Alarming News

July 20, 2011

Ode to Brooklyn

Every year on July 20th, I celebrate my independence day, the day my mother and I arrived in America from the Soviet Union (after a few months stay in Italy). Every year I write about how grateful I am to be here, how much I love America, how I will never take for granted the freedom I almost didn’t have. I tell a story about the experience every year, you can read through the links at the end of this post.

Today is 33 years of living in this amazing country. This post, though, is about something a little different. It’s not about where I left or the country in which I ended up–it’s about the city, the city of Brooklyn.

I love, love, love Brooklyn.

I grew up on Foster Avenue between Coney Island Avenue and East 10th street. Back then this area was called Flatbush. Now, I’m not sure. Midwood? Kensington? Ditmas Park? The name seems to always be changing.

My building was an ex-Soviet enclave, little old Russian-Jewish ladies sat outside and gossiped about everyone who walked by. I played in the lobby on rainy days and in the cement backyard in the summer.

This photo of my old building was taken in 2007:

Childhood home

That’s it on the corner, also 2007. It’s been a predominantly Pakistani neighborhood for the past 15-20 years but has been getting gentrified (not sure that’s the correct term in this case but I feel like “yuppified” sounds like a pejorative and not what I mean) in the last few years.

Coney Isl approaching Foster Ave

My grandmother and her sister lived in apt.2E and we lived in 3E. My mom and grandma would coordinate the time, open their doors and I would run down the stairs talking to my mom halfway down and to my grandma the rest of the way. It was their version of letting me have a little freedom…but not too much.

All the hallways smelled like soup or fried vareniki or galooptsi or some other Russian dish. The hallway by my grandmother’s place always smelled best, her kitchen was always broiling with pots and pans on every burner of her tiny stove. She was ready to feed a small army which could come through at any moment. G-d, I miss my grandma.

These days my old neighborhood is slowly getting hipsterfied (that sounds right!) but back then it was pretty rough. While I was aware of dangers around me I had such an idyllic childhood there. I knew the plaza (Newkirk Plaza, nicknamed New Crack Plaza back then) containing the subway station was scary because my grandmother clutched my hand, and her bag, extra hard as we walked by it.

I had one of every nationality and race living on my block. My friends were Irish, Puerto Rican, Albanian, Polish, Italian, black, Pakistani, American-Jewish (different, let me assure you, from Russian-American-Jewish), and every mutt combination in between (before anyone gets offended on behalf of mutts, that’s what people of mixed heritage called themselves–proudly–in Brooklyn).

We were poor and it was something I understood from a very young age. I would overhear conversations about money. I knew I couldn’t simply have whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it. This has been a major influence in my life. I’ve had money and I haven’t had money, been in debt and not had to worry at all, and while I prefer one way to the other, I could live without the comforts if I had to. I plan to raise my daughter to understand that money isn’t everything, that she shouldn’t expect *things* to bring her joy.

I remember the sensation of not being able to speak English. {A political side-note is that it remains baffling to me how people could discourage new immigrants from learning English via bilingual education in schools. Sure, I could have survived just speaking Russian–as I grew so did the Russian community in Brooklyn and it would be more than possible to survive in it, to this day, without learning the English language–but it would have severely limited my options. I love speaking more than one language, and our daughter is learning Russian and Hebrew alongside English, but it is pure tomfoolery for an immigrant child to not learn English right away.} My first day of school I spoke none. By the end of the first month I was fluent. This is a picture of me on my first day of school. All of my information is pinned to the note on me, who I am and where I’m supposed to be because, again, no English. Was I afraid? Does this girl look afraid?


That’s the thing about being from Brooklyn, at least for me, it made me fearless (I love the line from Biggie, the best rapper who ever lived and, obviously, from Brooklyn: “stay far from timid/only make moves when your heart’s in it/and live the phrase ’sky’s the limit’”). There’s no real reason for this, I’m sure someone from Denver or Tuscaloosa or Des Moines can grow up to be an unafraid adult, but I credit Brooklyn for my backbone. When asked where I’m from, despite having lived in Manhattan for the last 10 years, I always say “born in Russia, raised in Brooklyn.” Both are completely intrinsic to my identity.

Lots of people love Brooklyn. I know multiple people who have tattooed the name of the city on their body. We’re the borough that’s thorough, the borough that comes out for the shout-out {I think I’ve blogged this story before but I can’t find it to link it so here it is again: IC and I went to see a Slick Rick show a few years ago. One of the warm-up acts was on stage and riling up the crowd. “Is Queens here tonight?” Cheer. “Is the Bronx in the house?” Louder cheer. “Is Harlem here tonight?” Wooooo. “Is Staten Island ready to party tonight?” Cheer. “Is the Lower East Side ready to get downnnnn?” Yay! “Is New Jersey here tonight?” At this point, I lean over to IC and say “WHAT THE HELL?” And you could honestly feel the tension in the room. He’s calling out New Jersey but no Brooklyn? I’m leaving, I am! And then he says into the mic “can you feel that? Can you hear the whispering? Did I forget someone? I wouldn’t forget you Brooklyn!!!” Loudest cheer of the night, by far. “I know you’re the borough that only comes out for the shout-out!” So what, we enjoy the shout-out!

