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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Of course, as it goes with all things real estate in New York, the doomsayers lurk. “Park Slope is going to be ruined,” a friend bemoans, blaming the year-old Barclays Stadium, home of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, for bringing “undesirable” bridge-and-tunnel sports fans. Another friend posts an article about actress Chloë Sevigny—the ’90s poster child of downtown Manhattan—setting up house in Brooklyn with the caption, “Yet another sign of the Apocalypse.”

It seems only a matter of time before Williamsburg suffers the same fate as Soho, a once edgy neighborhood turned glorified mall for European tourists. Urban Outfitters, where teenage girls stock up on floral-print rompers, gold lamé headbands, and ironic panda sweatshirts, is opening on North Sixth Street, along with preppy-threads purveyor Gant Rugger and Parisian label Sandro.

The food movement, too, isn’t without its detractors, who question why we would pay nearly US$15 for a jar of pickles or $10 for peach-Sriracha jam, even if they’re made in small batches by earnest college grads. It’s a point worth making, especially after you realize that a Brooklyn Magazine blog post on the borough’s 10 best kale dishes isn’t a parody.

I’ll be honest: part of me is nostalgic for Brooklyn before its latest transformation;  before everyone else on the other side of the East River discovered it. Back in the late 1990s, three roommates and I lived in a ratty third-floor walk-up in Park Slope above a toy store called Little Things. The shop’s owner was our landlord, and on the first day he met us, he sat in a chair that suddenly gave out,  leaving him sprawling on the floor. We lasted for only a year. Our next apartment was a dream by comparison. It was another walk-up, but it had decent wood floors and a sunny kitchen, and was only a block from Prospect Park. By then, I’d fallen hard for the neighborhood’s tree-lined streets, classic brownstones, and uneven slate sidewalks. The tedium of evening commutes was lifted when the F train emerged above ground between the Carroll Street and Smith-Ninth Streets stops. Time your ride right and you’d catch the sun setting over Carroll Gardens’ brownstones—a moment that would make even the most hardened city dweller look up and smile.

Then there were the locals. Folks like the guys behind the counter of La Bagel Delight, who wore gold chains and Mets caps, remembered your order, and called you “sweetheart.” Or the crazy old bat who’d shout from her window every weekday morning “What time is it, honey?” at the busy commuters on Eighth Street. Those who knew better would dutifully check their watches. Those who didn’t were cussed out in Italian.

When our second apartment was broken into, two cops with mustaches and accents straight from central casting turned up to take down our report and inspect the scene. One of them told me keep an old peanut butter jar filled with change. “That way, you get bee-yew-tiful prints from whatever knucklehead picks it up.” They left us a laminated prayer card with St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things.

Young Brooklyn converts now boast about hardly ever going into Manhattan—what true locals call “the city.” I heard the same sentiment expressed years ago by a middle-aged man with a generous paunch and thinning hair. “For me,” he said to the woman sitting next to him on the train, “Brooklyn is everything.”

I wonder where they are, these old-timers, and what they would make of all the changes that have swept through their borough. But I bet they’re still here, because for all the quirky boutiques, casual-cool restaurants, and their skinny clientele, there’s a heart and soul that’s deeply rooted in this place. You see it with the ladies in their Sunday best going to the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church on Smith Street. Or among the new wave of Mexican and Chinese immigrants who populate the modest homes of Sunset Park. Or the families lugging coolers and grocery bags to Prospect Park on any fine weekend for an all-day barbecue, and the African and Latino football teams high-fiving each other after a close match. For them, Brooklyn is just the start to everything.

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