But then I was riding my bike around Bensonhurst last week, and it started to freak me out, because I'd be damned if Bensonhurst today doesn't feel like the Bay Ridge of my youth—unless the sense-memories loosed by the trip have been corrupted by time, so that the world of the past as I remember it feels older than it really was. But, no, it's that Bensonhurst feels lived in and maybe a little worn out, in a way that so much of the borough, particularly the neighborhoods this magazine typically covers, no longer does: it feels unpainted, unsanded, unpatched, redolent of the roughness-around-the-edges for which Brooklyn was once known—not from poverty, abandonment or crime but from a resolute working-classness. It's not an exact replica: many of the Italians I would remember have left, replaced by Chinese immigrants who have left their aesthetic mark with the occasional thick and gleaming metal bannister or window cage. But what I mean is the details, the texture of walls, the attitude of eaves, the paving of streets that combine alchemically to produce deja-vu—to serve as looking-glass or wormhole or time machine.
You can still see the Patch-it-Yourself ethos at play: the guys tinkering on stoops, the corners scented with sawdust and sheetrock, the brick walls painted with two mismatched-by-age shades of the same white. This isn't to say the neighborhood looks cheap or ugly, or that many families haven't done well for themselves and made something nice. It's to say that it feels like the old-school grit still abides here more than in surrounding communities, signs of mettle born of determination, like it's more important to fly your timeworn Italian flag than to replace it and its faded colors with something shiny and new—or, more likely, with nothing at all.
On the corner of 71st Street and Twenty First Avenue, I check on a hunch to see if a pay phone outside PS 247 still works—and it does! Still, other pay phones I see have been left to rust; murals memorializing the fallen fade against corner-store walls; and no-parking-sign poles and fire hydrants on at least two blocks appear painted in long-dulled red, white and blue stripes. There are lots that are undeveloped, signs that are unrepaired, storefronts on the major commercial avenues that can still belong to the Auto Help Line of America or a place advertising Italian Records—unique, neighborhood-specific, interesting places that haven't been priced out yet by chains and banks.
I don't know; maybe I remember my childhood as especially Italian, and Bensonhurst's still-conspicuous Italian roots make me wistful. Last week, I spotted a frowning old lady on a porch wearing an inexpensive-looking cotton nightgown, glaring out at passing cars and passersby, lording over a statue of the Virgin Mary that stood in her yard, hands outspread, in a large halfshell. When I went back yesterday, I saw her again, still frowning; a few blocks west, I saw another old lady on her stoop with what looked like her nurse, and when I rode past we locked eyes and she waved. I smiled at her and thought, "Ah, yes, this is the Brooklyn I remember—the Brooklyn where strangers smiled and waved to each other." But that can't possibly be true.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter at @henrycstewart
Bensonhurst, Through the Looking Glass