ArtWrite 10/7: Katie Merz
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
When Francie Nolan’s’ little brother suggests she go to a far off college so she can get rid of her Brooklyn accent, Francie, the heroine of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, doesn’t want to lose it. “It meant that she belonged to some place. She was a Brooklyn girl with a Brooklyn name and a Brooklyn accent.”
For the record, I don’t have a Brooklyn accent like Francie. But I am a Brooklyn girl, and Brooklyn is the place I belong to. I’m so invested in that belonging that even though I’ve been living in LA for over three years, I still use an email address that contains 718.
Everyone has nostalgia for the place where they grew up, but I’m convinced that my love of Brooklyn transcends more than just childhood memories. It’s in my blood and bones, a tribal affinity that sometimes defies reason or logic, like being a Giants fan because that’s who your family has always rooted for. When my older son wanted a tattoo that symbolizes his connection to Brooklyn, I wasn’t happy about the tattoo, but I was thrilled that I’d been successful in raising a kid who identified with Brooklyn as much as I did.
You don’t have to grow up in Brooklyn to love it. Everyone wants a piece of it. In a 2012 interview, the actor Paul Dano said, “I love Brooklyn; it’s a part of who you are.” Except Paul Dano grew up in Wilton, Connecticut. Am I being greedy that I don’t want to share ownership of Brooklyn with Paul Dano? Am I wrong to resent how Brooklyn has become so synonymous with bearded hipsters that it’s now a cliche? I don’t think so.
Anne Hathaway, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt and John Krasinki wouldn’t have considered living in Brooklyn 50 years ago. It was too gritty. Too tough. I earned my right to call myself a Brooklyn girl by living there at a time when the only people outside the borough who knew it was cool were the Italians who named a chewing gum after it.
How does a place with a population larger than most American cities exert such a strong influence on its citizens? What is it about Brooklyn that makes its identity so strong?
Katie’s Flatbush Mural shows how Brooklyn’s culture, religions, languages, foods, games, fashion, and music bump up against each other. Her tightly packed images have no borders. This is how living in Brooklyn feels. Except for where Brooklyn meets Queens, the only real borders in Brooklyn are water. The lines that delineate Flatbush from Canarsie, Marine Park from Mill Basin, or Bed Stuy from Bushwick, are only visible on maps. In reality, Brooklyn’s neighborhoods bleed into each other so that no matter where you live, you’re absorbing a massive expression of its people.
Class and race, the lines that usually separate Americans, are a little more blurred in Brooklyn. There are no big lawns, hedges, electric gates, or long driveways. (Although there are some doormen, but not as many as in Manhattan). Everyone lives on top of each other or side by side. To see someone whose skin is a different color, you don't have to get in a car and drive to a different neighborhood. You just have to go outside.
Brooklyn is the anthesis of homogeneous. It doesn't aspire to be diverse because it's always been the melting pot that the United States claims to be. When I was growing up, I went to Oasis Night at Poly Prep with the sons and daughters of Mafia kingpins. My Jewish grandmother's best friend owned the Szechuan restaurant where I had my 10th birthday party. When I needed new clothes, my mother brought me to Nathan Borlem in Williamsburg, always on a Sunday because it was owned by Orthodox Jews and was closed on Shabbos. Some of my friends’ parents owned 5-story brownstones and others lived in Mitchell Lama subsidized apartments. I went disco roller skating with John Travolta lookalikes at 2001 Odyssey in Bay Ridge, smoked pot with kids who went to private, public and Catholic school, and got mugged with Katie’s sister on the Brooklyn Bridge. My favorite Greek diner was owned by the father of my classmate, Paul Poulous. I could spot the Gino’s Italian Ice sign in the window of any pizzeria from two blocks away and didn’t find anything exotic about eating knishes, Lebanese meat pies, or Jamaican patties.
Being from Brooklyn also meant living in the shadow of Manhattan and feeling like an underdog. It meant loving where I came from but still aspiring to cross the river where the food, shopping, and jobs were more desirable. Crossing the bridge was a rite of passage, a metaphor that connected me and millions and other Brooklynites to the sophistication of "the city."
All of these aspects of Brooklyn are still inside me. Of course people are defined by the places where they grew up. But when you come from Brooklyn, you are, as Walt Whitman would say, large. You contain multitudes.
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Flatbush Mural 2017