Monday, December 29, 2008

Local blogger at a citywide paper

I was recently informed that reciprocity in the world of blogging is encouraged, particularly when a blogger mentions your work, so here's an incredibly overdue return-shout out to New York Observer reporter Dana Rubinstein, who was kind enough to give this nascent project a mention in its infancy. Ms. Rubinstein's own work is in real estate, which only occasionally turns her pen to Crown Heights, but as a resident she finds the time to cover the neighborhood in occasional posts on the Observer's blog.

In totally unrelated news, here's a solid jerk chicken recipe, if you ever want to approximate the delicious odors of Franklin Avenue in your kitchen. I've tried it on veggies and it works great with them too.

Correction (as of January 2nd): Ms. Rubinstein's name has an "i" and not an "e" in it. Whoops.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The spice is most certainly right

If you ever walk down the block of Franklin between Lincoln and St. John's, you already know about the incredible olfactory experience that awaits every time you pass the kettle-drum grills that belong to The Spice is Right Jamaican restaurant. The scent of the jerk chicken roasting slowly in steel bellies of these beasts deserves its own post: on a good day, with the right wind, you can smell it in the 2-3-4-5 station before you even get off the platform. These guys are committed, too--when I was trudging through the snow last weekend, they were still out tending the creation, snow melting on the grill and all.

So is the spice right? I finally went in and ordered "whatever smells so good on that grill" (jerk chicken), which can be bought in small and large sizes for 5 and 8 dollars, respectively (add a buck to each for the "meal", which comes with the sides that sit under the glass as you order, and a bed of rice for the chicken). If that seems steep, you can also have a pair of jerk wings for $1.50 to get a feel for the taste. Most everyone I was in line with waited awhile for their food, but it was worth the wait. The chicken was falling off the bone, and incredibly flavorful. Worthy of note as well is that this chicken, chargrilled as it is, is actually quite a healthy option when compared to the fried chicken available elsewhere on the avenue.

To sum it up: the spice is right. Don't drop in for a quick cheap bite, but go by when you have some time and want a great, hearty, tasty meal.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Update: Get your samosas here

Just a quick note before bed: I found out that Bombay Masala, the Indian place on Franklin just north of Prospect, has a website where you can find their menu and phone number (free delivery, but you miss out on the Bollywood movies they always have running on the flatscreen at the back of the shop).

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The maker of the modern American urban landscape

Not the power broker or the boss--they only ruled their own fiefdoms.

Not the various presidents and senators who passed through Washington in the last century.

The man I sing of in the wee hours of Christmas morning is the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed a mind-boggling number of parks, towns, greenways, university campuses, and other odds and ends in his half-century as the country's pre-eminent creator of green space. Olmsted's influence was so pervasive and his work so well-received that it generated minimal controversy in its day, and certainly hasn't been the object of criticism on a grand scale since. As a result, his impact on the daily lives of millions of people is almost overlooked (25 million people visit Central Park alone every year) because it's so readily accepted. Still, take a look at the map linked above, or this list from wikipedia, and let it sink in: one person is responsible for the way all of these places look and feel.

Brooklyn is no exception: Prospect Park and Fort Greene Park are both the work of Olmsted and his longtime partner Calvert Vaux. A rumor persists that Prospect Park was Olmsted's favorite work, and though I couldn't verify it with extensive googling, I'm happy to perpetuate it (my scanty findings did reveal that Prospect graces the home page of the National Association for Olmsted Parks--they wouldn't put it front and center if it wasn't his favorite, right?). According to the Parks Department, Prospect hosts 8 million visitors annually.

