In the Jonathan Lethem novel “Motherless Brooklyn,” readers learn the phrase “Tell your story walking.” It’s a quintessentially Brooklyn sentiment: I will listen to you, sure, but keep it moving.
If there’s a particular vibe to Brooklyn — a smug and swaggering hometown pride — the U.S. Capitol is about to get a serious taste of it. Representative Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn is favored to become the leader of the House Democrats as Nancy Pelosi steps down. Senator Chuck Schumer, also of Brooklyn, will continue to lead the Senate.
Their constituents are already imagining the impact.
“Brooklyn’s in the house! Brooklyn’s definitely in the house,” said Alan Rosen, the third-generation owner of Junior’s Restaurant, which has been on the same corner of Brooklyn — Fulton and DeKalb Avenues — since 1950.
But what does it even mean to be from Brooklyn?
Brooklyn is not just a metropolis of 2 million people across 69 square miles (that’s a comfortable 38,000 people per square mile, by the by). Residents will tell you it is an attitude, a way of life, with its own language and customs. (Look no further than the blue sign installed by former Borough President Marty Markowitz near the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge that reads “Leaving Brooklyn. Fuhgeddaboudit!”)
There exists a Brooklyn cliché, that it is nothing but tony tree-lined blocks of brownstones in a Park Slope-centric liberal bubble, as seen in a “Saturday Night Live” video. But Brooklyn contains people from all walks of life, living in massive low-income housing complexes, humble rowhouses, glittering high rises, run-down tenements and colonial gems.
Brooklyn spawned Larry David and Spike Lee, Joan Rivers and Jay-Z, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Notorious B.I.G. It’s Jewish, it’s Black, it’s Puerto Rican, Italian, Polish, Russian, German, Caribbean, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Central American, Yemeni, Turkish and much, much more.
Being from Brooklyn saturates a person with certain skills, said the writer Jacqueline Woodson, 59, author of the best-selling novel “Another Brooklyn.”
“The world is almost like water to us. It just flows right off of us,” she said.
“As Brooklynites, we can get stung by something, but it’s not going to swell and bleed,” said Ms. Woodson, who moved to Brooklyn at age 7 and still lives there. “It’s not like it’s going to change us and damage us. It’s not even a thick skin, but it’s this kind of fluidity that allows us to move through different spaces and different ways of thinking and be able to engage in it.”
Dan Perlman, 31, a comedian and the co-creator, writer and star of the Showtime series “Flatbush Misdemeanors,” said that the borough’s density and diversity no doubt helped prepare Mr. Jeffries and Mr. Schumer for Capitol Hill. “The magic of it is that we all kind of coexist, step on each other’s toes and get near each other,” he said. “I’m sure that applies in Congress, where they’re all going to be bumping into each other.”
People from Brooklyn are used to “scrapping their way,” Mr. Perlman said. He elaborated: “There’s a creativity that’s required. There’s just not a lot of rest. You run into walls a lot — you need to come up with a lot of audibles, to use as sports term. Like, OK, this was the plan today, but that’s not going to happen. The train is down. OK, I got to switch to the bus. There are curveballs thrown every day.”
Ms. Woodson noted that even the way Brooklynites speak is an asset for working in politics: “We’re able to be in rooms with lots of people talking at once and follow all the conversations,” she said. “I’m finding that as I travel the country, people don’t do that. People have a hard time with that. I really feel like in Brooklyn, we can do it, and not only do it across different people speaking, but different people’s ways of speaking.”
Brooklynites, said photographer Russell Frederick, 53, “have their own unique swagguu” — a term close to swagger, but said with Brooklyn swagger. (In fact, he suggested it be spelled with an extra u.)
Mr. Frederick, whose lens has documented residents of Brooklyn for decades, said that Mr. Schumer (who has an apartment in Park Slope) and Mr. Jeffries (who lives in Prospect Heights) have received a certain local schooling. “It’s not just that they are educated,” he said. “When you’re from Brooklyn, you’re street smart. And you can be book smart. With that, you know how to navigate any circle and you’re not intimidated by nobody or anything. You made it through the ’70s? You made it through the ’80s? Listen. You Teflon. You can go into Beirut, you can go into a war in Congo, in the Middle East.”
That Brooklyn is producing powerful political figures is absolutely not surprising to Brooklynites. In addition to Mr. Jeffries and Mr. Schumer, they include Mayor Eric Adams (who was born in Brooklyn but grew up mainly in Queens) and Attorney General Letitia James.
“It’s no coincidence that the mayor of New York City, the New York State attorney general and now potentially the House Democratic leader all herald from Central Brooklyn — a community with a strong sense of Black self-identity and self-determination that has reverberated here for generations,” Tayo Giwa and Cynthia Gordy Giwa, filmmakers and co-creators of Black-Owned Brooklyn, wrote in an email. “That confidence has allowed many people from Central Brooklyn to ascend to extraordinary heights.”
With pride, they added, “There is something special about this place.”
Mr. Rosen, the owner of Junior’s, agreed, and said while he was not political, Mr. Jeffries is “a great customer.” (Mr. Jeffries is known to send colleagues a Junior’s cheesecake each holiday season.)
Asked if being from Brooklyn could help a person in politics, Mr. Rosen answered, “It can help you in life.” He pointed to the “Brooklyn attitude,” describing it as “that sort of working-class mentality, that you just want to grind it out, do things better, make things better and work hard.”
Ms. Woodson relished in the fact that in Brooklyn, people gleefully ride the Cyclone at Coney Island: “It takes a certain kind of blind faith. That roller coaster is older than anybody I know in Brooklyn. It’s made out of wood, and people still get on it.”
With such grit and determination, Brooklyn boosters insist, there’s only one outcome. “People who come from Brooklyn are winners,” said Mr. Frederick. “We don’t lose. We don’t lose. We don’t play to lose. We don’t lose. We don’t lose.”
Still, he maintained, there’s a balance. “It’s the sweetness with the toughness. I mean, Biggie said it. Spread love. It is the Brooklyn way.”