DAY 2 - Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO
Morning: This morning is a relaxed one so no need to rush out in the morning. Start by heading to Borough Hall. These days, New York City is made up of five boroughs--counties, in fact, according to the State of New York--but it wasn't always so. Until 1898, New York City meant Manhattan island. Towns and villages of Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island were all independent. But Brooklyn was more than just a satellite. It was an independent city, home to almost a million people, and was the third largest city in the U.S. Borough Hall was built in 1848 to house the government of the newly incorporated City of Brooklyn. While unification with New York stripped Brooklyn of its independence, Borough Hall remains a symbol of Brooklyn's pride and history. Behind Borough Hall is Joralemon Street, which leads to the right to the quiet streets of Brooklyn Heights, the most well-preserved historic neighborhood in New York City. The neighborhood is situated on a bluff above the East River and first developed as a residential area 200 years ago when the world's first steam powered ferry service began puttering between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The streets at the northern end of the neighborhood, such as Hicks and Middagh Streets feature dozens of clapboard houses almost two centuries old that look straight out of a small New England town. Further south, the small alleys of Grace Court and Love Lane (yes, really!) feature rows of old carriage houses. And all through the neighborhood are beautiful brick and brownstone townhouses.
But the real highlight of the neighborhood is the promenade at the western end. When a highway was built into the side of the bluff in the late 1950s, a walkway was added on top of it to abate the noise and add public space. The result is a 7 block long promenade above the East River, from Orange Street to Remson Street. The commanding view stretches from Staten Island in the south up to the Empire State Building.
From the promenade, head north on Columbia Heights and walk down the hill to Old Fulton Street at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. At the end of the street is the new Brooklyn Bridge Park. It's a mecca of old piers, repurposed for all kinds of waterfront recreation. Pier 6, at the Atlantic Ave end is for the kiddies with awesome playgrounds. As you walk north, piers feature soccer fields, basketball and boccie courts, and even a roller skating rink. But the best views are from Pier 1 as you approach the Brooklyn Bridge. The parkland juts out into the East River and provides a dramatic view of the Statue of Liberty, the Lower Manhattan skyline, and the Brooklyn Bridge. After taking in the view, walk back to Old Fulton Street. This spot was the original settlement of Brooklyn, and before the bridge was built, Brooklyn's transportation network funneled here to the ferry terminal. Look for the plaque commemorating the 9,000 American soldiers, led by George Washington, who rowed across the East River on the night of August 29th, 1776 to escape the positions in which they had been trapped since the Battle of Long Island 3 days prior. The retreat was not glorious but it did prevent the British Army from destroying the fledgling American forces.
Lunch: Weirdly, there's not a great selection of restaurants in in the area, but there are at least two great pizza options in the neighborhood. Head back to Old Fulton Street, just uphill a little ways from Pier 1, and there is Juliana's and Grimaldi's. It's a strange story with these two. Patsy Grimaldi founded Grimaldi's more than 20 years ago. He sold it to an investor some time after that and had a falling out with the new owner. Fast forward to a few years ago when Grimaldi's lost their lease and moved next door. That's when Patsy opened a new place called Juliana's in his old Grimaldi's space. Confused yet? Don't worry, the pies at both are fantastic examples of why New York is pizza king of the Western Hemisphere. The line usually shorter at Juliana's, but the pizza is arguably better. Though to be honest, I'm a fan of Grimaldi's crispier crusts. You can't go wrong either way.