There's far too much to say about Olmsted to make a single post about the man much more than a salutation to his accomplishments. I'm leaving out his fascinating egalitarian social thinking as well as a number of his other accomplishments, including co-founding The Nation. I suppose that's for another day, or for an Olmsted biographer. Suffice to say that he was a bringer of joy, relaxation, and recreation to millions in his day and every year that's followed. As long as his parks are around to enjoy (as they were for the hundreds I saw with sleds and skis in Prospect after the snow on my Saturday run), he'll keep on giving those gifts, as immortal as Santa Claus himself.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Watch out for flying manhole covers

For anyone who was alarmed by the swath of yellow "police line" tape that wrapped the northeast corner of Sterling and Franklin this afternoon (it was later reduced to a small segment of the street, shown above), you can rest assured no crime was committed. Rather, Con Ed was dealing with a manhole fire, a surprisingly dangerous and potentially destructive occurrence that is relatively commonplace in New York City. Often the product of drainage issues after snow and ice storms, the blazes are caused by the decay of wiring and wire casings, which can catch fire. The real danger is that the fires release gases which themselves can ignite in the presence of the electricity (the first link above describes the phenomenon as similar to a bolt of lightening), causing explosions that can launch manhole covers and flames fifty feet in the air, scaring the beejeezus out of residents and occasionally proving fatal.

In the case at Franklin, the Con Ed folks got there quickly enough to begin diffusing the situation, so explosions were unlikely (their red truck is in the background of the first photo). Still, if you ever see a whole lot of smoke and steam that doesn't just smell like steam pouring out of a manhole, don't stand to close to it.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Signs (flyers, really) of the times

I saw this in East New York. It made me smile, and reminded me how great it was to be in Brooklyn on November 4, 2008. I hope the Brooklynites off to DC don't get stuck in the monumental traffic jam that's expected.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A great Friday in Crown Heights

I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed this Friday's snowstorm, and baffled my co-workers by sauntering out into it for a lunch break. The photos are just for fun, taken as I walked along Sterling from Classon to Franklin. I grabbed lunch from two of my favorite places on the Avenue: a spinach slice from A Slice of Brooklyn (trust me, you will not have a fresher spinach slice anywhere in the city) and a beef patty from 3D's Restaurant and Bakery. I ate both tromping merrily through the fast-falling snow, which had the unexpected effect of cooling my slice to eating temperature faster than usual.

For dinner, my lady and I ordered the vegetarian dinner for two from Bombay Masala, the Indian joint across from A Slice of Brooklyn. It was $30 dollars, but worth every penny: the take-out bag felt like it weighed 15 pounds, and inside were two soups, two appetizers, two huge containers of fresh, buttery rice, two entrees, a big naan bread, and two desserts, all of which were fantastic. I'm not alone in loving this place: they've got enough of a following that Marty Markowitz declared November 3, 2007 "Bombay Masala Celebration Day" via a proclamation of the Borough of Brooklyn. I get the impression these guys do a pretty good business (they deliver for free), but if you haven't ventured inside, do.

Friday, December 19, 2008

There are a lot of interesting people in Brooklyn . . .

. . . and two of them gave me great links that I want to showcase. The first was prompted by yesterday's post: the Brooklyn Historical Society, and specifically its online image collections. While these didn't yield photos of the old brewery at 1042 Dean Street in action or the Mt. Prospect Reservoir (I finally found an image of the latter here, at the New York Public Library Digital Archive), they did connect me to this fantastic page of old Prospect Park photos. The rest of the site is worth poking around, too.

The second link (posted in a comment ages ago) is this fascinating site that documents the replication of 770 Eastern Parkway at 12 different sites on 5 continents by Lubavitch Jews. The images are renderings, not photos, but that does little to detract from their authenticity. The host site is the work of NYC artists Andrea Robbins and Max Becher.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Beer and Candy in Brooklyn

The old brewery at 1042 Dean Street remains a constant point of fascination for me. Googling hasn't turned up any old photos of the brewery during its heyday, so I think I'll have to head for the public library, but it must have been quite an operation, given the size of the place. I also want to write an open letter to Matt Roff (of Franklin Park and Southpaw) begging him or someone of his ilk to turn the original buildings (above, with the grey siding) into a big cozy brewpub. You could use the grungy single-story brick building to the right for storage or a music space, and the big old tank on top could serve as an awesome landmark sign. I'm sure that's just the venture people are looking for in this market.

I found a few good histories of Brooklyn Brewing online, including this one from the Brooklyn Historical Society and this review of their exhibit, the latter of which cites both German immigration to Brooklyn and the quality of Long Island water as factors in the brewing boom in 19th century Brooklyn (12 blocks of Bushwick once sported 58 breweries!). This is particularly interesting given that a lot of sources cite the lack of access to decent drinking water as a major reason that Brooklyn voted for the consolidation of 1898. Consolidation, and access to New York's upstate water sources, led to the filling-in of the reservoir that once sat atop Mt. Prospect above the Brooklyn library (visible on this historical map of Prospect Park).

