Gerritsen Beach will never attract hordes of sun bathers.
No palm trees arch over the sandy fringes of the water.
Although a popular fishing spot, you're almost as likely to encounter raw sewage from the nearby TGI Friday's restaurant as you are fish in the murky tides. Even at dusk, if you squint, Gerritsen Beach barely passes for idyllic.
Turns out, that's true both in its scenery, and its civic life.
A Village in a City
With a population of about 7,500, this overwhelmingly white, mostly blue-collar community near the ocean boasts its own volunteer fire department. Although its history can be traced back an impressive three hundred years, most of the area around Gerritsen Beach didn't get developed until after World War I, when summer bungalows were erected en masse for seasonal visitors.
Over time, the bungalows in this colony were winterized and turned into year-round dwellings. Today, these homes, which were built close together, have been carefully enlarged and modernized, each one practically touching its neighbors. Although clean, tidy, and even somewhat quaint, there's hardly any room left for the narrow streets and even narrower sidewalks that make the place look like a crowded town in Asia.
But Gerritsen Beach isn't in Asia. Or in America's rural South. It's in Brooklyn, New York. Yes, if you were to suddenly find yourself plopped along the neighborhood's main drag, Gerritsen Avenue, you'd be hard-pressed to realize you were standing inside a borough of 2 million people, let alone a city of 8 million.
One of New York City's fascinating characteristics involves its many anomalies, hidden in unlikely crevices all over the five boroughs. Gerritsen is a case in point, although not necessarily for the better. Because unfortunately, as cosmopolitan and sophisticated as New York can be, this neighborhood has some of the most simple-minded people you will find anyplace.
While Brooklyn has evolved into a multi-cultural smorgasbord of skin colors, languages, and cultures, Gerritsen Beach has remained fiercely homogeneous. Isolated from Brooklyn's more urban core and nestled among the shoreline reeds of the city's meandering estuaries, it's been hidden from much of Gotham's crime, ethnic strife, and even through-traffic. If not for the occasional hate crime which makes the news, even suspicions that latent racism motivates Gerritsen's self-preservation would largely be ignored.
Not that it's a ritzy, high-dollar haven. Quite the contrary. Gerritsen's housing prices average a stunning 40% lower than Brooklyn's as a whole. Still, the community benefits from both a public and a private elementary school. And although it has no subway service, city buses do ply its streets, providing mass transit access.
On paper, at least, it's hard to understand why minorities haven't flocked to such an affordable and family-friendly place long ago.
Sins of Some Parents No Excuse
Gerritsen Beach's residents would probably insist the lack of change in their neighborhood comes from strong inter-generational family ties, a strong community spirit, and a strong aversion to big-city meddling. However, other neighborhoods have boasted these three strengths in the past, and more, only to be washed in the flood of cultural integration and assimilation. Can Gerritsen's stark white demographic, currently at 90%, be simply a coincidence?
Oddly enough, the residents of Gerritsen Beach don't even treat each other with respect. Take, for example, the temerity some local civic leaders had when they told a construction contractor he could dump his debris in a local city park without a permit. Or the ambivalence by most in the community at reports of teens frequently intimidating the Chinese owner of a local laundromat.
Or Gerritsen's recent infamy as a haven for Halloween hoodlums.
Apparently, for generations, one of the neighborhood's fond traditions has been to let kids run amok on Halloween, pelting vehicles and pedestrians with eggs and potatoes, and spraying shaving cream on parked cars. This past October 31, a local blogger took photos of the mayhem and posted them online after numerous calls from upset residents to 911 went unheeded by the police.
Kids reportedly pelted two Hasidic Jews with eggs, and when a passing motorist stopped to complain that they had egged his car, the brats hit him on his backside with yet another egg. A mother pushing a stroller also got hit, and a window on a passing city bus splintered after being pelted with rocks.
You might have expected the parents of these kids to have been aghast at the brazen lawlessness of their offspring. Instead, they turned their ire onto the blogger, Daniel Cavanagh, who himself grew up in the neighborhood. How dare he publicize the private merriment of their children for all the world to see? He's destroying their wonderful community by painting these kids in an unflattering light. Nobody got hurt or killed, and the property damage was minimal. So, what's the big deal?
At a neighborhood association meeting later in November, one of the indignant parents yelled at Cavanagh to leave Gerritsen if he didn't like living there. One of the mothers crassly accused Cavanagh of being a sexual predator because the photos he took of the mayhem featured adolescents.
That same woman - and I'm using the term loosely (watch the video here to see what I mean) - even claimed she was trying to get one of her sons into Xaverian High School, an exclusive private boy's academy in Brooklyn's affluent enclave of Bay Ridge. What were his chances of being selected by Xaverian now that Cavanagh had besmirched his reputation?
Now that this story has gone viral, with even the New York Times mulling the role Cavanagh's blogging has played in fanning its flames, this once insular community can't seem to hide from the derision it's receiving from all over the blogosphere. It's as if their secret reality has exploded in their faces, only they want to keep denying it like they have done for all these years.
Obviously, it would be inaccurate to summarily cast all of Gerritsen's residents in the same dark light. After all, it was the consternation of fellow residents which prompted Cavanagh to document the Halloween event with his camera. And Cavanagh himself appears disgusted with the intransigence of his lifelong neighborhood.
Isn't it still hard, however, to wrap your head around the existence of such a curiously literal backwater in a metropolis like the Big Apple? Who'da thunk such a place could still be found along the Belt Parkway between Coney Island and Kennedy Airport?
Or that rednecks could come with a Brooklyn accent?