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.
Southeast from the East River on North 7th street to the Bedford Avenue station.
This is a walk, not a real-estate tour, but in 2005 Williamsburg, they are one and the same. (3) The quiet blocks of three-story houses on North 7th Street yield quickly to the construction boom. And these new constructions are of two basic types.
The first is essentially a box, with small grilled windows set in a blond-brick façade accessorized with those brown Fedders air conditioners. These are the same buildings that are popping up all over the Hasidic enclaves in Southside Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They are unattractive and, not coincidentally, the cheapest construction possible by code. In a housing boom, who needs pizzazz?
The other construction is so common that the blueprints must come free with the purchase of accounting software. It’s a modernist mini-scraper of three or four floors, plate-glass front, stainless-steel trim, with a smaller atrium or penthouse up top. It has pizzazz, but inside it’s rather similar to its cheaper brick cousin.
The most prominent and controversial developments here in Northside Williamsburg are the dozen or so proposed residential towers, the first of which is under construction to my left. Love it or leave it, this is the future of the Northside. Already, the triple threat of luxury apartments, good (future) park access, and ample parking has the neighborhood turning into a tattooed suburbia that’s fast replacing Park Slope as the baby-burg. Evidence: four new shops selling infant-size Iggy Pop T-shirts. (4)
Continuing southeast past the Bedford Avenue station on North 7th Street to the Lorimer Street station.
Across the street from the tower construction site is Sunac Natural, a brand-new Korean mini-market, the first in the neighborhood. Unlike the surrounding Dominican bodegas or Polish marts, this store has tofu-ice-cream sandwiches and curried-chicken salad and fresh ginger flowers, 24 hours a day. When 2008 comes, when the waterfront is a greenbelt and the buildings are finished and the 40,000 projected new residents are settled here, this store will be ready for them.
I pass my regular subway stop at Bedford Avenue, the Plymouth Rock of L-ification. At 9:30 in the morning, it is a swirl of Manhattan-bound commuters, each nonchalantly lugging somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,500 worth of portable electronics—iPods, G4s, Treos—with them. (5)
From here, the tracks continue underground along North 7th Street toward Metropolitan Avenue. Following aboveground brings me smack underneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
This overpass sucks. The BQE is six lanes loud. Five bucks and a glass pipe will get you an STD in the bushes. You can practically feel the tumors massing in your thyroid as you pass. Williamsburg may boom, it may have water taxis and the 2052 Olympics, it may become a garden of ivory and peacocks. But this overpass will always suck.
Although the BQE was once, for good reason, Williamsburg’s unofficial cutoff point, (6) I find that today the expressway no more stops eastward expansion than deodorant stops lymphoma. Beyond the overpass, the Lorimer Avenue station is every bit as busy, with the same population of downtown commuters, as my stop at Bedford.
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.
“In fact,” Dori says, “you know the only thing we don’t got around here?” She looks over her shoulder at the girls behind the counter. “Waitresses!”
There is a standard residential restlessness that itches New Yorkers and hermit crabs alike. We are always trying to trade up, or at least sideways, for more space or a better neighborhood. The fringes of Graham Avenue feel just far enough from Manhattan to be potentially affordable, and yet not so far away as to make you wonder why you’re not simply moving to Philadelphia. If I were ever going to stop paying rent, this wouldn’t be a bad neighborhood to call my own.
Apparently, this is not an original thought, because, lo and behold, right here on Bushwick Avenue, I find Select Real Estate.
With the anti-Bush bumper stickers on the building and a commie-cool color scheme of Chinese red and McDonald’s yellow, Select clearly knows its hipster market. So does Mina, the Punky Brewster–ish agent behind the desk, who wears cool mandarin clothes and square glasses and dyed tips to her straight black hair.
Select has mad style. But strangely, it doesn’t have real estate. At least not now, not for me.
“Unfortunately, absolutely everything right now is under contract,” Mina says. I’d come in asking about buying a house, or a building, or a two-family, or a fixer-upper. Or a condo, or a studio, or a one-bedroom. “We really don’t have anything left,” she explains. “You’ve come at a funny time.” The most recent sale happened to be directly next door. It was on the market for less than 24 hours. This was yesterday.
Mina sends me on my way with a red-and-yellow business card and the address of a $4 million, 33,000-square-foot brick brewery half a mile to the southeast. (By the time I get home, the Select Website lists the brewery as “under contract.”) (10)
And still farther along Bushwick Avenue, between the Grand Street and Montrose Avenue stations.
Ten minutes ago, I was just another New Yorker left on the sidelines of the real-estate game. Now I feel like I’ve been ejected from the stadium.
As the L progresses east here, the signs of gentrification begin to fade. I start to see Chinese food sold behind bulletproof glass and liquor-store displays of pint-bottle booze, all Boca Chica rum. The coffee shop is not an attachment point—it sells coffee, to go, with a napkin on top. The few people I see on the street, aside from the occasional cop on the corner, are black or Latino guys (11) with oversize Yankees caps pulled over their ears and sideburns shaved like Mr. Spock and tattoos of Mom and Jesus.