A number of factors killed brewing in Brooklyn, chief among them prohibition, but this opened the door for another boom: Brooklyn candy. Cited as a substitute good for beer by contemporary sources, and also something a brewery could be refitted to produce, candy production was big in Brooklyn in the first half of the 20th century. The Domino Sugar refinery in Williamsburg (keeping its iconic sign as it transitions to condos) was a plus, too.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Massive convent in Bed-Stuy/Clinton Hill to close

I passed this huge complex on the B48 bus this morning and almost dove off to grab a photo. There's a big NYT article on the place here and it turns out it's closing. It includes a nice bit of history about the Clinton Hill neighborhood (Irish before it was Hasidic before it was African-American before it was Latino), and also issues a warning: the building is not a landmark (and if the owners are closing it, they likely won't landmark it first, since the goal is to not lose money and potential developers would rather they didn't). So check it out while you still can (there's a slide show in the article), and if you happen to be a conservation-minded real estate developer, think of some potential uses for the place, because it will probably sit empty awhile in this market.

The lady in the sunglasses dancing on the NE corner of Franklin and Eastern . . .

Who are you? Your dancing mesmerized me and three companions from afar. What were you listening to? And would you like a stage? I would happily build you a stage out of pieces of old furniture to stand on while you dance.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Hard Dough

Another shameless local plug that justifies the "I love Franklin Ave" tag, coming right up. I've been making at least a weekly pilgrimage to 3D's Bakery and Restaurant on Sterling and Franklin and I'm always glad when I go. Their patties are positively scrumptious, with flaky crusts and fresh, tasty fillings (for the vegan/vegetarian crowd out there, their veggie patty is head and shoulders above any others I've had). Patties often get maligned as cruddy fast food (amongst the new-to-the-neighborhood-earthy-crunchy crowd that I run with, anyway), but these are anything but. Plus, for a buck fifty, they're a perfect pre- or post-drinking snack (conveniently located on the way to Franklin Park for me).

It's not just the patties that draw me to 3D's, though--I've become a devotee of hard dough bread. The 3D's loaves (pictured above), are perfect for sandwiches, and as I found out on Thanksgiving, they make for the best damn stuffing I've ever had. The bread is "hard" because the dough is chewy and moist, almost like a very dense sourdough, but slightly sweet, in a yeasty, bready, absolutely-awesome-when-warm-with-jam kind of way. It also hangs together and doesn't get soggy, even laden with sandwich goods and condiments and rattling around in a backpack. The link above has a basic description and a recipe, if you're into bread making.

As a final note, the service is some of the friendliest on Franklin, and they're an institution--I found out today when I picked up my weekly loaf that they've been in business for 29 years and counting.

Danny Hoch's run at Public Theater extended

I rambled at great length about a Brooklyn Rail interview with Hoch awhile back, but suffice to say that his one-man show about gentrification in Williamsburg has been a hit, both here and during its earlier run at the Berkely Repertory Theater. The Public Theater recently extended the show's run until December 21st, meaning lazy folk like me can potentially see it after they finish work for the winter holidays. Given the place Crown Heights occupies on the fault lines of gentrification, I'm really going to try to see this play, and I'm hoping to drag some fellow Franklin Ave-rs along to pick their brains about it afterwards.

Hoch's website is here.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

What makes a landmark?

First, an announcement: The Crow Hill Community Association will be hosting its monthly meeting this Tuesday, December 16th, at 7:30 PM. The meeting is taking place at the Haitian-American Day Care Center at 1491 Bedford, and the CHCA ask attendees to bring a non-perishable food item for their holiday drive. The CHCA serves a large chunk of North Crown Heights, including the stretch of Franklin between Eastern and Atlantic that inspired the goofy title of this blog.

