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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sure signs of neighborhood change: fake crime replacing real crime

Signs were posted, and it was hard to miss, but for anyone still wondering what those giant light cranes were doing on Dean between Vanderbilt and Underhill tonight, the answer is that they were shooting "Life on Mars," ABC's new show about an NYPD officer who gets knocked back to 1973 by a car and has to navigate the strange and wondrous world of 1970s policing. I went and poked around, as did many others, and managed to chat up a friendly set worker who informed me that the former St. Joseph's Catholic School building (adjacent to the stunning, crumbling St. Joseph's Church, pictured on the right in the first photo, with the school building left of it on the north side of Dean) now plays the 125th Precinct in the show, though only the exterior--the interior is filmed on a soundstage in Queens. The actual precint for Prospect Heights is the 78th, and the NYPD only have 123 precincts (in the show, the precinct is in Manhattan).

Some locals noticed the awesome period pieces set up for the original shooting in August , and they were definitely out tonight (the photo of the Camaro isn't very good, but its the best I could get with my trusty point-and-shoot). Particularly amusing was the presence of real police in real crusiers oogling the absolutely fantastic old Dodge monsters that play cruisers in the show (great photos here). There were also plenty of extras hipped-out in 1970s garb strolling along the north side of Dean as well.

The show recently received a 4-episode extension from ABC, which likely explains tonight's shooting. The staff guy I spoke with said that the scene being filmed involved a car bomb placed outside the station, and that as part of the shot they were projecting red and orange lights on the building (flames) and actually blowing up a car (though the windshield was already out and the frame already in pieces, so as to fall apart without much of a powerful blast, just a flashy one). This explains the signs posted around earlier warning residents not to get nervous about smoke, flames, or the sounds of explosions.

As for the show itself, it's a remake of a BBC series with an identical plot, set in Manchester. Though the precinct in the show is in Manhattan, the use of Brooklyn as an exterior location strikes me as appropriate--another historically powerful industrial center that suffered some rough times in the 1970s and 1980s only to be reborn as a center of culture, particularly for the young, in the past decade and a half. Now if only we had an almighty football team.

Monday, November 24, 2008


I'm shamelessly pilfering a pre-existing post from Brownstoner in announcing this, but to my slight credit, I found it initially on the CHCA site. In short, much of the Crown Heights I know, including the fascinating and wondrous stretch of Franklin from Eastern to Atlantic, may one day be an historic district, with brown street signs to accompany its brownstones. For more information, click the Crow Hill link to the right, or come to the next meeting: December 16, 2008 at 7:30 PM, in the Haitian-American Day Care Center on Bedford and St. John's (1491 Bedford Ave).

And for those who didn't know, the landmark process was born in Brooklyn.

Bud meets Bud (again)

I don't usually run for photos (I mostly snap buildings, after all), but I had to catch this Budweiser truck in front of the old brewery before the light turned. Why? Because for a period during the 1880s, the brewery was known as the "Budweiser Brewing Company." Of course, the St. Lunatics who run Anheuser-Busch brought suit (that's kind of their thing), and since they got their trademark in six years before the Brooklyn owner, he relented and renamed the place the Nassau Brewing Company (complete story here, courtesy of NY Food Museum).

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Can we bring it back to life as a brewpub?

This is not breaking news, but the hodgepodge complex of buildings between Bergen and Dean on Franklin were once a brewery. The site is currently for sale, but given the state of the real estate development, methinks it will be awhile before it is bought up and summarily torn down. There's a useful blurb about the original tenants at the New York Food Museum page (search the page for "Nassau Brewing Company").

The brewery site appears to have been developed in phases, with the original buildings (pictured at the top) potentially dating from before the Civil War. They've been re-sided and covered up almost beyond recognition, but the basic structures and the few remaining visible bits of clapboard and cornice (3rd shot) suggest they might have once been a fairly grand property. The address of the brewery is theirs, which also suggests that they were the first buildings on site.

