Regarding This “Brooklyn” Everyone Keeps Talking About

What we weren’t prepared for, and couldn’t avoid, was the lack of… everything. Our immediate neighborhood — as far as we could walk without getting mugged

Story by David Wondrich - Source:
Photo © Esquire

Photo © Esquire

Sitting at the bar on a weekday afternoon at Hank’s, drinking with the live-alone old men, the idled workers, the folks who just can’t keep it together without one in the afternoon, you could be anywhere in the Rust Belt. Scranton. Toledo. Gary. There’s a jukebox and a pool table and a Big Buck Hunter, cheap beer on tap, cheap whiskey behind the bar, and a bartender who reserves her judgment. If you step outside and make a left, though, within a block and a half you’ll find yourself on a strip of Top Chef restaurants, design firms, and sparsely stocked boutiques. The same distance to your right will find you standing in front of the brand-new Barclays Center, an eighteen-thousand-seat arena that looks like a giant rust-colored Kangol cap with a shotgun hole in the brim. Welcome to my neighborhood.

Brooklyn has become as much an adjective as it is a place, shorthand for a streetscape abundant in tastefully restored storefronts full of straight-razor barbers, bottlers of unusual pickles, and the like; for a style of urban living that avoids outward swank or gloss — one that’s low-rise, low-key, and aggressively local. Boerum Hill, on whose ragged edge I’ve been living since the second Reagan administration, could be on the poster: thirty-six treelined blocks of tidy nineteenth-century row houses half a mile south of the Brooklyn Bridge, occupied by writers, editors, lawyers, arts administrators, and the like. There are fewer tattoos and sleeveless T-shirts than in Williamsburg, a couple miles to the northeast, but they’re far from scarce. The restaurants are clever, the bars old and friendly. You can buy antiques, art, and designer housewares on Atlantic Avenue, its main drag. Jonathan Lethem has written novels about it.

I can’t help but be amused by Brooklyn’s cachet. Sure, there’s a perpetual argument these days in the New York media about whether Brooklyn is worthy of that cachet, with Manhattanites waging a tenacious last-ditch defense of their traditional right to dictate the culture of New York City. But the fact that such a dispute even exists is a tribute to how Brooklyn has changed. For most of the twentieth century, it was Lennie to Manhattan’s George: big, dumb, and violent, with a childlike sentimentality and a funny way of talking. It was a place to come from, not a place to go to; a place where, as the theme song from Welcome Back, Kotter put it, “Your dreams were your ticket out.” To move there from Manhattan was to lose the dream. It was to go into exile, where, like some party of Eastern European patriots, you spent your days plotting your return.

That’s certainly how I felt about Brooklyn back in August 1986, when, after a frustrating year in L. A. trying to become (literally) a rock star, I decided to move back to New York with my California-born girlfriend. We got a deal on an apartment there, and we took it sight unseen. After all, we wouldn’t be there long. When we first pulled up in front of the house we would end up inhabiting for the next twenty-seven years, Karen took one look and burst into tears. Having lived in and around the city since the early 1970s, including a few months in Brooklyn Heights, the old, genteel outpost of Manhattan just across the Brooklyn Bridge, I was merely disappointed. The house itself wasn’t so bad — a not-too-decrepit nineteenth-century wood-frame row house in the middle of a vestigial pocket of the same. (Wood-frame construction has been against the fire codes in much of New York for well over a century.) There was a plum tree in the little front yard, a tall ginkgo by the curb, and a stand of bamboo in the small backyard. A benevolent person might charitably call the house “charming.” The neighborhood, not so much.

For one thing, there were the hookers. At night, our block of Dean Street turned into a stroll, with a good half dozen girls soliciting passing motorists. It was loud and ugly — streetwalkers tend to have vocal disagreements with their customers, their pimps, and one another, and their command of invective is second to none.1 Yet it could have been worse. The next street over was a crack block; at least we didn’t have shooting. We did, however, have the Sarah J. Hale High School, a vocational school that taught girls cosmetology and boys, as neighborhood rumor had it, locksmithing.2 The students, almost exclusively black and Latino, were an exuberant bunch with mouths almost as foul as the hookers. One of their common amusements was spitting on the sidewalk whenever a white person passed them. Biggie Smalls went there, as did Lil’ Kim.