On tap at the meeting: landmarking Crow Hill. The CHCA is leading the initiative, and the preceding link takes you to the pages you need in order to get involved (everything from informational stuff to requesting an evaluation for your home--you need not own it--or place of business). There's also a link to a news report on the home page about it.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission, recently the subject of a critical op-ed in the NYTimes, is permanently linked in the minds of most New Yorkers to the destruction of Penn Station. However, it was first used to protect a neighborhood (as opposed to a specific building) on our side of the East River, when the residents of Brooklyn Heights successfly outmanuevered Robert Moses to protect their nabe from being eviscerated by the BQE. The resulting promenade is one of the best examples of modern need meeting preservation halfway and making almost everyone happy.

As to the general question of landmarking, there is a legitimate reason to question the opaque process that currently decides which streets win brown signs. Building a better mousetrap, however, is harder. Should the council decide? Maybe that'd be just as behind-the-scenes and corrupt, if more familiar. Should neighborhood residents hold plebicites? But who would vote and how would boundaries be decided? Is every neighborhood and every building a potential landmark, and if so, is it fair to defend only some? Where does development fit in? I'm going to run this one by everyone I know for the next week or so and see what I come up with.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Not Dead Yet: Work continues on Eastern and Franklin

I (and just about everyone else in the neighborhood) pass the dreary plywood at Franklin and Eastern almost every day, at all hours, and until yesterday I was convinced the whole project had fallen victim to the real estate bubble exploding (and the subsequent economic collapse that's been gathering steam for the past two years). This struck me as particularly tragic, given that Franklin and Eastern is one of the most trafficked corners anywhere in Crown Heights, and it would be a shame to have it sitting both unsightly and unproductive. However, I spotted this heavy machinery crew at work on Tuesday morning, so I guess the project (an 8-story, 62 unit mixed-use development) still has legs.

There's a NY Sun article about the neighborhood with a good bit about the building plan here, and the various chatter (some over a year old) on the Crown Heights forum here.

In general, half-finished condos are a potential concern for a neighborhood in transition like the Franklin Avenue section of Crown Heights. You see a lot of these projects in various stages of completion, mostly looming shadows cast from the side streets. A few (like the one with the blue wall facing Franklin on Park) seem to be plugging along, but there are others that look almost completely idle. If the market keeps falling out from under stock like this, they'll go empty even if they ever do get finished, and buildings that sit unmaintained become condemned quicker than anyone would like (to say nothing of the wreckage that half-done sites rapidly become).

Maybe Obama will use some federal money to finish them all and turn them into rent-controlled mixed-income housing. While I'm at it, maybe the Big Three will announce windfall profits this quarter.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Franklin Ave on TV!

Check it out on the CHCA website. An interesting piece about landmarking the neighborhood and also the history of the name "Crow Hill."

Pitkin and Euclid: A message everyone can get behind

More from the positive graffiti files: This deli out at the end of the C line in East New York probably let someone paint this, and I'm glad for it. I've been criticized for overdecorating (I was one of those kids who covered every inch of his room in posters and stickers from various bands at age 14), but wouldn't you rather see something like this than another nondescript brick wall?

As an addendum to the earlier photos of the "LAB" tags: if you want to get rid of the more typical tags and graffiti, follow this link to the city's page for free removal.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Good news, bad photo

Excuse the shoddy photography, but I felt compelled to document the new sign atop the old laundromat at Park and Franklin, which replaced the one that declared a new laundromat was coming soon. I, for one, will be there all the dang time, though I'll miss the cozy spot up the street a few blocks. However, as crowded as that place was on a Sunday afternoon, I think these guys have gauged demand correctly.

Between, this place, Nairobi's Knapsack (the new kid store/play place--see a rave review here), and the Lily and Fig (if it ever opens), the Franklin Ave retail boom continues. New establishments are also moving further down the avenue, which encourages me in my quest to keep the great new pizza place, A Slice of Brooklyn, up and running. Update on them: they now serve awesome chocolate chip cookies: two big ones for a buck, and they heat them in the pizza oven for a minute to make them soft and make the chocolate gooey. Delicious, I swear to you.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Improving "zero tolerance": Block Clubs

New York City got a whole lot of press in the 1990s for putting into practice something known as "zero tolerance" policing. Giuliani and Bill Bratton, the police chief Giuliani lauded and then forced out when he began to garner more press than the big dog, used a combination of increased police presence and Wilson and Kelling's "broken windows theory" to begin a full-on assault on the petty street crimes typically committed by the poor and indigent. Manhattanites in particular loved it (it's well nigh impossible to find many poor or homeless above ground below the park Manhattan these days), and it was widely celebrated as part of the successful "cleaning up" of New York City in the decade preceeding ours.