The rest of the structures on the site are fantastic in their own right, with their funky arched windows, the wall of whitewashed brick along Franklin (a graffiti magnet), big tanks and pipes rusting away above everything, and the remnants of painted ads (check out a great painted-advertisement blog here). Though the whole site is for sale, two buildings have already been converted for continued use: the Heinz-adorned warehouse on Bergen, which got a nice profile in the NYT last year, and the old "ice house" on Dean, which has become a very nicely appointed set of green condos. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the structures don't seem conducive to re-invention (no retail space, no passable windows), which means they'll probably be lost down the line. The exception, of course, are those grand old original houses, which could be renovated and become the coolest, newest microbrewery in NYC.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bushwick, NY (a quiet Olde English Towne)

I missed a stop on the way to a meeting the other day and ended up strolling down Bushwick Avenue where it looks like Main Street New England circa 1853. That's the date the church above (the South Bushwick Reformed Church) was built, and it looks the part. The avenue is lined with some spectacular houses of similar vintage, which another blogger has done a great job of cataloguing here, along with some neighborhood history.

On a broader note, I've noticed that Brooklyn's grand avenues, for the most part, remain intact even where they aren't in the process of being gentrified or rehabbed. Bushwick is a prime example, as are chunks of Bedford and Nostrand in Crown Heights. The current state of affairs will slow any development down considerably, but I wonder how long it will take for the old Bushwick mansions to start looking like the ones on Clinton Avenue in what is now Clinton Hill. According to the "Forgotten NY" site (linked above), the fashionable district of Bushwick once went by "the Boulevard," and it seems only a matter of time before the brown signs designating the district pop up and the buildings start being refurbished.

Still, there's something romantic about the current state of the mansions, populated by tenants who live in the cut-up remains of someone's grand old staterooms and parlors. It almost feels as though an entirely new and distinct civilization has grown up and in around the ruins of another. Thomas Hartley Cromek was going for this effect in the Campo Vaccino, though certain critics will argue that in calling the once-great Forum the "cow field," he was consciously devaluing those who lived there and calling for a return to its greatness. The analogy is just a convoluted way of saying my romanticism may be well-meant, but it can easily be co-opted to make a case for "restored glory" that pushes the current residents out. Will it happen in Bushwick? Some already call parts of it "East Williamsburg." Should be interesting to watch.

and dessert too!

If you do decide to use your last nice weekend (reports are that this weekend should be clear and cold) to try out Famous Eddie's in Bushwick, make sure to wander a block down to this awesome pastry shop, which has some seriously tasty gelato (perfect for a late November weekend!) as well as great sweets and pastries. It might be getting cold to eat in the park, but you can be almost outside riding the M train back home. Something about the curve of the landscape makes the M from Knickerbocker to Myrtle-Broadway a particularly pleasing ride, and if you sit on the right of the inbound train, you can take in the Manhattan skyline over the church spires for most of it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rosie the Rider (on the MTA)

The MTA has a long-running art campaign that shows up in the subway, and it might be a stretch to read too much into it (after all, how much transit-inspired art is available to them?), but I keep seeing these posters (more of the one on the right lately) and I can't help thinking they're a sign of the times.

The one on the left, "Gathering the Dawn" by William Low, has the following text below: "The 7 train rounds the hairpin corner into the Queensboro Plaza as morning sunshine graces the majestic East River skyline. William Low, who spent many years commuting on the 7 train, captures a bright moment at his favorite station."

On the right is "Endurance" by Bascove, which is captioned: "The Triborough Bridge links Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan. Bascove's painting uses vibrant colors in sinuous curves to capture the dynamic power in the bridge's massive structure."

Both captions celebrate the built environment in terms that both celebrate the human achievement of the infrastructure and raise it to the level of the god-given natural world. The "majestic skyline" is "graced" by the sunrise, while the "sinuous curves" of the painting capture "dynamic power" and "massive structure."

The paintings themselves are the focus of this very New Deal-esque celebration of man the builder. Low's drifts from the bustle of people going to work up along the ironwork of the bridge and to the skyline beyond, as mighty as a mountain range. Bascove's painting is even more stylized (and reminds me of this sort of work), with the bridge as immovable monument against the wild sky.

