February 8, 2020

The Best of Brooklyn

I live in Brooklyn. I’ve lived here since 2000. In that time I’ve explored all five boroughs, but Brooklyn is the only one I can imagine ever calling home. Though less diverse than Queens (the most ethnically diverse county in the U.S, as well as the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world), Brooklyn is far more manageable, affordable, and family-friendly than Manhattan. It’s also less dense than Manhattan, which has the highest population density of any county in the U.S. at 72,033 people.

I mention all this only to say that I know the boroughs fairly well and feel qualified to speak about what makes Brooklyn special. It’s actually a long list of things and places, so I’m going to limit myself to what I consider the best of the best. These are as follows:

Prospect Park
the Brooklyn Museum
the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
the Brooklyn Central Library
and, in a class by itself, Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood must be walked to be truly appreciated. Opened in 1838, it comprises 478 acres and has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. It is, for me, holy ground. Each time I pass though the arches at the main entrance (i.e., the entrance at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street), I feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when she turns to her dog and says, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”

But however I may feel when I arrive, I invariably feel transformed as I make my way through the space. There are two things I love most about Green-Wood:

1) The extraordinary diversity of the trees
2) The songs of the migratory birds

About the latter, Green-Wood is a stop for birds migrating north to south as well as birds migrating south to north. The two migrations don’t necessarily overlap, but when they do, Green-Wood is transformed into a kind of bird Woodstock. When this happens, I usually look for a bench somewhere to sit and enjoy the performance. (Given that Leonard Bernstein is a “permanent resident” at Green-Wood, I like to imagine that he’s conducting the birds in their singing.)

Another well-known “permanent resident” of Green-Wood is one of my favorite artists: the late Jean-Michel Basquiat (a Brooklyn native). Unfortunately, the free map one is given at the four cemetery entrances does a poor job of identifying Jean-Michel’s gravesite. The maps indicate the lot he’s buried in, but not his location within that lot. Accordingly I’ve taken to helping other visitors find Basquiat’s gravesite. My method is simple: I sit and have lunch on a marble bench not far from where Jean-Michel is buried and I wait for confused-looking people to appear. This rarely takes long. Within ten minutes or so, confused people begin to appear from all directions, and so all I need to do is go up to them and ask if there’s a particular gravesite they’re looking for. More often than not they say they’re looking for Jean-Michel’s grave, so I simply walk them there and explain that it’s very common for folks to struggle finding this particular grave (I’ve actually had people cry when I offer to take them myself to Basquiat’s grave).

The most interesting part for me is how many of these folks are visiting from halfway around the world. The first two I met were a young couple from Japan, both of whom were artists who greatly admired Basquiat and who had come to New York to see some of his work up close and visit his grave. The three us stood together at the grave for some time, discussing Basquiat’s life and work. It was during this conversation that I realized for the first time what I was doing — I was bringing together members of an unofficial world-wide community of Basquiat admirers, myself included. All of us loved his work, and all of us mourned his early death. Green-Wood’s maps are little help when it comes to finding Basquiat’s gave, but it doesn’t matter because they’re good enough to get people close enough to Basquiat’s grave for me to spot them and help them.

[For what it’s worth, I have a fantasy of Green-Wood hiring me to do what I’m already doing, except that they would give me a uniform of some kind, perhaps something like the reflective vests one sees on crossing guards, only this vest would include a sash that reads “Green-Wood Guide”. I don’t seriously expect this to happen, but it still gives me pleasure to imagine it.]