Robert Kelly on Brooklyn (1)



by Robert Kelly



You don’t live in a city. You live across it.  Or athwart it, or through it.  You live through a city, and the routes of your travel are mapped by your own compulsions, infatuations, dreads.  Your sense of identity,  your sense of the task that lies before you, your work, the enterprise that the city will shape.  Your whole nature inscribes a Milky Way through the streets and tunnels and hills, a snake path you follow.  Your daily walk on business, wooing, pleasure, idling, follows the nervures of the city, you move through it and it leads you along.  You idle along, and it compels.

A city is a pilgrimage,

and like any pilgrimage (round Mount Kailash, from the Tour Saint Jacques to Compostella, from Jakarta to Mecca) it is a journey in time and space, yes, but also a journey through zones of sacrality, zones of the holy and zones of the profane, and that divine ordinary which Americans just call ‘the street.’

Street-smart. Street-wise.  Live on the streets. Walk the streets.  Follow the street. Up my street.

I want to talk about Brooklyn, about living in Brooklyn and what that meant, and in some ways still means.  I take my boyhood and young manhood to talk about, the time when I had to go far to find what I needed.

Just as Proust had the way that went by Swann’s place and the way that went by the Guermantes, so we had ways.   Ways that we wanted to go to fulfill our needs.  But also other ways, the drifting, Debord’s dérives,  that Whitman once called just ‘loafing,’ where the city moved us through itself, all by itself.  All we needed to do was answer – vote with our feet, and let the city guide.  This kind of pilgrimage was our dance, and the young man I was shyly responded and shuffled along as bravely as I could, trying to match my footwork to the music that was the street.

From anybody’s house run out the sacred paths:  the arms of a star.  Or are they the angel wings that led us to what we needed, or the places that needed us.

I will tell you about the star of a boy living in Brooklyn, just starting college.  Each person had his own star, the arms reaching out from the center, the apartment, reaching all the way to the City.  All the places that make city.  I will tell you about just four rays of my star, though my star had many rays, some of them still guiding me through space and time, because even now, half a century later, I still live at the tip of the starbeam, the one that haunted my childhood – the little wooden signpost that used to stand near the Washington Bridge pointed to it:  New England and North.

From my house there was a way that went to Town and another way that went Downtown;  a third way went Shopping.  But anybody in our part of the world went those ways.  I have to confine myself to my own ways, the ones that only a pilgrim knew, because you find them only when you consent to be a house-leaver and become a pilgrim.  Now it is my contention that everyone growing up in a city is a pilgrim, and each pilgrim has a route of his own to some goal or hallowed place he knew from the outset he must try to reach.  Pilgrimage is effort too, not just drifting.  Or it is the exquisite combination of those things, the drive and the drift.

(Town: Manhattan we always called town. I can’t recall ever hearing a non-official person say ‘Manhattan.’  It was always Town, as in we’re going to town.  Or City, as in I was in the city.  Even though Brooklyn had been part of New York City for sixty years, the City still meant Manhattan south of Central Park.  North of the park, it was of course still Manhattan, a hundred and fifty blocks of it, in fact, but it didn’t seem like the same place, it wasn’t the City.  (A strange analogy with London, where “City” meant only the financial district, the City of Westminster, and its surroundings.)  And like Proust’s ways, only years later did we realize that all our Ways finally intersected, were even geographically identical some of the time.

A city is not just its center, any more than a human is just its heart.  A city is also its periphery, and in Apollinaire’s Zone, the modern city found its first heroico-poetic presence,  a poem that chants the outskirts, the periphery. And it is to the outskirts that Paris still banishes its poor, while in New York, after a few preliminary adventures in such banishment, the direction changes: it was the heart, the Inner City, that became the danger zone.  And now that too is changing, as the outer suburbs flood back in.   Because a city has Brownian movement of its own, a slow recirculation, a ricorso of all the people through all the places – hundreds of years.  This circulation is the quiet, slow lymph of the city, the slow changes from which buildings rise, are deserted, crumble, are replaced.  This is the art of the city:  the city is not just a work of art, but the greatest of all of works of art.

Any city.  New or old, beautiful or common – just like works of art, they can be bad, good, academic, ordinary, sublime, almost perfect, sad failures:  cities are works of art.  The city is the highest human art.  Not some individual human but humankind-in-time-and-place builds a city, and its forming is carefully planned in the sleeping minds of millions and the waking minds of a few – but all of them count, all of them are the builders of their great house.

I have grown to feel sure that the city is in fact the supreme art-work, and all the little treasures in its museums, if it has museums, all its little mosques and minarets and steeples and domes, all are just part of the brushwork of the whole.  We know of, sometimes have photos or engravings of, many lost works of art.  We know of many lost cities, cities lost before anyone thought to map or describe them.  If we lost a Miro now or a Matisse, photos would give us a clear, almost too clear, vision of what we had lost.  We would have lost the thing, but  not the plan that had made it thingly.  But if we lost a city, even a shabby small city, no matter how many maps or photographs we had, we could never get even a glimpse, whiff or feel of what that city is.  Take any part away from this Gesamtkunstwerk and we have lost the whole.

