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After Work: Being A Tourist In My Own New York

...Even though I knew better, I’d always pictured Brooklyn filled with grey buildings that squatted under grey skies. I thought of hoods in the ‘hood, drug deals going down -- shooting up drugs and shooting down rival drug dealers.

I thought of buildings left to rot and landlords walking away.

My mind filled with tragedies and clashes had not prepared me for the immaculate neighborhood of Crown Heights...

Dona Gibbs hikes her way into a greater knowledge of the city in which she has lived for forty-two years.

For more of Dona's adventerous columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/after_work/

I love to walk. I love to discover. Growing up in rural North Carolina I ambled here and there. I loved the fields, the woods and the dirt roads. Do they still exist?

I’m a city dweller now. Walking is still a delight.

I never know what I’ll find next here in New York City. And increasingly, I’m finding people who gladly point the way to delights I would have never known about.

On a recent Saturday I was invited to join a group of local history lovers to cross the bridge, yes, actually leave Manhattan, and go to Brooklyn. Although Brooklyn is a quick subway ride away, I’ve been there less than half a dozen times in the past decade. That’s how provincial city dwellers can become.

The plan was that we’d meet at a specific place where we’d be met by a van. Some of us were at an age when a ten-mile walk might have ended at one of the local medical facilities rather than lunch.

Our destinations were Prospect Park, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights and Fort Greene. For non-New Yorkers theses names mean nothing. For New Yorkers they conjure up mental pictures, some dismal and even scary. Many different ethnic groups call Brooklyn, or at least their several blocks of Brooklyn, home. Some are newcomers; some have been there for three or four generations.

Even though I knew better, I’d always pictured Brooklyn filled with grey buildings that squatted under grey skies. I thought of hoods in the ‘hood, drug deals going down -- shooting up drugs and shooting down rival drug dealers.

I thought of buildings left to rot and landlords walking away.

My mind filled with tragedies and clashes had not prepared me for the immaculate neighborhood of Crown Heights. The houses look nearly identical, narrow in front with stoops and scarf-size front gardens. Crown Heights is home for many Hassidic Jews. This was Saturday and families were walking back from synagogue. Adolescent boys were hanging out on their front stoops in the sullen way adolescent boys have, no matter what their ethnicity.

Just a block over was Bedford-Stuyvesant, the second largest concentration of African-Americans in the United States. The first being Harlem. There’s no denying that Bed-Stuy continues to be a neighborhood in flux. If the U.S. or New York City economy shakes and quakes were measured on the Richter scale, the needle registers a bigger jolt for neighborhoods like this.

True, there are housing projects. One where the old Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers used to be, is truly nightmarish in its size. It’s the kind of gargantuan project where I felt I would be swallowed up in a maw of anonymity.

I had expected housing projects. What I hadn’t imagined were the beautiful brownstones set on leafy streets. And yes, many, many trees grow in Brooklyn on quiet streets. These may be confined to a small area in the city sprawl but my surprise was that they exist and have existed for so long.

Until the 1880s Brooklyn was a collection of little agriculture hamlets. The roads linking them were old Indians trails. One of the main thoroughfares, I was told, was still a dirt road in the 1830s. Before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, the only way to Manhattan was by boat. The famous bridge changed that, of course but, initially at least Brooklyn retained a suburban flavor.

Brooklyn calls itself the borough of churches. There’s practically one on every corner. Name a denomination and you’ll likely find a church serving that community.

Then there’s the history.

Whose history do you want?

Do you want to know more why New York was once called New Amsterdam? You can find it in Brooklyn where an authentic Dutch farmhouse was moved to Prospect Park. Perhaps because the N.Y. Parks Department budget doesn’t allow for a pristine, manicured landscaping, the house is set on a patch of lawn framed by a tangle of trees and native and opportunistic plants. Much like Brooklyn, if I were going to stretch the analogy.

There are several Dutch Reform churches to be found. In one the gravestones are inscribed in Dutch even as late as the 1790s.

What about African-American history? You can find it at a women’s Masonic Lodge begun by two emancipated women.

You can see it at Weeksville. It’s a small section of a restored village of free African Americans that flourished before the American Civil War. Weeksville had its own school, its own newspaper and provided a safe haven at a time and place that was hardly welcoming to African Americans. It’s a fascinating footnote of American history.

Then there’s truly something off the beaten path. It’s a beaten path -- once a block long stretch of the old Clove road. It’s cobblestoned and dates to pre-Revolutionary times. It’s unmarked, except by a street sign.

All this must sound like “it happened yesterday” to you from towns and cities with history written on sheepskin rather than on parchment, but if you find yourself in New York, and after the Empire State Building, Fifth Avenue, the Staten Island Ferry, Saks Fifth Avenue, Rockefeller Center, you think you’ve seen it all – well you haven’t. And neither have I—even after forty-two years.


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