A neighbourhood guide to Brooklyn

The borough that birthed the global hipster phenomenon is as cool as ever — now its lesser-known neighbourhoods are shaking off their reputations and reinventing themselves as the new Brooklyn.

Published 29 Dec 2019, 06:00 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:13 GMT
Mural outside Brooklyn Brewery
Brooklyn Brewery, located in Williamsburg, is credited for kicking off the craft beer craze in New York. Beer buffs can take a tour or kick back in the brewery’s tasting room.
Photograph by Getty

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Brooklyn was a common punchline for New Yorkers. It was the butt of jokes in Woody Allen films and in the ’90s sitcom Seinfeld, considered uncouth vis-à-vis Manhattan’s cosmopolitan cool. But all that’s changed. Artists began flocking across the East River 25 years ago, seeking cheaper rents — and hip restaurants, bars, cafes, and art galleries followed. Today it’s the global epitome of cool, and ‘Brooklyn’ is slapped across artisanal food and drink labels. Neighbourhoods like Williamsburg, Bushwick and Park Slope have long been on in-the-know visitors’ radars, now Brooklyn’s DIY aesthetic is spreading across the borough into other districts. 

Red Hook

When you’re at an apartment party in Red Hook, as I recently was, it’s easy to distinguish the denizens of this district from other New Yorkers. Red Hookers often sport unkempt beards, beanie hats and flannel shirts. And coupled with the neighbourhood’s maritime past, there’s a prevailing grunge rock-meets-Alaskan fishing village vibe.

Red Hook, established by the Dutch in the 17th century as Roode Hoek, or Red Point, feels like a village because it’s one of the most isolated neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, severed from the rest of the borough by the Gowanus Expressway and the largest public housing development in Brooklyn. The nearest subway station is a 30-minute walk away, although the advent of CitiBike, New York’s bike sharing programme, has made it easier to get here.

But that’s exactly what gives Red Hook its charm. The people who live here have a special bond, and everyone knows each other. I meet up with Ann Neumann, a writer and long-time Red Hook resident. I figure we’ll head to Sunny’s, a beloved bar that dates back to the 1890s, but Ann deems that ‘too touristy’ (and by ‘touristy’ she meant frequented by New Yorkers who don’t live in Red Hook).

So we end up perched at the bar of Fort Defiance, one of Red Hook’s best restaurants, named after a citadel built here during the American Revolution. “A real community exists here that doesn’t in any other part of New York City,” says Ann as we snack on creamy liver pâté. “We’re far enough removed from the city — and separated by the fact that there’s no subway here — that we don’t have the noise and bustle. And yet, you can see the downtown Manhattan skyline just over there,” she says, pointing behind her with
her thumb.

The neighbourhood is quickly changing, though: destination restaurants, such as Hometown Bar-B-Que and the Red Hook Lobster Pound, have popped up, while Pioneer Works, a three-floor art complex that houses galleries and artists’ studios, has brought the artsy crowd here.

“We try to patronise businesses here that were started by people who live in Red Hook,” Ann adds. Which means we later end up at a pub called Rocky Sullivan’s, where a bluegrass band is warming up in the back garden for an evening show. And then on to The Good Fork, a restaurant serving New American dishes (some with an Asian twist, such as steak and eggs with Korean fried rice and pork and chive dumplings). “As a single woman, I feel really safe here,” Ann tells me. “I can walk down Van Brunt Street [the high street of Red Hook] and I’ll know 90% of the people on the street.”

Lunch is a meaty affair at Pig Beach, an outdoor spot with taco trucks and a bar fills up with revellers on warm evenings.
Photograph by Getty

Gowanus 

A block and a half from the Gowanus Canal is a nondescript former warehouse building. It’s home to the Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club. When it first flicked on its lights in 2014, Gowanus was a desolate no-man’s land. “It was the kind of place where maybe the mafia would take someone to shoot,” says Ashley Albert, the Royal Palms’ co-owner, as we sit in a booth sipping water. “It felt like a secret industrial enclave right in between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, two of Brooklyn’s most populous neighbourhoods.”

She’s not wrong. I recall walking at night between Carroll Gardens and Park Slope 15 years ago and speed walking through Gowanus. I’d cross over the long-polluted canal and wonder how many bodies might be at the bottom wearing concrete boots.

But all that’s changed, thanks in part to Ashley Albert and Royal Palms. The shuffleboard played here isn’t the well-known tabletop version; instead, it’s more akin to curling, with players using cue-sticks to push their disks down a narrow court. Away from the playing area are table games, bars and food trucks.

