For years and years, Manhattanites vehemently refused to go to Brooklyn. All sorts of excuses came to mind – it was ‘too far away’ and had little to offer. Venturing there would be a waste of time and energy. And much of the world didn’t really know much about it, save for perhaps a vintage mental postcard of Coney Island in the ‘50s – which many likely didn’t even realize was in Brooklyn. Or perhaps it conjured stereotyped images of the Italian-American Mafia. Maybe by the ‘90s, some of you who followed the East Coast rap scene knew about Biggy Smalls (aka The Notorious B.I.G.) from my old ‘hood Bed-Stuy. Eclectic impressions at best, if any at all.
But much of that has changed, as things tend to do (although the borough definitely still has some ‘edgy’ nabes). Brookyn has become somewhat of a household name almost the world over. Dare I say it almost embodies its own amalgam of culture, its own gestalt – a blend of hipster cool, indie sensibilities, artistic tendencies, ethnic pride, brownstone charm, industrial grit, and an appreciation for boutique entrepreneurialism and all things organic and handmade. Real neighborhoods where you actually know your neighbors. A crunchier, quirkier, community-focused alternative to Manhattan.
For many, it’s no longer just an alternative, that ‘other’ borough in NYC. It’s become a highly desired location to live and perhaps even work. Even previously die-hard Manhattanites now find its treasures a bit too hard to resist. Some have even (gasp!) decided to expatriate to the other side of the East River – voluntarily. And for those just passing through, it offers a bounty of options to explore and experience.
A hefty reason why Brooklyn’s influence has reached far beyond its geographic boundaries hearkens back to 2008, when the concept of a flea market was brilliantly reconceptualized as the Brooklyn Flea. In its humble infancy, it was simply a modestly sized market in quiet Fort Greene, hawking vintage items and antiques, punctuated by a few artisanal goods produced by local designers and a handful of local food stalls. It was a slightly more upscale and diversified iteration of the classic flea market. The idea resonated – to say the least – and it has now evolved and expanded massively into 10 different versions stretching across Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. Many cities even outside the US have attempted to replicate its success, calling their markets ‘Brooklyn-style’ or ‘Brooklyn-inspired’. Often imitated, never duplicated.
Tip: Don’t miss the sprawling Williamsburg-based Smorgasburg that, true to its name, focuses solely on food in all its delicious glory. This is not just for snacking, it’s a full-on experience. Between all the traditional and creative options, you could easily munch your way through lunch AND dinner in one long sitting (or standing)! I am deeply envious of locals who can partake of this event (almost) every weekend. It even now offers delivery service. Seriously. But this is still a place best experienced on-site.
Another tip: Don’t dismiss the boutique hotels that have popped up in the area. The rooftop bar of The Wythe Hotel, The Ides, is a lovely spot to enjoy a sunset cocktail after your day of Smorgasburging.
Brooklyn also has a blissfully green side. Sure, Manhattan has Central Park – which is admittedly a pretty incredible urban oasis. But did you know that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed Central Park, also designed Prospect Park in Brooklyn – considered by many to be superior in its layout and plan? Its appeal was discovered many years ago, and brownstone-heavy Park Slope bordering the park became the go-to enclave for burgeoning families with some $ to spare.
One of Brooklyn’s other deservedly well-regarded green spots is the Brooklyn Bridge Park, the highlight of the neighborhood known as DUMBO.
Near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge (one of NYC’s absolute icons and definitely worth the walk across its pedestrian lanes), the park boasts sprawling grassy fields on which to lounge and take in the inarguably superior views of New York’s skyline. Manhattan is pretty fantastic to behold, and let’s face it, it’s tough to view Manhattan’s skyline from Manhattan itself. From this park, you can enjoy impressive urban sunsets, picnic in tow.
If you’re not into packing your own grub, there are a number of options to refuel nearby. Notable classics include Grimaldi’s for one of the finest versions of NYC pizza (still baked in a coal-fired, brick-oven, and available only by the pie) and an outpost of Shake Shack for burgers some consider to be the best in town (I’m a fan of the SmokeShack variety).
On the sweeter side of things, Lizzmonade has a couple concessions in the area, seemingly perfectly spaced to coordinate with exactly when you’ll be thirsty for a custom order during your stroll through the expansive waterfront park. Be creative with your selection – perhaps a basil-mint-ginger ‘Tizzy’ (my personal favorite, a half-tea, half-lemonade infusion that delivers just the right amount of sweet, caffeinated refreshment).
If your chocolate craving is eating you up inside, indulge at the original location of Jacques Torres, where even a non-chocoholic like myself can’t resist picking up a few treats (‘for friends’, of course). And Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory offers, you guessed it, homemade creamery goodness. It’s a must for any first (or repeat) visitors to the borough.
Tip: You can opt to stand staunchly in the original line in the summer heat to get your ice cream fix, but a better option is to scoop up your scoop at the much shorter outdoor queue just a few steps away. Under the covered canopy, take in the skyline, maybe observe one of the numerous wedding photo shoots that inevitably play themselves out nearby.
If running through the park grass doesn’t quite cut it for the tots, maybe they’ll enjoy a spin on Jane’s Carousel. Painstakingly restored by Jane Walentas to its original 1922 glory, it finally re-emerged, fully functioning, in 2011 – showcased and protected by a Jean Nouvel-designed pavilion.
In the summertime, Bargemusic is an unexpected way to get your culture fix. To round out a romantic evening, book a table (well in advance) at the coveted The River Café, a favorite spot for marriage proposals (although aspiring proposers, take note – it’s no longer that original an idea, despite its charms).
But I think the best part of Brooklyn Bridge Park is its increasingly prominent role in democratizing the arts. I love a great museum or gallery, and NYC unquestionably has some of the best in the world. But there’s also a place for removing the physical (and sometimes emotional) barriers of a lofty gallery or hulking museum and encouraging people to interact with, even touch, art – especially powerful in a beautiful, outdoor, urban setting to help recontextualize its meaning.
Photographs are displayed in shipping containers during the unique Photoville festival. Now, courtesy of The Fence (also created by Photoville), photography can be seen hanging on banners from fences all over the park – ready to be considered and contemplated by any and all.
Tom Fruin’s Kolonihavehus 2010, a technicolor garden house crafted from salvaged Plexiglas, is an irresistible draw – particularly on a sunny day, when the light dances off its colored panes, shadows are cast on the wooden slats on which it rests, and its vivid hues form a striking counterpoint to the azure sky and the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges nearby.
Danish artist Jeppe Hein was recently commissioned to create a number of interactive sculptures and installations in the park, collectively and aptly named Please Touch the Art. Modified Social Benches punctuate the greenery with their day-glo orange curves that beg for kids to climb and run over them.
Mirror Labyrinth NY literally reflects on the imagery of skyscrapers, to cool, spiraling, abstract effect.
But my favorite is Appearing Rooms, the modern water-based installation that spurts on and off to create temporary ‘rooms’ – to the surprise and delight of kids and adults alike. Like some sort of 2D to suddenly 3D, aqueous grid, it’s a perfectly contemporary reinterpretation of an old-school block party highlight, when people used to (illegally) hijack a fire hydrant to keep everyone cool and the little ones entertained in the blistering heat of a midsummer day.
Brooklyn is all of this and more – and should no longer be a parenthetical on your NYC itinerary.
Next up – NYC’s world-class restaurant scene!
All images © 2015 deb fong photography