The most amazing view in all of New York City is not what can be seen in the lights at street level in Times Square, or from the rails while riding the waves of the Staten Island Ferry, or even taking in the views from the soaring ramparts of the Empire State Building. By land, sea, or air the winning scenery sits along the two-stop, above-ground section of the subway’s F Line, where it crosses high above Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.
That largely industrial landscape, dominated by its soaring train trestle, certainly caught my eye the first time I glided over it by train: bleak is the word that came to my mind back then. That was seven years ago—when I first moved here from the South, knowing nothing of the nuances of my newly adopted home. I was not prepared for the metamorphosis that was yet to occur—not of the Brooklyn landscape but of my own mindscape.
There is a hot season of excitement for every new resident who is drawn to this City-on-Hudson-by-the-Sea. In the beginning, each local trip provides a new vista that is seen through the eyes of a tourist. But, through the passing of time and repetition of the journeys, that initial excitement slips away like the spent leaves of autumn. For those who truly come to love this city, the beginner’s exhilaration is inevitably replaced by a mounting sense of familiarity and quiet comfort, like—well—like a warm cocoon for surviving the winter, and for facing change.
I moved here in the fall of the year—and the fall of my life—landing on the Gold Coast of Jersey City. Eventually, I was sucked across the salty Hudson Bay to that great city, sucked so hard that I was jerked across Manhattan to land deep in the heart of Brooklyn—out past the Gowanus Canal and Park Slope—where I became part of the cadenced movements and slower beats of Kensington.
Still, I must cross the Gowanus Canal twice daily to get to and from my work in Midtown Manhattan. My rail passage through that extraordinary terrain has produced an intimacy that I feel nowhere else in the city. This place has chosen to unveil its subtle beauty to me, and my spirit has bonded with it like the Muslim groom who fully sees his beautiful bride for the first time. You cannot know the sacred things I see, but there is no harm in describing the pleasure I find there.
Any morning on the train could find me filled with expectation of the work that waits in Midtown. Or with eyes still filled with sand from a late night—sand thrown up while exploring the cultural joys of the evening just spent. Either way, when I emerge from the tunnel at the Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street Station, I awaken to the unbridled pleasure of the present.
The train meets daylight on the cusp of Park Slope, with the view rolling out before me as we begin a long, gentle arc that targets Downtown Brooklyn in the distance. The train remains mostly level, but the ground falls away beneath the tracks. Earth drops quickly, morphing into a valley that cradles the canal.
I look down on the calm, flat waters of the Gowanus Canal now so near, with its siren-song promise of housing, businesses, and an esplanade along its serene banks—like the canals of Venice, or at least of Venice Beach. “Someday, someday,” the siren sings. Around the canal, the low, flat roofs of warehouses interlock like parts of some giant’s Rubik’s cube. It is a massive puzzle my mind always seeks to solve. What’s there now? What could be there, if only we dreamed and then made it so?
But I’ve already turned away from that siren song, to the middle ground out past the warehouses and industrial buildings we are nestled among. I let my eyes ascend that pitched territory that half-names the neighborhood. Park Slope sprang from the union of that hillside and the park that lies atop the ridge above it. The colossal ridge dominates the view I see from my etched-graffiti window. That backbone of Brooklyn juts up to frame the portrait I see. And Grand Army Plaza regally sits on the distant ridge’s brow, a queen surveying her lands—her crown, the majestic circle of high-rise apartments that make the area such a jewel. Without needing to see, I clearly hold in my mind the image of soaring arch and tumbling fountain; of stately museum, expansive library, and verdant botanic garden; and of glorious greenmarket days with diverse people roaming there. It is a place of magic that calls all to this main portal of Olmsted and Vaux’s most-beloved of parks.
The train—ever moving—advances, and so my eyes dart onward, alighting briefly on Atlantic Center to greet the towering Miss Brooklyn. Then pushing off to skip lightly across the profile of Brooklyn’s emerging downtown. Next I see East River, Midtown, Downtown—that larger downtown—all calling me on to the markets and madness of Manhattan. Beyond the Ninth Street Station, I sink again into the earth, for a time. Rather, I simply slide forward and the land leaps up to claim me.
For the return home, I sit to see the other side of Brooklyn and wait to emerge from the tunnel on the edge of Carroll Gardens. Soon, I surface amid a mix of brownstones well lived in, and of mid-rise apartments with overflowing windows of softly glowing yellow light. It is not business or retail, but family that boasts such a succulent radiance. The gardens there are green—luxuriant ever, even in winter—and packed off-season with lively detail, where not filled by evergreen color.
Beyond, I look toward Red Hook, with its teasing promise of a ship sometime in port. The waterfront beyond offers an open view to the grand bridge of the Verrazano Narrows, that giant transom over the gateway to open sea. Look at just the right angle and moment to see Miss Liberty, dwarfed by Bay and Bridge, but with torch still held high, looking ever Brooklyn bound.
A glance across the aisle and out the opposite window now gives a nocturnal take on two downtowns. One is close and almost manageable in scale—not quite of human scale, but not soulless either, I feel. The other is more distant and more mysterious still, larger and much more complex—all tangled in the zeal of want and will. This is the time to check the light flooding the Empire State Building, for it will be cloaked in colors that wait for the night’s local news to be explained.
As I close my day by crossing the Gowanus Canal—my own River Jordan set among an industrial waistband—I look out across a kingdom I’ve come to know of late—but not too late. I’m at the entire subway’s highest point and at the high point of my life, as well. I’m settled here, safe and content.
I’m in a beautiful paradise—an Eden that I did not even recognize when first I laid my eyes upon it. Home is three stops away. Home is here, and I’m upon it.