Tuesday, March 21, 2017

30 Days in NYC (Day 12) - South Brooklyn

   For the 12th day of our month in New York, it's back to Brooklyn for a chance to walk through some of the most handsome, historic, and charming neighborhoods in the city. These days, the neighborhoods south of Atlantic Avenue from Brooklyn Heights have a patchwork of names: Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, and Gowanus. They have been divvied up by highway construction and by real estate interests. But for many generations, this was just called South Brooklyn. This area began development as a rural retreat but very quickly grew up with the growth of New York and its harbor in the 1830s. The area south of Atlantic Avenue officially became part of the City of Brooklyn in 1834 and was connected to Manhattan by the South Ferry in 1836. Stately homes were built that housed upper-middle class professionals and these remain the typical structures of South Brooklyn today. As the 20th century progressed, the wealthy residents moved out and were replaced by immigrants including the requisite Italians and Irish, but even some unique communities such as Syrian/Lebanese immigrants, who still have an influence along Atlantic Avenue, and Mohawk Indians drawn down from Canada to work on the high steel construction projects in Manhattan.

   It wasn't just houses being built here though. South Brooklyn proved ideal as a shipping center. South Brooklyn essentially was a peninsula. Buttermilk Channel, the waterway between Brooklyn and Governors Island and part of New York Harbor, is to the west. When the land abruptly ends at Red Hook the shoreline swings east and forms Gowanus Bay to the south. The east end of the neighborhood was pierced by a marshy lowland filled with brackish channels and sea grass called the Gowanus marshes. Over the middle of the 19th century, all of these waterways would be converted to shipping and industry. The Atlantic and Erie Basins were built as protected dockyards for ships in the 1840s and 1860s. By 1860, the Gowanus channel had been deepened and the marshes around it filled in to create an almost two mile long industrial canal. All this shipping attracted workers to staff the ships, warehouses, and factories. The area hummed as one of the busiest waterfronts in the world well into the 20th century when modern container ships would almost, but not completely, end the shipping to Brooklyn.

   Through it all, the stately homes from the mid-19th century remained in tact. As early as the 1950s well-heeled New Yorkers were eyeing the charming historic properties for renovation and preservation acts in the '60s and '70s assured that the simple and stately old homes would never disappear. Today, the streets are just as likely to be trod by wealthy professionals and their families as Sicilian dockworkers. But look closer and you may see the few cranes along Columbia Street are still unloading ships, and giant cruise lines call at Red Hook on their way to ports all over the world. And along the waterways of South Brooklyn the old warehouses now house breweries, art galleries, distilleries, and performance spaces. The old and new coexist on every street in South Brooklyn

Day 12 - South Brooklyn

Morning - Take the F or G subway train to Bergen Street station, located right in the heart of old South Brooklyn. As you exit the subway, start walking east along Bergen and take a left on Hoyt for two blocks to reach Pacific Street. This is the lovely neighborhood now known as Boerum Hill. You will immediately see why these neighborhoods have become some of New York's most trendy spots to live. In most Manhattan neighborhoods, brownstones and brick rowhouses are broken up by taller apartment blocks or just destroyed altogether. But here in Brooklyn, the streets don't look much different than when the blocks were first built up in the decades just before and after the Civil War. A four story rowhouse would seem ostentatious on these blocks. These homes were once the dwellings of working-class Irish and Italians but they have become luxury products for the professional classes now, though that does mean most of the houses have been meticulously restored.

   But there was more than just Irish and Italians who once called these blocks home. Take a right on Pacific and halfway down the block you will notice a small, old church. It is no longer in service and in fact has been converted into a private home. But in the 1940s and 1950s this was Cuyler Presbyterian Church and the services here were not just in English but the indigenous Mohawk language as well. The Mohawk tribe has lived in northern New York and southern Quebec since long before Europeans arrived, and they still live there today. But lest you think that life on the reservation is anything like Pre-Columbian days, the Mohawks have been building skyscrapers for generations. They began in this line of work when they were hired as workers on a railroad bridge through their land in the 1880s and ever since have been renowned as fearless and dexterous workers of the high iron. The Mohawk workers were in demand and there were so many buildings rising in the years after World War II that some of the families relocated from Quebec to Brooklyn. Local stores stocked Mohawk's favorite cornmeal for baking, bars stocked plenty of Canadian beer, and Cuyler's services mixed protestant gospel with indigenous traditions. Even today, workers high atop the new World Trade Center include Mohawk Indians. But they no longer live in NYC, preferring to keep their families in Khanawake Canada and commute down each week for the work. So Mohawk Brooklyn is no more, but its fascinating history lives on in their old church building.

