When Brooklyn lost the 2016 Democratic National Convention to Philadelphia last February, it was a blow to those hoping to add “political hotspot” to the borough’s growing resume. One year later though, with both Democratic presidential candidates staking a claim to its geography and a key debate set to take place there Thursday night, Brooklyn is receiving more national attention over an election than it has since Vinnie Barbarino ran for student body President on “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
“For me it’s like a dream come true,” said former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. “It just proves once again that Brooklyn is a center of the world and is certainly one of the major urban centers of the United States of America.”
New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, who represents parts of the borough, echoed the sentiment. “Brooklyn has been on fire for decades,” Jeffries said. “I’m just pleased that the rest of the world is now catching up.”
For Brooklyn, the story of the 2016 election began in the summer of 2014 – long before a single candidate threw his or her hat in the presidential ring – when it was pitched by New York City Mayor (and former Park Slope resident) Bill de Blasio as a location for the 2016 Democratic Convention. The site itself would be the newly constructed Barclays Center, the premier sports venue that’s home to two professional teams and several big name concerts a year.
While some, as with the construction of the arena, feared the traffic and congestion that come with such a major production, others saw it as a fantastic opportunity.
“I really thought the plan put forward by the mayor, by Mayor de Blasio, was a strong one,” says Markowitz, who was involved in the initial pitch process. But it was not to be.
With the disappointment though, the political tide began to turn. Just two months after Brooklyn was passed over by the DNC, presumptive candidate Hillary Clinton secured office space in the borough’s bustling downtown area. Later that month, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Brooklyn native, entered the race, making the Flatbush apartment building he grew up in a regular stop for camera crews. Sanders last month also opened a campaign office in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn, once primarily inhabited by the working class and warehouses.
One year and a few Nathan’s hot dogs later, the hard fought race may well see its last stand on a stage at the Brooklyn Navy Yard – the site of Thursday night’s debate. “Of course I was very very disappointed, Markowitz says of losing the convention. “I would have loved to have seen that, but this is a good thing.”
The location of the event, the last face-off between Clinton and Sanders before Tuesday’s pivotal New York primary, is a bridge between Brooklyn’s political past and present. Two sitting Presidents, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, visited the Navy Yard during its service years according to Turnstile Tours, which operates on the grounds. Others, like Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, paid visits at other points in their careers. Also located near the reinvented Navy Yard is Steiner Studios is the filming location of “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
In many ways, the borough’s colorful history makes it the perfect backdrop for a neighborhood showdown.
“You look up the word debate in the dictionary, you get a picture of Brooklyn,” TV icon and Brooklyn native Larry King told MSNBC. “That’s the way we were raised. You like me. I disagree with you. Ay, that’s Brooklyn.”
Others share a more passive view.
“I expect a well informed yet respectful debate,” says Jeffries, adding, “As Biggie Smalls once said, ‘Spread love. It’s the Brooklyn way.’”
But anytime you discuss a current event in the context of Brooklyn’s past, you run the risk of bringing up its darkest hour.
“For Brooklynites, this debate may be important,” said presidential historian Michael Beschloss. “But nothing will ever rival the exit of the Brooklyn Dodgers in importance.” The New York Daily News, October 9, 1957: “Walter O’Malley, the most momentous manipulator baseball has ever known, yesterday officially moved the Brooklyn Dodger franchise to Los Angeles.” It’s a story that modern day Brooklyn hipsters may read, but never truly understand.
“It was like a member of the family had passed away,” says Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger, who was 12 years old when the team left town. “Most of us were weeping to say the least,” adds Markowitz. “It will always be part of our DNA.”
There’s an unmistakable sense of pride among the keepers of old Brooklyn.
“A lot of Brooklynites have a chip on their shoulder because we’re from Brooklyn,” said Schweiger. I don’t say I’m from New York City. I say I’m from Brooklyn. That’s the chip.”
While it may be a stretch to evoke the political version of “wait ‘til next year” when it comes to losing the Democratic Convention, those who love Brooklyn like Marty Markowitz does, certainly relish all that tonight’s debate symbolizes.
“You know what we say in Brooklyn,” says Markowitz. “How sweet it is.”