Brooklyn, New York: Old and New

  • Oysters of the day at Littleneck.

    Oysters of the day at Littleneck.

  • Weekend picnickers at Prospect Park, the borough's largest green space.

    Weekend picnickers at Prospect Park, the borough's largest green space.

  • Lower Manhattan looms beyond Dumbo's Brooklyn Bridge Park.

    Lower Manhattan looms beyond Dumbo's Brooklyn Bridge Park.

  • Brooklyn at dusk.

    Brooklyn at dusk.

  • Brooklyn hipsters congregate outside Littleneck restaurant.

    Brooklyn hipsters congregate outside Littleneck restaurant.

  • The hipster-centric Wythe Hotel occupies a 1901-built textile factory on the Williamsburg waterfront.

    The hipster-centric Wythe Hotel occupies a 1901-built textile factory on the Williamsburg waterfront.

  • A woman cycles in Grand Army Plaza.

    A woman cycles in Grand Army Plaza.

  • Views from the elevated F train track in Gowanus.

    Views from the elevated F train track in Gowanus.

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Home to hipsters, movie stars, and hardcore foodies, the Borough of Kings has long stepped out of Manhattan’s shadow. A onetime Brooklynite reflects on its transformation

By Jennifer Chen
Photographs by Joshua Paul

It is one of those perfect New York summer nights: warm, but not too humid, with the sun holding out until 8 p.m. This is supposed to be the season of the great cicada invasion of the Northeast, or, as the headlines screamed, “Swarmageddon.” But the only buzz we hear is the conversation and laughter among our fellow concertgoers heading toward Prospect Park.

Beck is playing for free at the park’s band shell, yet the crowd tonight extends well beyond graying Gen Xer’s like my friends and I, who played Mellow Gold on heavy rotation in our college dorm rooms. Pushing our kids in strollers, we’re joining a stream of baby boomers carrying hampers filled with baguettes, tapenade, and watermelon-feta salad, and giddy teenagers with mouthfuls of metal and vintage rock T-shirts. And yes, we’re surrounded by those quintessential types that have (for better or worse) put Brooklyn on the map as a hipster haven: heavily bearded young guys with nerdy glasses; sylph-like women decked out in floaty dresses and tattoos.

The concert has started, but we’re only half paying attention, even when Beck and his band strike up the familiar chords of “Loser,” the slacker anthem of 1993. Truth be told, these days we’re more interested in chowing down on the contents of our cooler bags and making sure that our toddlers are not sticking something up their noses. And enjoying a perfect summer night with old friends in New York’s almost perfect borough.

Welcome to Brooklyn, circa 2013. The uninitiated might still equate New York City and all its grit, glamour, and glory with Manhattan. But in recent years, Brooklyn has become shorthand for a certain brand of cool. You might not be able to define it exactly, but if you’re under 50—or watch Girls—you know it when you see it.

Call a restaurant “Brooklyn-style,” and it probably churns out dishes that are heavy on local ingredients, light on fussy presentation, and served in stylishly unstudied surroundings (think mismatched chairs, jam-jar glasses, and tables covered in butcher paper). Franny’s in Prospect Heights sparked the current culinary revolution with its spot-on pizzas when it opened in 2004, followed closely by Frankies Spuntino, an homage to the chef-owners’ Ital- ian-American heritage that felt right at home in Carroll Gardens, where paisanos gathered in clubhouses. To this day, diners usually have to wait for a table. Taste their meatball parmigiana and cavatelli with sausage and browned sage butter and you’ll know why.

With its DIY ethos, flea-market decor, and in-house radio station, Roberta’s, in the once down-on-its-heels Bushwick neighborhood, morphed from an unassuming pizzeria into one of the most exciting restaurants in the U.S. In the last few years, decent places to eat have even popped up in Gowanus, a former no-man’s land whose most distinctive feature was an evil-smelling canal. At Littleneck, an urban interpretation of a New England clam shack opened by a pair of former rock musicians, svelte locals wash down steamers and respectable lobster rolls with Narragansett beer. The Bell House, a 1920s printing press turned alternative-music venue, stages events like the annual Brooklyn Bacon Takedown, a cook-off devoted to its fatty namesake.

Add to the mix artisanal food producers whipping up candy, granola, charcuterie, you name it in commercial kitchens in Sunset Park, and Brooklyn is now the undisputed pit stop for any New York–bound traveler serious about his food. So much so that New York magazine’s food critic, Adam Platt, declared that “Brooklyn’s ascension is official,” praising new restaurants like Park Slope’s Talde and Battersby in Cobble Hill.

This New Brooklyn attitude isn’t confined to food. A serious design scene has been percolating here since artists and designers began moving into the abandoned factories of Williamsburg and the waterfront Civil War–era warehouses of Dumbo. Future Perfect, a trailblazing design shop in Williamsburg, led the trend with chandeliers fashioned out of antlers and stools made of rope—a rough-edged foil to Manhattan’s perceived polish.

Future Perfect shut its doors this past summer after a decade in business, but in its wake is a coterie of like-minded shops such as Strawser & Smith and Beam, places that combine Midcentury designs with a dash of Adirondack cabin aesthetic. Elsewhere in Williamsburg, artists’ lofts have given way to concept stores, retro clothiers, and high-end grocers. Even the bodegas have craft beer emblazoned on their canvas awnings. On the day I visit the Mast Brothers chocolate factory on North Third Street, a Japanese woman is pondering which US$8 single-estate bar to buy while her two very small girls—one looking no older than three—take unsmiling photos of themselves with an iPhone. It’s official: one of Brooklyn’s edgiest neighborhoods is now family-friendly.

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