NYC: Neighborhoods

Friday, February 12, 2010

While in NYC, I visited many neighborhoods. Too many, actually. So, with that in mind, I’ve pared it down to 3 worth initially writing about. These 3, while they have just about nothing in common, stand for something much grander (IMO). Brooklyn, and in general NYC, is, as previously stated, a melting pot; a city of the people. The 3 following neighborhoods, Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy, and Sunset Park, are emblematic of 3 varieties of neighborhoods in the city: hipster, old-time black, and heavy immigrant, respectively. That said, look no further:

Williamsburg: Home to renovated warehouses, art galleries and quirky boutiques, and “slickers” donning tattoo-covered arms and asymmetrical haircuts, Williamsburg is the legendary hipster mecca. I spent some time there on my last day, and well…let’s just say it’s quite easily the most hipster place I’ve been to. They sure weren’t lying when giving it that designation.

Generally speaking, it reminded me of an enlarged, skuzzier and true-to-form version of Silverlake (strictly speaking of demographics). Better yet, a supersized Silverlake, with supersized attitudes and pretension to fit the part. That doesn’t apply to all parts of it, though; it’s a fairly big neighborhood. From ethnically Polish enclaves along the border with Greenpoint, where union members and butchers live in aluminum-clad rowhouses and frequent no-frills, dimly lit bars; to the cooler-than-cool hipster hangouts in converted warehouses and factory spaces in and around areas near the L-train; to the increasingly yuppified waterfront that is studded with high-rises, like a string of pearls; to the heavily Puerto Rican and Hasidic south of the JMZ trains. The part I visited, spanning from roughly McCarren Park, to perhaps 4th St, most certainly lived up to its name and reputation.

Even before actually setting foot in the nabe just riding the L train from Manhattan I noticed an extraordinary amount of “alternative,” and “indie” types; people who easily fit the so-called “hipster” profile. Unsurprisingly, that would pale to sheer number found above ground, in the nabe itself, but still..that says a lot (like, for instance, that it attracts like-minded folks from other parts of the city). Anyways, I decided to walk along Bedford Ave, where I saw roving packs of hipsters parade down the avenue. Tons of them, in typical hipster fashion and garb: in vintage leather jackets; ribbed cardigans; slim-fitting APC jeans; 1960s horn-rimmed sunglasses; and worn-looking low-cut boots. As for the ladies? Bundled up in smart trench coats; oversized tribal-looking scarves and leather tote bags; skin-tight leggings; and the mandatory American Apparel sweaters. Lookbook, the Satorialist, and various street style blogs all come to mind. Scores could be found in cafes and coffee shops, too: slowly nursing lattes while browsing Facebook on Macbooks, or toying around with iPhones. Indeed a hipster paradise that has no qualms or reservations about being open with its identity.

If anything, it seemed more like a paradise where 20-something year-old kids from the suburbs could masquerade as “artists,” all the while paying $2,000 to live in a “loft.” Living lives completely unimpeded by authority or responsibility, as many are on the bankroll of wealthy parents. Such behavior lends the area a temporary, transient feel, as people move there to revel and be a part of the “scene,” and live a sadly misconstrued idea of what is an urban lifestyle. Furthermore, these are the very people who cherish diversity, yet flinch when confronted by it; evidenced by the homogeneous circles they immerse themselves in. well, maybe they like diversity when it’s ironic or kitsch, or is convenient to their advantage. Pretentiousness and arrogant, condescending hipsters aside, the area does have its redeeming qualities.

For one, it is the throbbing heart of the “new” Brooklyn, meaning many of the new social venues, culinary offerings, and general hubbub heard of the borough, is from). Easy access to Manhattan via the L-train and Williamsburg’s namesake bridge, nice park spaces that offer great views of The City, and plenty of boutique shopping, too, are major pluses.

