The Real Brooklyn (Museum)

What’s it like to be neighbors with one of the finest museums in the country? Nine years ago (almost ten), when I moved into my apartment, I became one of the lucky people to find out.

Every night, when I come home from work, I’m greeted by the Brooklyn Museum. As I walk up from the subway, first I see architectural remnants from the Brooklyn Museum lining the upper subway walls, neatly surrounded by brilliant blue mosaic — heads of gods and goddesses, cornerstones, and bits from buildings, grandly telling me (as many subway stops do) what awaits upstairs. When exiting the subway, museum visitors go to the right, while locals exit to the left.

As I come up the subway stairs I’m greeted by big skies. Eastern Parkway, the first parkway in the country, leaves a large swath of sky to greet those who rise out of the subway at the Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum stop on the 2/3 line. First the sky, then the trees straight ahead, then, to the right, the Brooklyn Museum.

The building is massive, ornate, and grand. It was built grandly to match the history of Eastern Parkway — built as a gateway between the city of Brooklyn and its parks and, for a time, called Doctors Row. It is lined with fine old apartment buildings, with beautiful marble lobbies.

Waiting for a bus once in Manhattan I talked with an old woman who used to live near Eastern Parkway as a child. She told me of the tapestries that hung in the lobby of her building, and of how beautiful the area was before its decline in the ’60s and ’70s.

Brooklyn Museum sits at the cusp of two neighborhoods — Crown Heights to its left and Prospect Heights to its right, the neighborhoods divided by Washington Avenue. It is part of the cultural centerpiece of Brooklyn, with parks on either side of it, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden behind it, the Grand Army Plaza, Prospect Park (designed by Olmstead and Vaux), and the beautiful central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library — a building shaped like an open book with gold-leafed Egyptian characters lining its entrance — at the other end of the double-length block it inhabits.

The area is filled with people from other places (as most of New York is): gentrifying professionals like me, artists, West Indians, a large Hasidic Jewish community, and old-timers — like Gus, whose father opened Tom’s Restaurant in 1936; Victor, the super at 175 Eastern Parkway, which sits across the street; and Pat, who feeds the cats in a nearby empty lot and has spent her whole life living on my block (she must be in her 90s).

In September, many of my neighbors gather and line Eastern Parkway to watch the largest parade in New York — the West Indian Day Parade. The judges sit on bleachers in front of the Brooklyn Museum, judging the colorful costumes and displays as they go by. It may have once been like Park Avenue, but now it feels more vibrant and diverse.

Brooklyn is decidedly more laid back than Manhattan, and in its own way, the Brooklyn Museum is part of that feeling. It throws open its doors once a month on Saturdays and welcomes its neighbors in for free entertainment, lectures, and viewing of art and film. Its mission statement reflects this, stating that its purpose is: “To act as a bridge between the rich artistic heritage of world cultures, as embodied in its collections, and the unique experience of each visitor.” See also this post: “America Begins Here – Historic Albemarle Tour” if you want to learn more about the origins of our recent history.

Even a recent redesign of the entrance lobby area, I feel, reflects this desire to reach out to the community and welcome them in. The entrance as it changed first from the ever-watching Egyptian eyes of the old entrance to the cool open glass-filled front, surrounding seating areas, and fountain that is there now.

During the day, it’s common to see people in front of the museum. The stairs and fountain area usually contain groups of friends, families, courting couples who are there for a visit, a rest, or just to get out of their sometimes hot, sometimes cramped apartments.

In the summer, these gatherings last longer as the night cools down. Children delight in the ever-changing water fountain and its unpredictable thumps, created by water pumps forcing water to fly into the air at different speeds and patterns.

The day the new entrance opened was a spring day, and when I came home, I was greeted with the sudden sound of children, lots of them, laughing and cheering. They had discovered the fountain and were dashing in and out of the water, fully clothed, in 50-degree weather.

There are other areas that have replaced the formal gardens that once lined the front: two curved, sloping sections of low concrete seats interspersed with grass are popular with dogs and children, who like to run back and forth while their parents sit and read or talk, or sun themselves.

There is an area of lit cherry trees that flower in the spring, drop leaves in the fall, and gather snow on their branches in the winter, marking the seasons as intimate conversations happen on the benches beneath them, and skateboarders, who spend hours working the curved pavement, chatting, leaning, and sitting together, watching the cars go by.

Amy Dreher is a nonprofit worker by day, and a photographer and social-networking novice by night. She moved to — and fell in love with — Brooklyn ten years ago. She lives a block from the Brooklyn Museum.