Now, this might just be the nature of transit art, but it feels straight out of the 1930s. If you look at the recent history of the MTA's displays, there seems to be a trend in this direction. In the age of rollercoaster stock markets and bridge disasters that serve as overlarge metaphors for the crumbling of American superiority, it feels like the MTA is trying to bring some old-fashioned "We Can Do It" attitude to New Yorkers.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Tale of Two Agencies

Two city agencies are hawking their wares on the subway these days, the MTA (who, of course, run the subways) and the Board of Education, though the ads are part of a campaign by a non-governmental organization called the Fund for Public Schools. Their work is a study in contrasts.

The MTA's ads are the most honest, staid attempts at selling a product I've ever witnessed. In simple type, their placards usually offer basic tidbits of information that could at best be described as "mildly interesting" (who knew subway cars created energy when they brake?) and at worst, boring. Two, however, caught my eye as particularly strange attempts at selling a product.

The first is the one that begins, proudly, "In 2015, the Second Avenue Subway will relieve congestion on the Lexington Avenue Lines." 2015? That's 7 years IF you trust the city to finish anything on time! I can't think of colder comfort when I'm standing with my hand in someone else's coat on a sardine-can 4 train at rush hour. Incidentally, I've never actually seen one of these specific ads on the 4 itself, which makes me wonder if the ones the MTA put there suffered from defacing.

The second is the one that that kicks off with the doozy: "In 1986, subway fare was $1." Talk about a sales pitch--does the MTA's advertising agency know that most people stop reading after the first line? The whole ad seems to be the work of a sophomore econ major, and reads:

"In 1986, subway fare was $1. Thats $1.89 in 2008 dollars. Today, the 30-day unlimited metrocard brings the fare down to $1.17. Believe it."

I read it like this:

"In 1986, subway fare was $1. (you bastards!) Thats $1.89 in 2008 dollars. (still bastards!) Today, the 30-day unlimited metrocard brings the fare down to $1.17. (how exactly does that math work . . . retrieving cell phone calculator . . . 70 rides a month? What a random number.) Believe it. (Believe what, exactly?)"

Still, you've gotta give the MTA credit for their honesty, and I suppose the space didn't cost them anything.

On the flip side, the "Keep it Going NYC" ads for the school board are a study in how to lie with statistics (and brightly-colored to boot!). They offer the following four facts: graduation rates have risen by 20%, starting teacher salaries have risen by 43%, major school crimes have fallen by 34%, and the BOE has added 66,000 new seats, all since 2002-2003. All great stats, all at least somewhat designed to manipulate your thinking.

The graduation rates fact is the most deliberately tricky. You're meant to think "wow, 20% more kids are graduating," but in fact, the rate, and not the number, has risen 20%. That means if it used to be 50%, it's now 60%. So what's the actual rate? The "Keep it Going" site won't tell you (the page teases you with the question, but only answers "the highest it's ever been!"), but if you go to the BOE site and then open a PDF, you'll find that the answer was 62% in 2007.

The "66,000 new seats" statistic is a close second--this number is a gross stat, which doesn't take into account the number of old seats that are gone (an old high school reopened as four new ones, in the same building, counts as a whole pile of new seats) or mention the fact that auditoriums and gyms count in the "seats" total.

The major school crimes bit is more empty than tricky--without knowing the number of "major school crimes" (which BOE defines as felonies), you won't know anything about the stat. In fact, 1,042 of these were committed last year, or less than one per school.

The starting salaries number is the least "tricky" (by my very own definition, subject to change at any time), but again, it's empty--you'd need to know both the numbers and the pay scales to make any sense of it.

