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"Song of Brooklyn" a flawed oral history, ends with... AY

Any oral history of Brooklyn, as Marc Eliot’s new Song of Brooklyn claims to be, must grapple with precursors like the entertaining, thorough, and not completely maudlin It Happened in Brooklyn: An Oral History of Growing Up in the Borough in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s (below), first published in 1993 by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer.

So can this “Oral History of America’s Favorite Borough” pull its weight? Sadly, no--even if Julia Vitullo-Martin, generally a savvy observer, gave it a mostly positive review in the New York Post.

The subtitle suggests that Eliot and his publisher are aiming at some of the same nostalgia market that the earlier book captured. But an oral history not limited to specific decades has a lot of ground to cover, and that's way too much for almost anyone.

Eliot is described by the publisher as "the New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books on popular culture," divides his time among New York City; Woodstock, NY; and Los Angeles. Unfortunately he hasn't spent enough time in the borough he claims to know.

The most obvious miscue is Eliot’s reliance on numerous previously published works--newspaper articles and memoirs--that simply aren’t oral history. If an oral historian must cut corners, there are numerous transcripts--from public hearings/civic meetings and even court cases--that could be mined. Also, there are numerous extant oral histories conducted by local universities, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and even organizations like the New York Preservation Archive Project.

The less obvious but deeper flaw is simply Eliot’s choice of subjects and interviewees. He lets developers like Joe Sitt, Douglas Steiner, and Bruce Ratner spout self-serving statements, with a bare nod to context--and Ratner, as I describe below, gets the last word.

He ignores large neighborhoods and populations of latter-day Brooklyn. The assignment is simply too vast. And the work is sloppy: The names of at least two interviewees are misspelled.

Unreliable narrator

The problems begin on the first page of the intro, where Eliot declares that “Brooklyn remains joined like a Siamese twin to homely and boring Queens.” Um, them’s fighting words to those who find Queens is getting more interesting. Then we’re told that the 1898 consolidation of New York City, “according to the late Harvey Schultz, who served as executive assistant to the Brooklyn borough president, ‘a day that New Yorkers still rue on both sides of the river.’”

Given that most Brooklynites are already over the 1958 departure of the Dodgers to Los Angeles, it’s a good bet that even fewer Brooklynites are losing sleep over the 1898 consolidation.

By the third page of the intro, we get the rationale for why Brooklyn outshines the other boroughs: “But Brooklyn... ah sweet Brooklyn. How she bursts with pride in her showy individualism, how she smiles out of the side of her mouth. And when she speaks, how she sings--with the broad, unmistakeable accent that has come to stand for the urban dialect of the entire United States of America “Whaddaya, kiddin’ me or sumthing’? Fuggedaboudid!”

That’s the myth, and it’s a charming one, but you don’t hear that accent in Crown Heights or Kensington or Sunset Park any more. You hear a whole bunch of other accents.

Eliot observes, “It is, ultimately, a time and place that holds the memories of the past and shapes the hopes of the future. It is at once the substance and the shadow of the American dream.”

Maybe it’s time to put away the violins.

Going to Coney

The first chapter is, curiously enough, about Coney Island. We get some entertaining perspective from the likes of Bill Handwerker, grandson of the founder of Nathan’s. (His quotes come from a History Channel documentary, natch.) Then, we get an elegant reminiscence from actor Cary Grant; it’s from his autobiography and it reads like prose rather than speech.

There’s a nice interview with graffiti artist Steve Powers. However, the chapter is dominated by a self-serving oration from Sitt, offset by a few lines from Diana Carlin, a local businesswoman who clashed with the developer. Absent from the chapter is Dick Zigun, the “mayor” of Coney Island and, arguably, the man most responsible for the area’s resurgence.

At the end of the first chapter is a list of key dates in Brooklyn’s history. Other chapters end with pieces from an alphabetical list of Brooklyn luminaries. Interesting enough information, but better as an appendix; otherwise, it feels like padding.

Beyond Coney

The next chapter, on Sheepshead Bay, focuses on the iconic comedy club Pip’s. ”It was what we called ‘outer borough,’ real Guido time,” says one interviewer. Entertaining, but hardly a real sketch of the area.

Then comes a postwar chapter on music, which is more substantial. Kenny Vance, a member of the Jay and the Americans, said that “outer-borough street-corner rock and roll was seen by the big labels... as nothing more than musical porno.” We hear from Neil Sedaka and Ben Vereen and and Little Anthony of Little Anthony and the Imperials and DJ Cousin Brucie Morrow (“from the nation of Brooklyn, which represented, really, everyone’s hometown neighborhood”).

As for latter-day music, we get some commentary on hop-hop from critic Brian Berger and some autobiographical musings from a “writer, poet, rap artist” named Jeanelia, whom I couldn’t find anything about via a web search. But there’s nothing else about the current scene, despite Brooklyn's rich contributions to hip-hop, rock, and solo performance.

There’s an obligatory chapter on the Brooklyn Dodgers and sports; author Pete Hamill remains interesting. Wow, did the author get Woody Allen to participate? Nope, it’s a quote from a book by filmmaker Spike Lee.

