The Dunkin Donuts in my Brooklyn neighborhood was briefly closed for renovation this fall, much to the dismay of my daughter but probably not so much to older neighbors still adjusting to its sudden interloping arrival about a decade ago. It opened in the space of a multigenerational family-owned brick-oven pizzeria, which in addition to the food was beloved for its spacious outdoor seating area: a cement patio ringed by an iron fence and recalling a Sicilian garden, complete with potted flowers, grape arbor, and life-sized statue of Saint Joseph holding the infant Jesus. The seating area and statue remained when the family cashed out; they remain still, post-renovation.
In this way it’s like a number of the two- and three-story homes on the surrounding blocks, with their modest street-facing plots that more than a century ago inspired the neighborhood's pastoral, realtor-friendly name. You can still see statues of Saints Francis, Anthony, and Joseph guarding a carefully tended patch of greenery or leaf-swept square of concrete before the wide front stoops, or shrines to Mary, or tableaus of the Holy Family. On a recent Sunday morning I walked by the building my wife and I lived in when my son was born; the sturdy hardwood tree that had once welcomed me home from work every night had been replaced by a sapling of unidentifiable species, but Saint Francis was still there, two decades since we'd moved, years after the deaths of the owner-landlords—and who knows how long since its original appearance. A few steps away, a fashionable young couple was pulling bikes from one of the many recently installed Citibike stands.
Kings County (the county of Brooklyn) voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by about 8 to 1, much as the projections had it. Of course, "Brooklyn" in 2016 could serve as shorthand for what many chose to reject on November 8. It’s where Hillary had her campaign headquarters, and where the progressive mayor of the nation’s largest city still gets his coffee and goes to the gym. Thanks to the influx of young professionals and immigrants, it’s now on the verge of surpassing Chicago in population.
Yet long after the white-flight of the twentieth century and on up through the invasion of hipsters and hedge-funders, there have remained pockets of the kind of white working-class voters like those Trump captured in the northern midwest. The docks they worked on may have been transformed into popular waterfront parks, the warehouses and factories they labored in converted to condos and performance spaces. But they and their descendants hold on: retirees, office-workers, shop-owners, tradespeople.
The Sunday after the election, there was a large mounted poster of Pope Francis on the steps of one neighborhood church, superimposed with the verse from Matthew on welcoming the stranger. “Stranger” is a designation some of the neighborhood’s longtime residents seem sardonically to identify with. It’s understandable, given the rapidity of the change around them, the uncertainty, the dismissive suggestions from their newer, wealthier neighbors that if they don’t like it they could easily cash out and leave—a solution meshing neatly with the assumption that maximizing return on investment negates the pain of displacement.
Some keep saints by their front stoops, along with American flags and over-sized inflatables that change with the season (snowmen, Easter rabbits). They’ll use the word “liberal” to describe not just newer arrivals but just about anyone who’s moved from somewhere else. We got used to it early, having heard it from our landlords with the Saint Francis statue out front. We heard it from their longtime neighbors, even after we’d befriended them, even after they’d begun to babysit our newborn or help with electrical work, even after sitting beside them in Mass, and even now. It can sound like gentle ribbing, except when it doesn’t; a quarter-century on, it’s become easier to tell the difference.
But uncertainty and the tensions it breeds feel closer to the surface since November 8. In the confined space of our bank’s ATM lobby, a man we know well by sight glared menacingly at my wife as he boasted to his friend: “I swallowed my hatred of Obama for eight years. Now it’s time for them to live under Trump.” An elderly neighbor sneeringly demanded to know how many Syrian refugees we were planning to take into our apartment. A male customer punched a woman at a nearby restaurant after overhearing her speak of her disappointment at Hillary Clinton’s loss. Most recently, swastikas and pro-Trump slogans were sprayed on playground equipment in the park up the street.
A friend is the live-in owner of a traditional, low-rise multi-unit apartment building nearby. He can often be found on his narrow front stoop—no garden, no statues, just a couple of steps leading up from the sidewalk—ready with a hello and some neighborhood news. He’s a Brooklyn-born Muslim; his wife was born in Palestine. The other day he said he’s come to think that the rest of the country “hates people like me and my family.” The longer there’s talk of a registry for Muslims, justifiable (according to one Trump advisor) by the precedent of internment camps for Japanese citizens in the 1940s, the greater the validity of his hunch. Still, he’s firm in his resolve. “Listen: One thing we can all do is carry a copy of the Constitution with us wherever we go,” he said, not excluding us from this recommendation. Then, with greater confidence, he said: “Also, I’m from Brooklyn. Trump’s from Queens. Brooklyn can take Queens any day of the week.”
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