Interestingly enough, event in the heart of the Great Recession, the place is continually transforming. Everywhere you look there are signs of gentrification and redevelopment. And while much of is manifested in new condo projects (many of which are stalled sites), there is also the innumerable number of increasingly swank and innovative eating options that have sprouted up in the many side streets, and a rising number of yuppie-oriented social venues. The condos are a hoot, though: out of place 30-story Miami-style glass condominiums now cast shadows over largely low-rise area. Funny enough, the flashy apartments (poorly) attempt to cash in on and exploit its once-strong hipster credibility and cachet, aiming to lure mature types “tired of being old,” and who “want to be their inner selves again.” I guess you can call it grannyfication?

Williamsburg, the lost hipster utopia. The place where clean spaces offering coffee from 4 continents and parking spaces for dogs, mesh with unsanitized, graffitied storefronts and active industrial sites; where intrepid hipster colonialists rub elbows with moneyed Manhattanite trustfunders and power brokers. A strange place indeed; one of the many faces of New York, I guess.

Bed-Stuy: Firstly, this was by far my favorite of the neighborhoods I visited, and perhaps, the only one to truly live up to its name. Highly understated and somewhat underappreciated – something reflected in the rents and home prices I was enamored by the nabe and its great abundance of gorgeous brownstone houses, which were often in intact rows of 3 and 4 stories. I don’t know why, but I’ve totally fallen in love with this place. Brimming with awe-inducing architecture, it features a locally-renowned tight-knit, largely African-American community. What’s even better about it is despite the fact that its comfortably middle class, it’s close enough to the “hood” that it’s not at all insulated. All said, it is the largest black neighborhood in the country, bar none.

This is the fabled home of many hip-hop greats, and is a place revered extensively in their lore. Among some of the more famous to hail from the nabe: Notorious B.I.G, Jay-Z, Mos Def, Aaliyah and the Ol’ Dirty Bastard. In addition to having extensive representation in music, it was the setting for Spike Lee’s now classic “Do the Right Thing,” and Chris Rock’s television show “Everybody Hates Chris.” It wasn’t always safe or welcoming to an outsider (hell, it wasn’t even welcoming to locals) though; something manifested in its nickname: “Bed-Stuy Do or Die.” Indeed the neighborhood was the largest ghetto in the country, with over 50% of all households making less than $25,000/per year.

The locals, unsurprisingly, are majority black. But that’s not where it ends, though; many of the residents are what I’ve come to call “ethnic blacks.” A medley of blacks is what Bed-Stuy (and neighboring Crown Heights, too) really is. While there, I saw blacks from all walks of life, and not just African-Americans. American blacks were as common as those from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Haiti and Burkina Faso, Mali, and Senegal. This is, of course, visible in not only the Creole-tilted English heard spoken in many of the streets, but in Caribbean-run 99 Cent stores and takeout kitchens (known for their patties, jerk chicken and roti); primly-dressed homophobic Caribbean grandmothers congregating outside of storefront churches; and West African halal grocery markets shops that don French signage.

While many people decry the area for its lack of amenities, I seek solace in its tasteful architecture, of which is among the best NYC has to offer. A NYC architecture website described Bed-Stuy as having “[..] Masonry row housing of distinguished architectural quality and vigorous churches whose spires contribute to the area's frequently lacy skyline.” Yes, it’s really that good. The blocks seem to go on forever, stretching as far as the eye can see. Elegant and stately they are, I found Bed-Stuy’s architecture to be among the best in Brooklyn, third to only Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope. And though faded glory is the name, most of them retain original ornamentation and detailing, making them some of the better brownstones in the city (i.e., they aren’t “plain jane”). In addition to having some of the best brownstones, Bed-Stuy has the most; having the largest such collection of brownstones in NY.

