OCTOBER 2009 – NO. 36
A Brooklyn of My Mind
When all that's left of a place are street names and house numbers
As I drove around Brooklyn with my long list of addresses, culled from censuses and marriage certificates, news clippings and obituaries, I knew my chances were not good. That any building from 1900, let alone 1865, would still be standing was unlikely. And, I suspected that the houses inhabited by my ancestors were not the newest even in their time. Still, I was shocked. Instead of homes, I found schools, vacant lots, parking garages, warehouses, and high-rises. And, in the most vicious case of obliteration, I found that the trough of the Prospect Expressway plowed through the very block on which my dad was raised.
Here I had made a pilgrimage to poor old Brooklyn and found it was largely gone. The stately mansions of Prospect Park West and Brooklyn Heights, of course, remain, but my family lived in the humbler nooks and crannies of the city, near the docks and the Gowanus canal and down near Greenwood Cemetery. I took photos anyway, photos of disused industrial buildings and of correct addresses with the wrong houses behind them. And now I have a pile of strange pictures: "Here's what sits on great-grandma Josie's address today." "Here's the place — but not the building — where our great-great-grandpa died." My quest to go home again became an exercise in the conceptual.
Historian David Lowenthal has written that "the tangible links that bind us to history defy enumeration" — certainly true regarding "big H" history. But visiting small-time Brooklyn, local Brooklyn, I had to wonder, would my ancestors recognize anything? The air? Probably not — horses, axel grease, chimney smoke, the stink of fish and dock muck, human sweat are all passé. Even the sky, day or night, is not the same.
Yet, there are two stable things: the names of the streets were locked in their grid about 1840 and endure: Huntington, Verona; Carroll, President, Union, Sackett, Degraw; Fifth Avenue at Fourteenth Street; the corner of Seventeenth and Seventh Avenue. And the house numbers, regularized by 1871, remain unchanged. It would seem that even in past times, the city where my Davises, Burgers, and Payntons lived was as much a concept as a place.
"Going home again" is itself a concept, of course, and often does not apply at all to a family historian. Brooklyn was, in reality, never my home. I saw it only once when my father was alive — on a whim he drove us kids into the city and up and down the streets. I remember little; with my suburban eyes, I saw a blur of dark facades, rugged stoops, thick cabling hanging low, and grimy old-fashioned signs. I know now, from my intense study of Brooklyn maps in time sequence, that by the year of our visit, my dad's home, his block, his childhood stomping ground were gone under the expressway.
He didn't mention the fact. Near Fourth Avenue, where once an El thundered past, he pointed out the location of his dad's plumbing shop. It had been converted to a ground-floor apartment.
It never occurred to me to be surprised that he drove the streets like a cabbie despite his 25-years' removal to Nassau County. The concept of Brooklyn didn't fail him, although his personal piece of it had been plowed under.
I never asked him why we took that trip, but I suppose it was a symptom of nostalgia. My dad was an older father, heading into his fifties at that time; he died within the decade.
The hankering for Brooklyn past is thus quite personal for me. My file cabinets sag, my databases fill megabytes, and bygone time accrues, speck by speck, detail by detail. This past is organized, documented; it's accurate as it can be. But no diagram of bloodlines charting my Brooklyn family history can really suffice.
It's hard to dispute that loss is what we have in common, we genealogists, we humans: loss beyond our personal circle, extending backward through time.
Nostalgia is often condemned as an idealizing sentiment. Frankly, next to genealogy itself, nostalgia is the inclination historians most love to hate. Considered trivializing, escapist, the font of all things anachronistic, and, at one time, an actual fatal disease, nostalgia has long been scorned. Genealogists hide nostalgic leanings in the closet, while letting loose all the other skeletons: they uncover court records of Great-Aunt Lou's arrest for disturbing the peace, or they find their forebear's cousin, Buck, spending the census year in jail. And when your research proves the not-so-funny bigamy of your third great-grandfather or confirms the awkward wedding date of your nana and pop a few months shy of your uncle's birth, you know family history braces you against romanticizing the past.
Yet, the longing to "be there" remains, but as a desire to see and experience — or better conceive — the past as it was, not as it suits us. The past is a concept, we know: a mental construct, the details shifting in the sands of research. As Lowenthal acknowledged, "We can never be sure that what we think we know of the past corresponds to any past reality."
The tide of opinion regarding nostalgia is turning, however. Recently psychologists have begun to discover its positive dimensions. Experiments in China have showed that engaging in nostalgia heightens a person's sense of connectedness and social support. An American researcher, Krystine Batcho, has reached similar conclusions. Nostalgia, rather than signaling a pathetic, trapped-in-the-past neurosis, blends "cognitive and affective" strands and "serves a unifying function."
Nostalgia thus, is "bittersweet," a cocktail of the past with emotions of loss and appreciation. It smoothes our path as we shift between yesterday and today. You might say even that it celebrates our connections while anchoring us in the now.
When I return to Brooklyn, to rove the streets and notice what's changed since my last visit, maybe I'll be more at peace. I might sip a mojito on Union, near Mary Reed's 1880 tenement, or maybe down a brew on Van Dyke, close by the long-scuttled pier where Capt. Jim docked his tugboat.
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