Downtown Scotty Brownsville

Today, the New York Times has another of its ridiculous* “discovering Brooklyn” stories, sporting the absurd title Will.i.amsburg. (It has since been rebranded as “How I Became a Hipster” – as if you can do that by buying some flannel and a fedora.)

In response, I present “Downtown Scotty Brownsville”, a rehashing of my trip to Brownsville last June.

*to be clear, I am using this in a pejorative context

How I Didn’t Become a Brownsville Resident

Keith Williams with his messenger bag. In Brownsville, he could do little to blend in, as he is white. (Photo: Kat Koh)

Keith Williams with his messenger bag. In Brownsville, he could do little to blend in, as he is white. (Photo: Kat Koh)

Published: May 2, 2013

You know you’re in forgotten Brooklyn when someone who looks like a mid-1960s Sunday school teacher tells you that her name is “Mrs. Pasher”.

I had fallen into conversation with the volunteer for an Assembly candidate (glasses, dress, hat with flower) along Pitkin Avenue, a beehive of instrument-bearing construction workers, underwear-showing locals and twentysomethings who use the “n-word” in nonpejorative contexts. I guessed aloud, “So, if I sign this, you email me every day with updates?” The volunteer for an Assembly candidate smiled and said: “We don’t use email.”

O, squalor! There are several ways to react to a culture quake. You can meet it with befuddlement, perhaps wondering how the impoverished handled the thorny intersection between buying food and paying for prescriptions.

You can put it on a pedestal by bringing undue optimism to the prospect of not getting mugged when visiting here.

But maybe there’s another way — which is why this quarterlife transplant rode the 3 train to Sutter Avenue and spent a long afternoon trying to educate himself, canvassing Kings County’s longtime epicenter of desperation. “Brownsville”, to most people, is still just a passing reference to a dangerous place in a Biggie Smalls song. It’s been strange to live across the borough from a place that no one thinks about — not unlike seeing that mole on your dachshund and doing nothing about it.

So I decided to embed myself among the welfare-collectors and the wallball players and the chickeneers. I wanted to see what the demographic behind dice-playing and absolutely no television shows could teach me about life and living on less than the minimum wage. I wanted to see what sullen 25-year-old men had to tell me beyond “I’m not sure where I’m going to sleep tonight.”

Except there’s very little to see in Brownsville, except for one of the largest collections of public housing in the country and a plethora of Stars of David, remnants of the days when it was known as Little Jerusalem. Many of these residents would kill for Scott Brown’s beaten-up pickup truck.

Physical exertion made me hungry. I didn’t feel secure enough to stray too far from the main avenues. I came across Pitkin’s Caribbean Bakery, which advertised “delicious daily fresh bread”. This bakery has the ugliest counter of any restaurant I’ve ever seen, plexiglass upon plexiglass: par for the course in da hood. No one was there.

A sweet, hairnetted Jamaican lad helped me through the menu. The store smells like heaven; I would happily die there. (And, given the security measures, I thought I might.) For $5 you can buy a huge meal of coco bread, beef patty, and carrot juice (with nutmeg!). I told the employee, who was wearing a t-shirt and a beaten apron: “I bet those patties are very popular with single men. If your apartment smelled like Caribbean spices? Bingo.” The man nodded and enthused: “I got one for my birthday. Most of the people who work here make them at home.”

So perhaps it comes as little surprise that the greatest change wrought by my Brooklyn sojourn is that I’m even more thankful for having been born into the middle class. Also, the next time you come over for dinner, I’ll probably take you to Christie’s instead.

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2 Responses to Downtown Scotty Brownsville

  1. Jenet Levy says:

    In my first career as a social worker in child welfare, in the early 1980s, I used to visit the families of the kids we had in care as part of my job. Brownsville was one of the neighborhoods I frequented then, and not any better or worse than many other Brooklyn neighborhoods other than Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights. Now I sell luxury real estate in most of those neighborhoods.

    • Keith says:

      Hi Jenet,

      Thanks for highlighting the divergence of these communities over the last few decades. I fear that Brownsville, due mainly to its location, will never have luxury real estate.

      With affluence comes media attention. I wish the Times would make an effort to write about the plight of the poorer neighborhoods, but I doubt such articles would move copy like this fluff will.


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