Ending up in Brooklyn was fairly accidental. We could have gone to other cities, to other states, to other countries. But we ended up there, in a city where so many feel right at home, and I feel so lucky that that happened.

These days we’ve got our eye on Brooklyn as where we want to raise our daughter Sadie. We’re looking to move back there in the not-too-far-off future (but to “fake Brooklyn”, that is the areas close to Manhattan that feel less like the Brooklyn where I grew up and more like mini-Manhattan. Still, “fake Brooklyn” is better than no Brooklyn). I hope she’ll love it as much as I do.

Previous July 20th posts:








2003 (scroll down a little to July 18).

Posted by Karol at 11:51 AM |


Posted by: Bill O at July 20, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Happy Ameicaversary ! :)

Posted by: Angelka at July 20, 2011 at 12:52 pm


Posted by: Angelka at July 20, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Happy independence day. Fantastic post. Nice shout out to Tuscaloosa! BROOOKLLYYNNN!!!!!

Posted by: Jennifer at July 20, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Terrific post, Karol! Our stories are so similar… growing up blocks from your old building, not speaking a word of English the first day of school, living with grandma, old gossipy babyshkas discussing passerbys, clutching the purse when walking through Newkirk Plaza. I can’t say that I look back with the same level of fondness as you do, probably because I was older than you, but it was certainly a formative experience.

I say you keep writing posts like this. It’s time to retire the political angle :)

Posted by: Yelena at July 20, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Thanks, guys!!

And thanks Yelena, it’s funny because rereading my post I only focused on that part of Brooklyn where we grew up. But I love the rest of southern Brooklyn too. Brighton/Manhattan Beach/Sheepshead Bay/Gravesend/Bensonhurst/Bay Ridge, they’re all “home” just the same. The “hood”!

Posted by: Karol at July 20, 2011 at 2:26 pm

I was getting into that “whatZAhell?!” mood too, just like you @that show – waiting for your to mention Bay Ridge. OK, finally you did, if only in the comments, I can relax.

Congrats, Dear Karol, you are a Brooklyn veteran compared to me. But we both are at home here.

Posted by: Tatyana at July 20, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Spent many a Sunday in Brooklyn at my grandmother’s house. She was an immigrant from Russia when it belonged to Poland or vice versa. Can’t remember. She lived in what was considered Flatbush, President Street at the corner of Church until the neighborhood changed. She was the last of her generation to move from the building and then moved to Bay Avenue. I remember the smells of Brooklyn, riding along the Interboro through the side streets, seeing the aging immigrants, older than grandma, playing checkers at the game tables along Ocean Parkway. She made knadelach, dumplings, that fell apart with a fork. She made me eat HO Oatmeal with sugar and milk, which I hated. So odd that I now eat oatmeal every day of the week for lunch sans the milk and added sugar. Last night I was at Home Depot and spotted a kitchen fixture that zoomed me right back to grandma’s apartment in Brooklyn. Her life was locked inside a breakfront which she’d break open to get the bills for dad to pay. “Sonny (that’s what she called him) you vant some sodie?” she’d ask. Funny the iconic images and what came to be known as “it smells like Brooklyn” which we didn’t mean derogatorily against Brooklyn or her inhabitants. Brooklyn smelled of fried foods from “the old country.” In grandma’s apartment was a photo of her at the age of 19 in what we called the “swan pose” a little bit sexy and racy for those years but there she was. My cousins gifted it to me a few years ago. Brooklyn…it’s where many of us New Yawkers hail from, in one way or another.

Posted by: Robin at July 20, 2011 at 3:40 pm

I totally coined the phrase “fake brooklyn”.

Posted by: Ronnie at July 20, 2011 at 5:08 pm

Never thought I’d contemplate a move to Brooklyn but I’ll follow this girl anywhere…

Posted by: IC at July 20, 2011 at 5:20 pm

And may there be many more.

Posted by: steveegg at July 20, 2011 at 9:39 pm

Love that “ruki v boki” picture!

Posted by: Ivan Lenin at July 21, 2011 at 8:30 pm

so cute,love you!

Posted by: Martin at July 22, 2011 at 11:28 pm

[...] 2011 [...]

Posted by: 34 glorious, American years at July 23, 2012 at 4:16 pm

[...] 2011 [...]

Posted by: The big 3-5 at July 22, 2013 at 5:20 pm
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