Uneasiness Coated in Sunshine: An Afternoon on One Brooklyn Street


October 9, 2020


Culture, Lifestyle


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People eat outside Branded Saloon on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, BK. [Credit: Sarah Parker]

(NEW YORK) — Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn feels very different than it used to. Typically, the soundscape is dominated by taxi horns and revving car motors, but today it’s peaceful — chirping birds and chatty restaurant servers. 

The street, a popular straightaway into Prospect Park, has been closed to traffic as part of Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s Open Streets plan to give restaurants more outdoor seating while indoor dining is still restricted.

Vanderbilt’s wide-open lanes offer respite from its sidewalks squished with vintage shops, hip cafes, and overstuffed planters. Space is something New Yorkers don’t take for granted. Friends mosey along, wearing sneakers, sweaters, scarves, and shorts — a mixture of wardrobe seasons. They laugh and push strollers, maybe on their way to the park, maybe on their way home. The afternoon sun peeks around the corner and shines onto the line of eager bookshop diggers outside dingy Unnameable Books.

But underneath the hour’s sun-soaked optimism, when you take a second look, there’s a simmering sense of a harsher reality. Chalk drawings, giggles, and the smell of fresh coffee are starkly contrasted with boarded up windows and covered faces. 

Raspy folk music spills through Milk Bar’s open doors and people bop along as they walk past. Young parents wait outside Gran Caffe’s window for lattes, a sleeping baby strapped to the mother’s chest, as their older kids run through the street blowing bubbles and whizzing back and forth on razor scooters. But everyone is wearing a mask, tables are spaced six feet apart, and many storefronts are still closed. The coronavirus looms.

An interracial couple hikes up their acid wash jeans, sits on the concrete median, and pulls snacks from their backpacks, happily sharing an urban picnic. But in the window of an apartment above them hangs a Black Lives Matter sign. And one block down, colorful “We love the post office” and “RIP RBG“ graffiti splatters bricks and mailboxes. America’s racial tensions and political discord hover. 

Two worlds run parallel, but standing on the corner, it all feels momentarily harmonious.

These people are surrendering to fresh air and contentment as a visible effort to distract themselves from the current state of the world, even if just for a short time. It’s an opportunity to give their brains a break from an endless loop of exhausting news. They must soak up the last bits of summer before cold weather creeps in and forces them back inside. 

Everything isn’t as perfect as it seems, but for today, this is what they have. And these Brooklynites will do their best to show appreciation for a moment of blind serenity.

Groups sit with coffee on Vanderbilt’s concrete median. [Credit: Sarah Parker]

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