Friday, February 17, 2017

30 Days in NYC (Day 11) - Williamsburg, Greenpoint, & Bushwick

   One of the most challenging facets of life in New York is the way the sand shifts under your feet constantly. Just as the desert dunes change place with the wind, neighborhoods in New York are constantly in flux. Where once was factories is now galleries and what was once the sights and smells of Italy are now Chinese. The character or appearance of a community can flip in a generation and it can be hard to keep up with the changes. And the places in New York City where the changes are fastest paced are in the northern neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Greenpoint, Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Ridgewood Queens have come to epitomize edgy cool. They have attracted artists, musicians, and other creative residents for the past 25 years. Hip residents first began by moving into the abandoned industrial spaces of the Williamsburg waterfront because of the rising rents in Manhattan. But the high rents have been spreading through North Brooklyn and so have the bars, galleries, street art, and cafes. But don't think that it's all bearded artists in these neighborhoods. Much of these neighborhoods are still defined by immigrants old and new. Williamsburg still counts old Italians and a growing Hasidic Jewish community among its residents. Greenpoint is still known as the center for Polish immigrants. And Bushwick is one of the most heavily Latino neighborhood in NYC with older Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants being replaced by Mexican and Ecuadoran arrivals. Many of the old cultural landmarks from these groups remain and their food and culture is a link to a past that seems to slip away faster all the time. So now is the time to explore the old and the new in North Brooklyn.

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Day 11 - Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, and Ridgewood

Morning - The day starts by heading to the old German enclave of Ridgewood, Queens. The neighborhood may be in a different borough from the other spots on this day, but this is one of the few spots where NYC's five boroughs actually touch each other. The zig-zag line separating Brooklyn and Queens causes next door neighbors to live in different boroughs. But the lack of a physical border means that Bushwick and Ridgewood are closely connected. Many Ridgewood addresses use the Brooklyn numbering system, not the one from Queens. Some Ridgewood businesses even had Brooklyn zip codes until the 70s. And we will start by taking the M train. There are lots of special events and activities in these neighborhoods on weekends so I think that's the best time to do this day on a Saturday or Sunday if the opportunity presents itself. And if it's a weekend you will have to transfer to the M because it's weekday route is truncated. You can pick up the M at the start of the line at the Delancey-Essex Street stations or you can transfer from the L train at Myrtle-Wyckoff Streets. Either way, take the M to Seneca Ave.

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   When you reach the station, walk under the elevated tracks one block further to Onderdonk Ave and take a right. Within a block you begin to see the yellow brick that defines Ridgewood's architecture. Despite Queens' enormous size, there are only 5 significant historic districts located in the borough, and the homes in Ridgewood are the oldest of the group. The blocks surrounding Onderdonk Ave are all developments called "Mathews Model Homes." These yellow brick tenements were built in the early 20th century and were major upgrades over the tenements of old Manhattan. While they were meant for workers, they still had private bathrooms, plenty of air shafts, and a limited number of apartments in each building. Plus they were built with the yellow brick from Staten Island that makes Ridgewood stand out among the red brick and brownstone that defines NYC's old homes. At Catalpa Avenue, hang a left to walk by St. Matthias Catholic Church. It's one of the few NYC churches still holding services in German, though Polish and Spanish masses occur as well. And if you double back down Catalpa to Seneca Ave, take a left and pop into the old German bakery Rudy's for a breakfast pastry. They do the old German classics here like Linzer Tarts, Black Forest Cake, Apple Turnovers, and Strudel. There's coffee and a small seating area as well so enjoy a light and sweet breakfast before heading back out.

   After Rudy's, head to the left on Myrtle Avenue. This is the main commercial strip of the neighborhood and it's charming despite the "business improvement district" bringing in lots of chain stores. The odd angles of the intersections make for dramatic architecture, and the five-pointed Forest Avenue intersection feels more like the main square of a small town than a part of America's biggest city. Just past the lovely Ridgewood Savings Bank on Forest Ave is a small square leading to 71st Avenue. This is where Queens' disorganized street "grid" gets confusing. There are a whole lot of numbered streets, some called streets while others are roads, avenues, or places. And some go east-west and some north-south. Because the numbers in both directions nearly match in Ridgewood it can get very confusing. Nevertheless, walk along 71st Ave to 60th Lane and take a left. This is the heart of Ridgewood's yellow brick rowhouses. the side streets running on either side are lined with picture perfect stoops and graceful bay windows. If you walk 6 blocks and take a right on 67th Avenue you'll nearly be back to the M train. In fact, the homes on the north side of 67th Ave have the bizarre feature of the elevated M train tracks running right through the back alley behind them. So far, there isn't much evidence of trendy businesses in Ridgewood, but a few new bars and galleries are popping up a little further west. But to see where the art scene is really taking off, we have to return to Brooklyn. At the end of the block, you can get on a Manhattan-bound M train for 4 stops to Knickerbocker Ave.

