A Dramatic Transformation: the Fall and Rise of Brooklyn

From the classic novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to the iconic film Saturday Night Fever, Brooklyn was portrayed in 20th century pop culture as a bastion of ethnic enclaves and the working class. But in the 21st century, Brooklyn has emerged as a global brand representing everything from hip-hop to hipsters. Professors Benjamin H. Shepard (GC, Social Welfare/City Tech, Human Services) and Mark J. Noonan (City Tech, English) document this dramatic transformation in their book, Brooklyn Tides: The Fall and Rise of a Global Borough.
The title Brooklyn Tides is a reference in part to Walt Whitman’s famous poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” In the poem, Whitman — himself one of Brooklyn’s most famous writers —describes the “flood-tide” and “ebb-tide” of waves as he crosses the East River, along with the flow of humanity over time.
Shepard and Noonan are scheduled to speak about the book on October 17 at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Shepard recently discussed the book’s themes and his collaboration with Noonan in an interview with The Graduate Center.

GC: Explain how you came up with the title “Brooklyn Tides” and describe your collaboration with your co-author, Professor Noonan.
Shepard:  One of the things I love about being at CUNY is the cross-pollenization across campuses and across disciplines. … Mark and I were talking about Brooklyn and the changing nature of the waterfront. What are the changes? What are the tides rolling through Brooklyn? He brought up Walt Whitman’s reference to Brooklyn tides and we’ve been talking about the tides ever since. It’s a Hegelian way of looking at things: Two ideas rise up and clash and new things come out of it. People moving in, people moving out. New ideas flowing through the borough. … You have this constant sense of Brooklyn trying to become something, but also gradually losing something. A sense of losing and becoming is constantly part of living here.
Mark is an Americanist and studies American literature. I was trained at psychoanalysis and narratives of social movements. These narratives overlap. … We brought our interpretations of texts about Brooklyn from different perspectives.
GC: Why did you write the book? Was there a moment when the idea came to you?
Shepard: I remember a bike ride to East New York (a neighborhood in Brooklyn). … We had this rally in a field where they wanted to put a Walmart. Many people showed up at this rally against this Walmart. … Later in the day, I rode my bike to Prospect Park. There was some protest and counterprotest about putting in a new bike lane. There were people scared about a bike lane destroying the old neighborhood. Brooklyn is a really contested space. These are the dilemmas one feel constantly. … Mark and I both teach in downtown Brooklyn. Will our students be able to live in Brooklyn? Will our students be able to live near the campus? Usually the answer is no, they can’t afford it. So who is Brooklyn going to be for?

GC: What are some of the themes in the book?

Shepard: Literature and the labor of Brooklyn, the work and play of Brooklyn, the activism of Brooklyn, and concerns about what it will become. … An ethnographic reading of the texts of Brooklyn. Social protest and activism. Hopefully our voices merge into one story.
Q: What’s the takeaway from the book?
Shepard: The takeaway is that we have a lot of the ingredients for making this a livable kind of city right here in front of us. The environmental activism, the cultural activism. What we’re trying to say is globalization is one part of a conversation about Brooklyn. We have to talk about agency. These aren’t just immovable forces out of our hands. We can actually have an impact. You often think there’s nothing you can do. What we’re trying to say is, this history of Brooklyn suggests there’s a lot we can do.

Submitted on: OCT 10, 2018

Category: Faculty | General GC News | Social Welfare