The house next door was an old-fashioned rooming house — an SRO, in city parlance — run by a tiny beatnik-era jazz groupie in her sixties who yielded nothing to anyone on the block in her command of the salty side of the English language, but she came by it honestly: Scuttlebutt in the neighborhood had it that she had spent the 1960s and 1970s as a madam. Her tenants, at least, were harmless — a half dozen gay alcoholics of varying ages and ethnicities. (Our particular block had a reputation, it turned out, as a gay enclave.) The worst you could say about them is that the younger ones were unruly and the older ones sad.3 The SRO a few houses down was a lot tougher, judging by the number of times the cops hauled people out of there. (It was always tough, as we later found out: Willie Sutton, the bank robber, was living there when he was last arrested in 1952.)4 Nobody on the block was like us.

Karen and I were young, white, and middle-class. We were not, however, particularly naive or sheltered — we met on the Los Angeles punk scene and had each been living in seedy urban neighborhoods since we were teenagers. We were prepared for crime, more or less. Aside from a couple not-very-fruitful burglaries (we didn’t have much to steal) and an attempted mugging at gunpoint on our front stoop (again, we didn’t have much to steal), we managed to avoid the worst of it, for the most part by simply staying off the scariest streets: the dark ones and the ones where you had to negotiate checkpoints of corner boys every block. There were many of those.

What we weren’t prepared for, and couldn’t avoid, was the lack of… everything. Our immediate neighborhood — as far as we could walk without getting mugged — pretty much seemed like a desert to us. The only thing remotely resembling a park nearby was the notorious Gowanus Canal, where you could stand on a bridge and gaze into the cloudy, unnaturally green water.5 Restaurants were few and unexciting. The pizzeria was run by Albanians, and the Chinese takeout joint on the corner was Muslim and didn’t serve pork — in fact its name was No Pork.6 (Customer: “Gimme two pork chops an’ a small pork fried rice.” Counterman: “No pork, no pork.” Customer: “Okay. Then just gimme a small pork fried rice.” —Verbatim conversation, 1987.) The few delis were dirty and poorly stocked. The supermarket smelled strange and ran more to cassava and plantains than, say, fresh green beans. Worst of all, the bars were decrepit, which wasn’t a problem, and forbidding, which was. The gents from the rooming house next door drank at the nearby Doray Tavern. If we went in, they would cadge drinks from us.

Fortunately, we lived a block away from one of the largest hubs in the subway system, the Atlantic Avenue station. So we did what restless Brooklynites had been doing for generations: We focused our lives on Manhattan. It’s where we shopped, where we ate, where we drank and went to movies and simply strolled around. It’s where we worked. It’s where I started grad school.

In 1986, Brooklyn was pretty much at its cultural nadir. On January 1, 1898, the city of Brooklyn merged with New York (then confined to Manhattan and the Bronx) and the sparsely populated counties of Queens and Richmond (i.e., Staten Island) to form a new metropolis that would be known as New York City. At the time, Brooklyn was a geographically large and prosperous city of 1.2 million (to Manhattan’s 1.8 million) with its own police department, fire department, and city hall; its own downtown; its own theater district; its own clubs and civic organizations, bourgeoisie, history, and destiny. Suddenly, it was a “borough,” not a city; a part, not a whole. What wasn’t merged away began to wither and fade.

Photo © Esquire

Photo © Esquire


Yet over the following decades, as Manhattan generously bundled its huddled masses onto the subway and sent them to new neighborhoods in deepest Brooklyn, the borough’s population kept growing. In return, all Manhattan asked was to be in charge. Brooklyn was there to be neither seen nor heard. One example of many: In George Rector’s 1939 restaurant guide, Dining in New York with Rector, Rector includes a grand total of one Brooklyn restaurant, and he did so only because it had a spectacular view of lower Manhattan. This when Brooklyn had 2.7 million people to Manhattan’s 1.9 million. (Of course, the 2.8 million people in the remaining three boroughs rated precisely no restaurants, but this isn’t about them.) By 1950, the vast stretches of turn-of-the-century brownstone houses that had been developed for upper-middle-class families in neighborhoods such as Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Park Slope, Crown Heights, and Bedford-Stuyvesant had been turned into apartments and rooming houses, their previous occupants living in Manhattan high-rises or suburban mansionettes. In 1957, Walter O’Malley (“that asshole” — any Brooklynite) moved the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. After that, the borough was whipped. As if by agreement, its residents gave up on a greater Brooklyn and turned the place into an archipelago of tight, mutually suspicious ethnic enclaves. Some of them were even prosperous, although never glamorous. The riots of the late 1960s and the waves of crime that followed just served to keep everyone’s head down further.

