Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Recently, with sub-$200 roundtrip tickets, and plenty of unfinished business, I saw no problem in making a quick NYC trip. However, this one was not so much NYC as whole, as much as it was Brooklyn. I enjoy Brooklyn’s human-scaled, cozy-feeling, intimate brownstone nabes; by contrast, Manhattan is too difficult for me to get a grasp of. There is just too much going on for you to take in anything. And, as far as photography goes, the building size/street width ratio makes it difficult to photo architecture, and the sheer amount of people mean that when shooting a street portrait, chances are that somebody will walk into your frame. I remain a big fan of both, though; even as Manhattan continues its march towards being a soulless, generic place, only for tourists, the very rich, and the very poor. One full of Chase banks, Duane Reades, and Starbucks (170, and counting!), to be sure.
I stayed in Bushwick (again), but this time in a different part, and with a friend. Previously, I stayed in the loft/warehouse-y neighborhood surrounding the Morgan L stop, and that was fine, if out of the way and reliant on the L train. That, and full of stuck-up, pretentious hipsters from Flyover Country, and with little to do in the surrounding area. This time I stayed with my friend, Alec, in a stuccoed rowhouse on a quiet sidestreet on the Bushwick-Bed-Stuy border, equidistant from the Myrtle/Broadway J/M/Z, and Kosciusko J stops.
For being full of vinyl-clad rowhouses, and with dire few restaurants (aside from the ubiquitous Dominican-owned bodegas, or “Chinese and American” restaurants, of course) and things to do, it did have quick, easy subway access, and a pleasant, low-key profile. Trips to Manhattan, or restaurant-laden Williamsburg could be had in 10-15 minutes. Sadly, NYC’s Manhattan-centric transit system meant that you could be in geographically further Manhattan in far less time than it would take to reach geographically closer Brooklyn nabes, such as Clinton Hill or Fort Greene.
The nabe was also more of a traditional one, especially compared to the Morgantown area, whose sparse population mainly resided in a few, sometimes illegal loft conversions. The Puerto Rican/Dominican majority lived in the said tightly-packed rowhouses, and in apartments fronting the elevated train tracks. There was also a sprinkling of young whites – ones who couldn’t afford other, close-by areas – moving into the area, but not a lot, numerically-speaking. That leads me to my next point: it is crazy just how fast things change in NYC. Ten years ago, the idea of young, trendy – and more importantly, white – kids living in then-dangerous Bushwick and Bed-Stuy would have been laughable. The culinary highlight (and morning go-to spot) was Athom Café, a French-owned bakery specializing in croissants and crepes. The almond croissant and tart, fresh-squeezed orange juice were both winners, and are much missed.
For the majority of my stay, I was out – camera in hand – exploring neighborhoods (and their places to eat!), often times with Alec, since he is also a photographer and food connoisseur. I arrived with a few places on my agenda, and although they all differed, they centered on a unified theme of relatively unexposed neighborhoods; places seldom heard about or known outside of the city. Contemporary architecture was another draw; not so much the bigger stuff, but the smaller-scaled projects finding their way into everyday neighborhoods.
I did plenty of exploring in my home base of Bushwick, as well as the adjacent central Brooklyn nabes of Stuyvesant Heights and Crown Heights. Another day I did a walk from Prospect Heights to Red Hook. (While on the topic of Red Hook: does anybody else get a strong, blue-collar, maritime-influenced vibe from it, sort of like Season Two of The Wire?) Oh, and I visited coffee shops. I find them (and outdoor public spaces, such as parks) and cafés to be great portals into local culture and lifestyle. Baked in Red Hook had wonderful, thick wooden tables and sweet and salty brownies, while Bread Stuy in Bed-Stuy won me over for its welcoming ambience. They are the town squares of the 21st century; places where seamless, casual interaction take place.
