Preparing for a walking tour of Bay Ridge on, yes, September 11, I couldn't help take snapshots of numerous 9/11 memorial street co-namings, signs of the enormous loss:
I wondered if these were among the numerous public safety workers--some from Bay Ridge--who perished while responding to the disastrous attacks. (I did see, but didn't yet take a photo of, a street honoring Police Officer Moira Smith, the only female police officer to die in the response.)
Actually, these were civilians. Hindy, Sullivan, and Tepedino worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. Economos and Casey worked at Sandler O'Neill. Yasmin and Miah, a married couple, worked at Marsh & McLennan. They were Bangladeshi immigrants and Muslims.
Gotham Gazette explains that street co-namings have evolved, with some bestowed in sympathy for uniformed service people or civilians (including children) who died untimely deaths, and others honoring people with a long record of community service.
When, months ago, I scheduled my Long Island City walking tour for May 21 (via the Municipal Art Society), I thought the annual LIC Arts Open would be occurring the previous weekend, in the middle of the month.
Instead, it's a great synchronicity, and an opportunity to see a lot of good art. I encourage visitors to get to LIC early and see some studios before the 2 pm walking tour.
I especially recommend visiting the LIC Art Center on 23rd Street near 44th Avenue, which has a great concentration of studios and is not too far from the starting place for the tour.
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.
If you live in New York City, you can find an enormous array of food cooked by representatives of (and visitors to) countries from around the world. And for those of us who like to explore, there are varieties upon "national" cuisines: not just Thai, but northern Thai; not just Chinese, but northwestern Chinese.
Brooklyn is the heart of "Russian" New York, though that's a misleading shorthand. A significant population of "Russian" Brighton Beach is Ukrainian, while other Former Soviet Union populations about: Georgian, Tajik, Uzbek.
And while there are several places to get hearty, flavorful Uzbek food, I have visited all three of one of the more unusual hybrid restaurants, which serve Korean-Uzbek food. That reflects, as food writer Dave Cook explains, "the culinary history of ethnic Koreans who were forcibly relocated during the Stalin era from the Soviet Far East to Central Asia."
That unfortunate history is reflected more benignly today in menus that serve spicy Korean salads like kimchi (spelled differently in the menu below), along with more traditional Uzbek fare like kebabs and pilaf (aka plov).
Where do you get all this? Well, Elza Fancy Food is in Brighton Beach, while a tiny spinoff is in Bensonhurst. The newer Cafe Lily (menu below) is in Bensonhurst too. (I got a kick out of the fact that, during a recent Bensonhurst walking tour, a native of the neighborhood told me he was unfamiliar with the restaurants.)
There's not much ambiance (though diners seemed happy), and we could BYOB. We got a huge amount of food for a relatively small amount of money, and leftovers for the next day.
And, yes, a small group on a private tour of Bensonhurst or Coney Island/Brighton Beach can visit these places with me (or afterward). Heck, if you'd really like to visit after a different tour, I can just point you in the right direction.
As I was watching the recent Steven Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies, about a Brooklyn lawyer who defended Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and then negotiated an exchange for a captured American pilot in the midst of the Cold War, I noticed something: lawyer James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) and family lived in a house on a Brooklyn street quite familiar to me.
Indeed, as this Brooklyn Eagle article explains, they rented a gorgeous turn-of-the-century home in Ditmas Park, not all that far from where I once lived (in a modest apartment), and close to--or, potentially part of--the route for my (Not Just) Victorian Flatbush tour.
(The house is on E. 17th Street between Dorchester and Ditmas avenues, and sold for a mere $1.9 million in 2007.)
The Donovan family actually did not live in Ditmas Park/Flatbush during the time depicted in the film--though this neighborhood is understandably a favorite for filmmakers and TV producers because it offers grand houses, reasonable space for street parking, and a lower density of neighbors who might get annoyed.
According to Philip J. Bigger's biography Negotiator: The Life and Career of James B. Donovan, by 1957, five years before the exchange of prisoners, the Donovans had moved from a freestanding home in Bay Ridge, in southwest Brooklyn, "to a fifteen-room, bi-level apartment at 35 Prospect Park West... overlooking Prospect Park."
Wowza. As described on Streeteasy, "designed by the architect Emory Roth, 35 Prospect Park West is a white-glove co-op building with a full maintenance staff and private basement storage for each unit. The 1929 building is home to 74 units over 18 stories, comprised of single floor two bedrooms and spacious duplex four and five bedrooms."
