The only time that the streets of Crown Heights are still is at five in the morning, just as the starless sky is bleeding into indigo.
At the spot where Utica Avenue, on its way north towards Broadway and eventually the East River, bisects Eastern Parkway, there is a Popeye’s, a McDonalds, two banks and eight trash cans. On the world’s very first parkway, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead of Central Park fame, the trash cans are volcanoes erupting with empty food containers. Amid the garbage and exhaust, some life still thrives in Brooklyn.
In the early mornings I sit on a bench below the rows of trees, watching the dying linden leaves fall like tiny parachutes onto the sidewalks. A few, swept up by the passing cars, twirl around like dervishes. They pirouette above the asphalt, jumping out of the way of the cars at the last second, before getting sucked down into the sewer. In the country’s most populous city, the sight of trees and the sounds of their leaves swishing in the wind are a welcome respite.
The man who lives on the bench near the 4-train entrance is bent almost to a forty-five degree angle, and a thick carpet covers him from the already-warm sunlight. Soon, he’ll get up and shuffle to the deli, his excruciatingly slow morning ritual. When he returns with a package of mini-donuts and a hot cup of coffee, he slumps down onto the bench and throws an entire donut out to a cadre of pigeons, sparrows and European starlings, who flutter and jostle for the prize, a bountiful breakfast. The spotted black starlings, bigger than the others, come out the winners, big clumps of donuts sliding down their throats.
The corner is a hub of activity, with commuters leaving that pocket of Brooklyn for jobs downtown or in Manhattan. The sky is cerulean blue and the sun shines down on the brick apartment buildings, casting shadows that shrink through the day along the two-mile parkway. There are 1,100 trees, and in the Fall millions of leaves dot the path, a giant mosaic of crimson and orange. When I come back to the bench in the evening, the shadows are growing, bringing the starless night with them again. It’s no wilderness, to be sure. But in the middle of the busy city, it’s nature enough.