Monday, September 26, 2011

Red Hook, Brooklyn

Old Rail line 
When I lived in Austin, Texas, two fun bumper stickers were commonly displayed: "Keep Austin Weird" and "78704."  For locals, these slogans represent support for local small businesses and artisans, as well as affirm a type of eclectic bourgeois bohemian lifestyle.  On a recent sightseeing walk through the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, I am pleasantly reminded of this Austin eccentricity.  

According to Dom, the Made-in-Brooklyn walking tour guide, Red Hook's name derives from the red color of the clay, and the Dutch word for point, which sounds like hook. Accurately named, this neighborhood sits on a point in the New York Harbor, between downtown Brooklyn and Bay Ridge, with views of Governor's Island, Lady Liberty, Manhattan, a smidge of Staten Island, and New Jersey.

Art Gallery

Red Hook could not hide its industrial sea port past even if it wanted to.  Along the wharf artists studios, art galleries, restaurants, and residential lofts have replaced the former warehouses that stored various imports like cotton and coffee. These artisan restaurants and studios also dot the main street.  Down some of the cobbled side streets a visitor can see a community farm, a local brewery [Six Points], a maraschino cherry factory [which pinked up some local bee honey a while back when the bees were partaking a bit too much], a winery [Red Hook Winery], a chocolatier [Cacao Prieto], and a key lime pie shop [Steve's Authentic].
Six Points Brewery

All this local business needs a bit of an economic boost, though, especially for a neighborhood with very limited public transportation. This is where IKEA comes in. Located on the water, IKEA supports its business, and the local community's, by funding the water taxis from Manhattan and shuttle buses from downtown Brooklyn. Of course, you could take the fifteen-minute scenic walking route from the nearest subway stop [I did] and experience the true meaning of industrial neighborhoods en route. 

Back of Fairway & Lofts
Near IKEA is the Long Island answer to Texas's Central Market, a European styled food market: Fairway. In addition to reasonable prices on every type of conceivable cooking ingredient, above the Red Hook Fairway are lofts with the best views of the harbor and the docks.  This former warehouse boasts some spectacular picture windows and has kept some of the structure's original warehouse beams with the warehouse numbers still imprinted upon them.  

View from Lofts

Old beam
Several years ago Red Hook had notoriety for how unsafe it was.  Now, with development and creative businesses sprouting up around the community, this neighborhood provides a peaceful retreat from other overly congested areas of Brooklyn.  You can actually park [for free!] in the IKEA parking lot, and IKEA has added some beautiful green space along the water where you could sit, picnic, and enjoy the waterfront views.  As an added bonus, you can watch Manhattanites racing from IKEA to reach the departing water taxi with their giant rugs, pillows, and kitchen supplies in tow.  Or, just watch the ships in the harbor.

Running Across the Brooklyn Bridge & Manhattan Bridge

From Cadman Plaza /Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn, a runner can make a beautiful scenic loop over two stunning bridges that span the East River. Despite their close proximity, the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges share little in common except their termini and life purpose. 

When crossing her on foot, the Brooklyn Bridge  resembles a sophisticated, elegant lady in contrast to the tough "guy" Manhattan Bridge.  Her neutral-toned stone, metal, and rope-like guide wires gracefully connect the span carrying cars and the wooden pedestrian platforms with tons of visitors jockeying for a picture of her. Nearby, the gray-blue steel and concrete, adorned with graffiti tattoos that would make a sailor blush, span the river carrying cars, a few pedestrians, and screeching subway cars.  

The Brooklyn Bridge  has been operating almost twenty-seven years longer than the Manhattan Bridge, and she has a charm and beauty all her own.  Despite the hordes of inconsiderate and clueless people who interrupt the traffic flow on a too-narrow foot path, there is something peaceful about watching the last rays of the setting sun reflect off the New York Harbor and Lady Liberty. How many people have enjoyed such a view for over 100 years?  The Manhattan Bridge has his own appeal. You can run across the bridge on either the north or south side.  The south side pedestrian path has a spectacular view of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Harbor; the north side has a rougher view--certainly not one he wishes to show the lady to the south! Whichever side you choose, it can feel like you have the pedestrian portion of the bridge all to yourself compared to the path across the Brooklyn Bridge.  If you can drown out the subway screech and traffic horns, you practically do.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Coney Island

