Near the back of Junior's, facing out into the restaurant from in front of a mirrored wall, Bob Trentacoste waits for his salmon to arrive and ponders Brooklyn. He has just turned 60, and in a few weeks, it would be the 50th anniversary of his parents' buying a house in Carroll Gardens. Years ago, he moved away to New Jersey for a while, but he came back to the house in 2006, after his parents died.
Trentacoste, who used to work in software but is shifting into property management, has been coming to Junior's twice a week for eight or nine years, he says. The food is good enough, he adds, that he takes the train and the bus across neighborhoods, bypassing countless other restaurants. Junior's, he says, is one of the last places in the city where you can sit and drink an egg cream with your meal. For a student of Brooklyn—and he is one— that is important.
And why study Brooklyn? That is a different question. "I suppose it's where we grew up," Trentacoste says with a small shrug. "If I grew up in East McKeesport, I'm sure I'd want to know the history of that."
But, he is asked, is there something more? Some mystique? Brooklyn, he allows, has probably had a richer history than East McKeesport. For example, he says, across Flatbush Avenue from Junior's is a Long Island University building, home of a gym and some classrooms, that was once the Paramount Theatre. In its heyday, it played host to Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and some of the earliest rock-'n'-roll performers.
Much farther down Flatbush, of course, one would be near Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Trentacoste points to a set of stadium chairs mounted on the wall above a row of ketchup bottles.
"The owner himself told me that he bought them on eBay," he says with a smile. "They were billed as bleacher seats from the original Ebbets Field. But the owner himself admitted that has no way of verifying that they're authentic."
Perhaps the appeal of Brooklyn, Trentacoste says, is that—Ebbets Field notwithstanding — most of the infrastructure is intact, even as everything else around it changes. For some people, he adds, that makes the new skyscrapers dotting the borough seem all the more disturbing.
"The way I like to say it is, sometimes history gets paved over," he says. The example he has in mind is the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower, recently surpassed as the tallest building in Brooklyn. It might seem silly, but something about the height of the new apartment structure that dethroned the bank building just feels wrong. So, for that matter, does the flea market crowding the tower's banking hall. The emotions, though, are hard to explain. On one hand, he says, change is necessary. On the other …
"It's tradition. It's like losing an old friend," Trentacoste starts, "psychologically, really."He hesitates. "I mean, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building is still standing," he says. "It's not going away."
Just over a mile away, where the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway cuts a gully along the edges of Red Hook and Carroll Gardens—a few blocks from Trentacoste's house, in fact—Ferdinando's Focacceria is open for business too. Its 1904 founding makes Junior's, a half-century younger, look like a glitzy new kid on the block. Francesco Buffa, who arrived in the borough from Sicily 39 years ago, is the third-generation owner, manager and cook.
Ferdinando's has some pictures on the wall too—scenes from the old days—and it has drawn its share of tourists over the years. And like every other square inch of its home borough, it has seen change. First and foremost, in the people who walk in the door.
"Before it was all factory, industrial and longshoremen, this area," Buffa says. "The last 20 years, all the factories closed, the longshoremen, they're not there anymore, and slowly it's become a more residential area." For a business owner, that kind of change is good. "It's the young people," Buffa says. "They go for a good time, spend the money."
Over time, these new Brooklynites will grow old, and some of them will stay as long as Buffa has, or longer. Some will leave their mark—either physically, with tall buildings, maybe even the tallest around—or in the ever evolving spirit of the place. They will all change it a little, if only by their presence, but that is nothing new: Ferdinando's, has been serving chickpea-and-ricotta sandwiches and Manhattan Special soda (made in Greenpoint) for more than 106 years. But at some point, it too was new.
Now, Buffa says, "It's a destination, because they can't get this kind of food nowhere else." The process—regeneration, expansion, adaptation—plays itself out eternally, even in East McKeesport. But when people say Brooklyn is special, part of what they mean is the scale on which this all happens. It is a place with the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower at one end, the Spring Creek Nehemiah homes at another and dozens of sprawling, roiling neighborhoods in between. In all of them, at any time, someone is leaving and someone else is arriving, and the Chinese in Bensonhurst have the same reasons for coming as the advertising executives in Fort Greene. They come because Brooklyn, whatever it is, can work for them.
The image, though enduring, is secondary. Brooklyn is a concept, but it is also a place. Or really, it is many concepts and many places. They are held together, on a rounded mass on the western tip of Long Island, by convenient accidents of luck and landform and also by a notion in the heads of people around the world who look at the name and think, Now, that's a place to be from. And though they don't quite know why, they're right.
Francesco Buffa is talking about his restaurant, but he might be offering a motto for his adopted borough.
"Different type of people," he says, "but the place is still here. "