As the “Harlem” of Brooklyn, it’ll be interesting to see how gentrification fares in a neighborhood (it’s already gentrifying in some areas; no NY nabe is immune from this). It had just started to take off before the economy put an abrupt end to it; NY MAG anointed it as the "next hipster destination." But, last I heard, people in Da Stuy didn’t take too kindly to the process, and some of the initial gentrifyers were getting mugged, randomly assaulted, or worse. Not entirely surprising, though. Chances are I’d be up in arms if people were out trying to make my nabe into the next Carrol Gardens or Fort Greene, too. With the economy purportedly picking, no doubt is this nabe likely to be on the front line of the 2010’s gentrification war. Its relatively modest home prices, good transit connections, and attractive housing stock are simply too good to pass up. If ghettos like Harlem and the LES like have succumbed to upscale-ization, I’d imagine anything is possible.

Sunset Park: Now this was a neighborhood that totally caught me off guard. It was like a slice of Boyle heights in Brooklyn! And what is most interesting about it, was that I was told to steer clear of it, for its generous Mexican and Chinese populations were too similar to LA. It’s fine, though, because I totally enjoyed the place.

Though, in all honesty, chances are that I enjoyed it more so for it reminded me of home. Much like how I felt Pilsen in Chicago, places with large Mexican populations easily remind me of LA, due to the sheer size of our Mexican population. When vast portions of your city are populated by Mexicans and characterized by Mexican-related businesses, it’s kind of hard not to feel at ease, or at the very least, not feel out of place, when seeing such elsewhere. 5th avenue was just crazy. An intense, narrow street jam-packed with not only tons of Mexicans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, but also the various knick-knacks that accompany their presence: the obligatory taquerias, panaderías, carnicerías, and lavanderías, in addition to unisex salons, photo studios, and travel agencies. Furthermore, the area has what I’ve come to consider as the best skyline view of Manhattan (from a park, that is).

The eponymous park is amazing. For one, the views; they are out of this world. At the center of it, perched on a steep hill are benches that afford splendid vistas of the downtown and midtown Manhattan skylines. Fanning out in every direction are tasteful rows of brownstones, with the park also serves as a border line of sorts, separating the Hispanic portion from that of the largely Chinese over further east, over the hill. The Chinatown, one of 3 in the city, is renowned for its sheer size and authentic character. The food, too, is pretty serious out there, with many of its devout fans saying it offers among the best food out of China.

The neighborhood, with its interesting mix of cultures and foods, relative affordability, and unpretentious/un-touristy nature scores well in my book. Many people wrote if off as boring or uninteresting but being completely honest, I felt the exact opposite. It struck me as a quintessential immigrant neighborhood, one emblematic of many in the city and borough. It is one of those places where its strength is in character and people, rather than appearance. There is definitely a lot to see and enjoy, but only if you open your eyes. Though, I’d imagine that applies anywhere you go.

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6 comments: to “ NYC: Neighborhoods so far...


    Devan, I have really enjoyed your NYC series. Few photographers focus on Brooklyn, and I am glad that you have done so. The three neighborhoods you chose could not be more different and really show the diversity in this city's architecture, population, and character. I have enjoyed your writing equally as much as your photographs and would sincerely suggest that you go into travel writing. Let me know if you return to NY, as I would be glad to give you a tour of my neighborhood!


    Hi -- I really enjoyed your photo blog of your visit to Brooklyn. My wife and I have lived in Bed-Stuy for about a year and a half, after having lived in Boerum Hill for a few years (and Queens for some years before that). Anyway, I'm glad you found the neighborhood charming! We don't get to Sunset Park as often as we should, but we go out for drinks and dinner in Williamsburg frequently. I'd like to compliment not only your photography, but your writing as well -- you really captured the essence of these neighborhoods.

    I've never been to LA, but some of your blog entries definitely make me want to visit... hopefully someday soon!


    I love your writing so much and your photos compliment the text perfectly. These neighborhoods sounds very interesting. I love the old warehouses. My favorite area in Portland has similar warehouses that have yet to be claimed and converted by trust fund hipsters trying to find a place for their artistic creativity to flourish.


    that picture with the kid in the yellow beanie w/ the iphone is pretty classic.


    Found your blog! ;) haha
    I LOVE your pictures!
    it would be fun if you send me the pictures from today :D

    /Michaela, your new swedish friend :)


    sunset park is my old home. 4121 7th ave, baby.