How Isaac Butler Came to Brooklyn, And Why He Stayed

October 30, 2023 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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BROOKLYN EAGLE: Brooklyn is such a hot brand. When did you discover Brooklyn and move here?

ISAAC BUTLER: I moved here right after college, summer of 2001. I wanted to do theater and my girlfriend at the time was doing arts admin, so there weren’t that many cities that made sense for us both to move to. Plus I went to college in the Hudson Valley, so all my friends were already here and I had spent a lot of time in the area. 

EAGLE: Can you comment on some of the positive aspects of having Boerum Hill as your hometown?

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BUTLER: I’ve lived on my street for twenty years now, so I’ve become a neighborhood old timer. When I first moved here, the guy who owned the hardware store around the corner from me would say stuff like “oh yeah, your building is on what used to be a empty lot. There was a tree we used to climb, and one time there was a trunk there with a body in it that was missing its head and hands.” Now he’s cashed out and is just a landlord, and I’m the old timer telling people “this restaurant you’re getting schnitzel from used to be my hardware store.”

I have a friend who jokingly says “Boerum Hill is like a really expensive small village,” and to some extent that’s really true. I can’t walk my dog or get breakfast without running into someone I know, often someone I’ve known for decades now, and given how transient everything can feel in New York, that’s amazing feeling to have. But in terms of physical spaces, I of course love going to Books are Magic and McNally Jackson and Freebird to get books, and there are some restaurants my family goes to so often they know our names. I love walking my dog along the Promenade, and taking my daughter to the piers at the end of Atlantic Avenue. Since I love cooking, I’m also a sucker for the various ethnic markets — Sahadis, Ten Ichi Mart, Mercado Central, the hilariously named Le French Tart Deli. And if they ever change the goofy song that plays at the beginning of movies at Cobble Hill Cinemas, I will picket the theater daily until they put it back in. 

EAGLE: Do you have a dog, and if so do you love the Squibb Dog Run?

BUTLER: I have a dog named Chili — she’s named after the restaurant because we adopted her in the parking lot of a Chili’s at 4:30 in the morning. She’s my near-constant companion — I write out of my bedroom and she is usually asleep on the bed behind me — but she gets scared of larger dogs, so Squibb is a bit too intense for her. There’s a nice little dog run near Pier Six where the dogs are smaller, and we go there sometimes, but really what she loves to do is walk and the whole Boerum/Carroll/Cobble/Heights area is one of the most beautiful areas of the city to just walk around with a dog, particularly right now as the light changes with the seasons and the air is a little crisp. 

EAGLE: When you venture into other Brooklyn neighborhoods, which ones are most memorable?

BUTLER: Assuming we count what gets disastrously called “BoCoCa” and the Heights as one area, not as much as I should. That said, I love Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, and every summer my daughter makes sure we spend as much time in Coney Island as possible.

EAGLE: Surely you have some famous Brooklyn literary connections that are dear to you. Can you share them? (For example, one of our newspapers reported in an interview with Norman Mailer, that he and Arthur Miller lived in the same building while the former was working on “The Naked and the Dead” and the latter was working on “Death of a Salesman.” That’s a powerful hyper-local legacy.)

BUTLER: These days, Boerum Hill is really thick with people who work in film and TV, particularly writers and actors. But in my early years in the neighborhood, it was really an author’s neighborhood. You couldn’t throw a brick without hitting a novelist, and I worked at Book Court. So I had a very literary life as a young man when I was still an aspiring theater director. I am not sure I would have become an author without my friendship with Jonathan Lethem, who I met around when Fortress of Solitude was coming out in paperback. Being able to talk to a working writer about what that was like, and then having him tell me, “hey you’re really good at this, you should take this seriously,” and introduce me to other writers, it was a big deal. He even wrote me a recommendation for graduate school, when I decided I wanted to change careers. I owe him a great deal.

There was also a wonderful coffee shop called Building on Bond that a lot of writers worked from. Lethem, Jonathan Ames, Mira Jacob, Sean Howe, Catherine Lacey, sometimes Lynn Nottage would come in. It wasn’t exactly a “scene,” more like an office, but it was a great place to work because it had that powerful energy of creative people trying to make something.

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