Beautiful Brooklyn Heights

It might surprise you to learn that the first neighborhood to be protected under the 1965 Landmarks Preservation Law in New York City was not in Manhattan – it was Brooklyn Heights. I have had the pleasure of being in the area several times in the past few months, and regardless of the time of day, I find it to be an extraordinarily beautiful and gracious neighborhood. Since I love to take an unplanned walk in the city (a dérive, see my initial post about it here), one of my daughters and I took off on a beautiful warm early spring day to enjoy a walk in Brooklyn Heights.

Brooklyn Heights

Surrounded by Dumbo (see my love letter to this neighborhood here) , Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, and Downtown Brooklyn, getting to Brooklyn Heights is quite easy via public transportation. You can take the 2-3-4-5-N-R-W to Court Street-Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn, the A-C-F-N-R-W to Jay Street-MetroTech, or the 2-3 to Clark Street.  Before setting off on our walk, we had wood fired pizza at Dellarocco’s, which I highly recommend (214 Hick’s Street, off Montague Street). On the way there we walked past block after block of beautiful townhouses.

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I always find myself drawn to the water, and was unable to stay away from the gorgeous Brooklyn Heights Promenade. One of the more recent additions to Brooklyn Heights, the promenade was completed in the 1950’s.

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Rows of of lovely townhouses and apartment buildings face the promenade and gaze toward lower Manhattan.

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The promenade ends at the Brooklyn Bridge (for instructions of how to walk across the bridge from Brooklyn, see this post). John A. Roebling, the 19th Century engineer and designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, lived in Brooklyn Heights.

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The views from the Brooklyn Heights can be incredible. Here is a view toward the Statue of Liberty at sunset.

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Benches line the promenade for relaxing while strollers, both pedestrians and those containing children, move along the pathway.

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The view of lower Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights is extraordinary.

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The Brooklyn Heights Promenade eventually merges into Brooklyn Bridge Park.  Jane’s Carousel, dating from 1922, invites all to stop and take a ride on a hand painted wooden horse, to the sound of authentic calliope music.

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Brooklyn Heights has attracted writers and artists since its inception, and walking around the neighborhood it is easy to see why. Benjamin Britten to W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman to W.E.B. DuBois, Arthur Miller to Lena Dunham – all have found inspiration in the quiet beauty of Brooklyn Heights. Truman Capote, another resident, wrote Brooklyn Heights:  A Personal Memoir, in which he famously states, “I live in Brooklyn. By choice.” More and more people have made this choice over the past two decades. which has made this one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York City.  The average price for a two bedroom apartment is $1,712,000 (compared to $1,149,000 for Brooklyn on the whole), and for a three bedroom it is just under $4,000,000. Townhouses can go for considerably more than that, but most people who live here consider the neighborhood well worth the cost. Brooklyn Heights has come a long way from Capote’s 1950’s description of street gangs and alley cats, but the allure of the area endures.

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A day (and evening) in Bushwick

When Peter Stuyvesant chartered the area he called Boswijck (“little town in the woods”) in 1661, it included the areas of Brooklyn now called Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick. Like its neighbor Williamsburg a decade ago, Bushwick is transforming itself from an industrial working-class neighborhood to a haven for artists. Vogue magazine declared Bushwick #7 in its 2014 list of 15 coolest neighborhoods (one of only three in the US, and the only NYC area to make the list). Since I love unplanned walks in the city (see my initial post about the concept here) I recently spent a chilly March day exploring what Bushwick has to offer. I mean, already parodied by Saturday Night Live and in the title of an episode of “Girls,” what more could a neighborhood want?

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At least until they shut down the L for repairs, it is easy to get to Bushwick (and the J, Z, and M lines will do when the L does go down). I emerged from the Morgan Avenue stop and began to walk with a purpose to Roberta’s.

Roberta’s pizza is legend, and I intended to find out if all the hype was warranted. The wait for a table during peak times can exceed 2-3 hours, so I wanted to show up for brunch and get in before the crowds arrived. Roberta’s also makes fresh bread in the pizza oven every day before opening, and the bread with homemade salted butter was a fantastic appetizer. The pizza did not disappoint, and a green juice cocktail rounded out the brunch nicely.

