Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Walking tour

We're staying in an apartment on the north side of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. This is a neighborhood that's been through many changes, and is morphing yet again. Like the continental plates heaving, uplifting and crumbling, or delta islands molded by sediment in the ever-flowing current, this urban landscape is constantly changing its shape.

Williamsburg was a neighborhood that had been a pokey little place in the 19th century, settled by German immigrants, home to industries like gasworks, oil companies, glassworks, and factories for everything from shoe polish to mustard. The Domino Sugar Company had a factory on the East River waterfront, where cargo could be loaded onto barges.

When the Williamsburg Bridge was built in 1903, second-generation Italian and Jewish immigrants fled the slums of the Lower East Side, hoping for a better life in newer apartment houses and small row houses with little garden yards behind. It was too popular - by the middle of the 20th century, Williamsburg was just as crowded as the older slums people had fled.

When I lived in New York, back in the mid-'70s, it was not a place anyone went. Another exodus had left Williamsburg crime-ridden and abandoned - except for the small tightly knit community of Hasidim who'd emigrated from post-war Europe and settled in the southern part of the neighborhood. The north part was abandoned industrial buildings and crumbling six-floor walkups. The subway that came here, the L line, was slow, unreliable, with aging dingy cars that stank and sweltered in the tunnels under the river.

All that changed in the 1980s - artists, priced out of SoHo, realized that Williamsburg was only one subway stop from Manhattan, and rents were cheap. Bad as the L line was, Williamsburg soon became a place for artists, musicians, and bargain-hunting hipsters.

Today, of course, Williamsburg has morphed again - rent inflation and gentrification has driven the cheap and the edgy away to find yet another place to settle. This restored brownstone is for sale.

Bedford Avenue is the main drag in North Williamsburg, where renovated row houses mingle with modern new highrises. Restaurants and shops are busy, and range from humble dry cleaners to the best gourmet cheese shop in Brooklyn - from the narrow pizza-slice window to organic fusion cuisine.

Here an un-improved building on Bedford still has that funky tenement feel.

The blocks off Bedford vary. On some, Federal-style townhouses are proudly restored. But on others, restoration still eludes.

On the side streets boarded up garages and warehouses await residential remodeling.

Creativity still abounds here - this vacant lot is home to a bunch of old cars and furniture and a jamming band of stuffed animals and dolls, with a large plush gorilla as the Emcee.

North near McCarren Park, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord raises its onion dome into the sky. It's a remnant of the past, when immigrant families lived and worshiped here.

The park itself is a renovated playground, with a soccer field, running track, and pleasant lawns where people picnic and sunbathe. In a triangle of land near the church, there's a beautiful flower garden with perennials in bloom this May.

Between the park and the elevated roadway of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the streets are in a state of change. Rows of five-story apartment buildings may line one block. It's hard to tell the vintage of these buildings, because they're sheathed in siding, but you can tell the vintage of the remodel - it's either late '40s or '50s asbestos shingles, or early '90s aluminum or vinyl.

The next block might be dominated by a huge brick factory building, dirty windows covered by mesh screens and exterior brick defaced by graffitti - or it might be freshly steam-cleaned and security-locked, with modern double-glazed windows you can peek past to see colorful IKEA drapes and glowing pendant lamps.

The next block over may have a vacant lot, surrounded by board fences. Or a sleek new apartment high-rise.

Crouched among these are small garages, service structures, businesses that serve the industries around the BQE - towing yards and mechanics and tire shops.

Some of these, too, have been renovated and transformed - this trendy restaurant patio may once have been an auto-body shop.

We walked in the evening from our apartment looking for a place to have a bite to eat. As we strolled along the sidewalk, we passed single joggers, Polish-speaking construction workers loading tools into pickup beds, young women walking tiny French bulldogs, high-schoolers in oversize basketball jerseys and saggin' pants, and thin, leather-clad hipsters. There aren't many streetlights here, and the sidewalk traffic is light, but the feeling is safe; gentrified and yet at the same time remote.

As you walk these streets, you have to keep your eyes on your footing, for the rough sidewalks can be treacherous - dusty and pitted, marred with the remains of old timbers, littered with broken glass and mounded with lumps of temporary asphalt cold-patch. One has to be especially careful in high heels, cowboy boots, or platform wedgies. The twilight air is full of the din of still-whirling power-hammers, technomusic from a nearby bar, the sounds of the soccer referee's whistle, and the burbling muffler of a 1978 LTD slowly rolling by.

These streets are in as monumental a geologic flux as the layers of Jurassic sandstone thousands of centuries ago.


Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

What a tour!
I loved looking at and photographing the various colors and shades of those old apartment buildings in Manhattan. There is just something so fascinating about them.

giorno26 ¸¸.•*¨*•. said...

Molto bello questo tour a Brok.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I almost bought an enormous cheap newly remodeled apartment in Brooklyn back in teh 80s.

Sigh. Stayed in the rental in Mangyhattan for another ten+ years instead.

Did I mention *sigh*?

Gilly said...

What a fascinating tour - and how much you know! I am so impressed! You make it all sound so interesting - even the grotty bits!

And your photos are great - as usual!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

You really captured the area well- it is a fascinating neighborhood. Did you get to the Gowanus area at all? The stretch of 3rd Ave that goes over the canal is pretty desolate, but has a melancholy beauty.

shrink on the couch said...

Thank you for the wonderful tour, to allow me to see a bit of Brooklyn.