Now, I should mention I'm not bashing the BOE, just their advertising (which wasn't even their work, to be fair). Increased graduation rates, drops in felonies (even at 1-per-school, a felony must be incredibly disruptive), improved schools, and better pay are all, to my mind, very good things. They have a very legitimate reason to be proud, not least because unlike the guys over at MTA, they know how to advertise.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Banking on Salvation

The Pilgrim's Union Church of God on Blake and Van Siclen in East New York looks plenty grand, but it doesn't quite look purpose-built as a church. There's a long (and increasing well-studied) history of storefront churches in Brooklyn (great photos here), and in recent years, many of New York's remaining movie palaces have been preserved through church ownership and operation, but I hadn't yet heard of a church occupying a bank. Still, a close inspection (poorly documented by a fuzzy photo above) revealed that this particular building began life as a bank, based on the window lettering that reads "banking hours 9-3." Insert a joke about well-insured deposits or a sage comment juxtaposing the worldly and eternal here.

I think there might have been some uproar had the shift from bank to church gone the other way (glaring metaphors for godless greed don't sit too well with lots of people), though there are some successful examples of deconsecrated churches serving new purposes out there. There's also a trend of holy places becoming hot spots, such as this Brooklyn wine bar and the notorious Limelight in Manhattan, which prompted my Nietzsche-loving buddy to remark "God is dead, and we are partying in his mausoleums."


I see these tires-turned-planters all over Brooklyn, and I think they're fantastic. Recycling tires is a full-fledged environmental problem, one that has spawned businesses and government initiatives. These planters aren't the global solution, but they're a fantastic localized re-use. Sure, they might not be the safest things in the world to grow food in, but in terms of brightening up a street with flowers, they work as well as anything. I particularly love the way they sit on the rims off the ground (my garden-savvy friends explain that the rims' original holes are excellent for drainage), and hold bright paints well (though the photos don't showcase any of those).

Directions on how to make them can be found here, with some more elaborate ideas here and here (though I've never seen the latter in Brooklyn).

The Mountains of Brooklyn

This from the "pure whimsy" file: there appears to be an entirely wholesome war of names going on at two bodgeas on opposite ends of the same block in East New York. At Pennsylvania and Belmont, you finds the Green Mountain Deli (maybe founded by a transplanted Vermonter?). Walk a block down on same (east) side of the street and you'll hit the Red Mountain Deli at Sutter and Pennsylvania.

I didn't ask about the names, but I wondered. The Green Mountains are, at least to my New-England-raised ears, a fairly well known mountain range. There is a Red Mountain in Colorado that technically could be a range (it's composed of three peaks), and another in British Columbia that houses a ski resort. The Columbia Gazetteer of North America credits the name to a small range in Wyoming. Still, I think it's a relatively safe, if totally unexamined, assumption that the red deli is the derivative.

Oh, and down the street you can hit up the "Green Land" Deli, which I hope against hope carries this beer.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Storefront Office on Franklin

I mentioned the software company at 723 Franklin a few days ago, and now a very similar-looking office is taking shape across the street (at 722, to be precise). I poked my head in and asked what was up, and was told that a "real estate investment firm" was going in. This morning, I asked the woman out front about it, and she made it sound a little more mundane, calling the place a "real estate office."

What's most interesting to me about these places is their aesthetics: a big glass storefront and glass door that expose a single, high-celinged room (almost like a hair salon) with rows of desks and computers neatly lined up, a white-collar terrarium. Employees aren't really set up to do business with the outside world by means of the storefront, but they're on display as much as the wares in the window of a typical retail outlet. They almost look like little boutiques, except that inside, people are pursuing activities typically carried out in midtown high rises.

I don't know enough about trends in business to understand the choice of location, but I'm curious: these places seem a little incongruous on Franklin (the newer of the two sits next door to an archetypical bodega), but I could see several potential upsides: rent is cheap, the space is funky and original, which might attract young workers (folks who might also want to live near their work instead of taking the 2/3/4 to midtown), and the giant windows make for great light (everyone has a window). From a management/human psychology perspective, the open layout is both easy to police and encourages cooperative interaction, and the fishbowl effect might encourage people to work hard as well.