The theory and practice of zero tolerance are not without their critics, however. There are too many different counter-theories to cite without being tedious, but suffice to say that blanket prosecution of "quality of life offenses" (public urination, public alcohol consumption, graffiti, etc.) doesn't always please local communities, particularly when these communities exist in the liminal zone between respectability and anomie. Nobody really wants to see someone pissing in their street (there was a brouhaha about this in Boerum Hill in the spring), but at the same time, no one wants their elderly uncle who's always been a bit off to get slapped with a summons for doing what he's done down the alley for 30 years. Therein lies the potential problem with "zero-tolerance"--unless it's communnity-defined, enforcement of what a community can, does, or should "tolerate" by the police will eventually turn a community against the police. If you're trying to solve a murder or crack a drug ring, a community that resents and mistrusts your police force is not a positive thing.

So how can you marry the logic of "law and order" to community-based activism? Enter the block club. These little local orgs are simple, easily maintained, and wonderfully effective (again, too many studies to name--just google "block clubs crime prevention" or something to that effect, and you'll see what I mean), and what's more, they let residents, rather than officers, take the first steps in crime prevention. These clubs are often announced by signs that forbid some basic (and illegal) nuisances--no loud music after 10pm, no drug dealing, no drinking in public, no threatening behavior--and make good on the most common block club statement of all: "we call police." By doing so, they turn the zero-tolerance hatchet in to a scalpel, because locals know the difference between the youths hanging out who just like the shade of the corner tree and the drug dealers who use it for shady dealings, or the difference between the old guys enjoying a beer in their lawn chairs and the nasty drunk who fuels his absusive ranting with a publicly-consumed tall boy of Bud. And when the police show up, they can say with authority "we were called--someone in this neighborhood wants you to cut it out." That resonates a lot better than "we're trying out a new initiative" and builds a little local solidarity in the bargain. When everyone is a potential enforcer (and block clubs work closely with the local precincts), power is localized and accountable, not top-down and dictatorial.

The Woodbine Street Block Association in Bushwick provided a fabulous example of a block club in action: they've got a community garden (for a rant on how community gardens are amazing, click here), street decorations (my favorite use of recycled tires), and a great series of signs. I don't have the time or chops to run the numbers, but I'll be these residents enjoy a lower crime rate than the rest of Bushwick, too.

A final word of caution after a glowing review: the very thing that keeps block clubs working is community stability, which is a necessity but a two-edged sword. There have been times in recent history when "community organizations" stoned the hell out of non-white folks trying to move into working class neighborhoods, often with police compliance. The hope, of course, is that block clubs are welcoming to all as long as all meet the minimum standards of whatever social contract is in place.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Press here for help

These Norelco Emergency Response boxes aren't nearly as prominent as they used to be (in the 1980s, there were over 1,900 in the city), but where they remain, they still work. Cell phones have rendered them somewhat obsolete, though you still see them around, presumably where they haven't been vandalized beyond repair or removed for new construction. I saw this one along Sutter Ave in East New York, and it struck me because it's older than most (the link above takes you to another blogger's image of a newer one).

I couldn't find any statistics on how much use they get, but they probably also serve a purpose as deterrents to crime.

In separate news, the First Saturdays afterparty at Franklin Park rocked. They're now offering a trivia night on Mondays, too, if you've sufficiently recovered from Saturday.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Sky Watch returns to Crown Heights (and Prospect Heights)

Residents can't miss it: the NYPD's "Mobile Surveillance Unit" or "Sky Watch" has returned to Franklin Ave (between Eastern and Union) after a stint on St. John's and Franklin in October. As of this morning, there was another one of these two-story towers o' police presence at Washington and Park. Why? The police stationed at the towers were generally polite but vague: the towers are there to help them police the area. Great.