   Take a left and walk up to Atlantic Avenue, one of Brooklyn's most important and busy streets. Along it you will find lots of shops, cafes, and a healthy dose of vintage and antique stores. Keep walking past the Trader Joe's at Court Street and you'll start to see a distinct cultural element assert itself. The signs are suddenly adorned in Arabic. This block is what remains of a once thriving district of Arabic-New Yorkers whose families were mostly from Syria and Lebanon. New York's original "Little Syria" was once in Lower Manhattan, just a few blocks from Battery Park. Immigrants from the Levant, both Muslim and Christian settled there in the early 20th century, and as their families grew older and wealthier many relocated to Brooklyn. Atlantic Avenue became a New York version of the bazaars of the Middle East. Most of the old families have been replaced by new immigrants scattered through Brooklyn. They come from Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, and more. And they can still come to Atlantic Avenue to get a taste of the old country. The big shop on the block is Sahadi's, famous for a dizzying selection of spices, pastries, and more. And it's certainly worth checking the place out and getting lost. But it's also worth checking out the smaller places on the block like Damascus Bakery or Oriental Pastry. These shops are smaller but more focused on Middle Eastern goods. Ask what's fresh and maybe the shopkeepers will invite you to share a thick cup of Arabic coffee.

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  Head back to Court Street and turn south. You are now in Cobble Hill, one of the finest historic districts in New York City. Shoppers will enjoy the offerings on Court Street that include a lot of independent boutiques offering cool clothes not found at any old shopping center. Turn west on Congress Street when you've finished perusing the shops and you'll come to Cobble Hill Park. Oddly, this park is one of the most recent additions to the neighborhood, having been built in 1965. The site had been home to some mansions and a church, all of which were empty and set for redevelopment in the 1950s as either a large supermarket or low-rise apartments. But residents stuck together and demanded a sorely needed park which is now the focal point of family life for all the rowhouse residents. One of the unique results of leaving the space open was that it exposed a hidden architectural treasure, a row of former carriage houses that now line the south side of the park along Verandah Place. Before the park was built, these simple rowhouses and stable buildings sat on a narrow mews that was mostly used as a parking area. But the opening of the park meant these protected homes now had some of the best locations in the neighborhood and there is now a unique park that instead of being surrounded by palatial rowhouses for the rich is instead lined by simplest homes in the neighborhood.

  Zigzag south and west one block to Warren Street for another of Cobble Hill's architectural treasures. Alfred Tredway White was a wealthy businessman from old New England stock. He believed in industry but he also believed in philanthropy and in the 1870s he built some of the most innovative, beautiful, and thoughtful homes ever built in New York, and it was all built for poor workers. After passing some backyards on Warren, you'll come to a pair of intricate brick houses with a long, narrow garden between them. Along both sides of the garden are still more ornate, small brick rowhouses facing in towards the greenery. And at the end of the block rises the incredible Tower Building, a building heaving with ornamental arches, balconies, and windows. It looks like  an oversized, red brick, Romanesque palace. Both the garden homes and the Tower Building were homes for workers, designed for White as a way of providing hygienic, attractive, modern, dignified homes for poor families. Innovations were everywhere. Each apartment came with toilets decades before tenements had even common toilet facilities. The buildings surrounded a common green space fifty years before developers in Queens would make "garden apartments" a staple of New York City living. Common bathing facilities in the basement pre-date the progressive push for better sanitation in the slums. And while White took a small profit of five percent, he still rented out the apartments for the modern equivalent of $200/month, a sum that is simply impossible for today's Brooklyn. Wrap around the block to Baltic Street to see the buildings from the other side and then take a right on Henry Street.

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Walk south through a few more blocks of brownstones until you reach Union Street, the border between Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens. And if you're feeling up for an old fashioned treat, stop at Brooklyn Farmacy on Henry and Sackett Streets. The space was once a chemist shop, but it has now been wonderfully restored and turned into a nostalgic soda shop. Hop in and get classic soda jerk items rarely found today like root beer floats, lime rickeys, and the venerable egg cream. Never heard of an egg cream? Fear not. For reasons lost to history it contains neither egg nor cream. It's a simple drink made of milk, seltzer, and Brooklyn-made Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup. And Brooklyn Farmacy has one of the best around.