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Leaving Roberta’s full and happy, I was tempted to throw my shoes up to join the others.

 

Walking down any street in Bushwick was a visual treat. Street art is a big thing in Bushwick, especially since 2012 in the area now called The Bushwick Collective and curated by Joe Ficalora.

In an afternoon of wandering, I found spaces full of artists making and exhibiting their work, as well as a film and photo studio.

Maria Hernandez Park had playgrounds, basketball courts, and lawns, surrounded by rows of townhouses.

Housing in Bushwick is varied – lovely prewar townhomes, more modern single family homes with parking in front, converted industrial spaces, and new development condos. People priced out of Williamsburg have found Bushwick, and the rising prices here in turn are sending people to nearby Ridgewood, Queens. Costs are still lower in Bushwick than in Brooklyn as a whole (but who knows for how much longer?). For instance, median rental prices go from $1750/month for a studio to $3000/month for a three bedroom, while median sales prices go from $329K for a studio to $799K for a two bedroom, and there are still a few townhouses to be found for $1.5M.

As the evening approached, I had drinks and dinner at Sincerely Burger on Wilson Avenue.

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The day ended with opera – Rossini’s Otello performed at LightSpace Studios in Bushwick by LoftOpera, a Brooklyn-based company bringing a fresh take on opera (and affordable prices) to younger and decidedly unstuffy audiences. Heading back to Manhattan from the Jefferson Street L station around 11:20, I heard music and laughter coming from many bars and restaurants, as well as from a few apartments. After an enjoyable day in Bushwick, I could see the allure of living here – still relatively affordable with an abundance of things to see and do.

NYC Holiday Decorations 2016

Just as the first chilly gusts of wind arrive to remind us that harsh winter days are ahead, New York City puts on its December finery, showing off with light and color to distract us from the season of dark and cold ahead. While the traditional pleasures of the department store windows, Rockefeller Center decorations, and Radio City or NYCB Nutcracker shows always delight, one of my favorite things about this month is walking down residential streets and seeing the lights we have put up in our own homes – to warm ourselves but also send warmth out to others passing by. The following photos are from the 2016 holiday season (see my post in 2015 here and my post from 2014 in Dyker Heights here):

The Rockefeller tree by day (wonderful) and night (spectacular).

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Skating at Rock Center.

The Radio City Christmas Spectacular finale and living nativity (love those camels!).

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Inside the Art Deco masterpiece, Radio City Music Hall.

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Saks Fifth Avenue, seen from Rock Center.

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Heralding angels leading up to the Rock Center tree.

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Downtown Brooklyn.

A private townhouse in the East 60’s.

It’s hard to capture the lights of the city at night with an iPhone, but I do feel that nighttime is when the city is at its best – and this is particularly true for December, where we push back the darkness as best we can with arrays of light. I absolutely love the poem that Travel and Leisure Magazine commissioned from New York poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips, A Tale of Two Cities:

City above the city and city
Below the city. The diners, theaters,
Dance spots and dives all late-light strobed life
Sumptuous as solitude that knows it’s not
Loneliness like the blue blue-green peacock
Who gales open, waits, doubts and does not doubt.
There is a city above the city
That thinks of you as you think of it: sky,
That you are the sky to it, and these buildings,
Iridescent in thick night like flora
And fauna, are its clouds. We all are part
Of some other distant constellation,
A chanced-on font you see on a marquee
When you look out and then up,
When you think the thought that gets caught in air
And rises from your head like steam in the thaw—
That is the city above the city
Calling out to you through the blued spectrum,
That veiled feeling you keep to yourself of
The time you stood on a street and could swear
Some part, some magnificent part of you
Had just turned into a fish and opened
Up upwards into the darkness, the light,
The darkness, the light, the darkness, the light.

A visit to Coney Island

 

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It’s summertime, and the livin’ in New York City is . . . hot and muggy. If you can’t make it out of town for a visit to the Hamptons, or the Caribbean, or the south of France, at least for the cost of one swipe of a MetroCard each way you can still get to a beach and not even leave the five boroughs. I think calling Coney Island “the playground of the world” (as the sign near the Wonder Wheel proclaims) is an over-statement, but it can be a fun day trip. I will note that the sea breeze is a real thing on these sticky August days, refreshing you even if all you do is walk along the water as the waves lap your ankles.

