The floor-to-ceiling windows provided a panoramic view of Manhattan. But I was more interested in the foreground, below me — Brooklyn.
New concrete-and-glass apartment buildings hitched up against the water near East River and Bushwick Inlet Parks. A group of people — they looked young, but it was too far to be sure — stood talking and smoking beneath the red neon sign of the Kent Ale House. Rows of silvery and green trucks waiting to be filled from the rusted tanks of Bayside oil gave way to the brick warehouses of Williamsburg and then the row houses of Greenpoint.
We were staying in the Wythe Hotel in a room that was a perfectly distilled essence of what Brooklyn has come to represent: stylish yet relaxed, ironically embracing its industrial roots, with reclaimed wood ceilings, a minibar of indigenous boozes (Kings County bourbon, Van Brunt Due North Rum) and snacks (Mast Brothers Chocolate, Kings County Jerky), and one wall covered in Flavor Paper wallpaper, also locally sourced, as they say. I can’t usually identify wallpaper brands, but I knew this stuff, because my wife and I had wanted to use another design for our tiny vestibule before deciding that paying for college for our children was more important.
I’ve lived in Brooklyn for 44 years, but this was the first night I’d spent in a hotel there. I wanted to know: What does it feel like to be one of the thousands of tourists who now flock to my home borough?
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
When I was growing up, the only hotels in Brooklyn were those like the Plaza Hotel around the corner from us in Park Slope, with its hourly rates and cars double-parked outside; from the sidewalk you could see the plexiglass window over the front desk and the johns with their wallets open.
Making a reservation at the Wythe had been a different experience.
“We need you to sign a waiver saying you won’t have any other people in your room,” the young woman had said after I gave her my credit card number.
“The rooms are so nice that things can get crazy. We need to make sure you don’t have any parties.”
I agreed to this prerequisite.
Now we were looking at the view.
“I want to live here,” my daughter said.
A few weeks earlier we’d had Mother’s Day dinner at Frost, an old-school Italian restaurant, also in Williamsburg. The place was packed. It hadn’t changed much over the years beyond the fact that the crushed-red-velvet walls were painted yellow. The waiters were still unfailingly attentive in their red jackets; the seafood cooked perfectly, tasting of the sea but not fishy; the generous antipasti drenched in snappy vinaigrette. There wasn’t nearly as much male facial hair as we’d see at the Wythe — in fact, there wasn’t any — although there was a lady with a blond beehive so high it blocked out the sun or at least the view of sunset-tinted, vinyl-sided row houses outside the windows.
Making a reservation here had been straightforward.
“Can I reserve a table for four next Sunday at 6 p.m.?”
“OK. See you then.”
“Wait — do you want my name?”
“OK. See you then.”
“Wait — do you want my phone number?”
“Nah, guy. You’re good.”
The table was waiting.
The Wythe and Frost. Beard, beehive.
New Brooklyn, old Brooklyn. You couldn’t imagine two places with less in common. And yet — just like the modern apartment buildings, hip bar and decrepit old oil tanks outside our hotel-room window — they coexist happily, in some sort of weird urban balance.
Plenty of old places are gone, but many thrive. And the new places — the restaurants and bars, of course, but also the bowling alleys and music venues, specialty and clothing stores, art galleries, waterfront parks, movie theaters and hotels and even, astonishingly, record stores — have made Brooklyn a destination.
You can come here for a week and have a great time and never set foot on that island across the East River. The New Jersey Nets have become the Brooklyn Nets and now Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to hold the 2016 Democratic convention in the arena where they play. Brooklyn has become a popular girl’s name. Houses cost many millions. The place is so hot that some have declared it over. To someone who grew up here, this is all as unbelievable as the price of Flavor Paper.
Brooklyn has always been a place of contradictions: the johns and prostitutes leaving the Plaza Hotel were serenaded by the strains of opera from the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music next door. But those contradictions have never been more apparent than today.
Modern apartment buildings on one side of Flatbush Avenue stare down at scruffy check-cashing and uniform stores on the other. In Red Hook, working tugs share the waterfront with spectacular views and a museum on a floating barge. In Prospect Heights, you can have grits in the morning at Tom’s Restaurant, founded in 1936, and then cornmeal-dusted skate with baby bok choy and leek confit for dinner at James on Carlton Avenue. In Windsor Terrace, Sunday-afternoon drinkers holding plastic foam cups of Budweiser spill onto the sidewalk outside Farrell’s, while yammering 20-somethings pick from an impressive and rotating selection of craft beers at the Double Windsor across the avenue.
Of course, there are more than two Brooklyns, and it’s impossible to visit or name or know all of them — every neighborhood is distinct, every street, every block, even every stoop, its own world. But these worlds feel in sync now. I wonder how long it will last.
I am especially attuned to the dance between old and new in the neighborhoods where I’ve lived. We moved to St. Johns Place in Park Slope in 1970. I was hassled and mugged more times than I care to remember, the house broken into repeatedly, the car windows smashed.
But I always had a sense that I came from someplace special. My first girlfriend told me, “It’s better to be from Brooklyn than Manhattan because you are from New York but you can’t take anything for granted, you have to have an edge.”
The forces behind the changes of the last 44 years are, of course, complex. Many have lost out, been pushed out, as others have thrived; not everyone from Brooklyn has benefited from the new Brooklyn. But coming here on vacation allows you to marvel at what the place has become, even as the forces behind it linger beneath the surface.
