Brooklyn, my love

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By John Kerrens


Of all the world’s hipster capitals (Berlin, Melbourne, Portland, Seattle, San Fran…), probably none shines brighter at the moment than Brooklyn, NY. Might want to check it out while it still retains its cred – the inevitable “Brooklyn Sucks” backlash is just around the corner, ready to pounce. You read it here first.

Few people would have guessed, even as recently as the 1980s, that Brooklyn(!) of all places would become a sought-after location for the Terminally Cool. But of course it was inevitable. With Manhattan becoming too expensive for many artists, musicians, writers etc, to afford the rents – anything below 96th St (The “Demilitarized Zone”) cost an arm and a leg – it became necessary to move.

So Williamsburg, across the East River, hove into view. This Brooklyn district was mostly known as the home of Hasidic Jews, gangs, Crack-heads and ordinary blue-collar families. Now the artists, trendies and others looking for cheaper housing began their relentless march into the district, changing its character in the same way that SoHo changed the character of the district formerly known as the Lower West Side (The name no longer exists) in Manhattan.

Soon Williamsburg became too expensive and once again the hipsters were on the move, into neighbouring Fort Greene, Bushwick and Greenpoint. These had also been regarded as “unsafe” neighbourhoods.

Film director Spike Lee had already done much to popularize the Fort Greene section, with its wonderful Brownstone apartments, walk-ups etc. Likewise, neighbouring Bedford-Stuyvesant (you know…”Bed-Stuy – Do or Die”), once the largest African-American ghetto in the country, is becoming cost-prohibitive for some people who are even talking about the East New York/Brownsville section as a possible residence. Yikes! Not for the faint-hearted is Brownsville.

This reviewer predicts that Jackson Heights in Queens will become the destination for the next urban diaspora. All those fab, if gone-to-seed, garden apartments have tremendous potential. In fact Queens Borough in general – with it’s mostly low-density, suburban-style housing, can easily become the new Shangri La for thousands of New Yorkers; especially people who have spent years living in dismal “Studio” hovels, cockroach-infested roomettes and overpriced “railroad-flats” in Manhattan. Since the ‘Disneyfication’ of Midtown and Times Square, much of the island has become corporatised and sanitized.

The only other option for people looking for affordable accomodation in Manhattan is to move further north, into Harlem, Morningside Heights (not as idyllic as its name might suggest) and even Washington Heights. These, again, are neighbourhoods not for the timid or easily-frightened. Harlem and Wash Heights have traditionally been regarded as dangerous no-go areas, with high levels of violent crime.

There is, in the South Bronx, especially the Mott Haven district, some fabulous old architecture. But wear your Kevlar if going sight-seeing. Some other parts of the borough: Melrose, Morrisania, West Farms, will probably remain no-go zones for some time yet. (This reviewer, not usually intimidated by squalid urban areas, felt extremely threatened when walking around the Morrisania shit-hole.) Maybe it’s nicer today.

New York is going through some major changes now. If you haven’t been there before, or not for a long time, this is a good time to visit, to see such legendary “mom & pop” businesses as McSorleys bar, the Empire Diner etc. before they all disappear and Manhattan in particular becomes a bland, homogenised enclave. Most of the above-mentioned neighbourhoods are reasonably safe to walk around in, provided you observe the standard “urban folk wisdom” which applies to most large cities: “Mind your own business and keep your mouth shut”. Well, it usually works in St Kilda…

Check it out, the Big Apple. Report back.

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