It’s half past eight in the morning, and I’m standing at a cobblestoned dead end on the eastern bank of the East River in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, knee-deep in weeds, car parts, and cans. Behind me is a large metal box—the vent tower for the L train, as it tunnels here from Manhattan. Ahead of me, some nine miles and eighteen stops to the southeast, is the far end of that ride, where the L comes to rest at the old Indian village of Canarsie. In between here and there, of course, is Brooklyn.
Obviously, this estuarial East Village was flooding steadily into Brooklyn along the L line, subway stop to subway stop. But how far did the gentrification go? Where, if anywhere, did it stop?
I know the L, in that for the past six years (1) it has been my link between a rented apartment in Williamsburg and a rented desk in Manhattan. The ride takes less than three minutes on a good day, which is too short for newspaper reading or heavy thinking but long enough to notice little things, (2) such as the fact that every morning the train to Manhattan gets just a little more crowded. And that on recent evenings, after the returning wave of nouveau Brooklynites has washed back over the platform and up the stairs and out into the Williamsburg night, the train is still crowded, with yet more nouveau Brooklynites, presumably lured farther down the L line by the same promise of larger spaces for smaller rents that lured downtown denizens like me across the river in the first place.
Surely, somewhere to the east, there had to be a demarcation point—a line that separated new Brooklyn from old, pioneer from native. To find it, I’d simply have to follow the path of the L train, above ground and on foot. I’d start at the East River and keep walking until, well, I figured I’d know a gentrification line when I saw it. How hard could it be?
Which is why I’m here, at the Brooklyn waterfront before nine o’clock in the morning, in a no-man’s-land of weeds and bleached beer cans, bound and determined and heading slowly southeast above the subway tracks.