Stuyvesant Heights was especially memorable, with its intact rows of Romanesque townhomes, some as tall as four stories, and still rough-around-the-edges demeanor that I find attractive. For being in a notorious neighborhood (Bed-Stuy), the homes were remarkably well taken care of. One street in particular, Macdonough St., surely rivaled the best Brooklyn (Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope) has to offer. And I cannot forget Bread Stuy, a cute neighborhood space with delicious banana bread and white hot chocolate. What stood out about Stuyvesant Heights was that most of its gentrification appeared to be led by black professionals, many of whom had grown up in similar nabes, making them more tolerant or accepting of the area’s drawbacks and culture. However, the areas just to the north, east, and south of it (basically, it is an enclave), are somewhat rough, and leave a lot to be desired, particularly the areas directly east of Utica/south of Atlantic.
Neighboring Crown Heights was another crowd pleaser, full of its adorable limestone rowhouses, complete with rounded turrets and Victorian detailing. Although Crown Heights’ housing stock, as a whole, was not nearly as polished as other parts of Brooklyn, the sheer variety and variation made it stand out. In Crown Heights’ favor, are spectacular streets, such as Dean, Pacific, and St.Mark’s, all of which were once-highly desired, ritzy addresses and locales. Crown Heights’ split Afro-Caribbean and ultra-orthodox Jewish culture, best known for producing a 1991 riot, was quite evident upon crossing the European-esque Eastern Parkway. The change is drastic and sharp, with there appearing to be little to no intermixing between the two groups, and the respective areas being night and day apart. With the crossing of a street, the nabe goes from liquor stores and Calypso-playing roti carryout joints to, literally, the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish movement, along with the phalanx of worshippers and businesses in its orbit.
I also visited the city’s northernmost borough, The Bronx, a place made famous in urban lore. In particular, I saw the Grand Concourse and near-by Highbridge nabe to photograph Art-Deco architecture, The Grand Concourse, Bronx’s answer to Paris’ Champs-Élysées, was amazing. A parade of Art-Deco and Streamline-Moderne apartments, all with eccentric building lobbies and spacious interiors, they are largely untouched from the hands of questionable modernization schemes (to make no mention of gentrification). Given the Bronx’s reputation as a hotbed of urban decay and crime, the relative safety and security surprised me.
Yes, NYC is now the safest big city in the country, a far cry from when it was our most dangerous, but the extent in which the lack of sketchiness or questionable characters I encountered when shooting in some of the city’s more ‘hood areas, has always impressed me. Aside from the housing project areas (those are always magnets for troublemakers, the West Bronx was just another working-class immigrant neighborhood, not unlike many others in the city. Another surprise was just how Dominican it is nowadays – at this point, it is an extension of Manhattan’s heavily-Dominican Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods, even down to the monotonous blocks of six-story apartment blocks.
Following this trip, I have officially arrived at the conclusion that, out of the American cities I have visited, NYC (more specifically, Brooklyn), is the one I would most like to live in. Theoretically, I could “live” in other cities, but NYC would be the one I would go out of my way to do so. Particularly, when it comes to Eastern Seaboard cities, where brutal winters lead to the question of whether or not the city offers enough amenities to make it worthwhile. There is something I like about being in vast, chaotic, unpredictable cities that go on forever; places where you will never get bored. NYC has all of the things I enjoy about LA – diverse architecture styles; rich racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomically diversity; strong international connections and ties; and a location at the forefront of new trends and styles – but in a smaller, more compact urban package. It is difficult to harness and take full advantage of these things in LA, given the city’s low density, sprawling nature; both with, and without a car.
Lastly, while I am no fan of the freezing cold, I do like the creative (clothing) layering it allows. Everywhere I went, people had on all kinds of cool jackets – field, leather, denim, or otherwise – and scarves – from the pashmina, to the plaid, to the knitted cables – each with their own unique flair. Quite a change from LA, where “winter” means American Apparel sweaters in place of (or on top of) of American Apparel t-shirts. But as much as I love all of that, there is something wrong about wearing four layers (undershirt, long-sleeve shirt, sweater, coat), plus a scarf and gloves, and *still* feeling cold. Constantly having to take off scarves, gloves, and coats when indoors (and, outdoors, for your gloves, assuming you wish to use your phone) was another drag. All of that said, I will admit, it feels good writing this from comfortable, hassle-free 70 degree weather!