Lunch - New York is the quintessential Italian-American city. There are Italians spread all through America from San Francisco and New Orleans to Providence and Pittsburgh. But after hundreds of TV shows, mafia movies, and novels it is New York that is most frequently known for its Italian-ness. And the numbers back this idea up. Of the ten most heavily Italian-American counties in America--by percentage--all ten are in the New York City area. But they don't all come from Manhattan's famous Little Italy. When Italians were immigrating at their highest levels between 1880 and 1924 they were settling all over New York in neighborhoods like East Harlem, Greenwich Village, Belmont in The Bronx, Williamsburg, and South Brooklyn. The South Brooklyn Italian community was supported by the bustling docklands of Brooklyn. The city's largest docks were those along the Hudson River but those were controlled and worked exclusively by the Irish. Graft and corruption was the name of the game on the docks and the old Irish political machine run by Tammany Hall made sure it was Irish workers who made the crews and Irish gangsters that reaped the spoils. So Italian immigrants looked to the huge sets of docks covering the East River in Brooklyn and made that their domain. Court Street in Cobble Hill was and is the center of Italian South Brooklyn. And even though most families have moved to bigger houses in the suburbs or down south, 6,000 or so Italian-Americans still call South Brooklyn home. On Court Street you can still find venerable classics like Monteleone Bakery or Esposito's Pork Store. And if you decide to just grab a hero at Esposito's for lunch, I won't fault you. But there's an even better option hiding down Union Street.

   The Italians who immigrated to New York weren't from all over Italy. They specifically came from the five southernmost provinces of Italy: Campania, Puglia, Calabria, Basilicata, and of course Sicily. And so true New York Italian food means Southern Italian food. And that tradition is kept alive at Ferdinando's Focacceria on Union Street, just west of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Ferdinando's opened in 1904 and it retains the tile floors and tin ceiling from its earliest years. The doors are open wide on warm days and the place still feels like a spot a dockworker could get a quick lunch. Indeed some still do for the working cranes of Brooklyn's small container port loom at the end of Union Street. You can order any number of hearty, reasonably-priced pasta dishes, including a Sicilian classic of pasta con sarde. It's a simple red sauce with tiny sardines for salt, raisins for sweetness,plus pine nuts, fennel, and spices. And it's big enough to feed two. But if you were a dockworker in rush, you just need a sandwich. Sure you can get a chicken parm, but you're in Sicily now, get a local favorite like panelle. It's a kind of chickpea fritter topped with ricotta cheese on a homemade roll. But if you really want an adventure get the vastedda. It's a simple sandwich: a homemade roll, soft ricotta and grated caciocavallo cheese, and slow cooked calf spleen. That's it. The taste and texture are a bit funky but the ricotta mellows it out so well that the whole thing ends up being delicious. I ate the whole thing and loved every bite. And for desert, they make one of my favorite homemade cannolis in New York.

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Afternoon - After lunch, walk down towards the waterfront. At the end of Union Street take a left on Van Brunt Street. After a ten minute walk, you will be in the isolated, waterfront enclave of Red Hook. This is one of my favorite neighborhoods in New York. The days of the working waterfront don't feel so removed the way they do elsewhere in the city. The piers and basins of Red Hook are still home to working ships such as ferries and tug boats that dock here. Along Van Brunt you will see signs for the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal along the East River and the neighborhood is occasionally transformed by the arrival of a great ship like the Queen Mary 2 which regularly docks in Red Hook on her way to Southampton, England. And you'll know when she's in port because the QM2 is taller than all the buildings in Red Hook. So there is still work happening along the waterfront. Plus many of the old piers and warehouse buildings are still standing and they've not all been turned into trendy condos like in DUMBO. But perhaps the vibe of the neighborhood is most influenced by the fact that Red Hook has no subway line. The closest station to Red Hook is a mile away in Gowanus so residents here have to rely on a bus or, very often a ferry. Red Hook just seems to be facing the water whereas most NYC neighborhoods try to put the water at their back. Mix in the nautical-themed bars, distilleries, and old storehouses and there is an unmistakable maritime vibe to Red Hook.

   Keep walking down Van Brunt Street. This is the main drag of the neighborhood and will being you past most of the restaurants and bakeries here, including Baked at 359 Van Brunt where the brownies come recommended by luminaries like Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. Eventually, Van Brunt ends at the entrance to Erie Basin, one of the protected harbors where boats still come and go in Red Hook. The water's end of Van Brunt is dominated by two dozen warehouses in three buildings all from the 1850s and 1860s. On the right, four massive storehouses have been converted to a large Fairway grocery store which provides jobs and food but also causes lots of traffic. On the left are 20 more storehouses, running all the way onto the pier forming the breaker guarding Erie Basin. There are a mix of businesses located here today, from apple processors to art galleries. If it's a weekend, walk out on the Van Brunt pier and find the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists' Coalition. This massive space is 25,000 square foot exhibit hall run by the more than 400 artists that make up the coalition. It is the largest artist run gallery in the city and it is open every weekend from Spring to Fall. It's large space means there will always be a great variety of contemporary local art and you're bound to find something you like. It's almost more like a contemporary art museum rather than just a gallery and walking through it was one of my favorite art experiences in the city.