Afternoon: Head to the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge to capture some even better views of the bridge and enter the neighborhood of DUMBO (a rather silly acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Currently, the waterfront park is relaxed and features Jane's Carousel, a restored 1922 carousel on the end of the pier. But beginning in Fall 2015, two old waterfront warehouses will have been repurposed. The small old tobacco inspection warehouse will be a theater for the independent theater company St. Ann's Warehouse. And the block long Empire Stores will be refitted into a huge Chelsea Market-esque food, retail, and tech emporium. Plus it will feature a pretty cool looking rooftop park. Walk east along Plymouth Street for a block and you'll begin to see why DUMBO is New York's most photogenic neighborhood. It's a former waterfront industrial center with huge brick and concrete lofts. The soaring spans of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges soar over cobblestone streets slotted with defunct train tracks. The most photographed spot is just ahead on Washington Street where the Manhattan Bridge slices over the street, and the Empire State Building can be spotted perfectly framed by the bridge tower.
Keep walking east through DUMBO, underneath the Manhattan Bridge and along Water Street. Eventually the old lofts dwindle away to an undefined post-industrial neighborhood. And then suddenly at the end of the street is a tucked away corner of charm, the cobblestone, tree-lined street of Vinegar Hill. This neighborhood used to be home to scores of Irish dockworkers, but most of the old buildings were razed leaving only a lonely few blocks of Hudson Ave. Perhaps its the incongruous placement among the massive power plant, warehouses, and housing projects, but Hudson Ave always seems like a hidden treasure. In fact, we'll be returning here for one of the best restaurants in Brooklyn. Make sure to go up tiny Evans Street, just next to Water Street. At the end of the short block is a massive fence, guarding an astonishingly luxurious historic mansion. This is the Commandant's House, a private home from 1805 that used to be part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was the home of the base commander. The house is owned privately and lived in but the owner remains mysterious. It can be seen a little more up close in Season 2 of Boardwalk Empire.
That brings us to the Navy Yard itself, a massive 300 acre former shipyard, slowly being transformed into a hub of 21st century industry. Go back to Hudson and take a left. You'll pass the crumbling ruins of Admiral's Row, if it's still there. The homes used to be officer's homes on the yard, but have been crumbling for 50 years. There are plans to put new grocery stores and other necessities on the site so they may be gone by the time you see them. The Navy Yard is in the midst of a great revival. It was once the largest naval shipyard in the country, churning out warships to patrol the seas from the Civil War to Vietnam. It employed thousands of Brooklynites--including many women during wartime--and was where famous battleships and carriers like the Arizona, Missouri, and Constellation were built. But it closed in 1966. Recently the Navy Yard has become a hub of small manufacturing, green jobs, film studios, and even some longtime businesses. There is a new visitor center and museum, called Building 92, and tours of the yard are given on weekends, usually around 2:30. The yard tours have something for everyone. They're great for military history buffs, film fanatics, fans of trendy design, and photography. So if you want to invest the time and money in a visit on a nice weekend, book a tour for the afternoon. It's a great chance to see a part of the city that was, until recently, completely closed to the public.
Dinner: For dinner, head back to Hudson Ave and Vinegar Hill. Located in the subtly marked door at 72 Hudson is Vinegar Hill House, one of my favorite restaurants in New York. It's one of the finest farmhouse restaurants in the city, and it's secluded location makes it feel even more like being away from it all. The interior is reclaimed wood and stone. The garden is green and gorgeous. And there's even a fireplace for cold nights. The menu is a locally sourced twist on classic American fare. Best of all is the whipped chicken liver mousse, which may sound unpleasant but is an incredible burst of different flavors. You can make a night of it here in the charming space, or come for an early dinner and spend the evening at...
Evening: Check out one of the great independent theater productions hosted by the aforementioned St. Ann's Warehouse. They feature a lot of challenging and high quality theater. They are one of the favorite alternative theater destinations in the city, getting consistently rave reviews. And as of this fall, they'll be in their new waterfront warehouse home. After the show, there's no better way to end the day than a night time walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. The 132-year old bridge's walkway is wonderfully placed above the roadway and smack in the middle of the span. That means awesome views of the bridge towers and 360 degree city views. The stairs onto the bridge are tucked onto Prospect Street where it passes under the bridge. It can be found by walking uphill on either Old Fulton or Washington Street.