My family had been in Brooklyn (or, as I will ever call it, God’s country) for over a century, refugees from the Lower East Side and a Jacob Riis–style life in early-twentieth-century New York. My father didn’t speak much about his youth in Bensonhurst, but what he did say was enough to fill that neighborhood—which we visited every Saturday for dinner at my grandparents’ house, with several dozen cousins and hangers-on—with myth.
Now a transient place full of hipsters, bond traders, and actors, as well as actors and hipsters who are the children of bond traders, all searching for an “authentic” place to replace the Midwestern suburbs and rural towns they came to Brooklyn to escape, Brooklyn for me will always be Flatbush Avenue and Rudy Giuliani, Bernie (Goetz, not Madoff), and Ed Koch, block parties, radios murmuring Yankees games on back porches (all of us too poor to afford air conditioning, which kept us outside in that great urbanist semi-public space), the blackout of 1977 and the blizzard of 1995, Mickey Rivers and Bucky Dent, not to mention the wild cast of characters appearing in the Daily News, a paper that practically taught me to read. (Although my mother, a Niagara Falls native, reminds me that she taught me how to speak; no “dese and dose” with her, but the flatter vowels of upstate New York.)
My neighborhood, Old Mill Basin, was one of the city’s white ethnic redoubts. On the far edge of Brooklyn, abutting Jamaica Bay, it was “unequivocally remote,” as the New York Times once called it, culturally as well as geographically, from Manhattan. Irish, Italian, and Jewish to its core, it was a neighborhood Norman Rockwell might have recognized, had his father been from Calabria and his mother from Derry. My Little League season opened with Mass, midsummer’s highlights were the church bazaar and projects organized with the parish youth group, and each fall the shofar could be heard for blocks.
The title of a classic sociological study, Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism, sums up my cultural and social surroundings. We sort of knew Norman Lear was making fun of Archie Bunker, but so much of what Archie said made sense that we didn’t fully get the joke.
I had left Brooklyn for college but after a brief stint of Manhattan living came back for what I thought was for good—which in this case meant twelve years. But instead of living in Old Mill Basin or Bay Ridge, Marine Park or Bensonhurst, those neighborhoods I knew like I knew myself, my family landed in Brooklyn Heights.
Some may recall the paeans this neighborhood, and the adjoining Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill, received in Rod Dreher’s book Crunchy Cons. And he was not wrong. The neighborhoods are friendly and appeal to all sorts of conservative instincts for small-scale neighborhoods traversable without a car, home to few if any big-box or chain stores (and those easily ignored), and with a focus on local producers. We bought produce directly from farmers, loved finding the newest purveyor of organic ice cream, did not need to drive a car for weeks at a stretch, and lived within five miles of where my father and ancestors are buried.
During the dozen years we were in the Heights, we made good friends, who through their example continue to teach us how to live a rich and rewarding life. Since Rod’s book was published in 2006, Brooklyn’s growth into a center of individual handicrafts, small-scale producers, and eco-friendly business has exploded, along with the real-estate prices.
And yet, and yet. The celebrated small shopkeepers, holdovers in large part from the time when the neighborhoods were more coherent, usually lived elsewhere. The owners of my favorite deli, for example, where we went every Sunday after Mass, had moved out long before to raise their children in Pennsylvania and drove back every day to the store. Their hipster replacements are doing cool things, to be sure, but whether they can create a stable culture like the one that has all but disappeared is unclear.
The cultural rhythms of our life in Brooklyn had also become jarring. Institutions matter, and how people recognize community and the values that motivate them is important. Centuries after Christian missionaries co-opted the pagan festivals and converted them to Christ, Brooklyn, like many communities of the affluent elite, is undergoing a sort of re-paganization.
The holidays of the traditional Christian calendar are being either replaced by fake ones (Earth Day) or simply hollowed out. Valentine’s Day, for example, has assumed a ridiculously large presence and is, so far as I can tell, the only time the word “saint” can be safely mentioned in a secular school. Halloween, too, is now reserved for candy distribution and completely removed from the feast of All Saints.
This is all old news, of course, to anyone even peripherally familiar with the culture wars, but to see it played out daily was more of a shock than I had expected. One anecdote: Our older daughter’s “winter sing” contained respectful songs celebrating Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and the Chinese New Year; Christians got “Jingle Bell Rock.” The end of the year featured a “Maypole” dance, severed from its cultural realities and imbued with a neutral, multicultural vibe.
One can take only so much. These events spoke to the need of every community to have rituals, and a deep thoughtfulness went into creating traditions that would be open to all, or almost all. But to me, all this seemed to be the beginnings of a new culture ultimately incompatible with what I believed.
Our parish church, where all of our children were baptized and which I imagined being the church of my daughters’ weddings (and my funeral), was wonderful, if half-filled and always in danger of being consolidated with other churches. But because, I think, of the combined effect of affluence and the busyness of life in the city, it was no longer a center of the lives of the Catholics who attended Mass there.
Moreover, there was little overlap between the families we knew in our parish and the families we saw the rest of the week in school or at other activities. Although I appreciate the need to be a leaven in a secular culture, the contrast was affecting our ability to convey a Christian worldview to our children; I needed help.
I’d like to say that all these changes were the reasons we moved north from Brooklyn to suburban Westchester, shaking the dust of the secular city from my feet. Alas, I am not so strong-willed. Out of nostalgia and inertia I likely would have stayed, but the cold logic of the dismal science was the final straw.
Paying three private-school tuitions was crushing, especially as I grew less enchanted with the education, and the public-school options were byzantine and unsure. As for the Catholic schools, there were none—none—nearby that served Brooklyn Heights, a commentary that speaks volumes about the state of the Church in affluent neighborhoods that, a few decades ago, might have supported not only traditional parochial schools but perhaps a Catholic high school charging competitive private-school tuition. My wife, who is far more reasonable and who could more patiently put up with what so exasperated me, and I decided that leaving was the best option for us.
The suburbs have their own tradition of anomie and cultural dissolution, of course, and my crunchy-con friends will surely blanch at our easy acceptance of the demon automobile. But the church here is bursting, the religious-education program is an order of magnitude larger, and there’s even a very active Knights of Columbus chapter, a group I had not been involved with since college.
The entire town speaks a cultural and religious language I had not heard in years, and one I had not realized I missed very much. In the end, I decided I would rather drive almost everywhere and forgo artisanal pickles than lose those connections that made me who I am.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of the University Bookman and a fellow of the G. K. Chesterton Institute.