Phillip Lopate is the author of countless books and the editor of a number of anthologies on various topics: he’s a fiction writer, an essayist, a memoirist, a movie critic, and more. Tomorrow, Free Press releases two new books: To Show and Tell, a guide to the craft of literary non-fiction (and a sort of companion piece to his essential anthology The Art of the Personal Essay), and Portrait Inside My Head, a new collection of personal essays that stretch back to his childhood in Brooklyn through marriage, parenthood, and sibling rivalry with Leonard. He’ll be at BookCourt tomorrow night, reading and signing, but in the meantime we asked him to talk about his home borough: what it was like, how it’s changed, and what he likes about it now.
What neighborhood do you live in now?
I live in Carroll Gardens, and have been there for the past 18-plus years. I think it’s a terrific neighborhood. It has a lovely street-scale of brownstones, trees and gardens front and back, plenty of good food shopping, and no end of restaurants, boutiques, funeral parlors, and other amenities.
Is that where you grew up in?
I grew up first in Williamsburgh, then in Fort Greene. The Williamsburgh I knew as a child was an ethnic Jewish neighborhood with tenements whose foyers smelled of fried onions—full of character, gangs, and a desperate slum. My downwardly mobile family moved to Fort Greene when I was about 10 or 11, to a block that was almost entirely African-American. We somehow managed to fit in, and again the dominant impression was one of desperate poverty, gangs and danger. So when I first moved, from Manhattan as an adult, to Carroll Gardens, I thought I must have died and gone to heaven. Of course Williamsburgh and Fort Greene are now nothing like the way they were when I was a child. They are pricey, tony and highly desirable. It’s as though a neutron bomb had been dropped on them, leaving most of the buildings intact but pulverizing the old neighborhood types.
As a native, are you happy about the attention the borough gets now? Or do you resent it?
I am neither happy nor resentful. I don’t take it entirely seriously. I regard the hype philosophically, as just one of those things that comes with a consumerist society always looking for new brands. Being a native Brooklynite, I take for granted much of which the world used to dismiss about it and now glorifies. I never expected Brookyn to remain unchanged; it was too important to stay embalmed in amber; and it will be transformed again. That’s city life.
What’re some of your favorite places in Brooklyn?
I like the Warren Mews and some of those other one-block alleys in Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, like Love Lane; I like to walk around the piers in Red Hook; I like Fairway in Red Hook and the Union Market on Court Street, which is overpriced but puts on a pretty display; I like BookCourt and Greenlight Books and the Barnes & Nobles in Cobble Hill and Park Slope; I like to eat at Al Di La and Watty & Meg’s and Seersucker and La Vara and on and on; I like the Promenade and the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Historical Society—a beautiful building—and I have a special attachment to BAM, with whom I’ve done various projects.
What’s your favorite book about Brooklyn?
I don’t really have a favorite. I like Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, of course, and Paule Marshall’s Brown Girls, Brownstones, and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, and Ernest Poole’s The Harbor, and Jonathan Lethem’s A Fortress of Solitude, and the poetry of Walt Whitman and Harvey Shapiro. Each brings out a different dimension, a different facet of Brooklyn.
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