Bridge to somewhere

Diverse and popular, Brooklyn uses its size to embrace millions

(Kathy Willens/Associated Press)
By Bella English
Globe Staff / September 12, 2010

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It’s a beautiful day and we’re driving across the Brooklyn Bridge. Beneath, the East River is dotted with red, yellow, and blue kayaks. People are walking or riding bikes on the mile-long span. On the far side, a sign greets us: “Welcome to Brooklyn. How Sweet It Is!’’

I had been hearing that Brooklyn was a pretty sweet place these days. Just how sweet I wanted to see for myself. Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I lived in New York, meaning Manhattan. Though I had worked a summer in Brooklyn, at 6 p.m. I would get on the subway and head north, out of there. With the exception of Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, many of the neighborhoods were considered too dangerous, too distant, and — for us young people — too dull.

But a funny thing happened in a generation. The Upper West Side, where I lived, is now considered the boondocks to many young New Yorkers, who won’t venture above Midtown. My niece Katy is one of them. She is 28, my age when I lived in New York, and she loves Brooklyn.

“I rarely go north of the Village,’’ says Katy, who works in SoHo as the entertainment editor for the Huffington Post. “It’s convenient to meet friends in Manhattan after work, but usually I’d just rather come back here and do something in the neighborhood.’’

I asked Katy to be my guide on a recent trip to her ’hood and she agreed, with one condition: I wouldn’t use the words “hipsters’’ or “BroBos’’ to describe Brooklyn’s young, new inhabitants. The latter is a snarky term coined by the New York Observer to describe “Brooklyn bourgeois bohemians.’’

I promised.

Katy lives in Boerum Hill, so my husband and I booked a room at the nearby Nu Hotel on Smith Street, one of the neighborhood’s main drags. Already, things were looking good: At $160 (an online special), the hotel was cheaper than any we had booked in Manhattan — and the room twice as big — and continental breakfast was included. An added bonus in this parking-poor city: There was a lot next door and for a relatively cheap $25, we could leave the car there for 24 hours.

It was lunchtime when we arrived, and Katy steered us to Building on Bond, a laid-back cafe on Bond Street with exposed brick walls, a small bar, friendly waitstaff, some sidewalk tables — and pulled pork eggs Benedict. Sounds weird, but it worked.

Katy moved to Brooklyn three years ago, after living in Tribeca and the West Village. She wanted her own place, and here, she could afford it. She loves the leafy streets, the youthful demographic, and the absence of tourists (“although I did see one of those double-decker buses going down Flatbush Avenue the other day,’’ she notes).

“It’s easier to have fun here,’’ Katy continues. “You can just walk into a backyard and get a beer. I’ve run out of patience waiting in lines.’’

She knows that this young, hip (I didn’t say “hipster’’) zeitgeist is an easy target: “People like to mock the more precious aspects of Brooklyn, like our farmers’ markets and yoga studios and artisanal cheese stores. But it’s not like there is any shortage of those things in Manhattan. They happen in any gentrified neighborhood.’’

We head down Atlantic Avenue, a thoroughfare known for its antiques shops. Pointing to one, with a gigantic mermaid sculpture in front, Katy notes that she bought her couch there: mod, ’60s-era black leather, and a good deal. There are some high-end boutiques, too, and we stop and gaze at sumptuous cupcakes in the window of Downtown Atlantic, a bakery-bistro.

“Wait until we get to the flea market,’’ Katy says. “There are great mini-cupcakes there.’’ I’m thinking, why settle for mini when you can have maxi. But we continue on to the Brooklyn Flea, as it’s called, in Fort Greene, home of many a cool Katy find, including a vintage white dress with red strawberries that I covet.

As a former Manhattan resident, I’m struck by how much wider the streets seem in Brooklyn, how many more trees and fewer cars there are, and the fact that there are cyclists tooling around who aren’t bike messengers. We walk past the Mark Morris Dance Company studio, past posters for a literary festival in Fort Greene Park, and a sign for a “stoop sale,’’ the urban equivalent of a yard sale.

Just outside the flea market is a vendor with rows of Brooklyn subway T-shirts. I watch as an artist does a hand-cut silhouette of a woman who is standing still as a statue. It takes five minutes and costs five bucks.

Inside the gigantic lot there are 150 vendors selling bicycles, chairs, record albums, jewelry, mannequins, clothes, lamps, books, posters — and mini-cupcakes for a dollar. I choose between a red velvet and raspberry lemon and down the latter in about five seconds. The slight breeze carries the tantalizing aroma of pizza and pretzels and there are vendors selling ice cream, chocolates, and cookies. Katy snags a vintage romper for $40 and I buy her a cute blouse for $15. As interesting as the wares are the shoppers, including a young woman with a foot-tall beehive ’do and a man eyeing a pair of stuffed foxes.

