Just before New Year’s Eve, I dined with my friend Janet in a restaurant where the holiday decorations were monkeys. Monkeys dressed in Venetian robes—silk brocades, rich velvets. They were lovely, weird, and oddly cheerful. Monkey business, monkey shines, monkey love (if you can find it). Now 2005 is here in full frozen force, and the Year of the Monkey is winding down.
The streets of Prospect Heights empty quickly as the hawk travels up Washington towards Eastern Parkway. My neighborhood has fought its way to precarious prosperity only to be threatened by MEGA DEVELOPMENT. I complain to friends that I live in a “destination” neighborhood—the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, the Central Branch of the BPL are just minutes away. But these cultural institutions nurture my spirit and my mind. I don’t quite know what the Nets Arena will do except condemn housing in one of the most integrated neighborhoods in all of New York City. This past MLK Day, WNYC reported that New York City is one of America’s most segregated cities and that only four percent of its citizens live on integrated blocks. I belong to that four percent.
Oh the irony, having grown up in Arkansas during the last decade of legal segregation, for me to come to New York and find that I had more physical proximity to white people as a child than as a grown woman. It is particularly disheartening in the art world, where we culturati seem to find as many ways as we can to not connect with each other. Yeah Williamsburg, yo Fort Greene, and like who is making new work in the South Slope? Mischief.
The thing is, living in this city is challenging for anybody—creative, dull, dreamy. But Brooklyn has a great edge. We got sky in Brooklyn. We can see stars (real ones) sometimes. We can be part of the amazing human tumult that is New York City, waiting in line outside a diner hungry for pancakes or cherry lime rickeys. I live in a neighborhood with an African tailor, West Indian shopkeepers, and Italian chefs. The economics are fragile, but they always are. There are real risk takers here.
In Brooklyn, I think Dr. King would have found his Southern ways accepted and acceptable. My black neighbors always say “Good morning.” My white neighbors still have to be reminded to speak. But they are coming along. Sterling Place, for all the myriad economic changes happening as more and more wealthy whites move in, continues to be a block whose cultural ways are African American and West Indian. Manners matter.
It seems strange to talk about manners on the night before the installation of the Bush Dynasty in D.C. But for me, humanity begins with regard, empathy, the realization that people—your neighbors, shopkeepers, and that tailor—come together as community when we greet each other, when we care what happens to each other. When we say “don’t drop your trash on my block.” When we buy stuff from the guy who lives in his car.
Don’t worry, my eyeglasses are not rose-colored. I know Brooklyn can be tough. But Brooklyn seems the best place to mix stuff up. Mix people up. But not at the expense of the Black and Brown folk who have often stayed in neighborhoods that are “ripe for development.” Bed-Stuy is not the next new thing—it already exists. Monkey business got to go!
Last year was one of intense political struggle in this country. Many of us were creative warriors for justice and decency and peace. Okay, we lost the battle. 2005 is already cold as diamonds and fiercely dangerous. But, think of the clarity of night sky—the huge moon that seems to stand just above this borough. If we can harness the stuff of the cosmos, or at least keep the 7-day MetroCard below $25, we can do damn near anything. But it will not be easy. And who knows what the Year of the Rooster will bring, but that’s not till mid-February.