In the past, police have told reporters that the sky watch towers are placed in response to spikes in crime, and while the technology is fairly new to the force, they've reported crime reductions in the areas that they've deployed it, including further east in Crown Heights. This makes sense: a big police tower keeps me from doing anything illegal within sight of it, and sufficiently resembles the evil beast machines from the Empire Strikes Back (I have been informed that they are called "AT-ATs" by those in the know) to strike a bit of good old fashioned fear in my heart. Still, I can't imagine they're that useful beyond immediate visual and psychological deterrence (not that this isn't a valuable use): they can't see over buildings or hills, and they're too obvious to really allow for recon work.

The only thing I've seen lately that suggest crime may have spiked in the area are the ubiquitous "LAB" tags that popped up everywhere along Franklin in the last couple of weeks. I wonder what brought the NYPD out to Washington--maybe they wanted to make sure the customers at Tom's didn't get too unruly while waiting out in the cold.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Update: Thank you, thank you

I had assumed that the Chase and Western Union signs were mutually exclusive, but this bodega on Sutter and Cleveland in East New York proved me wrong. I suppose there's no reason a grocer couldn't sell one window's worth of ad space to one company and another window to another company, but it must have looked somewhat odd when both of these signs bore "Thank you" messages. I only wish I'd gotten a photo of it then. Of course, maybe this means the Chase signs (in green) aren't standing in for empty ad space, but are actually just giveaways to small businesses.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Mother Lode

Cute animal pictures may be a combination of amusing and banal, but I couldn't resist. This squirrel on Pacific between Bedford and Nostrand was on the right track, but the resealable bag proved too difficult to crack (that, and the big creepy dude snapping photos scared him off).


I'm pumping out stale stories this week, but sometimes I find myself looking at something that's just too interesting to leave undocumented, even if I know that this very feature of the sight means that others have already done so. This case is no different: the building above began its life in 1911 as the Bushwick Theater, a vaudeville house, and continued on as a movie house and church until being abandoned for a few decades. Remarkably, much of the exterior facade remained in good condition, and in 2004 the building was gutted, remodeled, cleaned up, and reopened as the ACORN High School for Social Justice. There are a pair of good histories, complete with photos of the building in its heyday and covered in grafitti, here and here.

The friend I was with, a longtime Brooklynite, mentioned that the area was hit particularly hard in the blackout of 1977, a story corroborated by the folks at Wikipedia. Gothamist ran a good roundup of news and photos to commemorate the 30th anniversary in 2007. Apparently two whole blocks of Broadway were in flames at one point, and the vacant lots just opposite the theater (which was spared, luckily) attest to this. My friend added that he didn't think the area had ever fully recovered, and though the efforts of the East Broadway Merchants Association are on display, I'm inclined to agree with him, at least insofar as vacant lots are a rare find along major thoroughfares, even in Brooklyn.

On the lighter side, he also noted that he knew quite a few "blackout babies," a phenomenon that many 1977-born New Yorkers are apparently familiar with.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

One stone, two stone, redstone, bluestone

I know there's a long tradition behind the brownstone in Brooklyn, so what follows may be blasphemy, but I love it when people paint their stone, brick, or stucco houses bright colors. Technically, they're still "brownstones," since the term refers to the Triassic sandstone used in their construction. Europeans have a tendency to do this--examples here (UK), here (Denmark), and here (Spain)--and I think the effect is generally to lighten up the street and add a touch of fun and absurdity to otherwise quiet neighborhoods. I think a neighborhood or block looking for a lift might consider a rainbow of row houses to make it stand out--what it would lose in stateliness, it would make up in uniqueness. The houses here are along Willoughby, just past Lewis.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Finance says: Patronize your local bodega

This story is a little bit stale. As the stock market was crashing out in September, I noticed the proliferation of these two signs at bodegas and delis all over Brooklyn (represented above are stores in Bed-Stuy, East New York, and Crown Heights, but I've seen many more). The red ones have since been replaced, but with our economy officially in a recession I figured the larger theme remained interesting.

