clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Yes, Greenpoint Is Changing, But It's Not All Bad: Here's Why

New, 15 comments

Caryn Rose is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer who documents New York City, rock and roll, and Major League Baseball. She is the author of two novels, B-SIDES AND BROKEN HEARTS and A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME, and three non-fiction books, RAISE YOUR HAND; ONE GIRL, ONE TEAM, ONE CITY; and GAS, FOOD, WIFI. Find her on Twitter @carynrose or online at carynrose.com. Let's go Mets!

[The Pencil Factory in Greenpoint, circa 2007. Photo by Will Femia via Curbed Flickr Pool.]

On Tuesday, Wired published a photo essay titled "Photos of Brooklyn Before and After the Hipsters," which followed the well-worn path of bemoaning the loss of "authentic" Brooklyn. (It actually describes the borough thusly: "a great place to live before the hipsters took over and brought their fixies and crappy beer and artisanal donuts.") The photographs, taken by former resident Kristy Chatelain after she moved there in 2006, and then updated later to reflect the changes she witnessed, are meant to illustrate the impact gentrification can have on a former residential neighborhood. And to be fair, North Brooklyn has had its share of growing pains, with long-time residents (both residential and commercial) being priced out, development deals that will line the waterfront with luxury towers, and parks promised by the city that have never materialized. However, there was one small problem with this story: It didn't accurately reflect what impact these specific new interlopers actually had versus what they replaced.

As a longtime resident of the neighborhood, I've seen firsthand how this sleepy corner of northern Brooklyn has been transformed from a strongly Polish, working-class neighborhood, to an up-and-coming desirable location that's recognized as "hip" by visitors from around the world. But the actual impact of these changes goes much further than whether or not a bodega cleaned itself up, or an abandoned storefront with artful wheat-paste street art has been replaced by a restaurant. Here's how some of the examples Wired used actually affected the neighborhood.


[This building is down the block from what is now Brouwerij Lane. Photo by Caryn Rose]

78 GREENPOINT AVENUE

In Wired's piece, the 'before' photograph is that of an old, unused garage facing Franklin Street. For years, that space sat empty until either the landlord got smart or a real estate agent got ambitious (or maybe both) and the underutilized space—near the corner of Franklin Street and Greenpoint Avenue, a reasonably major intersection—was transformed into what is now Brouwerij Lane, a beer store, specializing in craft beers, both bottled and on tap.

Yes, the name is pretentious. Yes, a hipster walking around with a growler full of microbrew is a cliché. But the shop is a great use of the space, focusing on small, local craft brewers and offering tastings and other social events. There are a lot of complaints from neighbors about some of the establishments located in this area due to noise and public drunkenness, but not about this merchant. I'm not sure how a run-down, graffiti-strewn garage is an improvement to the neighborhood over this.


[Detail of the Pencil Factory circa 2006. Photo by Caryn Rose]

47 JAVA STREET

A quick history lesson: Greenpoint was originally quite the manufacturing hub. The U.S.S. Monitor was built here; the Astral Oil Works Refinery was here; and the Faber Pencil Factory was located on West Street, which runs along the East River and was the closest north-south street to the shipyards and other manufacturing enterprises. The ground floors of many non-manufacturing buildings had commercial space, catering to the neighborhood's workers; but once the industry went away, the commercial spaces were converted to residential, or were boarded up and abandoned.

That's exactly what happened at 47 Java Street—until the Pencil Factory became luxury lofts, Kickstarter transformed an old factory one block over into their headquarters, and Broadway Stages moved in down the block. Suddenly, that part of West Street wasn't dark and run-down, a place you would walk your dog or park your car only when there were no other spots. Now, the commercial spaces are in demand, and an Italian restaurant is soon to open. Yes, that end of north Greenpoint may someday have too many restaurants; but today, commerce coming back to West Street makes it better for those who live and work here, and safer for everyone.


[P.A. Grocery in 2007. Photo by Caryn Rose]

145 FRANKLIN STREET

Franklin Street is one of Greenpoint's main north-south thoroughfares, and was once a major commercial block. When that faded, most of the commerce centered around Manhattan Avenue, about a 10-minute walk away—and most of Manhattan Avenue rolls up the sidewalks around 7pm. The further north you live on Franklin Avenue, the more you depend on the local corner bodega when you run out of milk or cereal, because they are closer and stay open later. But for years, there was no demand for the bodegas to do anything more than just be there—they didn't have a selection of much, and you probably wouldn't buy anything that didn't come in a bottle or can anyway.

