Brooklyn Boulders: Showcasing the Strengths of a City

When the fates determined that I’d be spending two months of my winter in the depths of New York City, my initial response was one marrying equal measures of apprehension and alarm. Cities have never been my thing, and the thought of leaving my largely unpopulated nook in the Italian Alps for one of the world’s largest metropolises failed to inspire me as it would most.

In spite of the undoubted magic I’d encountered there on previous visits, each of those had been short and sweet, long enough only for the happy haze of the honeymoon period to run its course without ever segueing into any inevitable, sure-to-be discomfiting reminder that I was a semi-reclusive nature-lover who had never spent more than a week anywhere more populous than the average New York block and, as such, was indelibly fated to feel like the proverbial fish lacking its fill of H20 at some point during my stay.

Many of my logistical fears were quelled by the fact that my sister, a resident of Brooklyn for the best part of two decades, had kindly offered me a place on her couch and promised me all the moral and emotional support I would surely need to survive for the duration of the trip.

But the other fears were less easily assuaged.

How would I stay fit? How dire would my social life be given that my thick Scottish accent is not the type that makes for easy comprehension? How would I deal with the unavoidable overload of stimuli I’d spent the best of my life — for health reasons as much as those of temperament — trying to avoid? And, most importantly, how would I keep up my climbing given that I’d be in a city, far from the huge granite walls and peaks within walking distance of my adopted alpine home?

I found the answers to each of the above in the most unlikely of locations.

On my first day in Brooklyn, I set off from my sister’s apartment early doors to see what I’d gotten myself into. The mountains which surrounded my bucolic outpost in Italy were replaced by towering columns of concrete and glass; my dirt trails by heavily trafficked sidewalks; and my daily soundtrack of goat bells, workers whistling in the vineyards, and the odd tractor by reams of traffic noise, music blaring from car windows and storefronts (plus a chap on the subway who graced myself and my fellow passengers with an admittedly sweet but ultimately untuneful, alto rendition of Sia’s Chandelier).

By the time I turned the corner from 4th Avenue onto Degraw Street, my expectations for the seven weeks ahead were low, the forecast for my sanity’s continued well-being fair to middling. My stay, I was sure, would be more about survival than enjoyment or anything resembling flourishing. Brooklyn, I was sure, would be my Everest.

That morning over breakfast I’d asked my sister what it was that so appealed to her about life in New York, which is as far a remove from our hometown (Largo, Scotland, population circa 300) as any I could imagine.

“It has heart,” she said, “what’s not to love?”

I wasn’t so easily persuaded.

“If you had to describe it in three words, what would they be?”

“Community. Strength. Resourcefulness. Tenacity. Love.”

“That’s five.”

“Yeah. We don’t really do limitations here.”

I remained skeptical, though a few days and roughly 100 climbs later I was a becoming a believer.

That first day I wandered into Brooklyn Boulders rock climbing gym in Gowanus, seeking to carve some semblance of a comfort zone and familiarity out of the slew of oddity and novelty by which I was surrounded. A mere three hours later I had signed myself up for two-months’ membership, having happily discarded all plans to hole myself up in my sister’s apartment for the duration of my stay. Although my intention was to align my activities in Brooklyn as neatly as possible with those back home, the curious feeling of inclusion and belonging engendered by my meetings with various Brooklynites thus far had already given birth to a strong hunch that I might be more of a city person than I’d ever been aware.

A month down the line, that hunch has been borne out by a reality I could never have envisioned. In these four weeks I’ve climbed more than I’ve ever climbed in my life. I’ve made more friends than I had done in the previous decade. My climbing has improved with the “beta,” guidance, and general encouragement of the ever-willing Boulders staff and patrons giving me a psychological and technical fillip as valuable as prehensile fingers themselves and representing, you could say, a kind of third hand.

I have also, I should add, fallen in love with a city…

As much as this last eventuality was unforeseeable at the outset of my trip, in Brooklyn I have found myriad lovable qualities, all of which were exemplified in the gym’s Bloc Buster bouldering competition in mid-February. Over 300 climbers turned up for the event, many with partners, friends, and family members cheering them on with hearts in mouths from the chalk-dusted crash pads below. For those without, the untiring support of their fellow climbers was an ever-present reminder that I was somewhere very special, a city that was un-citylike as any I’ve known and — in what remained of its cityness — nothing less than utterly endearing. Perhaps, I realized, my definition was in need of an edit.

Over the course of the day, the competition’s participants contrived to corroborate my sister’s claims, and with some gusto. I saw the strength of experts and novices alike as they fell off and got back on their chosen routes again with nigh on masochistic relish, blood, bruises and painfully abraded fingers be damned. I saw the resourcefulness of each of those 300 diversely shaped and aged bodies as their thousand-plus limbs and other anatomical elements negotiated routes that would daunt your average squirrel.

I felt part of not a gym, but a community that merged all of the best elements a community has to offer — friendship, shared goals, shared problems, shared successes, shared beta, shared tales of fortune and failure, and a great deal of fun and good feeling. Most of all, I felt heart. I felt it in the ubiquitous, celebratory cry of “nice” whenever any aspirant should pull off a move of particular note. I felt it in the fist-bumps shared with utter strangers after each climb and the sympathetic shoulder slaps when returning to the mat without having figured out the plastic puzzle of their route.

The roar when 13-year-old Olivia Wa topped out on the second route in the women’s final will live with me for some time. It was the stuff of movie scenes (think Ralph Maccio’s fly-kick in Karate Kid or Stallone’s knockout hook in Rocky), almost as if her diminutive frame were thrust upward upon the cheers, prayers, and heartfelt goodwill emanating from the crowd below — that prototypic third hand I was coming to see is as innate to Brooklyn as the ubiquitous mists are to Milan, the tumult of the North Sea to my hometown in Scotland, the Santa Ana winds to Southern California.

Cities are made by the people that populate them. On this lively afternoon, in a small corner of Brooklyn I’ve since come to learn is very much representative of the city of a whole, I found unequivocal evidence that Brooklyn is, in fact, all heart, its four chambers pumping a steady flow of strength, love, resourcefulness and tenacity, all powered and pulled together by an unerring and uniquely inclusive sense of community.

I found myself walking home immersed in a happy glow of gratitude to this small selection of its makers for showing me that this city, at least, was one where I could flourish rather than flounder, that was easier to love than fear, and divested of not only multiple fragments of skin from my fingers and shins and every ounce of energy I’d started the day with, but also, gladly, every preconceived idea, hang up, and quibble I’d ever had about what lay on the other side of my comfort zone. Just like those 300 fellow climbers I’d just spent five hours watching defy the limits of human anatomy, Brooklyn has defied every assumption I’ve ever had of what a city can be.

Suddenly, those two months are starting to look awfully short.

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