Brooklyn's heavy accent:

New York borough has left its mark on American culture

By Randy Bergmann

Associated Press

June 02, 2002 12:00:00

 

NEW YORK

It isn't easy trying to paint a borough of 2.5 million people with a broad brush, particularly one with 90 distinct neighborhoods, more than 150 ethnic groups and layers upon layers of history. 

 

    That doesn't stop Dorothy Pecorara from trying.

 

    "Brooklyn is the center of the universe," says the 70-year-old, lifelong resident of the Bensonhurst section. "It's the motherland." Hyperbole? Yes. But it's not as much of an exaggeration as you might think.

 

    Politicians and local civic leaders like to say that one in seven Americans can trace their roots to Brooklyn, the most populous of New York City's five boroughs. Whatever the truth is, few places can match its roster of famous natives, or the imprint it has left on American culture through the films, TV shows and books inspired by its locales, lore and people.

 

    To many Brooklynites, Brooklyn is New York. If the stereotypes of the New Yorker - the accent, the rough edges, the street smarts, the sarcasm, the energy - weren't born here, they certainly fermented in its largely working-class neighborhoods.

  

    "Brooklyn has its own specific fascination," says veteran tour operator Justin Ferate. "It's a magical place."

 

    Brooklyn has much to offer as a tourist destination - charming, ethnically diverse neighborhoods, many caught in a time warp from more than a century ago; the largest collection of row houses in the country; trendy restaurants, galleries and shops.

 

    There's also the Brooklyn Bridge, hailed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" when it opened in 1883; Coney Island, perhaps the world's best-known amusement park; and the world-class Brooklyn Museum of Art and avant-garde Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).

 

    Tourism in New York City has been in the doldrums the past few months, beginning even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but there are signs it is picking up again, Ferate says. Most of the tourism in Brooklyn is focused on the gentrified neighborhoods in the northwest. Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Clinton Hill, Cobble Hill, Fort Greene, and parts of Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant look much as they did a century ago.

 

    There are 16 historic preservation districts, some extending for more than 20 blocks. Many of Brooklyn's neighborhoods - preserved and otherwise - have a small-town feel, with wide commercial avenues flanked by quiet residential streets.

 

    For me, Brooklyn's biggest allure is its colorful past and the remarkable list of natives who have helped make it the ultimate nostalgia trip. For an overview of its famous sons and daughters, you can stroll through the Celebrity Path at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, where more than 100 of them are immortalized in concrete paver stones. 

 

120 square miles

 

    Better yet, get a good map and drive and walk the neighborhoods where they lived. A word of caution before you set out: Brooklyn is vast - nearly 12 miles north to south and 10 miles east to west. Standing alone, it would be the nation's fourth-largest city - more populous than Boston, Atlanta, Miami, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis combined. Unless you rent a helicopter, you can't see it all in a day or two.

 

    Brooklyn's literary figures were congregated largely in Brooklyn Heights and adjacent neighborhoods. The heaviest concentration of entertainers - particularly comedians - was in the traditionally Italian and Jewish neighborhoods of south and central Brooklyn.

 

    A good starting point for a driving-walking tour of pop-culture Brooklyn is Bensonhurst, the borough's Little Italy, and the fictional home of Ralph Kramden, the affable bus driver in the  Honeymooners; the Sweathogs in TV's Welcome Back, Kotter; and Tony Manero, a k a John Travolta, in Saturday Night Fever.

 

    Cruise down 86th Street - preferably on a warm summer night - beneath the elevated subway line as Travolta and his screen buddies did when they weren't dancing at the Odyssey 2000 disco in neighboring Bay Ridge. It's the same street where portions of one of the greatest car-chase scenes in cinema history was shot, in the 1971 film The French Connection.

 

   From there it's a short jaunt to New Utrecht High School at 1601 80th St., inspiration for Buchanan High School, home of Barbarino, Horshack and the other Sweathogs. Curly of the Three Stooges walked the halls there before dropping out, and during the mid-1920s, he and  his brothers had four houses - which are standing today - built on nearby Bay 43rd Street and Bath Avenue.

 

    Bensonhurst figures prominently in the history of organized crime, with all of New York's major families - the Gambinos, Luccheses,Colombos, Genoveses and Bonannos - having had operations there. Joseph Colombo Sr. lived with his family in a split-level house at 83rd Street and 11th Avenue, just up from the Dyker Beach Golf Course. Gambino underboss and turncoat Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, who later moved to Arizona, lived in a brick row house on 78th Street near 18th Avenue, ran an after-hours social club at the corner of 62nd and 17th, and had his headquarters at Talis restaurant - called Danzas today by new owners - at 6205 18th Ave.

 

Notorious farewells

 

    People paid their respects to many of the deceased mob figures - some died of natural causes and others from bullets to the back of the head - at Scarpaci's Funeral Home, 1401 86th St.

 

    It should be pointed out, by the way, that Brooklyn is generally a safe place. In 1999, the last year for which statistics are available, only two of the 35 largest U.S. cities - San Diego and San Jose - had lower crime rates than New York City. Brooklyn's crime rate, which has fallen 65 percent during the past eight years, is only slightly higher than New York City's average, and many of Brooklyn's neighborhoods have lower crime rates than those in

suburban towns.

 

    To get a feel for "suburban" Brooklyn, go north on Bedford and you soon will drive past beautiful brick and stucco homes with lawns, gardens and garages. Visitors to Brooklyn often are surprised by the number of neighborhoods with single-family homes - many of them elegant. Midwood, Manhattan Beach, Marine Park, Ditmas Park and parts of Windsor Terrace, Crown Heights and Bay Ridge all have homes that sell for more than $1 million.

 

    In Flatbush is one of New York's most famous high schools, Erasmus Hall. The imposing Gothic structure, which opened in 1786 and has aged badly in recent years, was built with money contributed by Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.

 

    From there, in central Brooklyn, no matter which direction you go, you'll run headlong into vestiges of American culture. To the east is East New York, where Murder Inc. - the enforcement arm of the mob believed responsible for 400 killings in the 1930s - was born.

 

    The heart of Flatbush was a common backdrop for films in the 1940s, and, more recently, the setting for The Lords of Flatbush with Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler, and Sophie's Choice with Meryl Streep.

 

    The hallowed ground where Ebbets Field - home of the Brooklyn Dodgers - stood until 1957 is at 55 Sullivan Place. In its place today is a fitting monument to the sacrilege of its destruction - a bleak, 20-story high-rise housing project.

 

    A fact unknown by many: Brooklyn was an independent city until it merged with New York City in 1898.

 

Copyright 2002, The Arizona Republic. All rights reserved Gannett Co. Inc.

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