   As you exit it Knickerbocker Ave, you're now in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick. Take a left on Knickerbocker Ave and head west. You'll immediately notice that the neighborhood is heavily Hispanic. Bushwick has been home for many generations to Brooklyn's largest Puerto Rican and Dominican community and is now home to growing numbers of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The newly arriving artists may get most of the press, but the new immigrants have been just as important to bringing Bushwick back from some tough decades. Bushwick was one of the most blighted areas in New York in the 70s and 80s. Fires and violence were common in those days, and the neighborhood became infamous when it was the epicenter of looting in the 1977 blackout. But now the neighborhood, while still poor, is lively and bustling. You may not find any fancy boutiques on Knickerbocker Avenue, but you won't find any empty storefronts either. Keep walking to Suydam Street and head into Maria Hernandez Park. The neighborhood's green square is bustling today, but it used to be not much more than an open air drug market. Maria Hernandez was a community activist who tried to push drug dealers out of her block and the park. Her husband Carlos frequently fought with dealers outside their home. It all ended one morning in 1989 when bullets crashed through the Hernandez's window and Maria was killed. Today the park bears her name and is full of families, dogs, joggers, and full of life. Cut across the park to Starr Street and take a right.

   Along Starr Street, street art begins to proliferate as you walk two blocks past Wyckoff and up to St. Nicholas Ave. Take a left and you will find yourself in the street art center of NYC. As industrial buildings replace the tenements and rowhouses, all of a sudden the walls are festooned with dozens of world class murals, tags, wheatpastes, and more. And all of it is only 5 years old. The curator of all this work is a surprising figure, a mid-30's owner of a local factory and children of Sicilian immigrants named Joe Ficalora. As Ficalora tells the story, his father was killed by being stabbed during a mugging in 1991. The graffiti tags all over the neighborhood were a perpetual reminder of the street crime that took his father's life. His mother died of cancer in 2011 and in his time of grief, the daily battle against graffiti became too much to bear. So he decided if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. His company's work with city government made him adept at securing permits. So he googled street artists, found some he liked, invited them to paint his walls, and a gallery was born. Now the streets for blocks feature internationally renowned artists like Dasic Fernandez, DALeast, Beau Stanton, and Ta Kaiya Blaney. The pieces change all the time so come and wander the streets around St. Nicholas and Troutman and see what you like.

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Lunch: There are new, hip places popping up all the time in this section of Bushwick. The Rookery Bar on Troutman serves Jamaican-influenced sandwiches and other casual food. Sea Wolf on the corner of Troutman and Wyckoff serves a seafood menu in a sunny, airy spot. Down on Starr and Wyckoff a block away is Hi Hello, a great for creative sandwiches like a grilled cheese with goat leg. But my choice would be to ignore the trendy spots and head for a favorite of some of the other new arrivals in Bushwick, Mexican immigrants. On Starr Street between St. Nicholas and Wyckoff is Los Hermanos Tortilleria. This isn't an abandoned factory, it's an actual factory cranking out fresh tortillas to sell to restaurants and locals throughout the day. Luckily some of their space is filled with tables and you can sample their tortillas by ordering a set of any of their classic tacos. These aren't Americanized knockoffs but the real deal, shelled with two fresh tortillas and filled with slow cooked meat, cilantro, onion, and salsa verde. It's simple, cheap, delicious, and a neighborhood touchstone that appeals to everyone old and new.

Afternoon: If it's a weekend afternoon in Williamsburg, the neighborhood will be alive with shoppers, brunchers, and young people out enjoying Brooklyn's hotspot. So walk down to Wyckoff and hop on a Manhattan-bound L train. Depart at Bedford Avenue, the last stop before Manhattan. You are now in the heart of Williamsburg and it was here that artists started venturing across the river in the 90s. Exit the subway and walk down North 7th Street towards the river. Between Wythe Avenue and Kent Avenue is the weekend market Artists & Fleas. It's a great space with dozens of vendors selling homemade accessories, crafts, vintage clothes, and more. It's a fun space and New Yorkers' creativity is on full display. If you're a music fan, you can walk two blocks north to Rough Trade, a combination concert space, coffee shop, and record store. And if you're a beer fan, walk four blocks north to Brooklyn Brewery, which is open for tours and tastings on weekends. Williamsburg used to be a German neighborhood with a rich brewing heritage. It lasted until 1976 when the Schaeffer Brewery south of the Williamsburg Bridge closed, thus ending hundreds of years of commercial beer making in New York City. It would be 20 years until the young microbrewers at Brooklyn Brewery were able to open a brewery in this former Matzo Factory at N 11th Street and Wythe Avenue. Today they are the largest beer maker in the city and their flagship lager is found in almost every single bar in the five boroughs.

