The competition to be the most verdant street in Brooklyn is heating up, and we're the new kids on the block. It's an evening of discoveries. Behind the green veneer of climbing ferns, window boxes and mulched tree beds ("tree pits just sounds so negative") there's enough simmering rivalry, power struggles and cunning plans to content an army of green-finger Machiavellis. It's like the Archers, but with toy dogs instead of cows. It's like Eurovision, without the camp. That's how serious it is.
Chris and I drink the wine and sample the spread ("it's raining, so we're munching not mulching!") and eye the photos of last year's winners. The reconnaissance work is impressive. The group seems torn between cooing "oh, very nice" (it is) and firmly pointing out that last year's judging was purely political ("after all, they can't let us win every year!"). After the relative ignominy of tying for second place last year, we're definitely in it to win it. We talk outside faucets (which get stolen by local rogues for the valuable copper), 'erb gardens (but isn't Brooklyn a little toxic?) and a fountain for the Children's playground (which could, our host sweetly suggests, be renamed the Kool Kidz Garden).
It's admirable how much effort these men and women are willing to put into beautifying their little piece of New York. There's even an understanding attitude towards residents who don't take it so seriously; after all, everyone is so busy these days, aren't they? Too busy, even, to water the blooms the street provide in big barrels outside their front doors. Only occasionally does the talk turn to less comfortable topics. Our block marks the very edge of Boerum Hill, and gentrified, green-streeted Brownstone Brooklyn. South is the fair and pleasant land of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, with Park Slope an easy stroll down 5th Avenue. North is Downtown Brooklyn: which, as everyone hints, but no-one says, is black Brooklyn.
Beneath the stories of noisy neighbours and unsuccessful block parties is another story: a story about Downtown Brooklyn intruding on Boerum Hill. It's a story told in songs, of loud "urban" music making already irritating parties unbearable. Of a church DJ playing, "you know, that P Diddy hip hop stuff" which was "totally inappropriate. Quite insulting actually to the older people round here." It's a story we want to block out, because these are palpably decent, kind, welcoming people, and we want to help out and get our hands dirty.
But we don't want our hands to get that dirty.