Tag Archives: Brooklyn

A Flea Grows in Brooklyn (Sorry, I Couldn’t Help Myself): Fashion, Food, and Reading Among the Hipsters

SONY DSCFrannie Nolan, the heroine of Betty Smith classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, just wouldn’t recognize the place. The book opens in 1912 and is set in the (then) tenement-filled Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. It was a place to get away from.

Now Brooklyn is “IT.”  People flock to Brooklyn for its trendy shops, restaurants, and entertainment. They may make fun of Brooklyn’s hipster aesthetic, but can’t resist those skinny jeans, ironic glasses, scarves and all the other accoutrements of Brooklyn hipsterdom. The style conscious from places such as Stockholm, London, and Paris look to Brooklyn for inspiration. And, if that weren’t enough, Girls, the hit HBO show based on the lives of four post-college friends trying to make it in the big city, sort of a poor girl’s “Sex in the City,” has begun to prompt the show’s fans to go on Girls tours of Brooklyn locations featured in the show.

You don’t have to be a hipster or a Girls fan to have fun in Brooklyn, but when you SONY DSCwalk around places like Brooklyn Flea, you may be inspired to join in the fun.  At the very least, you’ll feel compelled to scrounge through your parents’ old clothes (think Mad Men era) or retrieve a few old dresses or flannel shirts from that box you were getting ready to send to Goodwill. This is no ordinary flea market.  The merchandise is mostly vintage or DIY and displayed in a way that makes it look as classy, and much more interesting, than Fifth Avenue fare.   You’ll find cool jewelry made of repurposed zippers or typewriter keys, dresses that would make Betty Draper envious, and re-claimed-repurposed-recycled furniture. In winter the flea takes place in the former Williamsburg Savings Bank at One Hanson Place, where vendors sell their wares from teller’s windows and the zodiac mosaics on the ceiling make it worth the trip, even if you’re not a shopper.  But during warm weather (April through Thanksgiving,), the market takes place outdoors: on Saturdays in Fort Greene and on Sundays in Williamsburg.

When you’re shopped out, I suggest wandering the Williamsburg neighborhood where you’ll find great restaurants (the Vietnamese restaurant An Nhau works well for a group and has a great patio in back), outrageous chocolate and incomparable people-watching. A walk across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan offers views of the skyline, the Statue of Liberty, and a sense of walking through the city’s history. If you’re looking for a more formal tour, Big Onion tours offers several walking tours of Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Can’t make it to Brooklyn any time soon? The borough has a literary heritage that’s as distinctive as the rest of its culture so there are plenty of books that will make you feel like you know the place before you even leave the L Train. But break out some eccentric-looking clothes–maybe a spangly dress, or a raccoon hat–before you settle in to read them. Here are a few:

Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

David McCullough, The Great Bridge, non-fiction about building the famous Brooklyn Bridge and This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann fiction about tunneling beneath the East River to create another Brooklyn-Manhattan connection.

Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude.

Colm Toibin, Brooklyn

Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones

Paula Fox, Desperate Characters.

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A Literary and Culinary Trip Across the Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge
Manhattan to Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most famous landmarks in New York City and  walking its span over the East River (just over a mile) is one of my favorite things to do there. A dedicated pedestrian walkway, the Promenade, runs over the center of the bridge and below an estimated one hundred forty-four thousand vehicles cross the bridge every day, which makes it hard to imagine what it was like before the bridge connected the two cities of New York and Brooklyn.  How did the Brooklyn hipsters get to the other side? By boat.

Hike along the wooden Promenade… Cables composed of 3600 miles of steel wire weaving like a spider web around you, the 276½ feet foot towers rising above, the Statue of Liberty standing guard over the harbor to one side, and the view of the city’s massive skyscrapers all around combine for an experience that makes you feel humming with energy.

Reading David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge – The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, adds an extra dimension to a walk across the bridge. McCullough tells the story of the fourteen-year effort of building the bridge, which finally opened in 1883. It was at the time an unimaginably daring feat of engineering, exemplary of America’s Age of Optimism. As someone who lives not too far from the I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis four years ago, the enduring solidity of the Brooklyn Bridge seems even more impressive.

I was particularly fascinated by McCullough’s description of how caissons (used to plant the footings of the huge towers) work.  But, The Great Bridge is more than an explanation of civil engineering. McCullough also weaves in the politics and personalities of New York’s movers and shakers at the end of the Gilded Age, particularly the remarkable designers of the bridge, John Roebling and his son Washington Roebling, who was tragically debilitated by “the bends,” known as caisson’s disease, during the building of the bridge. For a nice discussion of the book, see the Past as Prologue blog.

Bridge-walkers disagree about which is the best way to go, Manhattan to Brooklyn or vice

Street art in DUMBO

versa.  Some recommend taking the subway to Brooklyn and walking back to Manhattan, which offers fantastic views of the Manhattan skyline.  However, I enjoy going the Manhattan-to-Brooklyn route, with the incentive of all the great food that awaits near the end of the bridge on the other side. So, find the pedestrian walkway near City Hall in Manhattan and stroll across the bridge to the DUMBO neighborhood. That’s an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass” but DUMBO is also under the Brooklyn Bridge.

From the end of the bridge it’s a short walk to Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, under the Brooklyn Bridge at 19 Old Fulton Street.  There’s almost always a wait, but it’s worth it.   Then, it’s time for more carb-loading, which you can justify with all that exercise you’ve done walking across the bridge. Almondine Bakery, 85 Water Street, which New York magazine calls the best bakery in the city, is a great place to stop in for coffee and pastry.  It’s especially cozy when the weather’s bad.  Or, pick up amazing chocolate-packed cookies, or homemade ice cream sandwiches at Jacques Torres  at 66 Water Street and head over to Brooklyn Bridge Park.  The Cove section of the park lies between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridge and offers an terrific Manhattan view.  It’s also one of the few places on the New York City waterfront where visitors can actually get down to the water. Its a rich habitat for fish, crabs, and birds of the New York Harbor Estuary.

New York, bridges and chocolate…what could be better?