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Boombox: race, class, and real estate

Gabriel Cohen’s second novel, Boombox, is set in Boerum Hill, but as the title suggests, it echoes Spike Lee’s Bed-Stuy-based Do the Right Thing (remember Radio Raheem?) as much as the ur-gentrification novel, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, also set in Boerum Hill. When a black teenager blasts gangsta rap, and a white yuppie hits the boiling point, reaching for the firearm acquired after he was victimized by a mugging, well, we all know Chekhov’s dictum about guns.

Despite the denouement, Boombox is a snappy and engaging read. Though it lacks the depth of character description and neighborhood texture that makes Lethem’s book enduring literature, Boombox captures a tension perhaps most peculiar to post-millennial Brooklyn, yuppies and "urban youth" sharing streets that have ever-precious brownstones on one side and ever-permanent housing projects on the other.

(Cohen's reading tonight in Park Slope, as The Gowanus Lounge reports.)

Borough changes

In fast-changing Brooklyn, Boombox even feels a tad out of date. The Brooklyn House of Detention is a looming presence, a potential destination for some youth from the Wysocki (read Wycoff) Houses, though it actually closed in 2003. Now officials say the jail will reopen, but in a sign of shrinking opportunities to build, the city has invited developers to propose a mixed-use complex.

(These days, land is so scarce that the city will build middle-income subsidized housing on various properties owned by the New York City Housing Authority; a New York Times reporter, venturing to a site in East New York, recently quoted a man calling himself “Keeping It Real,” who pointed to three adjacent projects and declared, “Anyone with common sense wouldn’t live out here.”)

So, in Boombox, when Wall Streeter Mitchell Brett and wife Kristin, transplants from the Upper East Side, regret that they had to settle for Boerum Hill rather than more pricey Brooklyn Heights, it seems a little precious. A decent apartment in Boerum Hill these days, however close to the projects, is hardly a bad deal. (Indeed, author Cohen recently told the Brooklyn Paper that he moved to Ditmas Park after his landlord sold his Boerum Hill rental.) In the book, a stretch of Smith Street “retains a Third World feel,” but, increasingly, the Third World comes packaged in a tasting menu.


Beyond the Bretts, a kaleidoscope of characters share a courtyard: Jamel Wilson, the teenaged rap aficionado, lives in a row house his ever-stretched mom Melba tries to maintain; Carol Fasone, an Italian-American, who clashes with her old-school mother who bemoans how the neighborhood has changed; and Grace Howard, a Caribbean-born black woman who’s had a friendship with Carol and is seen as haughty by Melba.

In short scenes, Cohen sketches the shaping of his characters’ psyches. At the Fulton Street Mall, which one of Jamel’s friends calls “B.P.W.” (“Black People’s World”), Jamel, already a teen single father, seeks a stereo system so booming that the project kids nearby--his sometime antagonists--will give him respect. Prodded by his mom to get a job, Jamel feels demeaned working at a fast food restaurant, but embraces equally hard work, as long he has some non-uniformed autonomy.

Mitchell, hearing the vernacular camaraderie of two black men at the gym, is surprised to learn that their “going to court” reference means they’re lawyers. Grace, overhearing casual racism at work, then passed over for a promotion, finds her racial allegiances re-forming. Melba, fearful that Jamel will get drawn to the drug trade like his friend Tree, offers to pay for the stereo her son covets as long as he stays off the streets.

Coming to a crash

In New York City, more so than in most American places (remember, in Los Angeles, it takes a Crash to bring people together, combustibly), public space is shared, and contested. Noise, however, is tough to police, because the cops have to gather evidence. In Boombox, the deafening music becomes a proxy for racial (and class) allegiance, and a trigger for reflection—unresolvable reflection—on responsibility, short- and long-term, individual and collective, in a changing Brooklyn.

“Used to be, a black family wanted to work hard and move up a little, they could buy a house ‘round here,” Melba observes, watching the row houses snapped up by newcomers. One of those newcomers, Mitchell, listens to gangsta rap and wonders, “Is this what the civil rights movement achieved: the opportunity for black people to denigrate themselves?” Carol finds herself arguing with her mom that black Americans aren’t like other immigrants, for historical reasons.

Grace’s beau Charles, an older black man, watching project kids toss bottles at cars, laments, “In my day, those boys would never have gotten away with just did. There would have been neighbors look out who knew them, and those neighbors would’ve disciplined them just as if they had been their own.”

Grace points out that the factory jobs of yore are gone; Charles says, "Making excuses for this behavior can only harm our people." And Grace responds, "Why would you expect that--living in that situation--those boys would miraculously come up with middle-class ideas about personal responsibility and choice?"

Her answer makes her feel ashamed, though; she shouldn't be lecturing Charles. (Implied: she knows that people both exercise individual responsibility and are influenced by their environment. Unmentioned: what's the role of government?)

Thinking about Boombox's central conflict, Grace raises the question, in an unspoken message to her white neighbors, that lingers for anyone--including those exercised about Atlantic Yards--who must pick and choose their issues: “Is this what you choose to get upset about, when just around the corner there is a giant housing project sinking under the weight of poverty and crime and your neglect?… Who is organizing about that?”