It's located (map) between Montgomery Place and Garfield Place--and on the routes for my Brooklyn 101, Brooklyn 202, and Park Slope tours. In case you're wondering, a 9-room duplex there sold for more than $5 million in 2008. So it's an even more impressive piece of real estate than the one they used for filming. Also, I'm sure there would be way more hurdles for anyone attempting to film there.
The Brooklyn Eagle article, by the way, notes that the film was also shot in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights.
This article from Business Insider (via The Real Deal) is fascinating: it shows the most common languages in New York City beyond English and Spanish, in each Community District, which contain 200,000 to 300,000 people. Brooklyn has significant numbers of Chinese, French Creole, Yiddish, and Russian speakers.
Another map shows that Chinese, French Creole, and Yiddish actually outpace Spanish (the most common language other than English) in five Brooklyn Community Districts.
New York TImes financial advice columnist Ron Lieber, in his column yesterday surveying index-card summaries of financial advice, cited two index cards, including his own, that stressed the importance (as he put it) of Experiences>Stuff.
That dovetails with my own goals--I don't covet a fancy TV or nifty furniture, but I do seek to travel more. And it of course fits with my work as a tour guide, especially the kinds of tours I lead.
No, these are not "experiential tours" in which someone learns how to make a pizza or brew beer. But they are experiences that most people would not find on their own, which introduce them to layers of New York and Brooklyn and individual neighborhoods.
My Australian clients the other day, who said they always stay in Manhattan but hardly ever get to Brooklyn, wanted a look at Jewish Crown Heights, having heard so much about the Lubavitch Hasidic movement.
That turned into a longer visit to more of Crown Heights, and pieces of adjacent Prospect Heights and Park Slope, with the elements comprising an experience they appreciated but didn't even know they had wanted.
In preparing for my Williamsburg tour Sunday (via the Municipal Art Society), I noticed the spiffy, six-story loft building 573 Metropolitan, which StreetEasy (and the building web site) tells me is "Williamsburg’s newest luxury loft building!" One-bedroom units rent for more than $3,000.
I've spent enough time in Williamsburg to know there's a lot more to the story--and there is. As with more than a few luxury lofts, 573 Metropolitan Avenue housed humble manufacturing businesses, and for at least some of the time could have been called a sweatshop.
The first reference to that address I could find, in the 1914 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, identified the location as a factory. But that had to be a predecessor building, since StreetEasy dates the building to 1920, a time of the area's growth, just 17 years after the Williamsburg Bridge started pouring people into the neighborhood from the Lower East Side and four years before the subway (now the L train) opened up nearby at Lorimer Street. (The G train stop didn't come until 1937.)
Perusing the Daily Eagle, I saw a 1937 advertisement for canvassers to sell floor lamps, a 1940 business opportunity to buy a 5,000 square foot garment factory (one floor?), a 1948 ad seeking operators for ladies coats, and a 1950 ad seeking operators for Jo-Ann Sportswear.
In 1942, according to the Daily Eagle, the Metropolitan Cloak Company at that location was enjoined by the court for wage and hour violations. In 1957, labor racketeering charges were filed involving a bogus garment workers union and the Vogue Knitwear company, according to the New York Times.
As of 1982, the D&L Dress Co. still operated at 573 Metropolitan. Fast forward to 2001, where when a New York Post article explained how "18 members of the The Mexican Boys gang were arrested last night on weapons and unlawful-assembly charges after a raid in Brooklyn" at a laundromat at 573 Metropolitan Avenue. (Surely that's an adjacent structure, with the same address.)
Then came the "art center and studio/co-working space 3rd Ward," as described by Hyperallergic's Mostafa Hedday, which leased 573 Metropolitan in 2005, and saw it shut down on Oct. 15, 2010 for code violations, three years before 3rd Ward itself crashed and burned.
Free Williamsburg described the shutdown, quoting a former tenant and employee of 3rd Ward as describing it as a "converted sweatshop" that had not been properly and safely converted. (The then-owner of the building, who has sold it to an LLC he may--or may not--control, also came in for criticism.)
Last June, the Times announced an 18-month lease, at $24/square foot, for State Senator Martin M. Dilan "for 2,000 square feet on the lower level of this six-story building, which was gut renovated in 2011." And this area around the second L stop in Williamsburg is home to a new wave of development. The factory jobs? They've either moved deeper into industrial Brooklyn or, more likely, gone completely. For the current building's status, see 573Metropolitan.com.