   From here, walk behind the Fairway along the waterfront. Here the waterfront has been restored and converted into public walkways and gardens. You can see the old train tracks leading to the docks in the sidewalks and there are often historic trolley cars parked behind Fairway (four were removed in 2014 but now a different historic trolley has taken their place). As you round the corner onto Conover Street, you'll see the Lehigh Valley No. 79 Barge. This is a rare preserved railroad barge that was built in 1914 and belonged to the Lehigh Railroad. Since New York City is made up of islands, the waterways of New York harbor used to be filled with goods being transported to and from the docks of New York. Railroads like the Lehigh Valley could only run their tracks as far as the New Jersey shoreline. From there barges had to carry the goods needed for manufacturing or sale to Brooklyn. Barge #79 would have carried everything from hemp, jute, grans and cottons to tobacco, fruit, vegetables, coffee, and cacao to and from the Lehigh train yards in Jersey City. The vessel was in decay but was bought in 1985 and restored. Amazingly, the barge is now a family home that is also used as a part-time museum and performance space. It is open to the public every Thursday evening and Saturday afternoon and is well worth a visit to see some of the working waterfront of a century ago. Keep walking past through the Pier 44 garden and around the Liberty warehouses and walk to the water's edge on Van Dyke Street. Before heading into the park make a pit stop at Steve's Key Lime Pies. Here in Red Hook Steve makes Key Lime pies for sale at restaurants and grocers all through the city. But at their storefront you can get a one-of-a-kind frozen treat: the Swingle. It's a 4-inch wide key lime pie on a stick dipped in dark chocolate. Past Steve's is Louis Valentino Park, one of the small greenspaces dotting the old waterfront. The nicest thing here is the restored pier which can be walked to the end. From there, you'll have a wonderful harbor view and the best view of the Statue of Liberty that can be had from land in New York City.

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   If at this point you're feeling thirty, you're in luck. The old warehouses of Red Hook are ideal for some of the growing craft beverage movement and its possible to enjoy beer, wine, and liquor all made right in Red Hook. Sadly, the primary neighborhood brewer, Sixpoint Brewery, is not open for tours though that may change in the future. In the meantime, The Liberty Warehouses you passed earlier on Beard Street, are home to Red Hook Winery. You can hop into their industrial brick tasting room and enjoy a taste of their offerings. All of the grapes come from local wine regions like the Finger Lakes and Long Island so you'll be tasting a true sampling New York wines. The tasting room is open until 5 PM every day. Walking back to Conover Street and taking a left for two blocks brings you to Cacao Prieto and Widow Jane Distilling. This joint operation is both a chocolate factory and distillery. Cacao Prieto focuses on organic Dominican chocolate and chocolate liqueurs while Widow Jane uses limestone cave water and heirloom corn to create unique whiskey varieties. Both are open every day for tasting, and tours go out through the facility on Saturdays. If you're still thirsty you can walk ten minutes east on Coffey Street towards the giant Ikea--which I've tried to avoid mentioning--and sample the whiskeys, gins, and moonshine from Van Brunt Distillery at 6 Bay Street which is open Thursdays through Sundays.

Dinner - Red Hook is a great neighborhood for food, as are the nearby neighborhoods of Gowanus and Carroll Gardens. But since Red Hook has such a nautical feel, I always find myself in the mood for seafood. Right along Van Brunt Street across from Fairway is the Brooklyn Crab. This crabhouse is a sprawling, mostly outdoor seafood shack. It has bar spaces, picnic spaces, and in nice weather there are yards to play cornhole, table tennis, or even a few holes of mini golf. There is something satisfying about an evening in Red Hook spent slurping oysters, cracking crabs, and enjoying a beer with the sunset over the harbor. The other great seafood option is Red Hook Lobster Pound, located up Van Brunt closer to the cruise terminal. It may not have the views of Brooklyn Crab but they specialize in Maine lobster trucked in fresh everyday. Whether you get whole lobster steamed or tossed into a New England lobster roll it's fresh and delicious. There are plenty of other options too. Right next to Brooklyn Crab is Hometown BBQ, one of New York's best barbecue spots and famous for their Texas-style brisket. All of those places are more picnic style places. If you want a more traditional dinner service, The Good Fork on Van Brunt is a sit-down space with a menu that takes American classics and adds subtle Korean twists to the flavors.