There’s no denying Gowanus still has a bleak vibe about it, but now there’s a lot more life. Local craft brewery Threes Brewing recently moved in (with a great pub in which to sample its beers). Pig Beach, an outdoor spot with taco trucks and a bar fills up with revellers on warm evenings. Not long ago I attended an all-night Prince-themed dance party at Analog, a dance club with an industrial-cool aesthetic. And the restaurants, such as Korean-inspired Insa, the New American spot Freek’s Mill, and the Michelin-starred Oaxacan eatery Claro are luring food lovers to Gowanus from other parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. 

“It feels here how Williamsburg did about 15 years ago,” says Cheyenne Kiker, director of the food and drink programme at the sleek, high-ceilinged, three-year-old cocktail bar, Dirty Precious.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the Gowanus Canal, a stagnant stretch of water that would probably give you dysentery from one swim. But that too is changing. A major clean-up operation has begun that’s expected to last until 2022. In fact, there are already renderings of the canal with gondolas on it and lively bars and restaurants on its banks.

“This is going to be such a cool neighbourhood that I fear when Royal Palms’ lease is up in eight years, we won’t be able to afford to be here anymore,” Ashley tells me when I bid her goodbye.

Live music, at venues such as Last Frontier NYC, is a common sight in Greenpoint. The area has become popular with artists and creatives, who made the jump over the East River from Manhattan seeking affordable studios and living quarters.
Photograph by Daniela Holban

Greenpoint

Wedged between the borough of Queens and it’s too-hip-for-its-own-good neighbour, Williamsburg, is the incredible Brooklyn neighbourhood you’ve probably never heard of: Greenpoint. For those in the know, Greenpoint is where it’s at. The subway here is on the dreaded G line — the only one in New York that doesn’t go to Manhattan, which partly explains why the area has long been off many people’s radars. A Polish enclave since the 1880s, the neighbourhood is still sprinkled with old Poles and signs in Polish. But now those storefronts rub shoulders with a host of exciting new restaurants, bars and coffee spots.

Case in point: at The Springs, a Southern California-inspired spot with a mid-century modern vibe, thirtysomethings lounge in the spacious back garden sipping Aperol spritz slushies. It’s here I meet co-owner Irene Reyes, who’s lived in Greenpoint for three years. “I’ve always wanted to open up a place here,” she tells me. “Sure, Greenpoint has been slowly changing, but I think for the better.”

It’s true: there are several excellent restaurants here, including Vietnamese place Di An Di, natural wine-loaded Achilles Heel, Michelin-starred Mexican spot Oxomoco and French-Canadian restaurant Chez Ma Tante.

For Sol Kjok, a Norwegian-born painter, Greenpoint has been home since 1998. She was part of the first wave of artists who made the jump over the East River from Manhattan seeking affordable studios and living quarters. Today, Sol is the head of two performance spaces — her studio, Last Frontier NYC, and her home, Mothership NYC, a 10-minute walk away. The latter also hosts a rota of visiting artists from around the world who perform their works at monthly salons.

“It’s a way for local and international artists to meet and talk about art,” Sol says as we chat at her studio. She’s organised a performance: aerialist Erica Mancini dangles from ropes elegantly shifting above us as a band plays avant-garde music. “My studio is called The Last Frontier because, well, it’s geographically on the border of Brooklyn and Queens but also it’s really the last frontier for artists in Greenpoint,” says Sol. “Rents are going up and it’s not as affordable for us anymore, so my purpose for these performances is to keep alive the artistic spirit of the neighbourhood that’s existed for the last couple of decades. But that said, the longer I’ve lived here, the more and more I love Greenpoint.”  

When in Brooklyn

Industry City
A former warehouse complex in Sunset Park, Industry City is now an arts and culinary centre, with galleries, coffee spots and food halls.

Brooklyn Museum
Forever living in the shadow of Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the museum houses an impressive collection of works by Rothko, Degas, O’Keefe and Hopper, among others. b

Prospect Park
Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (the same landscape architect who gave us Central Park), this swath of greenery is the perfect place for a tranquil stroll. 

Brooklyn Flea
Held on Saturdays in Williamsburg and Sundays in DUMBO, this flea market is the place to pick up vintage clothes, vinyl and antique knickknacks. 

Street art in Bushwick
This ’hood became the definitive hipster haunt after Williamsburg went too mainstream. There’s amazing art flanking its streets. 

Brooklyn Brewery
Williamsburg-based Brooklyn Brewery kicked off the craft beer craze in New York City. Take a tour or kick back in the brewery’s tasting room. 

Follow @davidfarley

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

 

Read More