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  No matter what direction you walk from North 7th Street, the skyline of Manhattan will loom to your west. This section of Williamsburg was once a giant industrial hub with factories and warehouses surrounding a pier and train yard facility at North 7th. When the port facility closed in 1983 the warehouses, tracks, and piers sat in decay. And it was these facilities that first drew the creative set to Williamsburg. And as an added bonus, those abandoned piers and rooftops provided some stunning views of Manhattan. As Williamsburg began more popular, the city decided redevelopment was in order so they rezoned the waterfront in 2003. Since then, huge luxury towers have been built blocking the views, funneling the wind, and drawing wealthy professionals to the neighborhood. But on the positive side, these developments were required to provide park space along the waterfront. So now you can walk along the waterfront promenade and appreciate the panoramic sunset views of the skyline. And if you arrive on a warm Saturday, you may find the huge Smorgasburg food market which features dozens of unique food vendors.

   Walk south along any of the avenues and you will eventually cross under the Williamsburg Bridge. The iconic view of the bridge is just south of the underpass on Broadway/S 6th Street and Bedford Ave. From here the road opens to a wide plaza and the bridge rises in the distance. When the bridge opened in 1902 it was only the second bridge over the East River and it irrevocably changed the neighborhood. As the 20th century dawned 100,000 people lived in the neighborhood. 10 years later, the migration over the bridge from Manhattan meant that 250,000 would call Williamsburg home. Williamsburg was, for a time, the most crowded neighborhood in NYC. Since 2014, this plaza has been graced by a remarkable work of art, a black and white mural of a teenage girl with an inscrutable distant gaze. The piece is huge and captivating, and it's all based on the work of a local high school student. The original piece is actually a photograph that won its creator, young Steven Paul, a prestigious national art award. The commercial art company Colossal Media was so taken with the piece that they offered to have their artists recreate the photograph on the most dramatic blank wall in the neighborhood. In just a few short years, it has become the iconic image of Williamsburg. Walk away from the river one block and towards the stunning gold dome of the former Williamsburg Savings Bank building, and if you're lucky it will be open to the public for a market or other public event. On the opposite corner is the legendary German steakhouse Peter Luger's. It's been open since 1887 and is a temple of beef. There are lots of arguments about which steakhouse in New York is the best, but Luger's is still the standard by which all steakhouses are measured. Reservations are scarce and meals are expensive. But if you're interested in a classic steakhouse, this is the spot.

   Walk down Driggs Avenue and things will change very suddenly. After walking through some of the hippest areas of the city you will suddenly feel out of place for a different reason. South of Brooklyn's Broadway is one of the largest Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods in the world. Walk down to Division Avenue, take a left, and then a slight right onto Lee Avenue to join the main commercial street of South Williamsburg. All around will be men, women, and lots of children in traditional Jewish clothes. Jewish communities have been a part of New York City since it was New Amsterdam. But it was the Williamsburg Bridge that enabled families from the Lower East Side to escape the crowded conditions in Manhattan and move to Brooklyn. It was this first migration that included residents like Mel Brooks, Barry Manilow, and Jerry Stiller. But most of those early families have since moved out for bigger houses or warmer weather. Instead, the large Hasidic community in the neighborhood today are all descendants of a small group that fled Hungary at the end of World War II. The town of Satu Mare is today located in Romania but was part of Hungary at the time of the war. The large Jewish community there was mostly left alone by the Hungarian government until the end of the war when the Nazi's desperation led them to round up as many Jewish communities as possible. Few from Satu Mare escaped, but their Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum did escape and settled with only a few hundred followers in Williamsburg in 1946. Since then, the community has seen incredible growth. The sect, which calls itself Satmar in honor of their ancestral home, was a mere 4,500 residents in 1960. Today it numbers more than 50,000 in South Williamsburg. Just as in Hungary, the group shuns modernity and keeps traditional dress, their traditional language of Yiddish, and traditional religious and daily life. They have large families averaging six children so families and schools are a constant sight on the neighborhood streets which are typically bustling, unless it is the Sabbath or a holiday. They are a political force in the city as well and their large celebrations can attract governors and senators. If you want a taste of the neighborhood head to Gottlieb's deli on Roebling and Division where you can get a unique Hungarian take on the classic knish. This version is more like a potato-filled croissant. Or you can go with a true Jewish-New York hybrid and get the pastrami egg roll. Walk down Lee Avenue a few blocks and take a left on Hooper. Walk a few blocks and turn right under the elevated tracks on Broadway. A few more blocks and you'll reach the G train at Broadway and Union Ave. Hop on and take a Queens-bound G

