December 04, 2012
photo courtest of brooklyn brewery
I, your humble blogger, was born in Queens, New York. I grew up there, and went to college in Manhattan, where I lived on twenty-fifth street and first avenue amid a cluster of hospitals and medical centers the residents affectionately called “bedpan alley.” I spent the years afterwards living with roommates in apartments in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Astoria, Queens. Then I moved to Los Angeles to attend USC.
Neighborhoods in New York have different characteristics, and New Yorkers—who probably do this without being conscious of it—ascribe personality traits to people based on their hometowns or where they choose to live as adults. Sunset Park, Brooklyn (where I used to teach middle school) has an entirely different character than Park Slope, Brooklyn, even though they are right next to each other. The parts of Brooklyn and Queens that are closer to Manhattan tend to be more expensive, often hipper, and trendier than those further away. As time goes by and the population grows, the line of what’s “close” to Manhattan gets pushed further back.
The characteristics of New York’s neighborhoods, though, are constantly changing. I lived in Manhattan for five years in the 1990s, and when I go back to visit—I’m there at least twice a year to visit family and friends—I find that more and more of my old haunts are gone. Neighborhoods change, demographics change, and what was once a dark alley is now a busy Starbucks. What was once a great Italian restaurant is now a fast food franchise. When I lived in Greenpoint, neighboring Williamsburg was a quiet community of artist lofts and an aging Italian-American population. Now it’s teeming with life, young twenty-somethings mostly, who spend money and time in stores, coffee houses and restaurants.
When Aaron Copland was born in Brooklyn in 1900, it was undoubtedly a place of a different character than it is today. His father owned a neighborhood department store on the corner of Washington Avenue and Dean Street, in a place called Prospect Heights. The houses there are mostly Brownstones from the nineteenth century, but in the last decade or so, lots of new construction has taken place. One of the most controversial projects of recent memory was the construction of the Barclays Center, an indoor sporting arena that houses the Brooklyn Nets, an NBA franchise formerly of New Jersey. There are things about today’s Brooklyn that would be familiar to Copland. Five years before Copland was born, the Brooklyn Museum—still in operation—was built in his neighborhood. When young Aaron was ten years old, the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens opened, and it is still there today.
When Gershwin was born in 1898, his Brooklyn was a lot like Copland’s. The two men were sons of Jewish immigrants at a time when an influx of immigrants flooded all parts of New York city. It was this tidal wave of new Americans that a couple of decades later brought my maternal grandfather through Ellis Island. (And his Lower East Side of Manhattan was surely different from the one that’s there now.) Gershwin spent his teens and twenties in a place called Tin Pan Alley. Tin Pan Alley—obviously the origin of the “bedpan alley” parody—was on twenty-eighth street between fifth and sixth avenues in Manhattan. Numerous music publishers were housed on this short stretch of street, and this is where Gershwin started selling his wares as a “song plugger.” Now Tin Pan Alley is just a street with buildings and restaurants and no particular collection of businesses. It’s in an area that’s now called “NoMad,” or “NOrth of MAdison Square Park.” That’s something that’s also changed about New York: now we seem make up names of neighborhoods at the drop of a hat.
Being native New Yorkers—and native Brooklynites—influenced the music of Gershwin and Copland. They had other influences, of course. Copland traveled to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, and he honed his style after the war incorporating different techniques he learned on his European visits. Gershwin also studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and like Copland, eventually moved to Hollywood and wrote film scores.
But, as the phrase goes, you can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the boy. Rhapsody in Blue, arguably Gershwin’s most famous work, is a stunning musical tribute to New York City. It’s an enduring work that somehow still captures the ever-changing kaleidoscope of New York. And as any New Yorker will tell you, no matter where you live in the world, or no matter where you visit, you’re always a New Yorker at heart. Take me, for example. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for a dozen years, and I feel at home here. I’m by no means a native, but I know my adopted city pretty well. Still, being a New Yorker is a huge part of who I am. It’s something I’m proud of, and it’s something I’m pleased to have in common with Gershwin and Copland.