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L-Ification

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“Texas and California?” I look back out to the street. “Mexicans, or gringos like me?”

Chico smiles. “Many people,” he says, “especially in the last eight months.” Yes, gringos, mostly white, some not—the point is, people not from here. Downtown types. He chops the meat into strips and throws it into a sizzling pan. “Some people have had problems,” he says. “Maybe the new people park a new car on the street and the old people break the glass. They come at night and they—hey! hey!” Chico socks his palm with his fist, and fans the air with a few haymakers, pantomiming the skirmishes of gentrification. “You know,” he says, “there are some stupid people.”

According to Chico, the new-people-versus-old-people problems are what’s put the beat cops on the streets. With rents rising and the area changing, some locals have packed up and relocated farther down the L line, where, Chico says, the rents haven’t changed.

But Chico’s staying. Ten years cooking pasta dishes in restaurants across Manhattan, saving for his own place, and now he’s got a spot right across from a hot L-train stop. He’s got a jukebox with ranchero, some drawings for the wall, a few customers, and more to come.

“Like Bonita, on Bedford Avenue,” he says, mentioning Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow’s authentic Mexican place in Williamsburg’s Hispanic Southside, which is packed night after night with gringo hipsters. Maybe if Chico builds it, they will come here as well.

“I’ll get a garden in the back and a beer license, a wine license, and . . .” Chico shoots his hand into the air and makes a phew! noise, like a bottle rocket shooting off.

Walking another ten blocks, looking for the Morgan Avenue subway station, before doubling back and heading east on Mckibbin Street.

Montrose Avenue had fooled me. What seemed to me to be the end of gentrification, was, for Chico, just the beginning.

After walking all day with L-train stops every four to six blocks, I figured I was wise to the rhythm of the stations, hip to the ebb and flow of old and new Brooklyn. Then seven blocks pass without an L station, then seven more. By now, I’m twenty minutes into ungentrified territory. Finally I realize: This is JMZ turf. I haven’t found the demarcation line, (15) I’ve just lost the L.

So I backtrack, past the used cars and the tire-fix man, the old guys in lawn chairs by the Bushwick Houses, until I again hear the rush of air through subway-ventilation grates and find the turn I missed.(16) Geographically, McKibbin Street is only 90 degrees off Bushwick. But culturally, it’s 180 degrees in the other direction.

Where on Bushwick I had seen a 99-cent store advertising new clothes for low prices, on McKibbin I find a vintage shop selling used T-shirts for twenty times that. There’s graffiti on the buildings here, but the tags and gang marks are now mixed in with what the gallerists call street art: words and cartoons recognizable from Soho and Williamsburg and coffee-table books in the St. Marks Bookshop. What looks like graffiti is actually guerrilla marketing.

On either side of the narrow street are textile mills that have been converted to unfinished lofts and surrounded by overlocked clumps of bicycles. The people I see walking in and out of these buildings are all in their twenties and heavily styled. (If Williamsburg is emerging as a place to have babies, then the area around the Morgan Avenue stop is emerging as a better place to practice conceiving them.) There’s a gorgeous black girl with a power Afro and a skinny white girl in tight black clothes seemingly pieced together from Bowie’s description of Ziggy Stardust.

A black skater cruises by in a tight Izod, jeans, and one of those now-ubiquitous Fidel Castro caps. Then a white couple emerges from a car-service Buick with tinted windows. They are dressed as Gregg Allman and Cher circa 1975. And maybe that’s who they are. It certainly seems possible. This hipster island has a Land of the Lost feeling, as if some piece of 1995 Williamsburg had drifted like Madagascar off the main continent.

Across the street is a café with wi-fi and used couches inside and a giant tire chair out front. A guy in green shorts and white leather loafers shuffles over to the giant tire, peers at it for a few wobbly seconds, then collapses into it.

“Hello,” he says. His name is Jamil. He’s a handsome black kid in his early twenties, small and lean and laying back in the tire like he’s tubing a lazy river. He kicks his feet and looks up beneficently. His pupils are huge. “Where are you from?”

“I walked here from the East River,” I say. “Do you live here?”


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