9:38 PM EDT, March 19, 2013
NEW YORK — Sorry, but I've heard that Brooklyn is over. You can get your hipster mustache waxed; just don't do it in Brooklyn. You wouldn't go to Seattle now, would you? If you wanted to visit the American community of the moment, you would visit, say, Portland, Ore. Haven't you heard: Brooklyn's compromised, edge-free; it's Portland five minutes ago.
That said, I remember relatives from Brooklyn, visiting us in New England when I was a kid, muttering that Brooklyn hadn't been Brooklyn since forever. Certainly, it hadn't been worth a damn since the schism of 1898, when Brooklyn was eaten by New York City, becoming Manhattan's troubled brother to the east, a sprawl of mulch-colored warehouses in clay-colored neighborhoods, dotted with parks, waterfront, ennui and battered charm.
But to me it sounded romantic, like undiscovered country. Oddly, to tourists, Brooklyn has remained so — undiscovered.
Though tourism to New York City has soared, from 45 million visitors in 2009 to 52 million last year, the bulk of visitors stuck to Manhattan. Yet, with 2.6 million residents, if Brooklyn were still a sovereign city, it would be the fourth-largest in the country, behind Chicago.
True, six months after superstorm Sandy, some neighborhoods struggle for footing (particularly Red Hook); true, most New York City murders happen in Brooklyn (though across all five boroughs, the murder rate is at a 50-year low); and, true, Manhattanites who fled in the past decade for Brooklyn are being priced out (average monthly rent on a Brooklyn studio apartment have hit $1,976).
But you're just visiting.
You've heard a lot of noise out of Brooklyn, and you're curious: Is Brooklyn worth a trip the next time I am in New York City?
With qualifiers, yes.
In fact, consider the following a gentle nudge: Just as I used to think it was odd to meet people who had never been to New York, now I think it's odd to meet people who skip Brooklyn. Don't these people like food? (Any list of the great new New York restaurants demands a train to Brooklyn.) Have these people forgotten that after the hotel shuttle into Manhattan, there is no longer a dramatic skyline to see?
There is from Brooklyn.
Indeed, one of the nicest things about going to Brooklyn is looking back toward Manhattan and realizing your shoulders have lowered. Brooklyn, whatever romantic image is in your head, conforms nicely.
As a child, I imagined Brooklyn was "Sesame Street," and, yes, the first time I visited as a child, Boerum Hill, leafy, clean, family-friendly, brownstoned, offered the same brick stoops as PBS. Now that I'm an adult, it doesn't look so different, though now there is Mile End Deli (718-852-7510, mileenddeli.com) tucked on the end of Hoyt Street, offering remarkable Montreal brisket. The Red Hook waterfront of "On the Waterfront," working class and hunched, still seems like the edge of the world, except now there is the cafe Fort Defiance (347-453-6672, fortdefiancebrooklyn.com), rustic to the point of ramshackle, every meal smelling of char. And Coney Island, at the south end, is the Coney Island you imagined, midcentury artifice, boardwalk and amusement rides intact.
And the Flatbush Avenue that William Styron described in "Sophie's Choice" — "intensely urban, cacophonous, cluttered, swarming with jangled souls and nerves" — feels as authentically scruffy as it must have to Styron decades ago, its billboards and shop signs less prevalent now than its handbills and perverse graffiti. (Last month I walked by a wall on which someone had written in sloping letters, randomly, "Focus On Your Crap!!!")
But there is, of course, the Brooklyn that doesn't conform as neatly, the part that angles for outsiders.
So now there is the Barclay Center, the new 19,000-seat arena that is home to the Brooklyn Nets. As if fate itself were commenting on the gentrification of Brooklyn, the arena opened on the same day last fall that I checked in to Williamsburg's year-old, 72-room Wythe Hotel (718-460-8000, wythehotel.com), the jewel in Brooklyn's bid for tourism. It should not be confused with cheesy or cheaply opportunistic.
Sure, the view from my room offered the kind of unobstructed view of Manhattan that cinematographers and real estate developers sweat to find. But everything else is intensely Brooklyn: the pine slats in the exposed ceilings, the toiletries, the Mast Brothers Chocolate beckoning from the mini-bar. Even the interior walls of the elevators are made of reclaimed woods. Then again, the hotel itself — Williamsburg itself — carries the comforting smell of a campfire.
One night a piece of paper slid under the door: David Byrne was performing in the parking lot across the street, and the hotel wanted to apologize for any inconvenience as a result of this very audible concert.
If I felt any inconvenience, it was that I had slipped into a perfectly appointed hipsterville. A few weeks ago, sitting in Reynards, the hotel's very good restaurant, eating grilled escarole and clams for breakfast, listening to Gram Parsons warble over the restaurant speakers, I looked out the window and realized: I was in Williamsburg listening to Americana and eating locally, staring at a painted billboard for "Girls," itself across the street from Brooklyn Bowl (a hipster bowling alley) and the headquarters of Brooklyn Brewery. Was I sitting in Brooklyn? Or Brooklyn's Epcot pavilion?
Did I mind either way?
Getting off the train in Bushwick, I stepped into a crowd covered in bright red goo. Cameras hovered nearby, and klieg lighting towered over the street. A zombie movie, I thought. Until, a moment later, I realized, no: An advertising firm was shooting a messy, playful commercial for a famous jam company.
That, in a nutshell, is contemporary Brooklyn, poised between indie zombie movie and sellout.
Which is to say, go.
Maybe don't go if you are prone to dressing the family in matching T-shirts. But you should go. When I am in New York on a Sunday night, I eat at General Greene (718-222-1510, thegeneralgreene.com) in the Fort Greene neighborhood. It's one of the those restaurants full of antique milk jugs. The neighborhood is warm, and Manhattan feels many states away. But the last time I ate there, I noticed a woman at the next table unfold a tour book and ask her waiter how close she was to the Brooklyn Museum. Which got me thinking: What about Queens?
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