In preparing for my tour this Saturday, April 2, of East Williamsburg and Bushwick (via the Municipal Art Society), I've grown to appreciate just how fascinating and vexing these neighborhoods can be.
The tour route includes several individual landmarks, but also passes many banal, workaday houses that played a hugely important role, filling in empty lots that scarred Bushwick after decades of neglect, thus positioning the neighborhood for its revival--and now, in some cases, furious gentrification.
The latter might be exemplified by the story of how actress (and Girls ensemble star) Zosia Mamet bought a pink house in Bushwick in November 2013--a 3-family building with a legal basement office--and, as Bushwick Daily reported, decided to flip it in less than a year. I took a look at the records, via StreetEasy: in 2006, the building sold for $699,000; in 2008, for $875,000. In 2013, Mamet and her boyfriend bought it for nearly $1.04 million; it sold last year for $1.375 million.
Sure, the value may have risen through renovation and, who knows, maybe they decided the building was a better investment than home. (I'm not blaming nor praising Mamet, whose work I like; she's just riding the real estate wave.) Though the photo in the real estate listing, with its tight focus on the house and tree, makes it look almost bucolic, Flushing Avenue is a noisy truck route with few trees.
However pleasant the pink house, it's not exactly in a historic district. It's across the street from a Herbalife distributor, for Pete's sake. And the apartment building next door is worn.
But the house is in within walking distance of some trendy Bushwick/East Williamsburg bars and restaurants, and a massive new development--with a troubling back story--is coming nearby. In other words, from the real estate perspective, the long term trend is good.
Note: the pink house is actually not on the regular tour route, but is on one of two paths to the subway from the tour ending point. I will be taking that path.
Since 2000, I've led visitors around Brooklyn, and my two most fundamental tours, Brooklyn 101 and Brooklyn 202, go through Park Slope and cross Prospect Park West, usually at the Garfield Place stop light. When we cross, I advise people to look right and left in case bicycles approach.
Then, on the sidewalk adjacent to Prospect Park, I describe the controversy over the Prospect Park West bike lane, which raised the ire of Borough President Marty Markowitz and some long-time (and well-heeled) residents of buildings along the block. I point out how, given the media megaphone focused on Park Slope, the controversy has made international news.
The visitors are generally incredulous. It seems a very reasonable trade-off to add a protected lane for bicyclists, thus narrowing a roadway conducive to speeding from three lanes to two. Yes, it may be less esthetically appealing to have vehicles park away from the curb and, yes, it may add a small degree of hazard for those crossing or parking/unloading. But, overall, it seems intuitive--and obvious--that the bike lane enhances safety.
There's still a lawsuit going on. (Update: It was finally abandoned in September 2016.) Below is a view of the "alarming" changes, via Gothamist.
(Updated April 2020) Beyond the very comprehensive FAQ about my tour business, I here address some broader questions that should be useful to both my tour clients as well as many others new to Brooklyn. I'll add to the list as more suggestions come in.
1) We can see "Brooklyn" in a few hours, or a day, right?
Well, some of Brooklyn. Remember, Brooklyn's bigger than Paris (within the peripherique), both in population and in area. My "Brooklyn 101" tour covers pieces of four or five neighborhoods, but only pieces, in 3 hours. My "Brooklyn 202" tour adds two neighborhoods and 2 hours.
Both are significant introductions, but just that. The longest tour I've led has been nine hours, but even that was limited. A vehicle can cover more ground, but that sacrifices time walking around. And even those "Brooklyn Loop" bus tours are pretty limited.
Please recognize that the best way to see Brooklyn is to visit adjacent or nearby neighborhoods, not to hopscotch among neighborhoods in a short time. Also keep in mind that some neighborhoods are so large that they have distinct sub-sections.
2) "Brooklyn" is identified as... rich, poor, cool, uncool, ethnic nostalgia, classic row-house streets, hipsters, striving immigrants, hip-hop authenticity, artisanal "makers."
Brooklyn would be the country's fourth-largest city by population. So it "contains multitudes," as Walt Whitman might say. Embrace the diversity, embrace the opportunity. (And recognize that gentrification tensions can promote satire, as in the #AirBnBodega pictured above.)
3) What's the best way to see Brooklyn? Will we fail unless we take your tour/read this book/use this app?
There are many ways to experience Brooklyn, and each has trade-offs in terms of cost, time, and insight. You can take the subway and just wander. You can take a tour bus. Maybe your friend's cousin can take you around, or you can join a large-group scheduled walking tour. You can use an app, a web site, or a guidebook. Or you can hire a private guide like me and get more personalized attention and specialized knowledge.
4) If it's a "Brooklyn pizza" or a "Brooklyn bagel," it must be good.
