Brooklyn continues its long tradition as a comfortable haven for new immigrants. A resurgence of western European immigrants are reshaping Williamsburg, which has been better known for its hipsters and indie music scene the last several years. But in changing, Williamsburg and other New York neighborhoods are merely remaining true to the best versions of themselves.
This tradition is, after all, what attracted me to Brooklyn in my restless early 20s. As a teenager I read Betty Smith’s coming-of-age novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and secretly believed myself to be a Brooklynite from a working-class immigrant neighborhood, despite living all my life in the cushy comforts of a Chicago suburb.
Years after Smith’s book filled my imagination with the sites and smells of old Brooklyn, I finally got there. I moved to the industrial Bushwick neighborhood and I loved it. But most days I found myself exploring the many other neighborhoods that Brooklyn had to offer – Flatbush, Red Hook, Boro Park, Greenpoint, Brighton Beach, Bedford Stuyvesant and so on. Although many of these neighborhoods had experienced serious gentrification in recent decades, the strains of old immigrant traditions and the waves of new were prevalent enough to fill up all the cultural voids of a bland Midwestern girl.
When Pope John Paul died I remember wandering towards the Greenpoint neighborhood where the largest Polish-American population outside of Chicago resides. It felt like home to walk among the makeshift memorials and subdued gatherings of mourners.
Shopping on Fulton Street in Bedford Stuy was perhaps my most memorable time in Brooklyn. It was loud and noisy and annoying. But I heard 15 languages every minute and stumbled upon strange little shops with treasures from foreign places. It was never boring and it was never the same.
Ultimately, Brooklyn brought me back to Chicago by reminding me of the vibrant havens I’d left behind. My Puerto Rican neighbors in Logan Square, the best Swedish bakery in Andersonville, the Indian restaurants on Devon Ave, and little Mexico in Pilsen.
The rich inspiration of immigrant cultures is what had drawn me to another place. And immigrants are what brought me home.