For years I’ve heard about New York City’s cultural diversity, but I like to think my Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn is diversity personified. A walk along 48th Street between 4th Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway is like taking a trip around the world. You can get in line behind a day laborer on 5th Avenue and enjoy some of New York City’s best tacos chased with an ice cold horchata -– a milk-based beverage that I can best describe as a cinnamon snickerdoodle in a cup. Continue uphill (and then downhill) to 8th Avenue and you’re in Brooklyn’s Chinatown, which is everything you love and hate about living in a big city all rolled into one – eclectic, unique, fascinating and sardine-can crowded. When you’re done scoping out the fish mongers, fruit stands and little old men who will fix your watch while you stand there part flabbergasted-part mesmerized, walk over another avenue and be awestruck again as Hasidic Jews quietly walk the streets outfitted in their shtreimel hats and long black coats. Don’t expect 90 degrees and Amazonian humidity to come between them and centuries of tradition.
That’s when you reach Fort Hamilton Parkway and Maimonides Medical Center, a 100-year-old Brooklyn institution that has recently come to represent –- at least from my perspective -– the melting pot the Brooklyn Nets now embody, and will hopefully honor. Plastered on the outside of the hospital’s parking garage for all to see is a huge poster, advertising the Brooklyn Nets and their partnership with Maimonides. If 48th Street is the Yellow Brick Road, then this sign and the hospital must be Emerald City.
Truth be told, you could continue walking for another umpteen blocks – north, south, east or west – and find another multicultural niche in this borough. And then another, and another. The diversity is not reserved to Sunset Park and it’s certainly not isolated to 48th Street. But the Nets presence at the end of this stretch doesn’t seem coincidental to me. Sure a big poster on the side of a major public building like a hospital is a not-so-subtle form of advertising, but I just can’t shape the feeling that there’s more to it than that. It’s as much of an embrace of Brooklyn proper as it is a way to generate interest and ticket sales.
That’s because people who know Brooklyn will tell you that this six- or seven-avenue stretch along 48th Street is not chock full of potential season ticket or luxury suite buyers. This isn’t a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is “celebrated” by the New York Times for its artisanal pickle makers and high-priced real estate. And yet the Nets still stand tall here, even if it’s just a poster.
It would be easy and understandable for the Nets to have a strong presence in Park Slope, Downtown, Williamsburg, Carroll Gardens, DUMBO, or any of the other “coveted” neighborhoods of Brooklyn. As an old movie about newspapers taught me, you got to “follow the money” sometimes. But Brooklyn is so much more than that. Did you know that the Hong Kong Supermarket on 8th Avenue sells live frogs and turtles over by the butcher counter? Have you ever seen a newsstand that sells fresh limes and avocados along with the Daily News and Us Weekly? If you see someone near Fort Hamilton Parkway in costume but it’s not October 31, it’s probably Purim. These oddities/curiosities/wonders are all part of Brooklyn as well. If Nets are going to capture the imagination of this unique world they now inhabit, it also includes a warm embrace of that bucket of bullfrogs.
When I go out for a jog before work, this vibrant melting pot of a neighborhood is mostly asleep. But even then, for the time being at least, the Nets’ presence is felt. I look up at that billboard and wonder if the Nets organization is looking out and contemplating this land they will come to conquer. Do they understand the flurry of cultural changes they’ll encounter just by moving one block to the next? Do they understand that the Asian women line-up outside of the local schoolyard in the mornings not to shoot hoops but instead to practice their own unique kind of aerobics? Do they know that when Tacos Matamoros closes shop at night, they can still get a mean al pastor from the Tacos El Bronco truck in front of the park? I don’t know. But they’re here, ready or not, to represent us all.