Back in 1992, when Brooklyn was a borough, not a brand, Guru and Premier produced an anthem fitting of the world’s most powerful municipality. “The Place Where We Dwell” is one of the greatest musical tributes to Brooklyn ever recorded, and there have been a lot. Brooklyn was substance over style, but boy did it have style to spare. Hip hop was born here and there, in and around various parts of the New York area, but it was in Brooklyn that it flourished and ruptured the global consciousness.
New York, New York is where we live and we’re thorough
Never taking shorts cuz Brooklyn’s the borough
Peace to Uptown, to Queens and the Bronx
Long Island and Jersey get as fly as they want
But I must tell ya, where we rest is no joke
So let me break it down to sections for you slowpokes
Brooklyn is more than a collection of neighborhoods. It’s the collective imagination of immigrants and hard knock residents that conjures Brooklyn from the ether. Shared struggles, successes, and the rich tradition of drinking the best life has to offer in art, music, food and culture define the spirit that binds Brooklynites around their geography.
Fort Greene, Bedstuy, Flatbush, Brownsville
Crown Heights and East New York will be down till
Medina takes respect for the styles we bring
Cuz in Brooklyn, we be into our own thing
Atlantic Terminals, Red Hook, Bushwick
Come to Brooklyn frontin’, and you’ll get mushed quick
We ain’t just know for flipping and turning out parties
But also for the take no bullshit hotties
The experience of African-Americans has all too often been rendered invisible to the public-at-large. Part of the invisibility is willful ignorance and flat out racism. Back in 1992, hip hop was still pushing its way into the mainstream, and like Harlem of the 1930s, Brooklyn was defiantly doing its own thing, everyone else be damned.
On the subject of blackness, well let me share this
Brooklyn is the home for cultural awareness
So in all fairness, you can never compare this
Some good, some bad, little hope for the weak
Dangerous streets and Coney Island Beach
All this included when you go for a tour
Some can get scandalous and outright raw
When you step, step correct and watch where you move
We pay dues so we ain’t trying to lose
The attraction to Brooklyn was evident among young hip hop heads of the 80s and 90s, and it’s important to acknowledge that this track was written by a native of Boston about his adopted home. Guru sounds like a Bostonian, but he found his heart in Brooklyn like a lot of people before him.
Here in Brooklyn
The home of the black and the beautiful
For a ruff rap sound, ain’t a place more suitable
Other cities claim this, and others claim that
But let me give some props to the place where we be at
I came in for a visit and ever since then
I’ve been incorporated with select personel
Right here in Brooklyn, the place where we dwell
It’s easy to fall in love with a place like Brooklyn. I spent a bunch of years living blocks from what would eventually become Barclay’s Center. Brooklyn’s neighborhood vibe extends from the wealthy enclave of Brooklyn Heights down south to Red Hook, just a stone’s throw away. The evolution of the borough, in that small stretch alone, is apparent in the mish-mash of Puerto Rican and Dominican bodegas, Italian butcher shops, Islamic cultural stores, and whatever else your imagination can conjure. People from all walks, and all origins have claimed their piece of Brooklyn over the years.
Most recently, big real estate and a Russian billionaire staked a claim for an enormous plot of land in the heart of the borough’s most bustling territory. The Barclay’s Center was a project largely protested by the residents of the neighborhood, as many people were forced out, relocated, or disturbed by the urban enterprise zoning. There’s a lot of gentrification that’s gone along with the urban enterprise and people have been priced out of their space. It’s a nice neighborhood. It’s a trendy neighborhood. But, Brooklyn was never known for being nice or trendy. Brooklyn was real, raw, and fiercely proud that it succeeded in spite of the culture outside its boundaries. Brooklyn created it’s own terms and lived by them.
I don’t want to be overly political about the evolution of the place. I don’t want to fall prey to wistful nostalgia about the days of yore, but….it seems to me the Nets are a microcosm of the new Brooklyn. Think about it.
A lot of outside money comes in, ambitiously and ostentatiously building a monument to itself. Skipping the organic growth of a culture, a branding effort is undertaken in which the symbolic surface of popular style is enlisted to hurry up and get the thing hot. The substantial foundation of that style is suddenly and traumatically discarded in favor of an image captured in time. What’s left is a hollow shell, still impressive on the outside, but without a core. A kind of cultural schizophrenia is left in the place of that proud Brooklyn spirit. “We pay dues, so we ain’t tryin’ to lose.” Yeah. Not so much.