To me, these places evoke either old-school newspaper offices (the Sun--RIP--apparentely maintained one into this millenium) or the accounting office from "The Producers." I'll have to ambush someone on their lunchbreak to find out what it feels like on the other side of the glass one of these days.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Whose Symbol? The Star of David in Crown Heights

Walking down Franklin on the east side of the street, you'll encounter at least two six-pointed Stars of David carved out in the sidewalk, one with an R7 scratched inside of it (the first two photos). Given the rich history of the Jewish community in Crown Heights, you might think these symbols were a relic of much earlier days on Franklin, but you'd be wrong: they're actually gang symbols used by predominantly African-American groups in Chicago and Los Angeles whose iconography has spread to New York City. I've seen blue (the Crips' color) caps on the subway with the star juxtaposed with a skull, and I saw an enormous gold six-pointed star and chain on Franklin this evening. The use of the six-pointed star by these groups has even caused problems for Jewish students in schools that ban gang symbols. For locals I've talked to, the use of Jewish symbols by African-American gangs in Crown Heights is an odd thing to see, given the history of tension that boiled over in 1991.

There are a few explanations for the adoption of the central symbol of Judaism by these gangs. One is the story of of David Barksdale, the Chicago gang leader who founded the Black Disciples. Dubbed "King David" by his followers, Barksdale's death in 1974 was honored with adoption of the six-pointed star (referencing the Biblical King David of Israel) as a symbol for the Disciples or Folks, one of two major Chicago gang alliances. The Star of David is also used by the Crips, who originate in LA, though their connection with Chicago's Folks is sometimes cited as the reason for their use of the symbol.

Another explanation for the presence of this symbol in gang life (one not mutually exclusive with the first story) is one I heard Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall discuss, namely, that as African-Americans moved into formerly Jewish areas (something that occured across the country), they re-consecrated former synagogues as churches, complete with their existing carved stars. An example of this phenomenon can be seen on Park and Franklin, where the Temple Issac (photos above), across from what was once the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn, is now the Faith Chapel Baptist Church (an unrelated phenomenon is the conversion of the massive hospital into apartments). As a result of these pre-existing carvings, the hypothesis goes, the church and the community adopted the Star of David as a symbol.

The last photo was taken at a local public high school. The mural is geared around African-American pride, containing quotes from Toni Morrison among others. This usage suggests that the use of the Star of David in the New York black community is not confined to gangs, which might imply that the historical argument above holds water beyond gangland. And of course, it's always nice to see a symbol recaptured from gangs and put to positive use by high school students.

Learn, Play, and Sell Your Car for Cash

The day care at Bergen and Franklin is putting the finishing touches on a great new mural, but it's stuck beneath a woefully incongruous advertisement. Look at the first and then the second picture--doesn't the latter look about 1,000 times better? Isn't there something that they can do about this? I suppose the landlord is getting paid, but it's a real shame, aesthetically speaking. I don't watch enough current kiddie TV to know if the characters on the wall are recognizable figures or the artist's creations, but either way, it's a welcome splash of color after the drab block of abandoned industrial buildings between Dean and Bergen.

As for the billboard, it has all the perks of a cheaply-made eye-grabber, not unlike those bizarre Georgi vodka ads on the buses. The formula is simple enough: woman in suggestive state of excitement, product, large font. This ad in particular strikes me as uniquely awful, however, because a) her expression isn't quite right--it's overkill and obviously posed at the same time--but more importantly, b) she doesn't have even close to an exciting amount of money. Look closely--those are mostly singles! There are two tenners stuck in her left hand, but the rest are Georgies, and if you add up what look like wads of cash from afar, you realize she's holding $42. Forty-two bucks? Most cars have to be worth more than that for scrap alone! Not to mention the fact that posing their "sexy lady" with all one-dollar bills suggests that she didn't get them from selling a car.

I wonder if there was some logic to filling her hands with ones, or if this ad was done so cheaply that when the time came to give the model some money to hold, everyone at the shoot just fished around in their pockets and gave her what they had. At least they drew the line at coinage.