There are some advantages to living in a somewhat scary cultural backwater. For one thing, nobody gave a shit about my business. If I wanted to go to the corner to buy a six-pack in my pajamas, so what? It was New York without the velvet rope. The only thing that drew attention was fanciness. Wear a suit and you’d hear about it (unless, of course, you were connected, like John Gotti). Plus, everything was cheap, including real estate. Karen and I began to see more people like us in the neighborhood, although a sighting of an unaccompanied white girl was still rare enough that we’d have to comment on it.

As the 1980s edged into the 1990s, we started to stretch the borders of our Brooklyn. I’m a strong believer in laziness as a spur for human growth and innovation, and getting on a train every time you wanted a box of spaghetti or a bottle of wine was a pain in the ass. We started buying our meat at Los Paisanos, a Sicilian meat market passing as Puerto Rican a few blocks west of us on Smith Street. It had just about every cut Dean & DeLuca had in Manhattan, but at half the price,7 and the butchers cut meat to order. We went to Russian nightclubs down in Brighton Beach and mobbed-up Italian restaurants in Williamsburg. We bought Polish sausages in Greenpoint and went to see Clarence Carter in Crown Heights, where we and our friends had the only white faces in the audience and — surprise, surprise — not only did nothing bad happen to us, but we made friends with the people around us. Some of the bars we used to hurry by on our way to barricade ourselves in our apartment turned out to be fine places to drink, full of people who liked to talk if you wanted to talk but had no problem — for the most part — staying out of your shit if that’s what you wanted, even when they were drunk.

Of course, it helped greatly that the corner boys, who had made Smith Street and Fifth Avenue sketchy to walk down, had begun fading away as the crack epidemic burned itself out. In 1991, the murder rate in New York went down for the first time since 1985. In 1993, Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor on a law-and-order ticket. Whatever his failings, and they are many, he enforced the law in Brooklyn as much as he did in Manhattan, in working-class districts and wealthy ones alike. Suddenly, Manhattan real estate prices shot up. Some of the Brooklyn exiles began moving back, but many of us were still priced out. Crime kept falling.

Then the entrepreneurs came. In 1994 or 1995, the Brooklyn Inn opened in an ornate old wooden space that had last housed a French bistro that went bust when nobody wanted to risk the dark, edgy streets around it just to get a cassoulet. The Brooklyn Inn was the first new bar to open in Boerum Hill since we’d lived there, and probably the first for a generation or more.8 A couple years later, a man by the name of Alan Harding opened a restaurant, Patois, on Smith Street. The food at Patois was never particularly distinguished, or even good, but the place was ramshackle chic and people with money waited in long lines to eat there, a couple of them even from Manhattan. The old mozzarella factory that had stunk up a couple blocks of Bergen Street every summer closed and went condo. After that, things began changing fast.

At first, it was a matter of empty apartments filling up with information-workers, abandoned houses (and there were many) getting renovated and sold to young families, and long-closed security gates rolling up to show off new businesses. But then rents started rising, and the next thing we knew Roxy, an old Puerto Rican jewelry store down on Smith Street, was Roxy, a new rock ‘n’ roll bar full of people like us, and the shabby (but pork-friendly) Chinese takeout joint down the block from it was made over into Bar Tabac, a Hollywood-set French bistro.9 Thus went the neighborhood. By the middle of the 2000s, though, Brooklyn the place had become “Brooklyn” the concept: a template to turn any downtown-adjacent slum into a reasonable facsimile of Boerum Hill or Williamsburg.

