Let's begin with this: Brooklyn is big. Like, really big. It has 2.5 million people -- that's more people than the state of New Mexico, more people than Houston, as many people as Dallas and San Diego combined. If Brooklyn were its own city, it would be the fourth largest in the nation.
So when I hear Brooklyn caricatured as being "hipster" (whatever that means -- I've yet to hear a good definition) or "indie" or "trendy" or "artisanal" or "gentrified," or whatever the party line is this week, I just laugh. Tell that to the people in working-class neighborhoods like Canarsie and Bensonhurst. Tell it to the Hasidim in Crown Heights and Borough Park. Tell it to the Asians in Sunset Park, which is Brooklyn's Chinatown. And when you're done with that, try telling it to the folks in Brownsville, where Mike Tyson grew up.
In other words, Brooklyn is complicated, just like every other big, diverse place. It's not some cartoon, it's not a brand, and it's not a business plan. So when someone asks me what the return of big-time sports means to Brooklyn, well, that's complicated too. It means many things to many people. I can tell you only what it means to me.
And here's what I'll tell you: It's complicated.
My parents are from Brooklyn. They grew up a few blocks apart in Crown Heights. But they had already moved to Long Island way before I was born, so that's where I grew up. After college, I moved to Brooklyn. I've been here 25 years -- the last 21 of them about nine blocks from where the Nets' new arena now stands.
People forget this now, but the Nets had a bit of a heyday on Long Island during the '70s, which happens to be when I was growing up there. I went to lots of their games at the Nassau Coliseum when I was a kid. Got to see Dr. J dunking over Artis Gilmore, got to see the ABA's multicolored ball, the whole bit. When the Nets moved to New Jersey, I stopped following them and became more of a Knicks fan. But a little sliver of me never stopped rooting for the Nets. When Jason Kidd led them to consecutive NBA Finals in the early 2000s, that little sliver really enjoyed going along for the ride.
So in theory, nobody should be happier than me about the Nets setting up shop half a mile from my apartment. In practice, though, it's trickier than that. I was very, very opposed to the building of the arena. We lost that fight, so I'm not going to reargue the case for why I think the arena project was bad public policy. Again, I can tell you only what it means to me.
Here's what it has meant so far: My favorite neighborhood bar is closed. My second-favorite neighborhood bar had to relocate. My favorite neighborhood sporting goods shop shut down. One of my favorite old neighborhood buildings no longer exists. Several friends had to move. And so on. I get that change is inevitable and that every great civic development enterprise entails its share of collateral damage -- just ask the people who got displaced by the building of the Verrazano Bridge, or the U.N. building, or Lincoln Center. But the arena doesn't feel like a civic improvement, or a civic anything. It feels like a vanity project for an Ohio real estate developer and a Russian oligarch. Even the little sliver of me that has always stayed loyal to the Nets has a hard time dealing with that.
But wait -- last week we learned that the Islanders will be playing here in 2015. That changes things, at least for me. I'm not an Islanders fan (I was already rooting for the Rangers before the Isles existed), but I follow the NHL more than I do the NBA. And there's no getting around it, adding a hockey team to the mix -- a hockey team owned by a guy who's local, whatever else you may think of him -- makes it harder to dismiss the arena as a vanity project for carpetbaggers.
Instead of the Nets seeming like a token Brooklyn team, they're now part of a small portfolio -- not bad. It adds legitimacy to the whole enterprise. (Imagine that: The Islanders making something, anything, more legit!) And I like the parallel of having the Nets and Isles playing under the same roof again, just like they did when I was growing up.
I imagine a crisp winter night. I head out for a leisurely stroll and 10 minutes later find myself sitting down to watch an NHL game. Why yes, now that you ask, that sounds rather appealing.
In the nostalgic fantasy of old-school Brooklyn, the borough was all mom-and-pop soda fountains, light industry and shipbuilding at the Navy Yard. In the current fantasy of hipster Brooklyn, it's all farm-to-table restaurants, organic pickle makers and craft fairs. Both fantasies are gross oversimplifications, but they have a common thread that rings true: They portray Brooklyn as a place where people work with their hands to produce something real, something authentic. If you're looking for the essence of this big, complicated place, start there.
Does the arrival of big-time sports in Brooklyn feel authentic? Not yet. Even with the Islanders on board, the whole thing still seems a bit too willful and contrived. Case in point: The Nets are still holding their practice sessions back in New Jersey, which doesn't exactly strike a blow for community engagement. Authentic? Fuhgedaboudit.
Oddly enough, Hurricane Sandy could have done a lot to solidify the bond between Brooklyn and its budding sports culture. Imagine if flooding and outages had forced residents to take shelter in the arena -- it would have been the perfect baptism for the new facility, and would have cemented its place in the community. But the arena wasn't designated as one of the local emergency shelters, so that didn't happen.
It's not often that a new building finds itself in the midst of a raging hurricane just a month after opening for business. If the arena were a living entity, it would probably be thinking, "Whoa, what have I gotten myself involved with here?" That's pretty much what I'm thinking about the arena and the new teams. Time will tell.