What about Coney Island hoops? There’s a quote from Darcy Frey’s excellent book The Last Shot, then an actual interview with Stephon Marbury, but it’s a softball set of quotes from a controversial guy.

Some charm, some candor

The book is not without charm. There’s a nice enough chapter on “The Way We Were... and Weren’t,” which includes comedians Joan Rivers and Mel Brooks, broadcaster Maria Bartiromo, and negotiator Herb Cohen, among others.

As a refreshing contrast to the rose-tinted memories, an actor named John Karlen declares, earthily, “The real unspoken truth of Brooklyn is that it’s a shit-fuckin’-hole of roaches and rats.” Getting to Brooklyn’s lovely Prospect Park was “a walk through the jungle,” given that different groups controlled their turf. “Everyone in Brooklyn was always separated by all this supposed ‘togetherness.’”

Then there’s Woody Allen saying “the city is much more of, you’ll forgive the expression, a shithole than it was then.” Except that’s from a 1991 biography and a very different city--especially a very different Brooklyn.

More potpourri

A chapter on literary Brooklyn covers Whitman and Mailer and Mailer, and brings us some more of the always interesting Hamill. As for contemporary writers, we hear more from Berger, and then from sassy novelist/columnist Amy Sohn, then some lesser-known contemporary black writers, like performance poet Mahogany Browne. (Where are Marianne Moore and Richard Wright?)

A chapter on neighborhoods captures some of the “change." A long quote from Rabbi Simon Jacobson discusses how Hasidic Jews stuck in Crown Heights, but there's nothing from, say, Richard Green of the Crown Heights Youth Collective. (Quotes from Al Sharpton and Rudolph Giuliani about the 1991 riots come from printed material.)

A 30something editor, Andrew Miller, explains how Carroll Gardens differed from Park Slope. A fireman talks about changing Canarsie. But there's way too little on the historic preservation movement that transformed Brooklyn.

A chapter on the waterfront focuses mostly on Steiner’s development of Steiner Studio at the Brooklyn Navy Yard rather than focusing on the dramatic changes in, say, Red Hook.

A chapter on food focuses on cheesecake emporium Junior’s, mentions the steakhouse, Peter Luger, and devotes significant space to Joyva’s halvah operation. After 9/11, a Joyva official says, the company received hate mail regarding its sultan symbol: “But we kept him because he was pretty recognizable as a brand, and besides, we trusted him and knew he wasn’t capable of anything worse than a potential case of heartburn.”

Interesting enough. But where are the restaurants of Smith Street, the purveyors of Jamaican patties, the pizza pioneers?

A chapter on politics quotes the aforementioned Schutlz, who offers some thoughtful comments on Golden era (1977-2001). We hear from District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes and read about current Borough President Marty Markowitz.

The development boom

The final chapter, "Back to the Future," finally takes on some of the development boom. Karen Brooks Hopkins of the Brooklyn Academic of Music (BAM) talks about the BAM Cultural District. After a couple of other people talk about changing neighborhoods, we get a quote from a New York Times essay--another piece written for the eye, not the ear--on Brooklyn’s diversity.

Ending with AY

Then we get to... Atlantic Yards, and a mangled analysis of tax revenue and timeline. We get secondhand quotes from Markowitz, from Daniel Goldstein (called "Goldman" in the book) of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), from DDDB supporter actress Rosie Perez, and New York magazine writer Chris Smith, from his August 2006 feature article.

A New York Observer article by Mark Lotto offers another quote--again, not really oral history--about how every generation bitches about the one that came next. And the final quote comes from Bruce Ratner; it appeared originally in the first edition of the egregious Brooklyn Tomorrow:
“We are fortunate that we have the resources and the vision to leave behind a city that is greater than the one we inherited... Brooklyn, in many ways, is a model for the change our city is experiencing. Twenty years ago, when Forest City Ratner opened in the downtown area, we were called foolish. Many thought the area, long in disarray, could not be developed and would not attract jobs. Today Brooklyn is celebrated as a world-class destination, the home to diversity in all of its glory, with great food, parks and cultural attractions. We are proud to be part of both our borough’s past and its future."

I strongly doubt Bruce Ratner ever spoke those words aloud.

Eliot’s conclusion: “And that may be the prevailing sentiment.”

A reader has to wonder how he reached that conclusion: Did he toss a coin?

From the blurb

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:
A captivating oral portrait of America's favorite borough, in the words of those who know Brooklyn best—Mel Brooks, Spike Lee, Arthur Miller, Joan Rivers, Norman Mailer, Cousin Brucie, Maria Bartiromo, Pete Hamill, and many other current and former inhabitants.

Song of Brooklyn gathers the oral testimony of nearly one hundred Brooklynites past and present, famous and unknown, about a mythic borough that is also an indisputably real place. These witnesses speak eloquently of what it was like back then, when the Dodgers played in Ebbets Field; later, when the borough fell on hard times; and now, when it has come roaring back on the tracks of a real-estate boom, giving it celebrity chic and hipster cred. With this surprising and inspiring renaissance in full swing, the story of Brooklyn is one of the great and still ongoing chapters of the American urban experience, and Song of Brooklyn sings that tune in pitch-perfect key.