The Brooklyn High-Tech Corridor

There's a strange storefront on Franklin between Park and Sterling, next to the Lily and Fig Bakery and Tea Shop (which is taking an awfully long time to get finished--I wonder if they were a victim of the downturn/crisis/unmitigated economic armageddon). The steel shutter is open only during the day, revealing a big glass window with signs that read "Obama/Biden," "Crown Heights Apartments," and "Pilates," and behind the window sit a series of desks and computers. They've got a line of paintings on a wall visible from the street, a potted plant out front, and occasionally advertise for the Walt L. Shamel Community Garden happenings. What are they, anyway, a community org? Art/graphic design gallery? Public interest research?

Nope--software company. The guys at mSnap work on "mobile texting technology," which is used by radio stations, among others. As the guy behind the desk said when I poked my head through the door "when you hear a radio DJ say 'text your vote to this number,' that's us." They're based out of San Francisco and keep an office in San Diego, too, but their New York office is right down the street. Unexpected, but that's getting to be the norm on Franklin.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Clock Table

Furniture scavenging is a skill some folks I know have turned into a fine art as they move into their first Brooklyn apartments, but I always end up staring at items like this and wondering whether they're tremendous or tremendously ugly. Either I leave it and feel a pang of regret for the rest of the day, or I find myself covered in some sort of brown pasty soot after hauling the damn thing home on the subway, only to discover I've dragged a piece of trash up three flights to hear my girlfriend say "you've gotta be kidding me." If anyone finds this particular piece of furniture spectacular, I left it at the corner of Bushwick and Schaefer.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Home Grown

I'm not entirely sure that Malcolm X had urban agriculture in mind when he spoke so passionately of self-sufficient communities, but I think the Malcolm X Boulevard Community Farmers Market, on his namesake avenue in Bed-Stuy at Chauncey St., would make him smile. A good chunk of the food (everything in the first photo) is grown up the street at the Bed-Stuy Farm, which grows fresh produce for the Brooklyn Rescue Mission food pantry. The market accepts WIC, EBT, and FMNP food program coupons, and has some remarkably competitive prices (the peppers were cheaper than those at most GreenMarkets) for the scale of the operation. They also bring out a few other local produce vendors, and even offer fresh fish when they can. Locally produced food for the homeless and hungry, with excess sold down the street to a community that wants for fresh produce? Any advocate of community empowerment can get behind that.

Also present when I was there on October 30th were the apple-pressing crowd (photo number 2) from the Wyckoff Farmhouse, the oldest building in New York City. They were handing out free, fresh apple cider, pressed while we watched, and advertising for the Dutch Days, an upcoming festival that celebrates a somewhat forgotten part of New Amsterdam's heritage. Combined with the stately beauty of Stuyvesant Heights and the postcard-blue sky, the cider made for a perfect autumn day in Bed-Stuy.

The market is open every Friday from 12-6 PM, and the Dutch Days run from Wednesday November 12th to Sunday the 16th. To get to the market, take the A to Utica, and make sure to walk west along Chauncy with a crisp apple to admire the brownstones when you go. Yet another great way to spend the remaining walkable afternoons.

Sights and Sounds of a Happy Brooklyn

Seen (all over Brooklyn for the past three months): the homespun and official workings of the most spirited political campaign in history. The flyer above is but one of a thousand examples, my favorite of which was a hand-lettered 8.5"x11" stapled to a tree on Brevoort that read "Stoop Sale This Saturday: All Proceeds to Obama."

Heard (in the 24-hour Laundromat on St. John's and Franklin last night): People of all ages, races, and genders nervously discussing CNN while watching for any sign of last-minute shifts or the Bradley effect.

Seen (this morning while running down Franklin to Prospect Park at 8:30 AM): a multicolored train of humanity stretching around three sides of a local elementary school, without a single intimation of impatience.

Heard (on the way back from the same run): Local folks shouting "vote today, vote today!" to no one in particular.

Seen (coming down the steps to the Manhattan-bound 2-3-4-5 platform at Franklin Ave): A red, white and blue fashion show with the ever-present visage of a certain Democratic hopeful.

Heard (while clicking away merrily at my keyboard this instant): the cheers, chants, car horns, and occasional fireworks of a democracy reborn.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Hot Dog!