It’s hot out, so we grab a cab to our next destination: the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Brooklyn is huge: about 70 square miles. With 2.5 million people, it would be the country’s fourth-largest city (behind all of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago).

We’re in luck. An Andy Warhol exhibit has just opened and an American fashion exhibit is closing the next day. Several Rodin sculptures greet us as we walk in. The Warhol exhibit features works from his last decade, and the fashion exhibit takes us from the mid-1800s to the late 1900s. There are some great pieces and we marvel at how tiny women were 150 years ago.

Next door is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, celebrating its 100th anniversary. Its 52 acres feature more than 12,000 species of plants in a number of settings including a formal Italianate garden, a woodland garden, a Shakespeare garden, and a Japanese hill-and-pond garden. It’s serene and shady and hard to believe it’s in the middle of a huge city — until you hear the sirens.

Lovers and families are snapping photos and as we stroll through the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden we glimpse the tail end of a wedding. A photographer takes pictures of the bride and groom, who seem happy to stop and kiss just one more time for the camera.

As we leave, Katy points out Prospect Park, which, at 585 acres, dwarfs the botanic garden. Frederick Law Olmsted designed this space after completing Central Park. It is home to a zoo, a meadow, a boathouse, baseball fields, a band shell, and Brooklyn’s only lake. Grand Army Plaza, called Brooklyn’s version of the Arc de Triomphe, is at the main entrance and features an arch, fountains, and statues.

We’re all walked out, so we catch another cab and head back toward Boerum Hill, passing by the huge public library (“great for people watching,’’ she says). Unlike Manhattan, none of the cabbies know where to go, so Katy directs them.

It’s late afternoon now, and that mini cupcake is ancient history. The one request I had made was to go to the shop Jacques Torres Chocolate in Brooklyn Heights. Katy has countered with The Chocolate Room in Cobble Hill. I like the name.

It is a charming place, with a chocolate case up front and a vintage bar that holds cookies, cakes, and brownies. A waitress is hand-whipping cream, a good sign. We’re seated in the back, overlooking someone’s garden, and are served a free spoon of homemade chocolate sorbet.

Over chocolate raspberry tarts and black-bottom butterscotch custard, we talk about Brooklyn. Katy likes the vibe. “It feels more like a neighborhood. Like the guy in the corner bodega; if I don’t have cash, he’ll say, ‘Pay me tomorrow.’ People feel more a sense of a neighborhood identity, so they’re more likely to be friendly.’’

Walking back to her apartment, we stop in at Staubitz Market, established in 1917. The owner, John McFadden, says it’s the oldest butcher shop in New York. This used to be a tough Italian neighborhood, he says, so tough that he had to go by his mother’s maiden name, Nicholetti.

When did it change? I ask. “When your children started coming into this neighborhood,’’ he replies. “Now, it’s organic meats, grass-fed meats, everything has to be nitrate-free.’’ Tony Soprano would not feel at home here, though Meadow might.

For dinner we stroll down Smith Street, the area’s restaurant row, with all kinds of cuisines. There are patios out front, beer gardens out back, and full-length windows that open onto the sidewalks. We decide on Bino, an Italian place named after the owner’s cat. We’re hooked from the complimentary artichoke bruschetta. The street scene feels more casual than in hurried Manhattan, with people talking on sidewalks or stoops.

The next morning we take Katy to brunch at Bacchus on Atlantic Avenue, and sit in the spacious garden. Then it’s time for us to leave. We’ve loved our bite of Brooklyn and may stay here on our next trip to New York.

As we drive back over the bridge, I glimpse yet another great Brooklyn attraction: the stellar view of Manhattan.

Bella English can be reached at

If You Go

Nu Hotel
85 Smith St., Brooklyn, N.Y.
Big rooms and continental breakfast plus a parking lot next door. Rooms $179-$279 (sometimes less online).
Building on Bond
112 Bond St.
Casual food in a neighborhood cafe. Most dishes $10-$16.
Brooklyn Flea
Bishop Loughlin High School parking lot
176 Lafayette Ave.
Saturdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; 150 vendors with junk to treasures.
Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway
Suggested donation $10.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden
900 Washington Ave.
Adults $8, students $4.
The Chocolate Room
269 Court St.
All things chocolate, $4.25-$12.
Staubitz Market
222 Court St.
Prime meats, gourmet cheese, and specialty foods.
Bino Brooklyn
276 Smith St.
Italian entrees $16-$23.
Bacchus Bistrot a Vins
409 Atlantic Ave.
Charming bistro with French owner and chef; brunch $8.95-$13.95, dinner $13.95-$22.95.