In fact, since the last time I was here—four months ago—the Lorimer neighborhood seems to have gone to rehab, joined a gym, and had a very successful sex-change operation. It feels like time-lapse gentrification. The old businesses now sport colorful new awnings. Twee new shops (such as the organic 24-hour Hana Food deli or the inscrutably named Pacman Chinese Restaurant) have opened their doors. And towering above them all is the 800-pound gorilla in this capitalist catfight: a luxe new superstore with a U.N. food convoy’s worth of wasabi peas, $1.50 organic lemons, and a full takeout sushi restaurant. The sign says SUNAC, which means this behemoth (7) must be the big brother of the little Korean market I saw a little while ago on North 7th. Judging by the two halves of a freshly snipped good-luck ribbon in its doorway, this one just opened today. Clearly, I need to keep walking.
After Lorimer, I enter a world of gum-spotted streets and barbershops with combs in blue fluid and Off-Track Betting centers frequented by men in hats. This feels like Olde Tyme Brooklyn, and I wonder if it might be the end of L-ification.
It takes me only ten minutes to realize the obvious: The Ye Olde Brooklyn feeling might bubble up in the stretches between subway stations, where the blocks are not directly touched by the L effect, but that by no means indicates that gentrification has ended. When I arrive at the Graham Avenue subway station, I find myself amid the familiar trappings of another hipster colony. (8)
History shows that every such colony starts out around an establishment, usually a coffee shop or a bar or both, which serves as an attachment point for new residents, the way junk automobiles can serve as attachment points for new coral reefs. In 1996 Northside Williamsburg, the L Cafe was that attachment place. (9) In 1994 Dumbo, it was the Between the Bridges bar. Here on Graham Avenue, that attachment point is a café called Phoebe’s.
Inside, I find the sort of classic town-and-gown mix endemic to art-yuppie outposts the world over. There’s a local high-school kid with a long T-shirt and zirconia bling on his left earlobe, two twentysomething Japanese girls dressed like slutty cowpokes, and a mid-thirties white guy sporting a faux-hawk like the one Angelina Jolie gave her Cambodian kid. Behind the lunch counter are two lovely girls with long, milk-pale limbs muraled by tattoos. They ignore me completely. Finally I’m spotted by a middle-aged woman in a black bandanna and well-used apron. She has the cigarette-voice of a Brooklyn waitress and the pop eyes and comic warbling of a 21st-century Olive Oyl. Her name is Dori, and this is her place.
“You like that?” Dori says, pointing to the art on the wall: a series of childish drawings in frames—a lady, a tiger.
“It’s interesting,” I say. They are little more than Bic drawings on ruled three-hole notebook paper.
“This lady came in, she’s a therapist, tells me she works with a great artist, a kid with Down syndrome,” Dori says. “So I’m thinking he’s a Picasso. Then she brings in all these loose pages with doodles on them.” She laughs. “Thing is, they look pretty good in the frames. And people actually pay $300 for some of them.”
“No kidding,” I say.
Dori puts out her hand like a stop sign and rolls her eyes. “I know, I know,” she says. “Anyway, it’s a lot better than what some of these”—she lowers her voice and leans in conspiratorially—“these hipster kids bring in. We had this one girl, covered the walls in penises, sticking out from the walls like spikes. Ridiculous! I mean, this isn’t a big place, people come in here to eat, they’re hitting themselves in the face with these things, you can imagine.”
The hipsters aren’t all bad in Dori’s book. Before they came, she says, this wasn’t a safe neighborhood. “They were making meth in my building. You went down the wrong street, you’d get shot,” she remembers. “It’s better now. You got all kinds of people living here: college kids taking the L in to NYU and the New School, artists and musicians, a lot of singers.