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Summer in Brooklyn

A British-Colombian walks through Brooklyn 

By Daniel Rey


You walk slowly here. Partly to avoid the dog doo on the sidewalk, but mainly to avoid the sweat on your back.

This is summer in Brooklyn when, for three months, parts of the borough resemble residential and commercial neighbourhoods not in the New York of the movies, but in the Havana of real life. Hustlers hustle, police officers police traffic, and old people sit on their steps to escape the furnace.

In two blocks you can count the flags – Jamaican, Barbadian, Haitian, Dominican and Puerto Rican. There’s even a white flag – the house tenaciously displaying a Vote Bernie poster a year after the presidential primary.

It is election season, but this time it’s the New York City mayoral race – where the Democratic primary is the election. This year the city is trialling the single transferable vote system – which means the Chinese-owned, Mexican-operated fruit-and-veg markets can appeal to all their loyal customers by putting up posters of as many Democrats as they like. There have long been ones of Maya Wiley and Dianne Morales, but as I walk in this time, I notice a poster of the one-time frontrunner, Andrew (‘tech guy’) Yang – a day after he pulled out.

It’s a normal day at the market. An employee is bagging the apples that are about to form a knock-down deal; the cashier is reaching above her, to the restricted-access section, for the herbal teas; and the machete man – like a judge deploying his gavel – is cutting the watermelon in four.

A few doors down is the fish market where the young monger hasn’t heard of trout, and you have to resort to English – learning the hard way that Mexicans and Colombians have different words for bass. At the pharmacist, you walk in to be received with a ‘Buenos días Señor Rey’ or a ‘Good morning, Mr Rey’, depending on whether the Salvadorean or Pakistani clerk is on shift. When you give them a call, they recognise your voice. As Adil Ray (of Citizen Khan) would say, they all know me.

So do the cute designer dogs that live around Prospect Park, and the Saint Bernards who approach you like you’re Saint Francis. Religion is on the mind as you go to the little library, the mini shelves on stilts on the streets of the posher neighbourhoods, and find a well-worn copy of Geza Vermes’s translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Living to the north of the park are the well-to-do denizens of Park Slope, and the toned, often shirtless millennials with their spikeball nets and their spiked seltzer. Down the east side are the cyclists on their time trials, struggling up the hill like the Patriots did in the Battle of Long Island in 1776, cheered on by the squalls of the peacocks at Prospect Park Zoo and, behind the trees, the jazz groups performing by the Boathouse.

Where East meets South the indefatigable ‘Congo Square Drummers’ of Drummers Grove aren’t playing for anyone but themselves and the rocky racoon who has strayed from the woods. This beat is an exclusively male preserve, so the terrapin mother crawls in the other direction to dig the trench for her eggs, casting a glance at the immaculately dressed young, fashionable, Orthodox Jewish couple out on a date.

They stroll past the fake grandeur and neoclassical columns of the Grecian Shelter, where Gentiles get married and boom boxes blast salsa. It’s around here, on a Saturday and Sunday in summer, that Mexican men are sent as early in eight in the morning to claim the best spot in the shade for the afternoon BBQ. Towards the lake, this is the part of the park where, in summer, with the right music, you can imagine yourself in a swamp, marsh or wetland of the tropics. There are exotic birds, too – red cardinals, scarlet tanagers, and monk parakeets – plenty of colour for the flock of birdwatchers dressed for the jungle canopy.

Follow the lake round and you’ll hit the spot where, in a few months, Chinese grandmothers and other hipsters will be scavenging for truffles, and where lovers enjoy the shade and the water’s edge. You enter the wood – where you can lose the sounds and sights of the city and, quite easily, yourself – before emerging to find the skaters who practise daily for the statued Lincoln.

Across the road from the park are the sports fields of the Parade Ground, with the procession of ice cream vendors and the women selling raspados and diablitos to thirsty troops of goal-scorers, hoop-finders and home-run-hitters whose parents watch in the corner with more passion than if they were at the Yankee Stadium. There’s American football, Puerto Rican dominoes, and Bangladeshi cricket.

On Parkside Avenue, a man is using a broom to pick up the trash from in front of his tent, making this the most pristine sidewalk in all Brooklyn. You see horses that could have been painted by Velázquez, and one – named Tinkerbell – whose wide legs look like something from ABBA. You might know the stereotypes of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, but you’ve never seen a Latino on a horse in New York. Here, that privilege belongs to Martí, San Martín and Bolívar, riding in bronze at the end of the Avenue of the Americas, by New York City’s more famous park.

The walk is almost over. You hear the siren of the ice cream van that surely can’t keep itself cool, dodge the cars that have stopped on the so-called pedestrian crossing, and pass the old folk who are still sat outside their building.

You’ve walked slowly, in the shade, and taken in Brooklyn. As you walk through the door, you touch your t-shirt. You’ve still sweated your back.

Main image: Coney Island Mermaid parade, courtesy of Brian Lin