Culture of Brooklyn

Brooklyn neighborhoods

Brooklyn has played a major role in various aspects of American culture including literature, cinema and theater as well as being home to the world renowned Brooklyn Academy of Music and to the second largest public art collection in the United States which is housed in the Brooklyn Museum. Walt Whitman wrote of the Brooklyn waterfront in his classic poem ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.’ Harlem Renaissance playwright Eulalie Spence taught at Eastern District High School in Brooklyn from 1927 to 1938, a time during which she wrote her critically acclaimed plays ‘Fool’s Errand,’ and ‘Her.’

In 1930, poet Hart Crane published the epic poem ‘The Bridge,’ using the Brooklyn Bridge as central symbol and poetic starting point. The novels of Henry Miller include reflections on several of the ethnic German and Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn during the 1890s and early 20th century; his novels ‘Tropic of Capricorn’ and ‘The Rosy Crucifixion’ include long tracts describing his childhood and young adulthood spent in the Borough.

Betty Smith’s 1943 book ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ and the 1945 film based on it, are among the best-known early works about life in Brooklyn. The tree in the title is the ‘Tree of Heaven,’ a foul smelling Chinese import, called the ‘ghetto palm’ and ‘stink tree.’ Smith uses the tree of heaven as its central metaphor, the ability to thrive in a difficult environment. At the time as well as now, ailanthus (the tree of heaven) was common in neglected urban areas. She writes: There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the ‘Tree of Heaven.’ No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly…survives without sun, water, and seemingly earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.’

Chaim Potok, rabbi and Brooklyn resident, wrote ‘The Chosen,’ a book about two Jewish boys growing up in Brooklyn that was published in 1947. William Styron’s novel ‘Sophie’s Choice’ is set in Flatbush, just off Prospect Park, during the summer of 1947. Arthur Miller’s 1955 play ‘A View From the Bridge’ is set in Brooklyn. Paule Marshall’s 1959 novel, ‘Brown Girl, Brownstones,’ about Barbadian immigrants during the Depression and World War II is also set in Brooklyn.

More recently, Brooklyn-born author Jonathan Lethem has written several books about growing up in the borough, including ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ and ‘The Fortress of Solitude.’ The neighborhood of Park Slope is home to many contemporary writers, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Franzen, and Rick Moody, among others.

Brooklyn has played a key role in multiple films of various genres including ‘The Lords of Flatbush’ starring Henry Winkler. ‘Saturday Night Fever’ starring John Travolta, a movie which defined the Disco era in the United States, was set in Bay Ridge, an Italian neighborhood in southern Brooklyn. In the late 1980s Brooklyn achieved a new cultural prominence with the films of Spike Lee, whose ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and ‘Do The Right Thing’ were shot in Brooklyn neighborhoods. In 2001 and 2002, the German filmmaker Christoph Weinert shot a documentary With Allah in Brooklyn. The 2005 film ‘The Squid and the Whale,’ by Noah Baumbach, the son of novelist Jonathan Baumbach and ‘Village Voice’ film critic Georgia Brown, examined the family life of the Park Slope intelligentsia.

Brooklyn was the setting for a variety of television shows including the 1950s era ‘Honeymooners’ starring Jackie Gleason, and the 1970s sitcom, ‘Welcome Back Kotter,’ starring Gabe Kaplan. In the 1980s, ‘The Cosby Show’ was set in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone. In the 1990s, ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ was a sitcom about a Jewish American family living in Brooklyn in the middle 1950s. Lynn Nottage’s play ‘Crumbs from the Table of Joy’ is set in post-World War II Brooklyn and deals with the hopes and frustrations of an African American family recently arrived from Florida. Neil Simon’s 1983 play ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ is set in 1937 Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn Museum, opened in 1897, the nation’s second largest public art museum, includes in its permanent collection more than 1.5 million objects, from ancient Egyptian masterpieces to contemporary art. The Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the world’s first museum dedicated to children, opened in 1899. The only such New York State institution accredited by the American Association of Museums, it is one of the few globally to have a permanent collection – 30,000+ cultural objects and natural history specimens.

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