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Fall 2017

On Neighborhoods

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Clifford Thompson

For the last twenty-six of my fifty-four years, I have lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a very nice, upscale neighborhood that I appreciate in part because of the time I have spent elsewhere in New York City. In those neighborhoods—where I met some wonderful people, just as I have in Park Slope—certain niceties were not so much missing as alien. Take Harlem, where I used to have an apartment (which burglars stripped bare one night). Wanting to invite a small group to my place, and thinking about food options, I strolled two blocks along 145th Street to Broadway, where I asked a guy at a pizza place, “Do you deliver?” Looking at me as if I had spat on his shoes, he said, “Do I toh-liv-er?” “Do you de-liver?” I said. He replied, “Deliver what?” When I lived in the then-lower-middle-class, mostly Hispanic Cypress Hills, at the border of Brooklyn and Queens, I went—once—to work out at the Y there. Discovering quickly that there were no pins in the weight machines, I asked an employee where they’d all gone. “You gotta buy one,” he told me. And then there were the nineteen years I worked in the South Bronx, home to the poorest congressional district in these United States, where one day, for reasons I can only guess at (maybe my briefcase suggested something objectionable?), someone I didn’t see threw a two-liter bottle of soda at me.

So, yes, there is much I appreciate about Park Slope. I can’t think of any streets more beautiful than the tree- and brownstone-lined streets in the Slope, and sometimes, looking around me as I walk through them, I almost don’t believe I live here. The neighborhood is safe, or as safe as a neighborhood gets in New York. A block from my apartment, at the top of the slope for which the neighborhood is named, is Prospect Park, so large, well-tended, and multifaceted that it has forever changed my idea of what a park should be. My wife, who works for the park (where we got married), thinks I am oblivious to its charms, but I would miss it if we moved. The uninterrupted stretch of sidewalk on Prospect Park West, ending at the arch of Grand Army Plaza, is designed, successfully in my opinion, to resemble a certain Paris landmark. Heading down the slope, you can find several good watering holes and as many varieties of restaurant as one could reasonably ask of a single neighborhood. (And yes, they deliver.) There is a decent public middle school and the best public elementary school in Brooklyn, if not New York City—my daughters attended both—as well as a private school. In Park Slope you can shoot pool, not at the kind of smoke-filled dive where Paul Newman took suckers’ dough in The Hustler but in a place that hosts kids’ birthday parties. You can find good bagels, stationery stores, not one but two wine shops, a well-run and friendly YMCA (complete with pins), a decent supermarket and a famous food coop, a place called The Cocoa Bar, and, crucially, two bookstores. I like it here.

Which is not to say that the neighborhood doesn’t have its downsides, at least for me. Park Slope has a reputation, partly earned, for an upper-class liberal sense of entitlement. One minor example: a decade or so ago my younger daughter had a birthday party at a ceramics place where the owner showed the children how to decorate plates and bowls. One of the other parents dropped her daughter off twenty-five minutes late for this two-hour affair and then asked if the pickup was “still” at one o’clock. (“Yes,” the owner very quickly told her.) I tend to feel superior to that kind of attitude, to feel it hasn’t infected me, but I suppose I’m not the best judge. And if I haven’t been contaminated, the reason probably involves something else that makes me feel separate from this place. It has less to do with the fact that I am black and most of my neighbors are white (and, increasingly, European) than with pure economics. As an office-worker-turned-freelancer, I have managed to stay afloat financially, but here, in the company of lawyers, Wall Streeters, well-known actors, and best-selling authors, among others, I am out of my league. I referred above to “my” apartment, but it’s not mine; I sometimes call myself “the last renter in Park Slope,” and if my rent-stabilized apartment ever made the leap to market rate, I would simply have to live somewhere else. If on some night I heard a knock at the door and a throaty voice saying only, “You have to leave,” part of me would not be surprised.

Where would I go? Good question. But I think I would be fine wherever I ended up, for the same reason that, despite the lack of certain amenities, I felt at home in other New York neighborhoods: they were not so different from where I grew up. The small house in Washington, D.C., where I spent my first eighteen years was sandwiched between two housing projects. The sometimes helpful thing about being a kid is that you have no basis of comparison for anything, and while growing up, I never wondered why the only restaurant for miles around was the McDonald’s twenty minutes away by foot, never considered what it meant that I attended Head Start. I knew mainly that there was a lot of family around who would do anything for me. Sometimes now, when I can’t sleep, I picture the view from the bathroom window at the old house. I see the tree in our backyard, through whose limbs and branches slivers of a housing project’s red brick are visible; in the summer at dusk, when the sky is that special, fleeting pastel blue and the breeze caresses the limbs just so, the leaves sway, as if moving to a slow tune I can’t hear. In a corner of my mind, I live there still.

Clifford Thompson is the author of Love for Sale and Other Essays, Twin of Blackness (a memoir), and a novel called Signifying Nothing.

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