Brooklyn Redux

Williamsburg, Brooklyn

We just got back from New York City, and I’m happy to say that I’ve finally seen Brooklyn again…for the first time since 1992.

This time around, two key things were different:

1.  Adam and I were together.
2.  No one was stabbed in front of me on the F train.

Before the day had even begun, it was a marked improvement.

Back in the early ’90s, New York could be a scary place…but Brooklyn was downright terrifying. My NYU roommate and I would often take the F train from Union Square to gray and dirty Gowanus to visit friends who lived there.  One night, a man stalked into our subway car, stabbed the hell out of the guy sitting across from us, and took off down the train like a shot.  As soon as we gave our statements to the cops, they sent us packing.  And I never went back…until this week.

The Jasper Ward House

With our friends Joe and Lucy as our guides, we actually started our Brooklyn adventure in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport.  Joe lives in Brooklyn, while his girlfriend, Lucy, lives on the Upper West Side; because they have an entire island between them, they often find themselves tourists in their own city.  South Street Seaport, with its mall shops, hotels and shipyard, is pretty darn touristy — but also a perfect jumping-off place.

We grabbed roasty lattes at Jack’s Stir Brew Coffee (222 Front Street) and turned down an old, cobblestone lane called Peck Slip.  45 Peck Slip, the Jasper Ward House, straddles a trompe l’oeil of the Brooklyn Bridge and the bridge itself.  Built in 1808, this crusty piece of New York’s nautical history evokes the days when much of downtown was still under water, and when careless young men risked being shanghaied from any structure this close to the Hudson River.

On the New York Water Taxi

To get the best view of the Brooklyn Bridge both Adam and I had ever seen, we crossed the street and strolled a block of the Hudson River Park Greenway before heading past the historic shipyard to what had really drawn us here:  the New York Water Taxi.

A free service sponsored by Ikea, this big yellow ferry steers you away from the port, past Governor’s Island, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and over to the positively massive Ikea store in Brooklyn.  The ride takes about 15 minutes and showed us a side of New York we’d never seen — the industrial dockyard that helps keeps New York’s (and America’s) world of commerce afloat.

To help explain where we went once we got off the boat, here’s a map of Brooklyn.

Sign at the Red Hook Garden Pier

Off the parkway, past a few scruffy blocks of boarded-up houses, we stumbled on a great spot for brunch:  Hope & Anchor.  The service is friendly and laid back, and they offer delicious breakfast hashes, perfectly cooked eggs, homemade limeade, and the best skinny sweet potato fries I’ve ever had, anywhere.

But out the front door and down Van Brunt Street, despite a few bright spots like the cheery Baked NYC, Red Hook is a wistful place where storage units look like castles and a neighborhood park means a slab of concrete.  We weren’t tempted to linger.

Doorway in Carroll Gardens

Carroll Gardens
Now, this was more like it.  It takes a few minutes to get going, but a few blocks along/around Court Street and you at least feel like there’s some there there.

The 50s and 60s were the boom-time here, but elegant fin de siecle brownstones and treats like the Mazzola Bakery take it a long way towards adorable.  One verdant little square at the corner of Columbia and Carroll Streets bills itself, quite appropriately, as The Amazing Garden.

Joe found a few choice albums propped against a tree — Paul Simon, Brazilian jazz, and Peter and the Wolf — which spoke volumes about the well-rounded neighbors.

Cobble Hill & Boerum Hill
A blend of Chelsea, the West Village, and even, with its occasional clapboard houses, Nantucket, Boerum Hill became famous as Heath Ledger’s stomping ground.  (His former townhouse can be found at the corner of Dean and Hoyt Streets.) It’s also where our friend Joe lives, just off Smith on Pacific.

Stores on Smith are crayon-painted, street lamps are curlicued, and every couple wandering the brick-paved avenue seems more creatively put together than the next. Folks smile and say hello, as though this isn’t really New York at all.

Along Smith in Boerum Hill, we loved Soula Shoes (men & women’s shoes), Rocketship (comics & graphic novels) and One Girl Cookies (tiny little cookies, dessert bars, cupcakes, and gelato).

Smith Street in Boerum Hill

At the end of Boerum Hill, we said goodbye to Joe and Lucy…and soldiered on.

Park Slope
With an hour to kill before meeting our friend David, we took a ten-minute, shaded and brownstone-lined walk from Boerum Hill to Park Slope.  We prowled the north end of Fifth Avenue, which is a little grungier, a bit more artsy, and chock full of people who apparently missed the memo about the failing economy.  This neighborhood is flat-out bustling.
I enjoyed some pretend clothes shopping while Adam napped on a variety of couches at Asha VezaCog & Pearl and Flirt.

On Bedford Street in Williamsburg

Leaving Park Slope, we both nearly lost the will to live trying to cross Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues to find a cab to
Williamsburg.  The landscape was getting increasingly barren and the blocks endless, so we finally hailed a gypsy cab with broken door locks and the cushiest leather seats on Earth.

Our wry Indian driver delivered us to our friend David’s building on Broadway just in time to see a thin sunset from his 11th-floor roof terrace.  From on high, the neighborhood looks like an elaborate train set, save for the abandoned construction sites, impound lots, scrapyards, and off in the distance, the Manhattan skyline.  When lights began to twinkle on the Williamsburg bridge, we set off in search of books and dinner on and around Bedford Street.

We started at the ramshackle/gourmet Diner Restaurant (no tables available).  On to the Bedford Cheese Shop (pure magnificence, including local Mast Brothers chocolate), then picked up a stack of books at a literary gem, Spoonbill & Sugartown. We wrapped up the evening with a perfect steak dinner at cozy, low-lit, celebrity-sprinkled Walter Foods.

So…good night, Brooklyn.  Thanks for the chance to visit you in a new era.  I wouldn’t say you’ve entirely transitioned from an ugly duckling to a swan, but we always felt safe, welcome…and satisfied.


  1. Wow you sure did cover most of Brooklyn. Glad you had a good time and it definitely has come a long way from the 70s-mid 90s. Many NYers hang out here more often than in the city. Great read.

  2. Thanks for this post. It brings back such wonderful memories. This is my old neighborhood! Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill.

    Lila’s went to daycare just down the street from Mazzola, and we’d stop there on the way to pick up hot chocolate rolls and coffee.

    Some other true Brooklyn haunts of the area I have to add: Monteleone’s bakery (which fused with Camereri’s a couple years ago. Camereri’s used to be down on Henry Street where Naidre’s is now. Moonstruck was filmed there and now the new storefront on Court Street plays the movie on a huge flatscreen TV.

    Also, D’Amico’s coffee where they roast the beans right there in front of you. Amazing deli, and the best hot chocolate served only in winter.

Speak Your Mind