Dinner: Get off the G train at Greenpoint Avenue and you'll find yourself in the heart of Brooklyn's northernmost neighborhood, Greenpoint. This is one of my favorite neighborhoods for the way it combines historic architecture, delicious food, old immigrant communities, new residents, amazing views, and a great community feel. Plus there's lots of nice places to eat. Greenpoint is culturally defined by a large Polish Catholic community and for a great taste of Poland walk towards the river on Greenpoint Ave to Karczma. The dining room is decked out like a Polish mountain lodge and the staff are all donning traditional clothes. But don't be fooled by the theatrical costumes, this is much more a local hangout than a tourist trap. The food is delicious and the crowd is as likely to speak Polish as English. Further towards the water is Paulie Gee's Pizzeria. It's hard for me to pick a "best pizza" in NYC but if you put a gun to my head, I think I'd pick Paulie Gee's. It's a newer place with dim lighting and a hip vibe. The pizzas are inventive and come with a huge array of topping choices. But under that hip veneer is a kitchen that knows how to make New York pizza to perfection. You will probably have an enormous wait to dine here, especially on a weekend, but it's pretty awesome pizza and worth the wait. Elsewhere in Greenpoint are hip bars and bistros like Anella that has a lovely back garden for dinner or the lovely corner restaurant Alameda for cocktails and small plates. One of my perennial favorites is Lobster Joint, which features a small bar area and a huge backyard picnic area to munch on oysters, lobster rolls, and shrimp. And at the very northern tip of the neighborhood is Glasserie, an acclaimed Mediterranean/Middle Eastern tapas restaurant in a former glassworks.

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Evening: There are so many different things to do in the evening in these neighborhoods you could probably spend 30 nights just in North Brooklyn. There are, of course, bars and restaurants almost everywhere. But there are also some of the most unique nightlife spots in NYC. In Greenpoint, one of my favorites is the Brooklyn Night Bazaar. The great thing about this concert venue/market is that there is something for absolutely everyone here. If you're a fan of live music, there are quality concerts 5 nights a week at the bazaar. Four nights a week there are karaoke rooms, arcade games, tables tennis, and mini golf. Plus on Friday and Saturday nights there is a great local market with vendors selling homemade goods and vintage finds. It's a great combo of fun and the fun goes until 2 AM.

   A little further south in Williamsburg is the heaving nightlife hub around the Brooklyn Brewery. If you are a serious nightclub fan, next to the Wythe Hotel is Output. It's the first big-time dance club to find itself on this side of the river. I'm not at all a nightclub aficionado. But those who are say that the sound system is excellent and the DJs are world class. If nightclubs aren't your thing, you can go across the street to Brooklyn Bowl. This is a really fun venue that combines bowling and live music. The venue is in a former industrial space off the backside of the brewery. Inside is a lot of exposed brick and wood, 16 bowling lanes, and a stage right next to the lanes. It's a combo that seems dreamed up by a scriptwriter setting a sitcom in trendy Brooklyn. But it works great. The lanes are open from 6 PM every night though you'll have to pay a cover when there's a concert and still have to pay for a lane. If you're a fan of The Roots, famous hip hop outfit and Tonight Show band, their drummer and bandleader Questlove DJs every Thursday late.

   Still further south in Williamsburg, on Metropolitan Avenue, is Nitehawk Cinema. This independent movie house is unique for successfully lobbying the state government in Albany to allow alcohol sales in cinemas. So now you can order food or a cocktail from your seat and have it delivered. A block north is the Bavarian-style beer hall Radegast. Not only do they serve the best pretzel in the city, but there is live music every night of the week in their large hall.

   There are an abundance of live music spaces all over these neighborhoods. The two marquee spaces of the neighborhood are both on Williamsburg's former meatpacking row, North 6th Street. Music Hall of Williamsburg is a small concert space that can hold about 500 in the audience. But it's owned by the heavyweight NYC promoters Bowery Presents so it draws a lot of up-and-coming talent from rock, pop, and dance music. At the end of the block is the National Sawdust, named for the former sawdust plant in which it's housed. The venue opened in 2015 and is set up as a kind of chamber hall for contemporary classical music. That description probably doesn't do it justice, but on any given night you might see piano sonatas, latin jazz fused with European folk, experimental Texas blues, and much of it brand new. It will be a little older a crowd than Music Hall but the music is no less edgy. Then there are the numerous small venues and bars hosting live music. St. Mazie's Bar hosts lots of old fashioned jazz bands in the swing and jug band vein. St. Vitus' in Greenpoint is the city's best heavy metal venue. Shea Stadium isn't the former Mets home but is now the name of a small, high energy, venue in Bushwick. Bossa Nova Civic Club is a dance bar without the pretension of Manhattan's megaclubs, And if you want to really have a wild night, you can head to Bushwick to House of Yes for a night of mostly naked bodies, cabaret, dancing, aerial artistry, costumes, and anything else the organizers can dream up for a not quite sex party. All this really is just a start so whether you come with a plan or just wander the streets and see where the music takes you you'll have an evening to remember.


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