Evening - This is one of my favorite areas of the city to spend a night out. There's a lot of cool spots for performances, live music, and games and it feels away from most of the nightlife hordes of clubgoers, tourists, and suburban partyers. If you elect to stay in Red Hook, you must make one of NYC's bar pilgrimages to Sunny's. Sunny's is a an old waterfront bar, the kind stevedores and sailors once hung out in. It's been around since the 1890s in one form or another and like most places that old it has managed to change its stripes over and over without ever losing some essential essence. Maybe it's as simple as the nautical affect. Maybe there's just some timeless scent to the old boards, but it's a transporting place. It has been a strictly seaman's joint where workers would shape up out front. During the empty days of waterfront decline it stayed open just so some regulars could get some soup, a sandwich, or a beer in the afternoon, but it's when it became run by the third generation of Balzano's, the late Sunny Balzano that its current era began. Sunny was a neighborhood old timer and an artist. He was someone who could unite the old Red Hook with the new artists populating Brooklyn. He ran the old joint as a "non-profit" open only on Fridays where "donations" paid for drinks, dancers roamed the bar, and musicians played bluegrass, shanties, and Texas blues. The place became a new Red Hook icon but finally the 21st Century brought a city crackdown that required renovations and a proper liquor license. Hurricane Sandy forced the Atlantic Ocean right through the bar and took four years of fundraising to reopen from. And after all that, Sunny passed away last year in 2016. But the bar lives on. It's not as ramshackle or rambunctious as in years past. And it's now open 6 nights a week. But Sunny's still has live music most nights, including their traditional bluegrass jam on Saturdays. It's worth a trip to at least experience one drink at one of the great old bars of New York. And if just a little folk or bluegrass isn't enough and you want more, it's about a mile up Van Brunt Street to the Jalopy Theater at Woodhull and Columbia. The Jalopy is dedicated to traditional roots music in America, whether it be Irish, Jewish, Folk, Country, Bluegrass, Jugbands, Ragtime or any other classic form. They not only have a performance space, but a tavern with live music and regular classes in roots music and instruments. If you have any interest in old-timey music, you must check out the Jalopy.

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   Meanwhile, just to the east in Gowanus is a treasure trove of nightlife and performance spaces. The Gowanus Channel is still the artery of the neighborhood but these days the industry is mostly gone and left behind it is pollution and abandoned spaces. In short, it's perfect for different nightlife. One of the best venues in the neighborhood is the Bell House on 7th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. The Bell House is a decent sized concert and performance space that hosts a great variety of entertainment. There are concerts of course, featuring plenty of hip indie artists. There are also themed dance parties that provide a great alternative to the clubs of the Meatpacking District. Their regular dance party The Rub is an eclectic mix of hip hop, EDM, rock, and anything the DJs find cool. Others are themed parties like the New Wave themed dance party or a 90s hip hop night. But the Bell House has recently carved out a unique niche for itself. It has become NYCs home for podcasts, radio shows, and storytelling. Shows at the Bell House are often literary, witty, narrative comic performances from stand-up comedians, podcasters, or radio shows. Perhaps the best example is The Moth. The Moth is a recurring performance where audience members tell stories. That is the entire show. It's a disarmingly simple premise. Sometimes there are themes but often not. The idea is we all have stories we tell our friends and family regularly. You will be hanging out with friends or family and someone will say "Oh, tell that story of the time..." Well this is your chance to share those stories with an audience of strangers. The stories are usually funny, often poignant, and provide a wonderful atmosphere of random people sharing something intimate about themselves. Other Bell House podcast/radio shows include Ask Me Another, which is a trivia and puzzle show broadcast on the local public radio affiliate WNYC. Another NPR inspired show is The Night Vale which is a twist on Prairie Home Companion but set in a spooky desert town where strange things are reported to happen. There's lots more like this making the Bell House the city's destination for smart, nerdy fun. And if the Bell House is full, meander up the street the DeGraw Street and head to Littlefield for a similar mix of storytelling, comedy, music, dancing, and burlseque.

   And finally, one of the most unique places to hang for the evening is the Royal Palms on Union Street. Brooklyn's hip young kids have a way of taking something hopelessly uncool and making it cool by winking at how uncool it is. Need an example? Take shuffleboard. It's a game hopelessly associated senior centers and cruise ships filled with retirees. It was a game that was the butt of jokes for decades. So of course you can now play it in a hip industrial space with cool cocktails and understated tropical decor. The Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club might be the epitome of ironic hipster fun. But when was the last time you actually played shuffleboard? it's frankly a really fun game, even if like me the last time you played was at a senior center. It has the skill requirements of bowling but requires a greater degree of strategy and teamwork. You may go there for the irony, but you'll come out a fan of shuffleboard.


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