For the first time all day, this feels like a long walk. And for the first time, I’m fairly confident that it’s about to end. In the distance I see the big-block buildings of the Williamsburg Houses. It’s the beginning of the projects. (12) And, I figure, the end of L-ification.
It’s also lunchtime. Luckily, there are Mexican-food joints on either side of the Montrose Avenue L station. On the left is a new outpost of a chain called El Loco Burrito, (13) which has a sort of San Fran rock-and-roll burrito theme. On the right is El Chile Verde, which has more of a cockroach (14) theme. I choose the green chili.
Inside, I find a grill and four-top gas stove and a stout Mexican man with jaw muscles as thick as mutton chops. His name is Chico. At least that’s what he’s called in Manhattan kitchens.
“Is from a movie maybe? I don’t know,” Chico says. “Chico. Chico the Man?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Chico and the Man. It was a TV show.”
Here in his own place Chico serves home-style Mexican, which I translate into two carnitas tacos with onion, cilantro, and salsa verde, with limes and radish on the side, and a Jarritos watermelon soda. “The new people who move here, many people from Texas and California,” he says. They know home style.
“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?”
“I will tomorrow,” he says. He cocks his head and considers the sky. “Want to see my new place?”
Jamil leads the way up the street, to a newly built one-story warehouse building fronted by a giant rolling garage door. There is a white work van inside and a Chinese worker sitting on a bag of concrete, shoving the contents of a Styrofoam box into his mouth. He glances up at Jamil, then resumes eating.
“This is it,” Jamil says.
“You’re renting this?”
“Yes,” Jamil says firmly. “I want to install solar panels.” Jamil turns to the workman.
“Where is the owner? Is the owner here?”
“Not here, not here,” the workman says, still shoveling.
“Well, he was here,” Jamil says. He starts to scan the space, then swivels, following a fly. “He was a cute little guy, with a little …” He waves his palm in a small circle above his head. “Hat,” he says.
I’m starting to suspect that Jamil is a little spaced out. “Jamil,” I say, “how will you buy this?”
“Money,” Jamil says thoughtfully. “I’ll need money—$1.5 million, in fact.”
“Do you have $1.5 million?”
“I’m going to ask my father,” Jamil says. “Also, I have a Vanguard account. All I have to do is call.” He pulls out his cell phone and stares at it. The battery is dead. He stares at the tops of his white loafers. He’s doodled on them in Magic Marker.
“Jamil,” I say, “level with me. Come on.” I look into his eyes. His pupils are like twin eight-balls. “One-and-a-half-million dollars! That’s a lot of money.”
“It’s not,” Jamil says. “Imagine if the decimal was moved somewhere else.” He twiddles his hand, shuffling decimals, ta-da. “It’s numbers, man. Think about it.”
“I’ve thought about it,” I say. “Yes, the decimal system is abstract. But $1.5 million—that’s just a fuckload of money.”
Jamil wavers for a second, then stares out across the street, where a conveyer belt is spitting rocks into a giant pile.
He startles, then shuffles out into the blaring sunshine.
Past the Morgan Street station and along Harrison Place toward Flushing Avenue and the Jefferson Street station.
“See you later,” he yells back. “I have to go meditate for the money.”
At this point, I admit it, I’m tired. I’ve been walking toward the gentrification line all day, and all day that line seems to have gotten no closer than the horizon.
Now, for instance, walking toward the Jefferson Street L station, I see on the horizon several more of those five-story factory buildings with Manhattan views—the sort of buildings that I watched go condo two years ago in Northside Williamsburg, the sort rented to youthful capacity today down the street at the Morgan L stop. I’m starting to hate these buildings. I’m starting to hate the people with their ironic bangs and ITHACA IS GORGE-OUS and VIRGINIA IS FOR LOVERS T-shirts, the shooter-producer husband and his video-artist wife and their baby, Fido. I’m not even halfway to Canarsie, but I’m done. I can no longer tell whether I’m in the middle of nowhere or on the edge of the next big somewhere. If there is a gentrification line, I’m giving up on finding it.
And then I run into Simon.
Simon is a big man, maybe six two, 250, dressed in thrift-shop clothes: blue jeans, a golf shirt nappy from overwashing, sneakers that are brand-new but not name-brand. His shaved head shows a star-shaped puncture wound; his arms are tweedy with scars. He stops just ahead to fish a hand-rolled smoke out of a box of Newports. When I stop next to him, he simply smiles and nods and exhales a thick cloud of blue smoke from a finger-size joint.
“You just checking out the neighborhood?” Simon says. He inhales, exhales, scratches.
“Yeah, that’s basically it,” I say.