The signs convey the same basic message, one that shopkeepers have made use of for awhile: the simple "thank you, come again." They're obviously mass-produced, but how do local grocers acquire them? I asked around and found out that the green signs are provided by Chase, and the red ones by Western Union. However, they aren't just giveaways: Chase and Western Union purchase the space on walls and doors, and replace the signs at their leisure. The store owners get a monthly payment for renting the space.

So why would either Chase or Western Union post these signs in the space they paid for? At first glance, they seem to be doing the local shops a straight-up favor, though I've mulled over a few theories that might explain their largess. Neither agent brands their sign anywhere (I even examined a discarded one that was blowing across Tompkins Avenue one afternoon), so the goal isn't any direct connection between the observer and the provider of the sign

In Chase's case, they are the bank of each bodega I spoke with. Perhaps, then, they consider these signs a chance to protect their client, so as to make them more profitable, or better guarantee repayment of their loans, in the face of reticent recession shoppers. A wealth of research shows that saying "thank you" pays (this study suggested that waitresses who wrote "thank you" on checks received 11% more in tips, on average), so perhaps it's that simple, and the bank is taking the opportunity to say thank you on behalf of their customer businesses.

They could also be engaging in branding, a well-known profit enhancer. Delis are everywhere, and variously look more or less appetizing, but the presence of this sign might announce a certain standard to those who shop at a store with an identical green sign out front. By branding the stores they bank with, Chase could be creating a recognizable emblem that attracts shoppers moving from neighborhood to neighborhood.

We'd have to ask, though, whether either of these options are more profitable than advertising. After all, Western Union, who doesn't have any stake in most of these bodegas (none of the ones pictured above actually offer any Western Union services on site), has been putting up the same signs, and not just in NYC--I saw two in Chicago during a November visit. If Western Union is employing the tactics discussed above, it isn't to protect any investment, merely to keep shoppers walking past their signs. I highly doubt that increased traffic from either the "thank you" effect or the "branding" effect would be enough to make it worth their while to forgo a month's worth of ad revenues.

So perhaps the other force at work here is the aforementioned recession, particularly the short-term shocks of September and October. Advertising is essential to marketing your product or service, but marketing isn't necessary in the short term if you don't have anything new to offer and you're struggling to make payroll and loan payments. Perhaps the major reason we saw so many "thank you signs" in the past two months was because of the drop-off in advertising demand. Faced with lackluster interest, it makes sense that these companies would rather replace their previous advertisers (whose contracts had run out) with something than leave their ad space blank or unchanged. If you're looking for something to fill a space, then maybe the logic of branding or "thank you" applies.

But why didn't Chase or Western Union just run ads for their own services in their space? Have times been tough enough that even free space can't make new advertising worthwhile? Or is the "thank you" brand worth it? Maybe there is some staying power to these signs, after all--Chase's remain up after two months. Western Union, on the other hand, has replaced the red ones with an ad that offers help in quitting smoking.

Chinese food with a new american twist?

(Classon and Eastern) It's probably a sign that I'm hopelessly representative of neighborhood change, but my first thought upon seeing this sign (before reading the second line) was "ooh . . . fusion cuisine!"

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Franklin Park's Winter Palace

Franklin Park, the beer garden that arrived on St. John's and Franklin this April (to the delight of the young, hip set in Crown Heights and bloggers everywhere), has expanded to house more revelers as gardens grow cold and frozen-over. Their "indoor annex" (with more square footage than their original indoor space, by a long shot) opened off their courtyard last week (photos here, as well as the before-and-after shots of the converted garage), and the space is great. The entrance is a clever door-within-a-door that utilizes the original garage fixtures and will likely open wide in the summertime. The bar, tucked into the corner, is a quarter-circle topped with a polka-dotted pattern, and next to it is a legitimate fireplace. The seating is cozy booths and few tables that are placed on either side of the big main room, leaving the central space open for milling or dancing (and there will be dancing--a raised platform houses another booth and a DJ booth, where a bearded fellow was spinning a killer mix of funk and soul last night). For those not inclined to dance, the path to the bathrooms takes you through a games room, complete with foosball, Big Buck Hunter, and the biggest treat, skeeball (9 balls for a buck--after a few beers, I could see myself spending approximately $27 on skee-ball).

