Find Myself a City to Live In: Jonathan Lethem’s Imagined Metropolis


In their wake they have created a new intellectual community that is overlaid on the original Brooklyn, which includes the newspaper The Brooklyn Rail and the magazine N+1, galleries and performance spaces, which have attracted legions of writers. In March 2008, Colson Whitehead wrote a piece in the New York Times Book Review on Brooklyn becoming a new writers’ capital, like Paris and Greenwich Village before it. It seemed one couldn’t walk into a café after that without seeing a recent MFA graduate tapping away at the next great American novel. This surge in creativity and population was celebrated as reinvigorating the borough. But, not everyone was happy.

In Fort Greene, one of the battlefronts of gentrification, long a bastion of the black middle class, younger white residents have had difficulty living next to older black ones. Home ownership has helped prevent a total transformation of the neighborhood, as black homeowners were not priced out the way the residents were in other neighborhoods. The black writer Nelson George, a long time resident of the neighborhood, has written about what it is like to be black and living in a gentrifying neighborhood. His biggist complaint is that newer white residents don’t connect to the community; rather they remain detached in it. New businesses sprout up that are designed to look old and many of the 20-somethings do not know the difference. But, as unpleasant as this process is, there is something about it that writers such as Lethem can teach us about. As much as his characters want to be “real,” they create isolating, self-referential worlds for themselves that butt up against communities rather than joining them. Lethem’s characters are the same kind of people Nelson George complained about. In Lethem’s books, we learn about the city of young, white urbanites, but not about the city. But, at least we gain some understanding of their world, what motivates them. And we learn how race is always present, if mostly silent as an issue.

N+1 writer, Elizabeth Gumport has written “…questions of wealth and race are rephrased as inquiries into authenticity and what it means to be a true New Yorker.” What Lethem does that many other Brooklyn writers do not is confront issues of wealth and race, but on a slant. Lethem knows Brooklyn, watched it carefully at close hand. He is, as he knows it, in between the many Brooklyns. But he knows that certain Brooklyns are more real than others. “Court Street, where it passed through Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, was the only Brooklyn really”, he writers in Motherless Brooklyn. Brooklyn Heights is “secretly part of Manhattan,” and thereby not real. Of course Brooklyn Heights is physically part of Brooklyn, even as psychically it isn’t because of the racial and class make-up of the neighborhood. Lethem’s characters know the real Brooklyn too, even if they know they aren’t it. Rachel Ebdus tells her son Dylan, the protagonist of Fortress of Solitude, “If someone asks you, say you live in Gowanus. Don’t he ashamed. Boerum Hill is pretentious bullshit.” But in Brooklyn names matter, as they signify allegiances as well as class. Unlike later gentrifiers, the Ebdus’s were there “to live,” not to turn the neighborhood. They weren’t on the prowl for the next hip neighborhood. They wanted to put down their own roots. Lethem is himself caught by the realities of gentrification, what was and what is now. “I closely resemble the Manhattan hordes,” he told Salon, who have transformed Brooklyn, “but I paid my dues.” For Lethem and his characters, knowing the past even as it transforms and recedes from our eyes is important. By paying one’s dues, suffering through the transformation, putting in time, makes one real.

This gets us to the central question, are Lethem’s characters merely witnesses or are they agents of the changes that occur? In other words, are they passive or active participants in the drama of urban life? In the novel Fortress of Solitude, when Dylan returns to Brooklyn from California as an adult—much like the real life Lethem did–he does not come back to Gowanus, but rather Boerum Hill. Dylan’s mother and her idealism could not hold back the power of real estate. Earlier in the novel Isabel Vendle, an elderly, white, long-time resident of the neighborhood tries to reinvent the neighborhood.

…Gowanus wouldn’t do. Gowanus was a canal and a housing project. Isabel Vendle needed to distinguish her encampment from the Gowanus Houses [a notorious public housing project], from Wykoff Gardens, that other housing project which hemmed in her new paradise, distinguish it from the canal…She was explicating a link to the [Brooklyn] Heights, the [Park] Slope. So, Boerum Hill, though there wasn’t any hill.

Richard Greenwald is a professor of history and dean of the graduate school at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. His next book is entitled, The Micropreneurial Age: The Permanent Freelancer and the New American (Work)Life. More from this author →