Photographs of Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue

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This semester, I’m taking a seminar called “Writing the City.” Before class started the professor gave us an assignment: to take the C or A trains to Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn and walk “with maximum openness and attention, building a narrative out of what you see, overhear, actual encounters, your insights, responses… The chronicle of a writer’s walk, however you choose to craft it.” 

It’s the sort of assignment that would make my father scratch his head, much like when I accidentally shipped home books I’d ordered for my Spy Novel class and my father learned that these books, many of which were made into blockbusters, were my “textbooks.”
I took the walk alone, as directed, on a hot September afternoon. I probably should have used my eyes more, taken in sights and smells, stopped to study little details here and there. That was the whole point. But I was tired and already sweating from walking up the subway steps. I was also wary – the crowd where Nostrand intersects with Fulton is very different from the Upper West Side, where people are mostly white and there’s only a sprinkling of bums, most of whom retreat back to shelters when the sun sets. Also, in the Upper West Side there aren’t usually long lines of police cars parked next to crumbling sidewalks just for the sake of deterring criminal activity.
The essay I wrote was probably too honest.
I’m from a small town in Orange County, California where bums, though I’ve yet to see one, get picked up by cops and are dropped off in other cities.
The professor is a kind, curious man who defines himself as being remarkably open – open faced, and open-minded. Open to all the bits – ugly, beautiful, strange – that make up the human condition because he asks questions and writes down the answers.
A white, female classmate put considerably more effort into the assignment than I did. She wandered up and down Nostrand for a good three hours with a notebook and pen. A police officer noticed her wandering and after a time, asked her if she was lost.

“A fair question,” I thought.

I had walked down the street just once and elicited enough stares and catcalls to feel more than slightly out of place. I saw exactly one other Asian woman, older and more world weary, but even she walked much faster than I. I assumed she was hurrying to a place she felt more at “home.”

“Why would he ask if you were lost?” the professor asked my classmate, “What do you think he meant by that?”
“I told him I wasn’t lost,” my classmate said, “I said I was here for an assignment and asked him why he would think that I was lost. Then he got really nervous and just…ran off.”
“See,” the professor said, “Isn’t that interesting. That the officer would approach you, a young white woman, and ask if you were lost. I think he ran off because he didn’t want to get in trouble for assuming…you know.”

Several of my classmates nodded in agreement. I rolled my eyes.

Assuming what? That a young white woman wandering the streets of a mostly black neighborhood might be lost? If my professor thought the cop was being racist, I’d have to disagree. It seemed to me the cop was just showing concern. If I was in Monterey Park, CA and saw a well-dressed white guy driving around the same three blocks for hours on end, I’d probably ask if he was lost too. Had the officer approached me, I would have thanked him for his kindness, acknowledging that to any bystander, I was probably out of place. I certainly felt it. You, depending on where you grew up and what you’re used to, might have felt it too.

Aside from the girl who grew up in the Bronx, most of them were like me, from safe suburban neighborhoods they now look back upon and see as boring. No diversity! No struggle! So sterile! Gentrification is the devil! Oh definitely. They come to class holding three dollar coffees, lunch on fifteen dollar kale salads and delight in little exercises like this, assigned by a man who probably lives in a Brooklyn brownstone in a mostly white Brooklyn neighborhood, who shops at the farmer’s market and whose brown leather briefcase and shoes are weathered just so, as though he paid extra to have them look that way. Never mind they chose to come to a writing program at an Ivy League school where tuition causes nosebleeds.

Of course it was a perfectly safe neighborhood! Of course the cop had no business assuming what he assumed. And that obscenely long line of cop cars and the nervous looking officers walking around? Hallmarks of every safe neighborhood.
I did not feel unsafe, but I did not feel safe, especially, ironically, when I saw the cop cars. But mostly, it was unfamiliar. I’m sure it showed on my face. I was not familiar with the bums on the corners nor the idle, old men sitting in wheelchairs in front of pawnshops and barbershops. I was not familiar with the young shirtless black men who seemed just as idle as the old men, if a bit more anxious. They flexed and asked if I wanted photos of them, with them. I did not. I took my photos and hurried along.
But here’s the thing about photos. I took these ones below. Stared at them and played around with filters and colors. Revisited the original image and the actual place in my head. Revisited this post as it was a draft too, and now these little rectangles of Nostrand Avenue are familiar.
The only familiar faces in the neighborhood. 
Another wall.
And detergent.
Not so secret garden.
Nails my parents would not approve of.
A wall of memories. Note the man also known as “Chincky” in the bottom middle.
Brooklyn recycles. And provides nuclear fallout shelters.
Van Gogh would have appreciated this building.
The kid almost ran over my foot. But he apologized and called me “lady.”
Dusk. And a Range Rover.
Where I ate dinner sitting at the same table as a cop.
If for whatever reason you’re there and end up hungry, try these places:

1267 Fulton St
Brooklyn, NY 11216
b/t Arlington Pl & Nostrand Ave in Bedford Stuyvesant
(718) 783-0316

1184 Fulton St
Brooklyn, NY 11216
Bedford Stuyvesant
(718) 230-1115

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