If you're looking for an excuse to check out the improvements (not that you need one), First Saturdays will now feature Brooklyn DJ Little Shalimar on the 1s and 2s.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Joy, Brooklyn Style

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. Things like this (Center and Gates in Bushwick) make me smile. I think every street should have one.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A full-fledged endorsement: eat here!

I'm going to go ahead and drop any pretense of journalistic objectivism and admit that what follows is a totally, completely, entirely biased assessment of Franklin Ave's resident pizza place, A Slice of Brooklyn. I love this place for many personal reasons: their grand opening took place on the first day I looked at apartments along Franklin this summer, my girlfriend and I celebrated signing our lease with a lunch here, it's perfectly situated for picking up a quick slice to eat on the shuttle on the way to the park for a Saturday afternoon stroll, and they serve one of my favorite (and least-produced, at least in New York) slices, spinach. My goal in writing about them is not to review them, but convince you to spend your hard-earned dollars there.

A Slice of Brooklyn was opened in late July by Judy and Elwin, a couple who had never owned a restaurant before this. Elwin, the tall gentleman with the beard who mans the register most frequently, freely admits that his wife is the lady in charge. "I work for her!" he laughed and pointed when I asked him if he owned the place. When I asked Judy why they opened the place, she smiled coyly and said "We had a great recipe." She noted that she and her children had perfected the dough, sauce, and cheese while cooking at home, and though she no longer bakes each pie (that honor belongs to Miguel, the stocky, smiling chef kneading dough at the back), there is no doubt that the pizza has a unique taste. Unlike most pizza available along the avenues in Crown Heights, it is remarkably light and grease-free, with a crispy thin crust and a flavorful, tangy sauce that actually tastes like tomatoes (instead of just adding a soft texture and some sugars).

The place itself is decorated in the dark, quiet style of a family restaurant, eschewing the typical flourescent-and-bulletproof-glass aesthetic of local pizza joints. Exposed brick and dark woods line the walls and facade, and there's more than enough room to sit down with your meal. The "Slice" (we've given it a nickname--feel free to adopt it) isn't open late--doors close around 10:30--and they also serve a range of affordable and legitimately tasty Italian food. It seems that in decorating and developing the place, Judy and Elwin were aiming to attract a sedate, family crowd, not the late-night food-fixers. This may hurt them in terms of some post-drinking business, but it makes their atmosphere during the day so pleasant that I leave smiling every time I pop in for my spinach slice (fresh spinach!).

I always ask them how business is, in part because I worry that the current crisis might hurt them, and in part because I know that, as my banker buddy put it, "retail sucks." But if you ask me, we need places like this in every neighborhood--they might be a bit of a cliche, but cliches, like stereotypes, are rooted in truth, and the truth is that a neighborhood pizza parlor with friendly staff and great food is as close to an unqualified good thing as you're likely to find in our day and age.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Dean Street Industrial Corridor

The stretch of old warehouses and lots walled with corrugated iron can make Dean Street between Grand and Franklin feel a bit like the wrong side of the tracks in a Springsteen song, especially late at night in November. It's not likely to end up a landmark district anytime soon, but a few trips down the street during early morning hours have given me a newfound admiration for it.

The warehouses are fascinating repositories of history. Some, like the one above, did time as factories before being converted to storage space, some of which has since become lofts and studios and some of which has been taken over by Chinese merchants. The Pirika Chocolate Company bought their lot on Dean Street in 1919 and erected this building for $125,000 (the same sum that brought Babe Ruth to the Yankees in the same year). The factory was part of a $4 million dollar boom in candy operations that the NY Times reported as a response to the newly-passed prohibition amendment (the folks at Pirika, and several other NYC candy makers, apparently thought that candy was a substitute good for booze). The building was designed and built by local architect Theobald M. Engelhardt. No word on when the factory stopped producing chocolate.

Meanwhile, the sinister-looking red metal gates across the street from Pirika open in the mornings to reveal these fabulous symbols of the benign: rows and rows of school buses, operated for the city by the Superior School Bus company. Somehow, I think that will comfort me the next time I'm dragging along Dean Street humming "My Hometown" and worrying about the rattling sounds behind me.