally in ruins. Have you read A Meaningful Life? Get thee to A Meaningful Life. L.J.’s novels are about gentrifying Brooklyn in the 70s. He wrote four of them. That one’s set in Fort Greene; it’s a dark, dark, dark book. There’s another that’s set right on Dean Street. He was a very fascinating, morbid, eccentric character, with the affect of a Hunter S. Thompson type or a Christopher Hitchens. By then he had already ironized his role as one of the early gentrifiers. He’d been a proponent of the new Brooklyn before anyone, and then he watched it overtake him and leave him behind. He was a very strange figure, but he was a writer, and he was writing novels that were about that space and what it felt like to him, though they were politically incorrect. Then there was Rosellen Brown, who wrote stories about Bergen Street [in her collection Street Games]. They were about the lives of the brown people, and that was also persuasive to me, and real. I didn’t read the Paula Fox books until a little bit later, until her rediscovery [with Desperate Characters]; I just knew of her. But they write about that space as I recall it, those three writers in particular. Otherwise I might have lived in a place I could never have explained to anyone, until I wrote Fortress of Solitude. Before I did, I could say “read Rosellen Brown.”
I’m not patient 0, or 1, or 2, or 3 of the new literary Brooklyn. I’m the last person, the one who hasn’t quite gotten wheeled off to the cemetery from the Brooklyn before it.
But when I say I’m the last of the old times, rather than one of the first of the new kind, what I mean is that, for us, Brooklyn was a place to get out of. Brooklyn was not an identification to be sought. It was an identification to be contended with or processed. Henry Miller is from Brooklyn. Robert Stone is from Brooklyn. They did the John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever thing: they got the hell out. That’s what Brooklyn is for. Yes, it might be an enriching and conflicting and fascinating experience that you got from this place, but it’s thorny, and you’ve gone elsewhere to make your life. There is a visceral part of me that feels more like Henry Miller — he ran away to Paris and never looked back and then wrote Black Spring, partly about his street life growing up in Brooklyn. I feel a lot when I read it, because I had one of those myself. I was the last of the get-the-hell-outs. I moved to Berkeley in my twenties and started writing novels, and I barely ever stepped on those sidewalks of Brooklyn. I didn’t need to. My father was still in the house, but then he sold it and moved to Maine, and I was relieved for him. I wrote about imaginary places, about western spaces and the Bay area. I wrote four novels before I even mentioned Brooklyn. I was just a writer who happened to come from this place. That’s the old style.
Coster: My whole family lives in Brooklyn. Both my parents and my brother are still in Fort Greene. They live separately; my brother has his own apartment. He chose to stay in the neighborhood, and can afford to. My parents are rent stabilized tenants, so they’re not going anywhere. I go back several times a year. I’m the strange one who has gone off, in a way.
Lethem: I turned a giant corner at some point. I started to want to write about Brooklyn, and of course once I did I couldn’t stop. And then I wanted to live there again. But I moved to Greenpoint, a place I’d never known as a kid. It felt like Queens to me. There were three daily newspapers in Polish that were still being published every day. One of them was virulently anti-Semitic. It was a daily paper! Being published in the States, and sold in the grocery store! It was a fascinating and crazy place to be, and it did not bring back the baggage of my Gowanus childhood. But sometimes I would take the G train down, and walk around Boerum Hill. A little of it went a long way. I was actually almost too intoxicated, too freaked out by the memories and the intensities I would experience.
A weird emblem of my existence there was when I became associated with a bar in my old neighborhood called the Brooklyn Inn. It’s on the corner of Bergen and Hoyt Streets [in Boerum Hill]. It was a storefront that, when I was a kid, was boarded up for a long, long time. Very anomalously, at the end of the ’70s, someone started a French restaurant there, unbelievably prematurely with the gentrification still to come. It was kind of a success and a weird, freakish thing for a few years, and then it too failed, because it was too early. So it was boarded up again, and then it became this bar, which had this nice, old, wooden interior that signified the old neighborhood to the people who had just arrived. But to me it seemed violently new. That you could have a hipster bar in this neighborhood at all!
I was going there two or three times a week, because it became this ritual with me and all my new friends — the jukebox had good songs on it and there were no television screens, because we were Luddites and we didn’t like to see screens — and we would hit a kind of rolling party in that bar. To my friends, they were in a place that was deep in the hood and was an old Brooklyn place. But the whole time I was thinking, this thing just got put here. When I stand outside on this corner I remember being in a headlock and having a kid from IS-293 rub my face in dog shit, and there being no adult walking by who cared enough to stop him. I still felt it. That’s what that place was. But I fell into a habit of going there. It became a kind of perverse badge for me. I thought, “Nobody knows unless I tell them that I am in the crosshairs of my own fear, conflict, and self-loathing when I step foot in this place.” I could sit at the bar and order a Brooklyn Lager. I was hiding in plain sight.
I remember one night I was flirting in the bar with a young woman from publishing. Brooklyn was really turning into a scene, and she was just trying to catch up with how many trump cards I had to pull. She was telling me that she knew the neighborhood too, and I was saying, “Yeah, yeah, sure you do.” I was really being a jerk. I said, “Where do you live?” and she said, “I live on Dean Street between Bond and Hoyt.” And I said, “Alright, how about this: you tell me your address and I’m going to tell you the name of your landlord.” She looked at me, thinking, Nah, you’re not really going to do that. She told me 15016, and I said, “Nancy Cogen is your landlord.” She stared at me like I was stalking her! She couldn’t believe I actually had that in my head.
Nancy Cogen was the mother of my first crush, Lisa Cogen, who I used to walk down Dean Street to PS-29 in Carroll Gardens every day, and then after school, when Lisa would let me, I’d hang out with her and her mom in their backyard where Nancy was batiking t-shirts which she sold out of a storefront on Atlantic Avenue. It actually continued to exist until relatively recently: The Melting Pot. That was my Brooklyn. Not just being in a headlock and having my head rubbed in dog shit, but also the hippies and the fact that Pacific Street used to have a gay scene, which was totally wiped out by AIDS. No one even knows it was there.
These memories and this knowledge, it wasn’t ever overwritten by what was happening, the party that was being thrown by literary Brooklyn, which I would enjoy. But all I could do was constantly play this troll under the bridge, this I-know-who-your-landlady-is, It’s-not-as-nice-here-as-you-think… It’s a very wearisome role in a way, but it’s the role that was thrust upon me. I just couldn’t pretend.
Brooklyn Letters is supported by a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.