“Checking it out,” Simon says.
“Just seeing what I see,” I say. I tell him about my walk, about following the L-train route away from Manhattan and looking for the line where things change.
“All right,” Simon says. Inhaling, holding it, nodding. He looks around at the street, the factories, the blue sky, taking it all in.
“Well, right now, this is where I at,” he says. “And where I at is exactly where I supposed to be at. Word.”
These days, where Simon’s at is a shelter around the corner, a revamped knitting factory housing some 400 homeless. Things are looking up for Simon. He’s out of Rikers, he’s lost 100 pounds, and if you don’t count the weed, he’s clean. He sweeps the street in a blue uniform for about $220 a week, of which he keeps $100, through a city-backed Doe Fund project called Ready, Willing & Able. (Simon is a pseudonym. As you might imagine, an ex-con found smoking a joint around the corner from his drug-free shelter does not want his name in print.)
“I’m like you,” he says. “Right now, I’m thinking Brooklyn’s where it at, word.”
Simon waves his joint toward Jefferson Street. “Look here,” he says. “You got them wide streets so the kids can play. And there’s no drugs—just a little weed, you know. And, I’m not paying rent right now so I don’t know, but most of the people around here, they Dominican, they work in the factories. Keep ’em close, the owners like to keep ’em close, word.” He laughs, getting excited. “And you know they ain’t getting paid much, so these places gotta be cheap!”
That’s when it hits me: I’m finally here. Simon’s gesture toward Jefferson takes in brownfields, industrial sprawl, derelict yards, and buildings that contain real working factories rather than raw loft space. There are no baby stores, soy products, or 24-hour delis. There is nothing to buy, no apartments not to afford. There are no Manhattan-bound commuters. There isn’t an ITHACA IS GORGE-OUS T-shirt in sight. Even Simon himself defines the line, which is exactly why the state has placed him right on top of it.
All day, I’ve been searching for the cliff edge of gentrification, and Simon has just casually pointed it out with a burning joint.
He pinches out the roach and lights a Newport, then flexes his knees to scratch his back against the bricks. “I used to spend some time on the Lower East Side,” he says. “Lived there, too. And yeah, I enjoyed it. But man, can’t live there no more.” He shakes his head. “See, they only two kinds of people in the Lower East Side anymore,” he says. “Either you a millionaire, or you a bum.”
Simon starts to laugh. “Millionaire or a bum! You ain’t one of those, you got no business living in Manhattan anymore. Word.”
(1) This marks me as a Williamsburg freshman to those Manhattan refugees who were here when the city first allowed them to make their work lofts residential in 1985. (2) Apparently it’s long enough for a lot more. In a recent American Express survey, 29 percent of New Yorkers polled said that the L train was the best place to find a date.(3) In the past year, condo purchase prices have increased 30 percent and one-bedroom rentals have gone up 10 percent at all of the L stops on this walking tour.
(4) In 2005, babies are the new lapdogs. And like a zombie movie, punk manages to die over and over again. (5) This is an indicator of the youth and wealth of the Lorimer Street L denizens, as well as their current perceptions of the safety of this neighborhood and the subway in general. (6) By the time the BQE was completed in 1954, its overpass and off-ramp had displaced some 5,000 residents in Williamsburg. The population decline lasted until the early nineties.(7) Sunac is on Union Avenue.
(8) I hit Graham and experience a feeling of melancholy. First, there is nostalgia, followed by the realization that I have lived in Brooklyn long enough to feel nostalgia for an Olde Tyme past I never really knew, which is pathetic, which makes me more depressed. Then there is the bittersweet sensation of seeing people who are like you, only a little younger. Graham Avenue is the ghost of Williamsburg past. And like a ghost, it’s sort of transparent. (9) Drinkers will quibble with this statement; Teddy’s, on North 8th and Berry Streets, was also a fine anchor.
(10) This building, near the industrial heart of Bushwick, features old beer barrels built into the walls. For a time, Bushwick was the beer-brewing capital of America, a legacy of the Hessian soldiers who stuck around after their victory at the Battle of Long Island in 1776. (11) Today Williamsburg is 49 percent Latino—mostly Puerto Rican. Only 9 percent of the population is non-Latino black. The people I’m passing here are not really Latino or black—they’re Latino or black Latino. (12) These were New York’s first projects, the result of a new mass-housing concept facilitated by the New Deal. (13) There’s another El Loco Burrito on Bedford Avenue, and another on Graham Avenue.(14) Unfortunately, this is direct observation rather than malicious libel. Still, the food is pretty good.
(15) Of course, “the line” is not literally a line; it’s a bit of geography that corresponds to the point along the socioeconomic bell curve that is so steep that climbing up is not an option. This more accurate analogy is, however, much more difficult to walk along.(16) The L-train tunnels were built in 1928 by engineers determined not to deviate from the aboveground street grid; hence the jarring right-angle turns.