Walking south on Seventh Avenue — checking out some of the prices in the windows of real estate offices for shock value — and then taking a left on 16th Street, brings you to the neighborhood where I live now, Windsor Terrace, and the corner where Farrell’s and the Double Windsor sit kitty-corner. The houses are newer and shorter here, letting in more sky, yet on drowsy and vacant summer days I’m reminded of the Slope in the ‘70s.
The main drag, Prospect Park West, with its rows of cast-iron street lamps, sits on a perfect tipping point of then and now. Next to Farrell’s, which opened in 1933, is one of the best pizzerias in Brooklyn, Enzo’s, with a crunchy grandma-style pizza that not only feeds a family of four but also silences it until every piece is gone. Next door is the United Meat Market, packed on Saturday mornings, with shelves and freezers that have been crowded with Italian specialty foods since it was expanded from a regular butcher in 1987.
Perhaps the most fully conceived Brooklyn dining confection is Maison Premiere, in Williamsburg. Emerge from the L train at Bedford Avenue, and you are confronted by packed cafes with patrons spilling onto the sidewalks, a young couple making out, a hat store, rows of parked bicycles. Walk a few blocks to Maison Premiere, pull open the double doors, and you are in the buzzing lobby of an imaginary hotel restaurant from 1920s New Orleans that specializes in absinthe and oysters.
We had the $95 tasting menu as rain streamed down the window panes. The 1920s New Orleans theme extends to the parts in the waiters’ slicked-backed haircuts and even their banter. (“Your drinks will be here presently.”)
Is there a restaurant where the theme is Brooklyn? To me, if you want to experience the most accurate culinary personification of the borough you need to venture to its very edge, to Sheepshead Bay, and Roll-N-Roaster.
What kind of food is this? Well, it’s roast beef sandwiches (twice dipped if you want the roll soaked in gravy), thin hamburgers with a rich char, and round French fries with razor-thin but crisp exteriors that stand up defiantly to the Cheez slathered over them. It’s a far cry from the sea scallop with apple and horseradish ice at Maison Premiere, and there are no cocktails, but a Budweiser works just fine. It’s all served beneath faux Spanish colonial hanging lamps and crisscrossing faux wooden beams providing faux support. Get your number, slide into your booth and watch the Saturday-night traffic inch by on Emmons Avenue.
If we wanted to hear music, to see the bands we listened to like Elvis Costello, the Specials, the Stray Cats or Madness, we had to venture far afield, to clubs like Danceteria or bigger venues like the Palladium in Manhattan or, once or twice, to Forest Hills Stadium in the distant and mysterious land of Queens.
You can hear rock ‘n' roll at Beast of Bourbon in Bedford-Stuyvesant, American folk at Jalopy in Carroll Gardens, Django-esque jazz at Barbès on Ninth Street in Park Slope.
When Elvis Costello celebrated his new album with the Roots, Wise Up Ghost, he came to do it at the Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg.
This month, my wife is taking my daughter and a friend to see Katy Perry at the Barclays Center, the professional sports arena and home to the Brooklyn Nets, which looks like a giant rusted flying saucer come to rest on Flatbush Avenue. Long fought and argued over, and still a sore point for many, it has become a venue to rival Madison Square Garden.
My daughter doesn’t care about that. She’s just happy the show is five minutes from home. But not nearly as happy as I am now that Elvis Costello comes to me.
Plenty lament the changes that have made parts of Brooklyn so expensive. Spike Lee, whose films have captured the beauty and contradictions of the place better than anyone’s, recently and entertainingly — and with some unbeatable logic — excoriated the self-described pioneers who moved to neighborhoods where lots of people already lived and how efficient municipal services seemed to arrive soon after. (Was he talking about my parents?)
I try not to focus on the fact that I could never afford the house in which I grew up and think instead how lucky I was to have lived there in the first place. After all, when Park Slope was built in the 1880s, it was intended for families who had even more money than those there today.
But I have a house near enough that I can always walk over to St. Johns Place, stroll beneath the sycamore trees and gaze up at the numbers that my father painted on the glass doors of our house 44 years ago. That’s free.
And I’m sure that Lee would agree that the growing and changing of Brooklyn has brought with it some benefits.
In 1989 or so, I was in a bar in Sunset Park with other members of the Zones, the band I played in during my high school years, and we got dirty looks because Jamal, the drummer, was black.
“We don’t like black fellas in here,” a regular whispered.
Maybe I’m Pollyannaish, but that seems less likely today. (Statistics on hate crimes are notoriously unreliable, but police department numbers do indeed show a decrease around Brooklyn, to 100 in 2011 from 146 in 2001.)
Windsor Terrace, for example, has become distinctly more diverse over the years. It’s plain to see in the Adirondack bar, the lines waiting at the United Meat Market, on the sidewalks and the stoops.
So the borough has become a Valhalla of bars and restaurants and parks and hotels where you can play shuffleboard, cheer a professional basketball team, buy taxidermy, pretend you are in New Orleans or Chiang Mai, enjoy the forgotten muscle memory of flipping through vinyl records, sip good coffee and frolic in parks.
But Brooklyn is still Brooklyn.
There have been more shootings in the 73rd Precinct in Brownsville than in any other precinct in New York this year. The New York Times published a series of articles in late 2013 that described the appalling poverty in a homeless shelter amid the brownstones and within shouting distance of an upscale wine shop in Fort Greene. A few years ago, a woman was shot and killed in a robbery at the dry cleaners at the top of my block. The Gowanus Canal requires a $500 million federal cleanup.
Like me, my son has been mugged. Like me, he rode around in the back of a police car looking for the guys who did it. Like me, he never found them. I tell him: “It’s better to be from Brooklyn than Manhattan because you are from New York, but you can’t take anything for granted, you have to have an edge.”