And then schoolteachers and people who worked for the city and needed a cheap apartment started moving to Greenpoint, especially its northern end. In 2005, you could still find a decent one-bedroom railroad apartment up near Java Street for about $1,400 a month. These folks worked outside of the neighborhood, so they didn't have to put up with a smelly bodega run by unhelpful staff. This made one of the bodegas step up their game, offering sandwiches and free Wi-Fi, and once others saw the results, they decided to join the party. P.A. Grocery took its stock out of its windows, put in a deli and a grill, lined the front with stools and counters, and generally cleaned up the joint. They're still there and making money, and the neighborhood benefits from more choices.


[West Street circa 2007. Photo by Caryn Rose]
OAK AND WEST STREET

This end of West Street faces the Greenpoint Terminal Market, which suffered a catastrophic five-alarm fire in 2006. The houses that face the car in the photo had to evacuate because they were so close to the fire and the wind was blowing south. (Luckily, the fire was controlled before it got to that point.) The industrial building closest to the front of the frame was impacted by the fire because it had sky bridges to the main terminal market building. Next to it, and behind the fence, was a parking lot full of various types of heavy machinery that was stored there. It was empty, vacant, underutilized, underused, ugly.

Today, that former empty shell is going to be office space, which is now in high demand in the neighborhood. The parking lot? It accompanies the Brooklyn Expo Center, which took the place of a factory that manufactured office cubicles. Yes, the Expo can cause traffic problems on Franklin Street when an event is too popular. But in terms of the concept of 'highest and best use' these transformations serve that purpose far more than a raggedly fenced-in lot with high-volume industrial fans stored in it, bordered by a rudimentary walkway made up of broken flagstones and weeds.

33 HAVEMEYER STREET

Havemeyer Street is on the border of what longtime residents refer to as "Italian Williamsburg." This address isn't far from where the giglio gets lifted every summer as part of the The Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel; Bamonte's, a delightful old-school red sauce joint which seems like something David Chase would have built in his imagination, is just a block or two away. This particular address used to house a neighborhood joint called Brick Oven Gallery, which featured—you guessed it—brick oven pizza, cooked in an oven that's more than 100 years old. It's unclear what was so objectionable to the photographer to make the empty, vacant space preferable. Best Pizza (despite the terrible name making it impossible to Google) actually serves a more than decent pizza, a cross between an old-school slice and a more artisanal (sorry) pie. The space couldn't look more authentic—it's got that old-timey plastic lettering out front—and the inside is tiny and cramped, the walls lined with paper plates decorated by customers. If Best Pizza hadn't moved in, that oven could have been lost forever.

_________

There is definitely a story to be told about how Brooklyn, and Greenpoint specifically, are changing, but Wired's article didn't really do that. There's a difference between being priced out by a greedy landlord, and, say, longtime neighborhood favorite Carmine's Original Italian Pizza closing because the owner decided to retire after 35 years. If you just walked by with a camera once a year, you wouldn't know the difference and would bemoan the loss of yet another "authentic" Brooklyn storefront. But spend some time with a place and you'll see that not every change is indicative of what happens "after the hipsters"—if anything, the hipsters probably kept the place open longer than it may have, because it's adjacent to a G train entrance and stayed open late back when almost nothing else did.

Less "hip" but just as important to the neighborhood is the story of JAM Stationers on Manhattan Avenue. That office supply store that catered to the neighborhood. It served the adjacent businesses, who needed waitress order pads, coin rolls, and paperclips; it served the students in the two nearby schools, who needed pencils and notebooks; it served the old Polish ladies coming across the street to buy a birthday card (in Polish) and a lottery ticket after having coffee and cake at Cafe Riviera. But overnight, its rent went from $4,000 to $12,000, and the shop closed. For a time, the closest place to get office supplies in Greenpoint was a staples on the other side of the BQE, until a building owner on Manhattan Avenue opened an office supply store to make sure the neighborhood was served. That's a bigger story about the community, but requires spending time being involved in the neighborhood—reading the blogs, talking to the guys in the bodega, going to the community board meetings—instead of simply taking a before and after picture of a storefront.
· Photos of Brooklyn Before and After the Hipsters [Wired]