Now you can find “Brooklyn” anyplace in the country — in the world — where a low-rise, run-down old neighborhood has been colonized by the pickle makers and baristas, the craft shoe shiners and the mustachioed young butchers. The YUTs, as Karen calls them: Young Urban Tradesmen. Nashville, Portland — both Portlands — the Northern Liberties of Philadelphia, Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, the Marais in Paris, world without end. Wherever you go, the faux-ethnic restaurants and the retro cocktail bars end up being full of pretty much the same (skinny, tattooed, meat-obsessed) people.

But is it really so bad? Sure, it’s annoying, like any me-too movement is. But at least the YUTs are neat and constructive, things the punks and the hippies and the beatniks before them were most assuredly not. And while “hipster” urbanism might be artificial and even silly, there’s another way of dealing with shabby old neighborhoods that happen to be sitting on prime real estate that’s a hell of a lot worse. You can see it in Manhattan, where over the past twenty years bricks and brownstone have given way to high-rise apartment towers marching cheek-to-cheek up the Bowery (where some of the brick buildings torn down were almost two hundred years old) and Sixth Avenue, and big-box chain stores have replaced a great number of the quirky businesses that made Manhattan such an interesting place to be.

Photo © Esquire

Photo © Esquire

You can also see it on my block. Brooklyn is, of course, not just an idea but a physical place, and that place has many neighborhoods with quick subway access to Manhattan. In Williamsburg, that fact has turned the streetscape into a schizophrenic jumble of Pennsylvania mining town and Coral Gables, with tired aluminum-siding-clad frame houses mingled higgledy-piggledy with tall chunks of whatever it is they’re teaching architects in condo school. Down the street from me, Willie Sutton’s old rooming house was torn down in 2008 to be replaced by a high-rise by Robert Scarano, the architect who fucked up Williamsburg. When the real estate bubble burst, they stopped work on it. Its skeleton stands six stories tall and is uglier than anything there in 1986. There’s another somewhat better high-rise across the street from me, and another on the way. Out my back window, I can see two more construction sites. Compared with the hulking things they’re putting up, the old garage down the block, which techno-hipsters have turned into a showroom for MakerBot (it sells 3-D printer kits), makes me gaze on it with downright affection. Hipsters might be parasites, but at least they leave the host alive, if only to feed off it. Given a choice between a neutron bomb and a hydrogen bomb, I guess I’ll take the neutrons. At least they leave an illusion of life.

I miss the old Brooklyn, the one nobody was paying any attention to. I miss it the most when I stare down Atlantic Avenue at the Barclays Center, whose construction used eminent domain to wipe out several blocks’ worth of pleasant row houses, old industrial buildings full of artists and YUTs, and Freddy’s, a former cop bar turned Bohemian that we named one of Esquire’s Best Bars in America in 2006. I hear now that a Shake Shack is coming to the neighborhood, and maybe a Dave & Buster’s, a T.G.I. Friday’s, and a Panera. Even, they say, a Hooters. Once you’ve got all those people coming, you’ve got to keep ’em happy. O’Connor’s, the dim, cozy, decrepit old bar around the corner I spent many a happy afternoon in, has closed down so they can add an extra floor and turn it into a sports bar for the arena crowd.

There’s a freedom in being ignored. Away from the spotlight, Brooklyn developed something that people want, and now they’re coming to take it away. Fortunately, Brooklyn is a large place, larger than “Brooklyn.” As long as there are still Trinidadian doubles shacks in Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, outside the pickle belt, and Bensonhurst is still Sicilian enough to support Villabate, the greatest pasticceria outside of Sicily itself, I’ll keep hope alive that city life doesn’t have to be a theme park or a plastic desert.

Closer to home, I’ve still got Hank’s, as the old Doray got renamed a few years back, gaining in the process a huge set of stock-car flames painted on the outside. The rooming house next door is long gone, so I can drink there. At night, it’s a comfortable mix of the more down-to-earth “Brooklyn” people and old Brooklynites. Beer, shots, live bands (country and rock ‘n’ roll, nothing too weird). By day, it’s pure 1986. Of course, it’s got only three years left on its lease, and with property values in the ‘hood having gone up 300 percent since the arena came along, that’ll be the end of it. But there’s this Russian beer joint down in Brighton Beach that I’ve been digging. I’ll even take the subway there.

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