A Look Back at the ’90s CBS TV Show “Brooklyn Bridge”

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Television began in New York. It debuted at the World’s Fair in 1939 and developed through flagship stations of the CBS and NBC networks. Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater was broadcast from Studio 6B at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan. The Goldbergs was set in the Bronx. Ralph Kramden drove a bus for the Gotham Bus Company.

So by returning to Gotham in 1991, the CBS sitcom Brooklyn Bridge was bringing television back to where it began. Broadcast in 1991 and set in 1956, the series followed a Jewish family in the borough, and television was central to their lives and their home. The show created a dialogue between television’s history and New York’s histories as they move from midcentury to the turn of the century.

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Brooklyn Bridge was a nostalgic recreation of Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg’s Brooklyn childhood in the 1950s. It was not beloved enough or memorable enough or cult enough to last more than two seasons (apparently it was deemed too Jewish) or to be released on DVD, so all we are left with is a handful of grainy, low-resolution VHS dupes uploaded to YouTube and a few more episodes saved in the Paley Center’s archives.

The opening credits of the series are a montage of reconstructed postcards of postwar Brooklyn and a collection family photos, though whose photos they are is unclear. These stills are juxtaposed with archival film of Coney Island, children playing in parks, and adults out dancing. Jackie Robinson and Ebbets Field make appearances too.

The theme song, sung by Art Garfunkel, tell us that Brooklyn “will always be home to me,” and this sense of nostalgia for both a time and a place sets the stage for the domestic sitcom narratives that characterize the show. Yet the invocation of the Brooklyn Bridge does more than just evoke a place. It also calls attention to the ways in which the show, as a representation of the fifties made in the nineties, is connecting the past to the present, connecting individual memories of childhood to the mythic desire to return to a time and place that has been lost. Yet what is returned to is not the assimilation of white suburbia. What is returned to is a local community, a neighborhood, and a distinct ethnic identity.

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The building the Silvers and the Bergers live in is plain and tidy enough, but it is clearly worn. Grandma and grandpa—Sophie and Jules Berger— live downstairs creating a multigenerational network for Alan Silver and his brother Nathaniel. In his Yiddish accent, grandpa Jules tells facetious tales about playing baseball in Russia. When she is angry and needs to impart a lesson, grandma Sophie, with her own Polish accent, recounts the six-day journey to America and all the things she came here for, all the things Alan should appreciate.

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The living room is furnished with a familiar, vintage console television that broadcasts wrestling matches and The Honeymooners and Happy Felton’s Knot Hole Gang. The walls of the boys’ bedroom are lined with Dodger photos featuring Jackie Robinson and Gil Hodges and Duke Snider. The streets outside are filled with classic Chevys and Hudsons and a 1953 red convertible Buick. The stoop serves as the bleachers for pickup games of stickball.

Yet for all its attempts at accuracy, this is not the sumptuous design of Mad Men. It is patterned wallpaper, plain shirtdresses, and costume jewelry. Brooklyn Bridge does not trade on obsessive authenticity or cutting edge modernism, but rather evokes the casual aesthetic of an elderly relative who hasn’t changed their curtains or furniture in thirty years. The artifacts are not objects restored to their midcentury vibrancy, but are used and well-worn items that date from ten years earlier, they are from second-hand shops, and they are leftovers from the war years.

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Like any  number of other shows, the series is certainly about nostalgia for the postwar era, but it is also more specific than that. There are very Jewish moments on Brooklyn Bridge. Alan sacrifices tickets to a Dodger game to say the Kaddish as a part of the minyan at an uncle’s funeral, putting family and tradition before the national pastime. A cousin comes to the United States from Europe, and the adults can’t decide how—or if— to tell the children what happened in the old country during the war. They want to erase the past of the Holocaust, to forget what happened the to the Jewish people, but of course they can’t. They want to assimilate, to be American, but they are also Jewish, so defined by the traumas of the concentration camps, of a different kind of loss than that of baby boom nostalgia. As much as the Silvers and the Bergers and the Jews are the Brooklyn Dodgers, they are also Bergen-Belsen.

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Yet as Jewish as Brooklyn Bridge is, as much as it echoes Mr. Television and Molly Goldberg, the series is also about interethnic and interracial relations. Alan’s social studies teacher is black. His girlfriend is Irish Catholic. His Bensonhurst neighborhood is a crossroads of culture and sometimes conflict. When Alan steps up to the bat as Jackie Robinson in a game of stickball, he crosses racial lines. Yet anti-Semitism also arises when the father of Alan’s Catholic girlfriend doesn’t want her dating the boy because he’s Jewish.

The representation of the neighborhood in terms of its interracial character tells us as much about the 1950s as about the 1990s. In the 1950s, the area was transforming with an influx of Italians into the predominantly Jewish district. In the 1990s, the nation was emerging into a new era of multiculturalism, a set of ideas that built on the demands for inclusion of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, but reconstructed those demands in new terms which were often derided for their political correctness.

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In this, Brooklyn Bridge took the baby boom nostalgia of series like Happy Days and The Wonder Years and reimagined it in more complex ways that transposed the social, cultural, and historical context of the postwar era from the white suburbs to the urban neighborhood. Even if those complexities are still sanitized by domestic space and the sitcom form, Brooklyn Bridge also celebrates ethnic identity, the communal experience of stickball in the street, and the multigenerational movement between Alan’s apartment and his grandparents’ downstairs. Its is an urban nostalgia that perhaps more than anything else presages the appeal of city living for so many millenials who would, in the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, reject the suburban living they grew up with on Long Island and in New Jersey and Westchester, in favor of that place just over the Brooklyn Bridge.

Next, take a tour of 1940s NYC in technicolor and check out the set of Mad Men

 Bensonhurst, Brooklyn Bridge

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