Imagine standing at a window in any part of town.  We’ll say in Brooklyn, just to start getting Brooklyn in our sights.  You look out of a second story window say, and see the backyard below you.  Full of sumac bushes and a few salty pale tomato plants, a rose bush with no flowers on it.  A hose uncoiled.  A bicycle against the old wooden plank fence long ago turned grey with weather.  It is evening, but not yet lighting up time.  Beyond the little yard below you is a neighbor’s yard, just like it but pointing the other direction.  You see the backs of a row of houses just like the one you’re in, and every house has three floors and every floor has two apartments.  You can see over the roofs of the houses opposite, the few taller buildings a block away: the clear red brick of the school, the dark burgundy old brick of a warehouse. On top of it a water tower – that most characteristic of New York structures, the cistern on the roof.  They are built of wood, are big and round, and have a conical roof.  They sit high above the roof on tall wooden legs, and look like little silos or strange Neolithic shrines.  They have been made in the same way in New York for over a hundred years, in the same way, by the same few companies, still in business, still putting them on top of new buildings.  You see the water tower and the plunging grey and orange windy sky beyond it, darkness coming.  They are the true  emblems of the New York skyline, humbler than the skyscrapers, more enduring.

Any minute now the first lights will come on in those little windows, just like yours.  You’re standing in the dark still, so you can see out better.  You watch for the lights. There’s one,  right across the yards.  Somebody’s kitchen, with the pale bluish shimmer of fluorescence, just like yours.  All these apartments are the same:  through the house door, a staircase right in front, an apartment on either side.  Each apartment:  at one end where is the yard, the ‘garden’ some call it and some tenants actually make it so, growing things, blue hydrangeas in the sea air, pansies, autumn mums.  You can only get to the yard by going out of the apartment, down the tricky steps into the cellar, then up out the few stone steps at the back.

At  the yard end of the house,  the little inside hallway ends in a kitchen just after the bathroom and closet by the door.  Next to the kitchen the dining room, then retreating back towards the front of the house you have to walk through a bedroom to get to another bedroom,  then the living room beyond – you walk through one or two rooms to get to another:  a railroad flat we call it, all room and no hallway, except that little one from the door to the kitchen dark, easy to stumble over the case of seltzer in siphon bottles, the case of Javel water ready for washing sheets and diapers in the bathroom tub.  All the apartments for blocks and blocks around have the same floorplan.

In the living room a picture rail runs below the ceiling to hang paintings from.  Few people have paintings, though,  most of them just have reproductions hanging there, Our Lord showing his Sacred Heart on fire,  a pretty lake in New Hampshire with mist rising towards the mountains,  there is an echo there, you almost here it, pale blue, a couple of deer improbably red looking up startled at the photographer, a sweet faced peasant girl from Sicily, all sunburn and olive eyes, threatening to kiss you if you come too close.  The pictures people have!   And all these things, all these pipe racks and tobacco humidors, cut glass candy dishes sticky with old Christmas mints, magazines stacked under the end table, coffee table with blue mirror top and an empty Seven-up bottle standing on it green, so many things, and every apartment the same and every single one irreplaceably different, the differences abound, every room is different, every chair, and in the endless multiplicity of what people bring into their houses and put out to look at, the things they hang on the wall to instruct or console them, every single one different, all the differences mount and mount and swirl around like the fugato at the end of a Beethoven sonata till the whole house is alive with singing difference, and then the next house and the next house and the hundred thousand houses of the borough, all the same, all different, indescribably particular forever, forming a vast ungraspable totality, itself and not another.  And what is itself and not another but a single work of art?

Art work of a special kind:   a city is an artwork you stand inside of, inside it, and you move to know it.

And that is why living in a city is being on pilgrimage:  the hallows or sacred site the heart must come to visit, come to know, is the whole city.  To know the circumference from the center, to explore the slanting chords and tangents of the whole, to come back to the center again and again.  And what is the center?

The center of any city is where you live.  It builds out from you.  It can’t help it:  the city, as experience, begins from you.  You walk out of your house some fine day and find yourself there, you have become the moving one, the pilgrim on his way to the world.

So in the case at hand, Brooklyn, one of the sacred gemstones in the quincunx of New York, it starts with me.

The Center:  The Old Mill

My center was at the edge of the edge of the city.  I lived in an apartment in a two-family row house (an ‘attached house’ in Brooklyn real estate talk) on the last block but one before the vacant lots began, green, mosquito-infested fields that ran for half a mile till they blended with the marshes that abutted and gradually merged with Jamaica Bay, as we shall see.