I lead a number Dyker Heights holiday lights tour each season: a bus tour or two, one or two large group walking tours, and several smaller group tours, using a limo or public transit. For the first time, last night, a client booked me for Christmas Eve.
The three were a lot of fun, and open to seeing more: I told them that we could go there directly, but if they had the time/inclination, we should make a few stops and see more on the way.
So, after meeting in Manhattan, we went first to DUMBO, and walked around there and then Brooklyn Heights. We took the subway to Brooklyn's Chinatown in Sunset Park, which was buzzing, as expected. We had an astoundingly inexpensive quick dinner at the estimable Yun Nan Flavour Garden.
Then a quick bus ride to Borough Park, home to Brooklyn's largest Orthodox/Hasidic Jewish population, which bustled, unfazed by Christmas Eve. Then a short subway ride to the edge of Dyker, and a walk to the first set of highlights. Then a quick bus ride, and a stop at the fantastic, frenetic but still open Tasty Pastry.
Then we walked through the heart of the Dyker lights, and it was mobbed, even without the regular bus tour groups. I and others had wondered: would any of the lights be off on Christmas Eve? Answer: I noticed two houses with major installations that were off, but that detracted only very slightly from the overall experience.
Interestingly enough, a large number of the visitors were Chinese (likely Buddhist?) and Muslim (women in headscarves; families could be Middle Eastern or Bangladeshi). That makes sense; more traditional Christmas celebrants would be in church or at home.
But it just goes to show how the Dyker Lights are a very ecumenical attraction. (OK, no Orthodox Jews in attendance.)
We caught a quick bus to Bay Ridge and took the subway back north. A very well-spent five hours!
For the record: four subway trips (plus two internal transfers), three bus rides, and some very good transit karma, with short waits for nearly all. But only four total fares, given free transfers.
They're real, and they're spectacular. Above is a gif, below, a still photo.
For more, see my Dyker Heights tour page.
I shot both these videos tonight, which means, yes, the holiday season is in full swing. Even if not all the lights and displays are up--I estimate it at 60-75% of full strength--it's still a great visit, especially given the absence of crowds.
Yes, we stop outside the above house on pretty much all my Dyker Heights tours.
As to the house below, well, we'll stop by on some tours.
I recently saw the touching film Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley, based on the novel by Colm Toibin.
Yes, it's primarily a portrait of the challenges a young woman from Ireland faced in truly leaving home and family, and finding her path in New York City, not without some twists and complications.
(And see Richard Brody's critical review, in which he observes, "But if Brooklyn greenwashes Ireland, it utterly sanitizes Brooklyn.")
But what was astounding, for contemporary observers of the borough, is that the boardinghouse that young Eilis Lacey lived in was a brownstone on Clinton Street. (Google Books tells me no address is listed, and Clinton Street is mentioned exactly twice.)
Clinton Street today runs from Carroll Gardens through Cobble Hill, then across Atlantic Avenue into Brooklyn Heights. Presumably Eilis and her beau Tony were walking around the part that today is called Carroll Gardens but back then was just undifferentiated "South Brooklyn," before new residents and the real estate industry pushed for new names.
Back then, it was a working-class zone. Today, those brownstones are very, very precious.
By the way, according to a Crowley interview with Deadline Hollywood, they shot for exactly one day in the brownstone district and one day in Coney Island, with the rest of the shoot in Montreal to save money!
Here's another relevant Crowley quote, from Brooklyn magazine: "Modern-day Brooklyn is so different from 50s Brooklyn that the art department budget would be astronomical."
It's a crude shorthand, I know, for the complicated phenomenon of gentrification that involves people's homes and businesses and lives, an issue that comes up in most of my tours.
But... the three clearest signs of retail gentrification, I like to say, involve expensive coffee (well beyond Starbucks), yoga/Pilates, and dog grooming/doggy day care. And it just so happens the field of dog-related services lends itself to puns (as does the human hair salon business, I'm reminded).
Below are (and the list will grow) some notable examples:
Please note: I have nothing against these establishments! But they do provoke chuckles.
Touring Brooklyn Blog
Observations and ephemera related to my tours and Brooklyn. Comments and questions are welcome--and moderated.