Publication Date: June 2011
Kate Christensen’s most recent novel, “The Astral,” tells the story of Harry Quirk — a middle-aged poet struggling against poverty, alcoholism and impending divorce in a rapidly gentrifying Greenpoint, Brooklyn — where Christensen lived for 20 years.
I first moved to north Brooklyn in 1990 when I was 28 and just starting out in life. I lived on Graham off Metropolitan Avenue, above a laundromat, in a small one-bedroom apartment with a skylight in the bathroom, a parquet floor, and a roof deck outside my bedroom door. It cost $350 a month. I had hardly any furniture; the kitchen had no refrigerator, so I only bought whatever food I could eat immediately. It never occurred to me that refrigerators were cheap; everything was so provisional and tentative for me back then. I never planted anything on the roof deck.
Back in those days, Greenpoint was old-world Brooklyn, a profoundly local place. I was a stranger in a strange land on Graham Avenue. Italian guys sat in lawn chairs smoking cigars and drinking Peroni and kibitzing; women in cotton housedresses carried bulging shopping bags along the sidewalks. I felt safe in that part of Greenpoint — all local crime was in the hands of the professionals — but I didn’t belong there. Everyone stared at me when I came up out of the L station, seemingly the only person to get off at my stop who hadn’t been born and raised within a 10-block radius. Graham Avenue felt very far from Manhattan — light years away.
This northernmost tip of Brooklyn is a powerful place. Greenpoint changes its newcomers into locals, as I was changed. It exerts a magnetic, poetic pull on everyone who lives there.
I left Greenpoint in 2010, exactly 20 years later; I moved out of the top-floor railroad apartment on Monitor Street just off Norman for which I had been paying $1,800 a month. It had high ceilings, a view of the Koscuisko Bridge from the living room window, original pink tiles in the bathroom and old wood counters in the kitchen. I sold or gave away as much as I could, but even so, I filled two storage spaces with all the stuff I’d accumulated: books, furniture, rugs, dishes.
By then, the neighborhood had changed. More people “like me” — young writers and artists and “hipsters” and gentrifiers — had come along by the thousands and rented apartments and art studios and renovated old row houses and opened bookstores, boutiques, restaurants, cafes, bars. The population had shifted from locals-only to a solid bloc of newcomers.
At some point during my 20 years there, without realizing it, I had been transformed as well — from an interloper, the new kid on the block, into a bona fide local, a cantankerous, suspicious old-timer grousing about all the kids moving onto my turf.
This northernmost tip of Brooklyn is a powerful place. Greenpoint changes its newcomers into locals, as I was changed. It exerts a magnetic, poetic pull on everyone who lives there. Its gritty, scruffy streets seethe with history, sediment, the stories of working-class families, down-at-heels drunks, immigrants, bar fights, love affairs, the detritus of decades upon decades of ordinary, extraordinary daily human life. It’s a dark place, ugly in spots, with deserted, trash-strewn industrial side streets, cheap aluminum siding slapped on shoddy apartment buildings. The shopfronts on Manhattan Avenue are old-fashioned, vintage. There’s a sepia cast to the place. The hands on the public clocks are all frozen at various arbitrary times, an apt metaphor.
2008 PEN/Faulkner Award winner Kate Christensen is the author of six critically acclaimed novels.