There may only be a few weekends left for an outdoor excursion before the weather closes down these pursuits until spring, but if you're looking for an out-of-the-way outdoor lunch, I highly recommend Famous Eddie's, a spectacular hot dog stand in Bushwick. Housed in a tiny structure that juts off a walk-up onto the sidewalk at Suydam Street and Knickerbocker Avenue, it features a tasty menu with double-take prices (the 90 cent hot dog with sauerkraut and onions is wonderful, and two make a meal) just across from Maria Hernandez Park. Eddie himself served us today, telling us that he's been in Bushwick 11 months but already "people are finding us." He's been in the hot dog business for 20 years, and has a stand in Times Square among others.

Famous Eddie's doesn't have a place to sit (though he jokingly asked if we were taking out) so we sauntered across the street to the park. Renamed for an anti-drug community activist who was murdered in 1989, it remains known as Bushwick Park to many (including gmaps), and has apparently undergone quite a renovation in the last decade or so. The Parks Department, as usual, has a fascinating little blurb on the park and community here (who knew Bushwick was the name of a Dutch village meaning "heavy woods"?). It's a gem of a park, with a series of winding paths, a surprisingly splendid plaza, and some high-quality mature trees of every fall color. An added bonus is the silhouette of the Empire State Building peeking up along the east-west avenues.

As an aside, I think marking the laps per mile on park paths is a cheap and brilliant way to get citizens to be active. Walking a few blocks is one thing, but covering a mile--that's an accomplishment, and a measuring stick you can use to chart your progress. I'd bet a study would show that just marking a loop's distance increases walking and jogging traffic, and thus positively impacts the health of the local community.

To get to Famous Eddie's, take the M to Knickerbocker and walk west or the L to DeKalb or Jefferson and walk south until you hit Irving, from which the park is visible. The park is sweet enough for a date, and you'd clock in under 10 bucks including MTA fare!

Danny Hoch on Gentrification

The Brooklyn Rail features a fascinating interview with playwright and longtime Williamsburg resident Danny Hoch this month. Hoch is about to kick off a solo show, Taking Over, at the Public Theater, in which he deals directly with the impact of gentrification in Williamsburg. The interview covers the same territory, and Hoch is clever and incisive in his analysis: he credits the frontier impulse in the Western psyche for driving the forays of young white suburbanites into Brooklyn’s various neighborhoods, as well as a need for “affirmation of their simulated struggle” in the edgy locales they settle. He’s unforgiving of the problems of rapid gentrification, and he notes that audiences of gentrifiers have felt betrayed and indicted by the piece. When pressed by the interviewer for a message or moral, he offers up the idea that gentrifying behavior is essentially “every man for himself,” with those moving in feeling just as economically pinched, albeit differently, than those they displace. In the show, his alternative vision, which he touches on briefly here, is of people staying in their hometowns to make a difference, rather than erasing, as he sees it, the communities and stories of New Yorkers with their arrival.

The interview is a great read, and the show sounds fantastic. I think Hoch is absolutely right when he says that it would be seriously strange for people to walk out of a show about gentrification feeling good about themselves, and I think his honesty about the impact of gentrification (at one point he rattles off a damning list of trends) is something anyone moving into the littoral zones of the city needs to face down. Still, I don’t share his conclusion or his vision of “returning home.”

There’s a paragraph in the interview where Hoch uses the Williamsburg Art Fair as an example of the way in which gentrifiers create a “vacuum community” that damages existing communities. He cites the absence of Poles, Haisids, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Italians, and African-Americans at the fair as evidence, arguing that instead of continuing the development of “indigenous and organic” institutions from the community, gentrification spawned a separate world that competed with and ultimately began destroying the one in which Hoch lived. There are a couple of obvious gotchas to be had in disputing this line of reasoning: first, all the groups he names are identified by their migrant status, meaning they too were invaders once, and second, these groups historically maintained separate institutions (the kosher butcher, the specialty grocer) that would have been at least as segregated (often by language as well as habit) as today’s hipster hangouts when the migrants were first arriving.