In 1645 the Dutch who had settled New Amsterdam [Manhattan] allowed a group of religious dissenters [led by a woman] to settle an area--Gravesend-- known today as Coney Island.  A few theories circulate regarding how the name Coney became ascribed to this particular island with a famous boardwalk along the stunning beaches caressed by the Atlantic Ocean. My personal favorites are that it is either a bastardized version of the Dutch word for rabbit, konjin, because so many wild rabbits inhabited the area, or an Irish sailor, Mr. O'Connor, named the island after one of similar size near his home port. 

From the 1860s until the mid 1900s, large hotels, bathhouses, horse racing, amusement rides, circus shows, and hot dogs drew hundreds of thousands of tourists on the trains and ferry services built to bring them to play, in all senses of the word, by the sea. Neither disasters--fires, storms, amusement ride accidents--nor anti-morality statutes--prohibiting gambling, ballyhoo, and exotic dancing--deterred the economic growth here. You gotta love the irony of religious dissenters settling an area that became the hotbed of frivolity, seediness, and political corruption [Tammany Hall].

I visited Coney Island by bicycle a week after Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene's visit. Cycling through the beach town felt a little like visiting a old show girl long past her prime. Although weathered with faded tattoos, sagging wrinkled skin, and smeared lipstick, a twinkle in her eyes promised a few good stories of some luscious years back in the day.  I cycled up to the infamous wooden Boardwalk, which was first constructed in 1923 [and cost $3 million], by the stadium where the Brooklyn Cyclones currently play minor league baseball. Behind the stadium towers the remnants of the abandoned Parachute Jump. The Parachute Jump came to Coney Island in 1941 after its debut as an amusement ride at the New York World's Fair.  James Strong originally designed the ride as a military training device, but it quickly gained popularity as an exciting amusement ride.  The Parachute Jump operated on Coney Island until the mid-1960s. Over the years since then, plans have vacillated between historic preservation and demolition. Due to its size, either option is expensive.  So, it now stands rusting as a monument to the grandeur of another era.  

While I took these pictures, an older gentleman next to me sighed in disbelief at what had become of the ride. He was recalling a time when people came to the boardwalk dressed in a tuxedo or ball gown; then, as if on cue, a kid in a ripped tank top and flip-flops sauntered by, surrounded by a stinky cloud of illegal smoke. Times have changed. . .a little.

Coney Island could be called Carni-Island for all its visual stimulation. On one side of the Boardwalk, it is a cross between the state fair and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes; on the other side, the beautiful wide beaches appear to be populated with casting extras from a few current reality TV shows.  

The Boardwalk retains her charm, though, with some established places. In 1916, Nathan Handwerker, a Polish immigrant, took his wife's frankfurter recipe and opened a hot dog stand here.  The rest, they say, is history. Many famous New Yorkers have had their picture taken with this famous hot dog.  The Boardwalk still has stalls with games and food. The food offered at the "Grille" is actually all fried, including Oreos.  And of course, a few thrill rides and seedy characters also maintain the carnival feel.

The rest of Coney Island reminded me of the old Gulf coast Florida beach towns I grew up near, complete with tacky tourist souvenir stores.  The westernmost end of Coney Island is a gated residential area called Sea Gate; just around the corner, though, a gem of a spot has the best views of the Verrazano Bridge.  Unlike the Florida beach towns, though, I did not feel these were great neighborhoods to visit at night.  

Traveling east along Neptune Road, the Brighton Beach area brings a sensory overstimulation.  Amidst the screeching elevated trains, honking horns, and thumping car stereo bass, people scream expletives at anyone and everyone; cars and bicycles dart to and fro, disregarding stop signs and bike lanes as merely suggestions; and the smell of the sea is overpowered by the smell of vomit, stale beer, and grilled onions from the neighborhood restaurants and markets.  Near the retro-designed McDonald's, one food store advertised that it specializes in Asian, Mexican, and Russian foods.  Indeed, Coney Island is a melting pot of culture,entertainment, and history.