Coney Island was in fact once a barrier island, but became attached to the Brooklyn mainland via landfill. The source of the name “Coney” is uncertain – it could be due to a large number of wild rabbits, or coneys, but also could derive from someone’s name. Native Americans called it Narrioch, meaning “always in light” because of the abundant sunshine on the beach. After the Civil War, it became a popular seaside destination, and large piers were built. However, it was with the addition of rides that Coney Island began to take on the familiar persona of an amusement park at the beach. The United States’ first roller coaster, Switchback Gravity Railway (apparently they had yet to figure out how to create memorable names), opened in 1884. While the early 20th Century led to Coney Island’s heyday with the creation of Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland, it also began to develop a reputation as a somewhat seedier place as well – “Sodom by the Sea.” This didn’t keep it from becoming the #1 tourist attraction in the country (in fact, it could have helped), with 100,000 visitors a day, on average (to compare, Disney World’s Magic Kingdom averages about 56,000 a day, the most of any current theme park). Following World War II and some demolition (unsurprisingly, sponsored by Robert Moses) Coney Island began a steady decline that reached a nadir in the 1970s and ’80s. A steady revitalization began in the early years of the 21st Century, and despite serious damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Coney Island is looking better these days than it has in a long time.

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Recently I spent a day at Coney Island, taking the 4 subway from the Upper East Side and transferring to the N at Union Square. It was a solid 90 minute journey, so bring a good book – or a good companion – if you plan to make the trek. Getting out of the Stillwell Avenue subway station, you can’t miss Nathan’s, the home of the famous (or nauseatingly infamous) hot dog eating contests every July 4th. My personal preference is for pizza (you can’t go wrong with either Grimaldi or Totonno) but my friends and family who like hot dogs love Nathan’s (just please don’t try to eat 70 of them in 10 minutes).

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Once you get to the boardwalk, there are many competing places to eat, but I’m personally more interested in the rides on one side of the boardwalk and the Atlantic ocean on the other.

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The Wonder Wheel is my favorite ride, built in 1920. It’s 120 feet tall and many of the cars are not fixed to the rim but swing back and forth as the wheel goes around -it’s thrilling.

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From the top of the Wonder Wheel, I noticed lower Manhattan shimmering off in the distance like a mirage.

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Of course the most famous ride in Coney Island is the Cyclone, a wooden coaster built in 1927 that is both a New York City landmark and on the national Register for Historic Places. I’ve ridden it a few times, and it still delivers plenty of excitement and the very real possibility of whiplash.

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Walking back along the beach rather than the boardwalk, it is fun to walk along the ocean’s edge and feel the cool breeze. The beach can be packed, particularly on summer weekends, but it is kept clean and the sand raked, and there are lifeguards. On the day I was there, lifeguards were keeping people out of the water because both sharks and sting rays had been sighted!

If the idea of a seaside apartment to live in or use over weekends appeals, real estate values are beginning to improve in Coney Island – but still there are many apartments readily available to buy, averaging about $417/sq ft. Neighboring Brighton Beach has been rapidly increasing in value, with apartments there now at $665/sq ft, on average, and it is possible that Coney Island will follow this trend as more money is poured into its revitalization.

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There is much more to do on Coney Island (the NY Aquarium and the minor league baseball team the Brooklyn Cyclones, to name only two), but one of my favorite ways to end a day there is with a drink on the boardwalk. It’s hard to know which is more fun: people-watching on the boardwalk, or gazing past them to watch the ocean as the sun begins to set. A day at the beach combined with a day at the amusement park – and all without leaving New York City.

Dumbo

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If you have ever been to Paris, you will know the experience of feeling that every street frames a picture-perfect view. It’s not difficult to take a good photograph in Paris – the city displays itself in such a way that every shot turns out to be achingly gorgeous. I love New York City, and particularly enjoy walking around the city in an unplanned way (a dérive), and wonderful photo opportunities are easy to come by (particularly in Central Park, in my opinion). It wasn’t until a recent walk around Dumbo in Brooklyn, however, that I had the same experience I had in Paris – an area so photogenic that it was hard to put my camera (phone) down.

An acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, the neighborhood is a relatively small swath of real estate largely between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges along the East River waterfront, and also continuing a bit east from the Manhattan Bridge. Originally a manufacturing area called Fulton Landing after the ferry stop that was the only way to get there from Manhattan until the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, by the 1970’s industry had largely moved out and the area had its new (endearingly silly) name. In the constant cycle of reinvention that exists in New York City, the area is now a hub for the arts, and for the tech industry – holding 500 tech businesses within a ten block radius. In 2007, the New York City Landmarks Commission made Dumbo a historic district, and since then the value of residential real estate in the area has soared.

To get to the area from Manhattan, there is still ferry service, but it is also easily accessible via subway. I took the 4 subway down the east side and transferred at the spectacular new Fulton station to the A train. One stop toward Brooklyn and I emerged ready to experience a walk around Dumbo. It is helpful to remember that the ground slopes down toward the river in this neighborhood, and with the Brooklyn Bridge on one side and the Manhattan Bridge on the other, it would be difficult to lose your sense of direction here.

Heading down Washington Street, I was quickly struck by the charming nature of this area. The streets are largely cobblestoned as in Tribeca, the repurposed industrial buildings (now residential) are warm rather than imposing, the ground level shops are interesting rather being cookie-cutter national chains, and the geometric shapes formed by the angles of the bridges to either side frame every view perfectly.

I am always drawn to waterfront if it is nearby, so I continued to slope down toward the East River. To my surprise, there were small rocky/sandy sections along the river that looked more like a beach than a riverbank! Of course, the views of the bridges to each side here were even more spectacular. Jutting out into the water toward the Brooklyn Bridge, I saw the famous Jane’s Carousel, built in 1922 and helpfully covered so that it can operate year round (tickets are only $2). Looking back toward Dumbo, I could see the ongoing construction that is continuing to transform the waterfront. St. Ann’s Warehouse is converting an old tobacco warehouse to house its theater offerings (“Where theater meets rock and roll” – well, you had me at “theater” but I like where this catchphrase is going!). Because the shell of the building is landmarked, they will build an entirely modern facility like a nesting doll within the shell but not touching the walls of it.

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Walking along Water Street, one block away from the waterfront, I enjoyed looking at some of the colorful graffiti along some of the buildings under construction, but did wonder how much longer any of that will be around this rapidly transforming area. Passing Jacques Torres’ famous chocolate shop, I decided not to go in – this time. Continuing past the Galapagos Art Space while looping back to Washington Street and preparing to walk back to Manhattan along the pedestrian path on the Brooklyn Bridge (highly recommended; see my photo tour of the experience here), I realized how many experiences were left for me to experience when I come back – pizza at Grimaldi’s, a ride on Jane’s Carousel, decadent hot chocolate at Jacques Torres – and decided that my next trip to Dumbo will be sooner rather than later.

There are no real estate bargains to be had in Dumbo these days, but if you have the money and the desire to live in a beautiful center for the arts that happens to be tucked away from the bustle of the city – but with killer views of it – in my opinion, it is well worth the cost.

A photo tour of a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge

Whether you are fortunate enough to live and work in New York City, as I do, or are an occasional visitor, a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge is a magical experience – and free as well as good exercise as added benefits! The following is a series of photographs I took on a clear morning in late December (temperature was 38 degrees F, not bad in the least if you dress correctly), walking from the Brooklyn side to Manhattan. First of all, unless you plan to walk across both ways (which is not a bad idea if you have the time), the walk toward Manhattan is the more dramatic one. I also recommend this direction for the morning or evening hours – in the morning, the light is behind you and highlights what you are photographing, and in the evening of course the city lights are at their best. If you walk this direction on a sunny afternoon, the sun will be in your eyes as well as backlighting the buildings, ruining your photos.

I will be showing how to get on the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway from Dumbo – many suggest getting on it deeper into Brooklyn, but first of all, to be near the Brooklyn Bridge and not talk a walk around Dumbo is a tragic loss of opportunity (my next blog post is about my walk around this incredibly charming area), and secondly, all you get from the traditional route is a gradual incline up to the bridge with no significant views. You need to be good with stairs to take this route, however. After your walk around Dumbo, head away from the river on Washington Street, and soon signs will helpfully point out where you take a set of stairs up to meet the pedestrian lane.

