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Brooklyn Baby | History today


Brooklyn Bridge tower under construction in the 1870s © Getty Images.

For a book that deals so rigorously with the coarse-grained details of its subject, Brooklyn: The former and future city has an oddly fantastic feeling. Maybe that's because of the cover picture: the steampunk ball from Samuel Friedes Globe Tower. Perhaps it is the card in the book's resolutions that resembles those often found in fantasy novels that suggest miracles and horrors – Dead Horse Bay, Luna Park, Battle Hill. How can such places exist in a modern metropolis? Or, as Campanella asks with authority and verve, and replies: "How did Brooklyn become itself?"

At first, the book appears to be a direct attempt to describe a definitive history of the New York district: an attempt to "exhaust" a place, as Georges Perec put it. There are chapters on water trade, aviation, sports, warfare and so on. Each topic is linked to a specific area: For example, the once foul-smelling Barren Island is the "island of offal and bones". The book begins in the Ice Age and the famous Brownstone was born in the late Triassic period. Somehow Campanella succeeds.

That doesn't mean that everything runs smoothly. The author's careful research, which brings together numbers and quotes, can be overwhelming, especially given the book's tendency to move outside of Brooklyn's borders. Interest can be in the eye of the beholder if he wades through the machinations of streets and garbage. However, these are both merits and shortcomings. Campanella is always insightful and remains consistently critical, with class and race policies that are never far from the surface. He is rarely polemical and tells his stories about distracting characters such as Reverend Newell Dwight Hillis, who began to prophesy "a better, prettier city" and a "city of God (with) jasper walls and amethyst and pearl gates". – and ended up involved in the decrepit deception of eugenics.

The thoroughness of Brooklyn is enlivened by Campanella's eye for a surprising story. After examining important topics, the reader is suddenly shaken by a cat being shot through a pneumatic mail tube, or by capturing rabid dogs that breed puppies, or by horse candles by which Gotham's horses contributed to his death, just that to brighten up shops and houses that they have passed in life. The author has an admirable interest in long-lost aspects of Brooklyn, and even those that, like the Globe Tower mentioned above, could have been a collection of conversations in the air … from great opera to vaudeville … pipe organ concerts to a triad. Ring circus & # 39 ;. Today's Brooklyn was by no means inevitable. He also contrasts the real horrors of child mortality, child poverty, appalling working conditions and segregation, which did not have to be.

Here we find Campanella's greatest quality – his ability to see the bigger picture. It doesn't matter whether the Globe Tower was a viable project or a scam or a mixture of the two. Its ambiguity lies in the spirit of Coney Island. Brooklyn's gentrification can be illustrated with the proliferation of Edison lamps in hipster areas. Above all, he understands the debt Manhattan owes to his neighbor: "Brooklyn fed New York, took out its garbage, decanted its masses, housed its workers, manufactured its goods, and buried its dead."

Brooklyn goes on a niche topic in the nature of history itself. Campanella reveals how inconveniently history is circumvented with the failure of the revolutionaries at the Battle of Brooklyn on August 27, 1776. He also suggests how history is almost completely erased. For the natives of Canarsee, the arrival of the future Brooklyn residents meant an apocalypse: "These first people of the American country disappeared as silently as the morning mist disappears before the day of progression."

Ultimately, we are reminded that history is not the past, but interpretations of the past. Campanella cunningly points out that growing interest in the story of a Maryland mass grave slaughtered in battle along the Gowanus Marshes has coincided with the arrival of waves of poor immigrants from Europe and other countries. The myth was an attempt to "regain all traces of the sacred past, to recharge it and to renew it, to vaccinate your inheritance against the foreign other". This is the essence of the story of Brooklyn's mix of grit and fantasy. Like so many places, it is complex, built by dreams and blocked by fantasies.

Brooklyn: The former and future city
Thomas J. Campanella
Princeton 552pp £ 30

Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary cities (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and soon inventory (Chatto & Windus).

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