Of course, these migrations brought changes that were significantly different than the one that concerns Hoch—it is doubtful that the arrival of Poles to Williamsburg either priced people out or put longtime residents in the path of amped-up policing—and the point here is not to pull the rug out from under a real set of concerns but merely to introduce another element to the conversation: temporality. Communities, often understood as geographic and social units, are historical units as well: people exist in groups not just of a certain common ilk in a certain place, but also in a certain time. Moreover, the temporal lines are not so cleanly drawn as the major streets on a map, and communities frequently bleed together with the passage of time, a phenomenon that allows Hoch’s description of an indigenous Williamsburg community composed of a patchwork of ethnically-defined groups.

Before I finish that thought, I want to jump to Hoch’s conclusion, which he freely admits is far from progressive—essentially, it amounts to the ancient question “why don’t you go back where you came from?” There are a million potential answers, from “it’s a free country, buster” to “I’d love to be an Ohioan playwright writing about Ohio in Ohio, but it happens that the only place I can make a living doing this is New York City,” but most of them dodge the root of the answer, which is that going home isn’t always that easy. Community, despite its typical usage, is a neutral term, and communities are not always healthy, nurturing environments. This is, to some social theorists, the unique problem of modernity: how do we reconcile the values of openness, social mobility, and freedom with the tangible benefits of close-knit, stable social organization? What is to become of those who don’t fit in, or don’t want to fit in? As long as there is mobility (and mobility is a major hallmark of American society, despite the widening gap between rich and poor) there will be people moving in, and making an impact on pre-existing communities. Some see increasing mobility as a march towards an inevitable telos of individualism, but I think that misses the temporal nature of community from the other side of the table.

These two points are driving at the same thing. Geographic areas, not just in New York City but everywhere, are in constant social flux as time passes, and changes bring friction in myriad ways, from the prejudicial to the economic. New Yorkers who think their neighborhoods are changing overnight might be astonished at the pace of change in middle American meatpacking towns such as Austin, Minnesota, where, at least by percentage, population turnover has far outstripped that of major American cities. The changes that are vested upon each group in each place and time are different, but at some basic level, the challenge is the same: how do we cope with this turnover? How do we retain continuity in the face of this change?

There’s clearly no single answer to this question, but I think any hope has to lie with a combination of resignation that change is inevitable and a belief that new neighbors can be folded into existing communities. This can never happen seamlessly, but if both those moving in and those watching them do it commit to the reality that at this time and place, they have to live together, they might be able to accomplish something resembling a new, functional community. In the process, they might be able to use the solidarity they build to manage, in part, the nature and pace of change (both through the local stability that comes from neighborly sentiment and the political power wielded by an organized voting bloc).

I’m not sure Hoch would think I’m wrong, but he might well think I’m sentimental and naïve. It’s all well and good to do an Obama impression when I’m not the one being priced out or picked up for loitering in the same place I’ve loitered for the past few years. Still, despite Hoch’s suggestion that we try our hands in our hometowns, most of us who have moved in as gentrifiers are sticking around, at least for now, and as long as we are we might as well try to be constructive about it. It’s not a vision I seek so much as a practical approach to the real problems that Hoch details so well. I want to believe that if we recognize that temporality composes our communities as much as prior union and geography, we, gentrifiers and gentrify-ees alike, might be compelled to seize the day and share in what each might have to offer.

Taking Over opens at the Public Theater on November 2nd. Tickets and showtimes are available
here. Go check it out!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Franklin's Happy Halloween

A quick update: there were two great events tonight, both of which I only encountered on the periphery: the aforementioned Halloween Party at the Dean North/Walt L. Shamel (the name those who run it use) Community Garden, and a scavenger hunt through local businesses that started at Bristen's Eatery at 8 pm. The latter was aimed at adults, as I found out from Bristen herself when I cracked a joke about being too old for it on my way to the subway. Had I known, I'd have stuck around.

The "Know Your Audience" Award for most enterprising costume goes to the kid I saw dressed in a suit with a Barack Obama mask. He'll be eating candy until Memorial Day.