Tracy K Smith Reflects on Brooklyn, New York

Brooklyn is “a place where people weren’t rushing.” Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis

In 1996 I was midway through a master’s degree in creative writing at Columbia University. A transplant from California, I’d been living with my aunt in her Manhattan apartment. I was restless. Some nights, I’d come home late from a party and lie awake on the sofa listening to cassettes on my Walkman, too revved up to drift off to sleep. Often on Sundays, idle and awake early, I’d walk the few miles south to Chelsea before turning around and tracing my path back uptown, feeling a pang at the reflection the city windows gave back to me: my own expressionless face, my body braced against the cold.

That spring I was invited to a classmate’s barbecue in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Emerging from the subway, the first thing that struck me was the quiet, as if the city had decided all of a sudden to start whispering. Then I took stock of the scale. Everything was human-sized. Few buildings stood more than three, maybe four stories tall, so the daylight seemed to dip down and touch my face. A canopy of green leaves swayed above the streets—streets where kids wobbled aimlessly on bikes, and across which I found myself walking less hurriedly than usual.

By the time I made it to my friend’s Bergen Street address—a garden apartment where a couple of cats lolled amid the rows of a vegetable patch, and a gathering of people my age sat laughing over plates of cookout food—I felt as though I had finally made it past the city’s innumerable reflective façades. I’d reached an inner sanctum, a place where people weren’t rushing or barring my way. No, on this sunny spring day in idyllic Cobble Hill, my friend’s friends and I were involved in the completely unself-conscious act of being. For the first time since my arrival in New York, I felt utterly at home.

In a few months’ time, I’d find my own sunny Brooklyn address, where I’d wake early and sit writing at the desk in my little bedroom. Evenings, climbing the steps up from the R train to the then-desolate Fourth Avenue, I’d walk the bleak blocks home feeling like a pioneer. It didn’t matter that any number of people like me had already been here for generations, or that I was only staying temporarily in a friend’s place, or even that I’d end up returning to California after graduation. I had found what, for me, was the New World, and in it, I’d stumbled upon a version of myself equipped with a new sense of belonging and possibility.

The second time I moved to Brooklyn was in July 2000, and I was in the first months of a marriage that would take me five years to find my way out of. We were kids, not quite 30. He was painting, and I was still writing poems. We took a flying leap out of California with just over $300 between us and landed in East Flatbush, in a big brick tenement building, at the tail end of summer.

This Brooklyn was exhilarating, and utterly foreign. Corner grocery stores carried foods that transported me to the tropics: pigeon peas, salty bacalao, gigantic papayas, and smooth green avocados. Our corner deli sold live blue crabs out of a white laundry bucket, trussed and peering up with bizarre bauble eyes. Calypso and dancehall music blared from the windows of passing jitney vans; if you nodded at one, the door would slide open, and the driver would charge you a $1.50 for a ride downtown, same as the bus. Heading up toward Church Avenue, amid the stores that sold satin party dresses, discount housewares, and spectacular wigs, I’d glimpse signs of an older Brooklyn—the Breukelen of the first Dutch settlers, with its church steeples and 18th-century cemeteries.

The contradictions of that time and place suited me. Perhaps they echoed the larger contradictions driving my life: I was both happy and sad, lost and found, privileged but living like a brand-new immigrant. I was the same person I’d always been, and yet, at times, a complete stranger even to myself. Sitting cross-legged on my couch, writing my first real poems, I knew I was following a clearly defined path, but when I tried to describe my life to someone else, I sounded completely adrift.

I found my next Brooklyn five years later, newly on my own. This was around the time I started hearing tell of actors and celebrity novelists migrating to the borough. Because I had managed to take my first few steps forward as a real writer, that was the Brooklyn I sought, and when I found it, I took great pains to make the kinds of mistakes I believed writers were supposed to make: romantic indiscretions, sins of excess, failure to say I’m sorry. It seemed the perfect place for someone as flagrantly lonely as I believed myself to be.

I live in a different Brooklyn now, just a short walk from my third apartment. I could tell you what it’s like, but if I’ve learned anything by now, it’s that I won’t know for a little while longer what this Brooklyn is about, at least not for me. And I’d wager that once I do, it’ll give way to some other version of itself that arrives out of nowhere and strikes me as entirely necessary and new.