The Miss America Pageant began in 1921, and in many ways has stayed there. Try as it may to keep up with the times, from sacking longtime host Bert Parks to moving to Las Vegas from Atlantic City, it's remained the definition of retro: A parade of beautiful, doe-eyed young ladies, each armed with a passel of superficial talents, but ultimately little more than eye candy. The pageant has long represented the homey warmth of the original American dream: embrace faith and family and remain relentlessly optimistic and you may one day be beloved by the nation—provided you're drop dead gorgeous, of course. And yet there she is, Miss America 2013, Mallory Hagan: plucky and cool, with a decidedly funky edge. She might have been born and raised in Alabama, but when it came time to leave her small town to pursue fame in New York, she gave Manhattan a pass and moved straight to Brooklyn. A modern choice for a savvy young woman.
Since she donned her crown on Saturday, the city has been buzzing, not only because Miss New York won the national title, but because she lives in Park Slope. Well, Windsor Terrace if you like, but she refers to her 17th Street flat as the Slope, and it's borderline enough to give it to her. Jokes have been flying about yoga and dog-walking and working in the Co-op, but they miss the point. After all, she's only been in the yuppie part of Brooklyn a short time. In the four years she's been here, she's lived all over the borough, hopping from Bed-Stuy to Williamsburg to Bensonhurst to Sunset Park, enough shout out-worthy neighborhoods to fill a rap album. She has never lived in Manhattan, and, if Brooklyn gets its wish, she never will.
Times have certainly changed. It wasn't that long ago that Brooklyn was the place you moved when you failed to make it in "real" New York. When "bridge and tunnel" referred not just to New Jersey, but to every outer borough. It may be hard for the twenty-somethings lining Bedford Avenue to grasp, but through most of the nineties, Brooklyn was, at best, a cool place to be from, but no place to be.
To my regret, I bought into this lie when I arrived in New York back in 1994, not even considering the option of spacious, affordable apartments in the County of Kings. Instead, I overpaid for a room in a soulless high rise on the Upper East Side, with a hellish commute on the 6 train that still required a transfer to get to my first job at Rockefeller Center. If only I had taken that cool flat on Court Street, I'd be at the office in 25 minutes and twice as happy on the weekends. And yet, as I cringe to admit, the words "fuck Brooklyn" passed from my lips more than once. How ignorant I was.
Thankfully, I came to my senses before Y2K, moving to Williamsburg back when Galapagos, Oznot's Dish, and Planet Thailand (then known as Plan Eat Thailand) were the places to go. And then, as marriage and children entered the picture, Park Slope became home, a cozy, tidy little neighborhood that has, amazingly, become just a little bit cool.
But my move to Brooklyn came after far too many years slugging it out in Manhattan, paying three-quarters of my salary on rent and drifting into debt for the privilege of a shoe box above a bar on Third Street near the Hells Angels headquarters and a smelly one-bedroom on Amsterdam where a guy was murdered on my doorstep one night (I saw the body). Like I said, I should have known better.
Mallory Hagan knew better, and chose better. Somehow, throughout her childhood in Opelika, Alabama (pop. 26,477), she never bought into the myth that living in Manhattan is the only way to have an authentic New York experience. Somehow, she knew about Brooklyn, and could feel its pull. Her foresight makes me wonder: has the longtime American dream of leaving the small town and moving to New York City evolved to now prefer a Brooklyn one-bedroom over a Manhattan studio?
Sure, plenty of New Yorkers have weighed their options and moved accordingly, and for the country at large, Williamsburg, Brooklyn may be close to passing Williamsburg, Virginia in name recognition. But for generations of youngsters outgrowing their childhood bedrooms in farm towns and suburbs from Oregon to Louisiana, the dream has always been an apartment in Greenwich Village or some similarly perfect Manhattan neighborhood. Hagan's choice of Brooklyn over Manhattan suggests a watershed moment in the American psyche. The truth has finally come out: living in Brooklyn isn't a compromise at all. It's better.
And now all those little girls who still covet the evening dress, sash, and tiara have a role model who, finally, blissfully, keeps it real, living in Brooklyn, tap dancing to James Brown, and working for the prevention of child sexual abuse. Let's hope Hagan celebrates her well-earned victory at a great neighborhood spot like Applewood or Talde or Pork Slope. If you see her there, fellow Brooklynites, buy the girl a drink. A $50,000 prize only goes so far, even in Brooklyn.
[Composite image by Lorenna Gomez-Sanchez]