No, not necessarily. Not everything made/bought here has special magic "Brooklyn" pixie dust. You might (sorry) get better quality in Manhattan or elsewhere. Ask around, or do some research. That said, competition means the baseline should be relatively high.
5) Brooklyn has "a Jewish neighborhood," right?
Brooklyn has many Jewish neighborhoods. Some are Hasidic, some are Modern Orthodox. Most are Ashkenazi, but one is Sephardic. And those are the visibly religious Jewish neighborhoods. Other mixed neighborhoods have Jewish institutions and populations, while others may have former Jewish institutions transformed into churches or other functions.
6) Brooklyn has some "ethnic neighborhoods," right?
Brooklyn has many "ethnic neighborhoods." It has neighborhoods with multiple ethnic groups, some aligned by language, some very different. We might just call them "neighborhoods." For example, the western part of Sunset Park is significantly Spanish-speaking, thanks to the migration (not immigration) of Americans from Puerto Rico, and the subsequent immigration of people from Mexico and Central America. The eastern part of Sunset Park is today significantly Chinese, moving into a neighborhood with Norwegian, Finnish, and Polish roots. Bensonhurst still has Italian roots, but now is significantly Chinese and "Russian" (which is a shorthand for "Former Soviet Union").
7) If we visit Brooklyn, it's easy to see Coney Island.
Well, Coney Island's well worth a visit, at least in decent weather, but it's a long trip--the end of four subway lines and a lengthy vehicle ride from many places in Brooklyn. It's terrific in summer. It's easy to get to, but you must factor in travel time, if you want to see other neighborhoods.
8) We only want to see one neighborhood (say, East Flatbush, or Bensonhurst), because that's where Aunt Bea grew up.
Unless you're really tight on time, I call that shortsighted. Most destinations in Brooklyn have a lot of interesting things we can see along the way, or via a brief diversion.
9) We can see all of "Brooklyn"--classic brownstone streets, hipsters, hip-hop, ethnic variety, new retail--in just one neighborhood.
Not exactly. (Remember those "trade-offs" I mentioned.) Sometimes the most settled, classic neighborhoods (here's looking at you, Brooklyn Heights) don't exactly have cutting-edge shopping or ethnic variety. You have to put a couple of neighborhoods together. A place like Williamsburg has a lot of the (now blunted) cutting-edge but almost no classic streets.
10) We can see "ethnic Brooklyn" and "hipster Brooklyn" in just one neighborhood.
Maybe, but only if you define "ethnic Brooklyn" narrowly. Greenpoint has a significant Polish community and an influx of newbies. The western part of Williamsburg has a Satmar Hasidic enclave and, north of it, the epicenter of gentrification. (There are Latino and Italian communities to the east.) Crown Heights has a Lubavitcher Hasidic enclave, as well as a West Indian community, as well as hipsters moving in. But do note these are very much partially "ethnic neighborhoods."
11) If we get a hotel (or room) in Brooklyn, it's easier to explore Brooklyn.
That depends. Some hotels are way off the beaten track. Others are deep in one corner of Brooklyn, and position you to visit one set of nearby neighborhoods, but not another cluster. Always check. Neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant are huge, and a place in those neighborhoods may be far from area attractions. Location matters for transit, safety, and amenities. Even learning--say, via AirBnB--that you'd be on a specific named street or avenue may be meaningless without a cross street.
12) A hotel's name is a reliable geographic signifier.
Actually, no. A hotel named "Prospect Park South" was not in the neighborhood Prospect Park South, nor was it directly south of Prospect Park. One "Brooklyn Downtown" hotel is a good ways from Downtown Brooklyn. The "Arena Hotel" isn't close enough to the Barclays Center to merit the moniker. That doesn't make such hotels unreasonable values, compared to alternatives, if you're comfortable using transit.
13) Neighborhood XYZ is "dangerous."
Brooklyn, especially the areas most visitors go, is generally safe, and has been getting safer. Avoid generalizations. That said, everyone has a different threshold. Perhaps Brooklyn's hottest, buzziest retail strip is Franklin Avenue in western Crown Heights. It's also had a couple of daytime shootings. That has stopped exactly nothing. Do check Spotcrime (and also recognize that many incidents happen in overnight hours, and among acquaintances). Use Google Street View.
14) We don't want to take the subway because it looked scary in the movie we saw or when we visited in the 1980s.
Most New Yorkers take the subway. It's usually the fastest, cheapest way to get around, and it's full of people. So the small but not unknown chance of problems--some fraction of people are crazy/angry/smelly, so avoid confrontations--is generally outweighed by expediency.
15) We can't use our MetroCard on the bus.
Sure you can. That opens up a whole new universe of travel.
Touring Brooklyn Blog
Observations and ephemera related to my tours and Brooklyn. Comments and questions are welcome--and moderated.