People called the neighborhood closest to us The Old Mill.  Or being fancy they’d name it for the glacial ridge a mile to the north and call it Cypress Hills.  Or they’d describe it functionally as the area on the edge of Brownsville.  Or tell people:   when you get off at the New Lots Avenue station on the IRT, end of the line, just keep going across the vacant lots, a mile or so, you’ll get there, and the dogs of the night will walk with you and around you.  The whole district was called East New York, though it was just the southeasternmost precinct of Brooklyn.  The clearest name, if the least tender, most delineating, was City Line – because our neighborhood came right up to the old boundary of the City of Brooklyn, which lost its independence in 1898 and became a mere borough, a faubourg, a dortoir of New York.  Right now the boundary still marks the line between the Borough of Brooklyn (which is also the County of Kings) and the Borough and County of Queens.

The end of the city, I lived the edge.  Yet on this last square block of the city there were candy store, drug store, the butcher, the vegetable man, the Italian grocery, the Jewish grocer, a gas station, a dry cleaner, a fish market.  In the candy store, where feeble egg creams and lime rickeys were drunk standing at the marble counter, and charlotte russes in cardboard sleeves under sketchy ersatz whipped cream were eaten by somebody  (I never tasted one, never saw one eaten, yet they were there fresh every day, right over the glass bin with the halvah slices in it), in that candy store you could buy every day daily papers in Yiddish (Der Tog, Forverts, Freyheyt), in German (Staats-Zeitung for the gentiles, Aufbau for the Jews, and one paper in Plattdütsch), Hungarian (Szabad Nep), Italian (Il Progresso, plus the weekly Catholic Il Crociato), Russian (Novoe Slovo, which in its cyrillic masthead looked like Hobo Slobo to my naïve eye, though eventually I learned to read Cyrillic, thanks to Izzy Kozlofsky, the candystore man – who had the same last name as the Ukrainian tenor, Ivan Kozlofsky – Polish (I forget the name), Spanish (only one, La Prensa,  there were not many Spaniards in Brooklyn in those days, and the great immigration from the Caribbean had not yet begun), and English – New York Times, New York Herald Tribune, The Daily News, The Daily Mirror, The Journal American, The World Telegram, The Daily Worker, The New York Post, The Brooklyn Eagle, and the favorite of my mother because it featured the Civil Service news, The Sun.  Those are the ones I remember.  Tiny store at the end of nowhere, but people bought all those papers, and the magazines that went with them, American Mercury, Coronet,  Colliers.  There is nothing  more deeply lost than the lost kitsch of another age;   what can be more irretrievable than pop culture post pop?

Growing up in that neighborhood, that sounds so rich now when I speak of it, I felt stifled.  Not much classical music on the radio (yet WQXR was there, AM in those days, and the great WNYC, the city station, that gave us concerts and recitals and operas every week), no books anywhere in sight.  So on foot my pilgrimage had to find books:  I’ll tell about how, if I walked a mile northeast, I’d come into Queens and find a branch of the Queensboro Public Library, a storefront that I exploited for years.  Or mile or two northwest, I’d come to the handsome Arlington Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, on the highland, on the foreslope of the terminal moraine that is the spine of Brooklyn – such wonders it had for me.  But nothing like the Sterling Branch on Eastern Parkway – but that was on the way west.

Soon enough I learned to escape from Brooklyn by subway into town, to find the glories of Times Square, Midtown, and finally the Village (New Yorkers never said Greenwich Village, but that’s what they mean).  I escaped the stifling smallness of the neighborhood I now remember with such tenderness, the open fields that I never learned to appreciate till I had lost them.  I hurried to the world of Representation, and apart from all the movie theaters, my chosen refuge was the Museum of Modern Art.  My mother gave me a membership every year, so I could sit in the members lounge and listen to what the real people were thinking about.  And I could study the delights on the walls that flattered my immaturity:  Guernica, Rouault’s Old King, Tchelitchew’s Hide and Seek, and the great Baron Ensor, master of the masks, whose Entry of Christ into Brussels overwhelmed me.   I’d sit all afternoon sometimes on the terrace of the members lounge summer and winter, taking the air cure like Castorp in Davos, reading.  Or sit inside and watch the artists eat the creamed tuna with strips of pimento, sip small glasses of red wine.  Watch old Abraham Walkowitz surrounded by disciples.  Study Max Ernst himself, standing lean beside me in the elevator.

But it was not fair just to flee Brooklyn.  I had to learn the city in which I was born – chose to be born, Buddhists would say.  I had to accept the center I was given, and move from where I was.  A pilgrimage is centered on the pilgrim, not on the shrine.  The pilgrim is the wandering star who follows the rays of its own light to find what there is.

(to be continued)

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