The Advantages of a New Perspective: A Literary Walk in Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Heights still retains a sense of dignity and quiet, the legacy of a residential neighborhood that was famous in the nineteenth century for its churches and for its elegant homes built by merchants and sea captains in the shipping trades. The neighborhood remained relatively secluded until 1908, ten years after the incorporation of Greater New York, when the IRT subway connected the two boroughs. According to the Federal Writers' Project guide to the city, the prospects of the lesser sort visiting the bucolic suburb of the aristocracy frightened the residents: "Many of the patrician inhabitants fled; the old Victorian mansions were partitioned into studios and apartments; and writers and artists were attracted to the region." (p. 442)

the view from Brooklyn Heights

Despite the subsequent twentieth century invasion by artists, poets, painters, and playwrights, Brooklyn Heights has managed to retain much of its seclusion and exclusivity, largely as a result of its landmark status, high property values, and success in confining commercial enterprises to a couple of streets. These days, a well-compensated actor or popular novelist would be just as likely as a successful merchant to snap up a desirable brownstone in the Heights. A sea captain today would probably be priced out of a home built for a sea captain of the 1800s.

Looking down Middagh Street toward the East River. The old Brooklyn Heights street has several houses built in the 1820s-1840s.

houses at the intersection of Columbia Heights and Pineapple Street, with access to the Esplanade (right)
Though its tree-lined streets and Greek Revival brownstones may seem to represent the very definition of "quaint," the main attraction of Brooklyn Heights is its incomparable view of lower Manhattan, the East River and New York Harbor. Sea captains and merchants chose this lofty neighborhood for the view of the harbor with their easily accessible boats docked below.

For the writers and artists that later took up residence here, the appeal of the view of the Brooklyn Bridge or the lights of the skyscraper city became more figurative in nature, a symbol for gaining a new perspective on the city and its meanings. The Heights afforded Hart Crane's view of the bridge, as well as Arthur Miller's, and homes in the Heights brought new perspectives on city life for W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, and Thomas Wolfe. For Norman Mailer, a home on Columbia Heights and his favorite writing spot in the attic afforded both literal and literary views of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

One Montague Terrace. W. H. Auden lived here in 1939-1940. 
The Esplanade, opened in 1950, was built in conjunction with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The BQE runs directly parallel on two levels just below. 
Truman Capote's residence. 70 Willow St.

Truman Capote wrote about his own yellow brick house at 70 Willow Street and stories of residential life on surrounding streets in his 1959 essay, "A House on the Heights." The famous Southern-born writer of Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood had moved into rooms in the spacious house just two years prior, and his essay brims with the pride of a new resident. Capote wrote about Brooklyn Heights from the perspective of the late 1950s, describing the "fait accompli" of its postwar gentrification. Listen to the rhythm as he describes the meaning of "Heights" in the neighborhood's name:

"Heights, because it stands atop a cliff that secures a sea-gull's view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, of lower Manhattan's tall dazzle and the ship-lane waters, breeding river to bay to ocean, that encircle and seethe past posturing Miss Liberty." 

In the essay, Capote describes the history of the area, from the idealized world of the sea captain families to the Beecher church crowd to the later immigrants and artists and writers. Of the latter, his fellow tribe, he singles out the denizens of 7 Middagh Street, a legendary house of illuminati including McCullers, Paul and Jane Bowles, Auden, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee, the children of Thomas Mann, and more, many at the same time. The house was later demolished to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, a commercial street with a mix of businesses, restaurants, and apartments.

For residents of other boroughs, feeling trapped in the urban canyons and in need of escape or simply in need of a new point of view, a trip to Brooklyn Heights can provide a sanctuary that is oddly stimulating and soothing at the same time. Walking the quiet sun-dappled streets amidst buildings of a comfortable human scale seems to restore one's natural balance and slower tempo. Along older paths such as Middagh Street, the Heights still seems to maintain its nineteenth century aura, guarding its older secrets behind wooden doors at the top of well-swept stoops. Still, a glimpse of the East River and the shimmering steel city lures the visitor to the Promenade, or Esplanade, its official name, a place to stroll and recalibrate one's own place in the city.

What's completely new for New Yorkers is the spectacle and experience of the repurposed piers below Brooklyn Heights. Piers 1 through 6, previously committed to shipping, now constitute Brooklyn Bridge Park, one of the largest civic waterfront projects in the city. The landscaping of Pier 1, the closest to the Brooklyn Bridge, with its artificial hills and trails, provides a novel vantage point for contemplating Manhattan, the river, and the sea. The repurposing of a pier from shipping to recreation is nothing new, especially considering similar conversions along Hudson River Park on the Manhattan side, but the extension of public spaces here, at river level, brings the two boroughs closer together. Standing up there, on the heights, you keep your distance, physically and emotionally, but standing down here near the water's edge, on the other hand, you may feel exposed and vulnerable, especially on a nice day filled with crystalline air. It will take some time adjusting to the views from Brooklyn Bridge Park, just like a new pair of prescription glasses takes some adjustment. It's just a new point of view. But I guess a seagull can fly low, too.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple. Clicking on images greatly enlarges them. More images from the walk in this set on Flickr WOTBA.

View A Walk in Brooklyn Heights and Brooklyn Bridge Park in a larger map


Rob said...

Teri, what can I say? A wonderful report on what looks to have been a wonderful walk around one of my favourite areas of Brooklyn. Here's to the day that I'll be able to stroll it myself, in person.
Warmest regards

Teri Tynes said...

Thanks, Rob. You say the nicest things.
Every time I write about literary matters in New York, the more I find for future exploration. I'd like to write about each of the writers here and their perspectives on Brooklyn. For Capote, for example, there's something about his house on Willow St., like the back porch that reminded him of those in Louisiana, that's a lot like the Garden District in New Orleans.

BNabe said...

A very nice piece. Brooklyn Heights is one of the jewels of New York City...physical and cultural. It is rich in history (The Battle of Brooklyn Heights - from which General Washington escaped in the fog of the east river) and the literary history much, much later. Woody Allen, Spike Lee, The Coen Brothers, Robert Redford and dozens of other film makers worked (and continue to work) in the neighborhood. European tourists wander the neighborhood constantly.