People all over the world are sporting Brooklyn labels on their popular fashion. Brooklyn is a destination. Brand Brooklyn is a tremendous success, but the question must be asked, “For whom?” The Nets sold a lot of gear. Black and white jerseys and hats can be seen all over the city. Native Brooklynites wear it in a celebration of civic and cultural pride. Hipsters wear it because it lends them a sort of cultural cache…authenticity is a commodity when you’re desperate to prove your not a usurper. Jay-Z was there at the start, at least to lend the venture the cred it surely lacked. Appropriate the lives of people and their neighborhood and make it seem like it’s all good. It’s not crass capitalism. It’s for the love of Brooklyn, the place where we dwell. I guess I couldn’t resist being political about it, but it’s revealing.
Why did the Nets feel the need to throw away the future of the franchise on a couple of aged Celtics? Why did they forgo the “we pay dues” part of franchise building in favor of the fast food equivalent of professional sports? The Knicks self-mutilated for a generation trying to play that game, but Manhattan has always been a place for fast money and splashy shows. Not Brooklyn. Surely, not Brooklyn. The Knicks, under Phil Jackson’s direction, have abandoned that fast food model of franchising. The Knicks certainly took their lumps last year, and Jackson was frequently criticized for failing to get back as much as he was giving away in trades. Some criticized him for missing out on the big name players in the 2015 free agent market, but what we’re seeing today is the rather fast fruition of a plan. Jackson was a player who stuck in the league because he had to pay dues from Day One until the last time he laced up his shoes. As a coach, he had to pay dues from the minute he started messing around on the sidelines in New Jersey, on the bench in Puerto Rico, in the CBA, and as a flaky no name given the reins in Chicago with his wacky Triangle Offense in tow. Even after eleven NBA championships, he’s paying dues with his coaching tree, the continued relevance of the system he believes in, and the principles of team building with seem, sometimes, spiritual in a world of corporate culture.
The team on the floor has taken that attitude. Carmelo Anthony is playing like he’s starting over, paying dues to the hustle, defense, and passing gods that were sometimes cast aside in his prolific years as a scorer. Porzingis and Grant are paying rookie dues and they speak as though they know it. Fisher is paying his coaching dues, and despite some rocky days in his Knicks’ tenure, he’s starting to make decisions that seem like he’s figured things out. I could go on about Lance Thomas, Derrick Williams, and a host of other Knicks who are paying individual dues, but the key is that they don’t take the floor entitled and full of themselves. They pay new dues every time they take the floor, against every opponent in front of them. That’s the respect for the game that Phil Jackson has always preached.
The recent firing of Coach Lionel Hollins marked the 5th coach in four years for Brooklyn. Billy King was mercifully given his walking papers after a dubious tenure as GM. Prokorhov, however, spoke to the media as if there were no dues to pay in building a championship caliber team. He was still on the fast food mentality that all his money and braggadocio would be enough to turn the Nets, in their ostentatious Brooklyn mansion, into the best team in the league. Just grab a couple of star players, get “tough,” stir, championship. It’s not that the franchise has abandoned the process of paying its dues, but the particular people they bought who are to blame.
Brooklyn’s cultural arrogance was always based on rising up from the filth and hard knocks of the city. It was a celebration of success in the face of 1000 obstacles. The defiance of low expectations had to be accompanied by the ethic to outwork and outsmart everyone on the way to being the best. It didn’t come from being knocked down once. It came from being knocked down 1000 times and getting stronger each time, getting wiser each time. It came from the collection of vibrant cultures, 100s and 1000s of years in the making. The will to succeed and thrive wasn’t so much native to Brooklyn, but native to the people who arrived in Brooklyn willing to endure hardship and hard work on the way to a better life. The Nets, at least to this point, haven’t accepted the spirit of the place they bought. They’ve only borrowed the shiny surface, the most recent iteration of a place born from struggle. Until they figure out that Brooklyn isn’t a brand, but the essence of generations of people struggling to make a dream come true, they’ll be doomed to their current fate.