It’s not a long walk, but allow plenty of time to stop and appreciate the views, and how they change as you walk over the East River. Keep looking to your left to catch views of the Statue of Liberty and later the downtown skyline featuring One World Trade, and to your right to see the Empire State Building and the rest of the midtown skyline (I particularly enjoyed seeing the Empire State, Chrysler, and 432 Park together, suggesting a skyline willing to encompass both the old and the new).

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Dyker Heights holiday lights

Between the east Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, and Gravesend Bay lies a neighborhood that to many would not look like what they imagine New York City living to be. In Dyker Heights, there are streets with large single family homes and spacious rowhouses, the kind of neighborhood where in the summer they throw block parties with barbeques and games. From Thanksgiving until the beginning of January, however, this sleepy residential enclave transforms into an unbelievable display of holiday excess. An area not well served by the subway, most people visit by car or book one of the bus tours that provide access to those wanting to see the lights. My recommendation for those driving into the neighborhood to see the lights is to park a few blocks away, and walk the most densely decorated area, roughly from 11th to 13th Avenues, and from 83rd to 86th Streets. Here is a sampling of what I saw when I visited Dyker Heights on a Saturday evening in December of 2014.

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Williamsburg

Williamsburg

My previous blog posts about taking a dérive (an unplanned walk through an urban environment) have all happened to be located in Manhattan. However, it’s time to get off the island and explore one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city. Bordered by Greenpoint, Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, and the East River, Williamsburg has rapidly evolved in the past decade, with the housing price increases to prove it.

The area of Williamsburgh (yes, there was once an extra h) was within the town of Bushwick during the days of New Amsterdam. It became the city of Williamsburg in 1852, and was annexed into Brooklyn just three years later. Cornelius Vanderbilt built a mansion in the area next to the river in the late 19th century, and the economy boomed with factories (in a perfect reflection of the area’s change, the old Domino’s Sugar Factory was recently the site of a large scale public art project by Kara Walker). The building of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903 led to swarms of immigrants from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and Williamsburg became the most densely populated area of New York City (itself the most densely populated area in the United States). After World War II, the neighborhood became run down, and although many artists settled there, it took a major rezoning in 2005 to spur redevelopment of the abandoned warehouses into residential buildings.

The first subway stop in Brooklyn on the L Canarsie train is Bedford Avenue, and it’s a perfect place to start exploring this charming area. Walking north along Bedford, you immediately get the feeling of the neighborhood. Generally, low rise buildings and rows of townhouses predominate until you reach larger warehouses and new development high rises near the river. Shops tend to be unique rather than branches of mega-chains. Bedford eventually dead-ends at McCarren Park, which borders Williamsburg and Greenpoint and hosts the SummerScreen free movie festival (you are too late to see Zoolander this summer but Cry Baby, Heathers, and The Big Lebowski are still ahead).

Turning west toward the river on 11th Street, within a few blocks you can smell the hops at Brooklyn Brewery before you see it. Their small batch tour (Monday-Thursday at 5) is highly recommended, but you have to reserve online a month in advance or will likely not get in (each tour is limited to 30 people). Your $10 admission pays for a guided tour of the working brewery and curated tastings of four of their beers. On Fridays there are no tours but people line up to purchase tokens ($5 each) and taste very fresh cask beer. Saturdays and Sundays there are free tours, and beer available for purchase ($5 per token). The hieroglyphs on the side of the brewery say, “Beer has dispelled the illness which was in me,” so a stop at Brooklyn Brewery could perhaps be seen as a necessity for your health (that’s my story, anyway).

Turning south on Kent Avenue, you can see the Manhattan skyline just over the East River. The most spectacular view of Manhattan I have ever seen was from the rooftop garden of an apartment building on Berry Street in Williamsburg, but I don’t personally believe that a view of Manhattan is what Williamsburg is about. Passing the Music Hall of Williamsburg on 6th Street when heading back to the subway, I remember fantastic concerts I have attended and notice five or six places I would like to return to and stop for food or drinks. Williamsburg is easy to get to from Manhattan, and vice versa, but it doesn’t need Manhattan to charm a visitor, or perhaps to turn a visitor into a resident.