Frannie 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 walk 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.