THE END OF AN ERAby Theodore Hamm
In early October, after eleven years, two months and a handful of days in the same apartment, I moved out of Williamsburg. Perhaps you missed this somewhat-less-than-momentous news, but in my world, it was the stuff of banner headlines. It mattered more to me than the beginning of the baseball playoffs, the latest polls in the mayor’s race, or the fate of the public option. And at the end of my relocation, I was so exhausted that when I heard who won the Nobel Peace Prize, my only response was “why?”
A lot happened in the 4,000-some days that I called 43 Withers Street home. I arrived on my honeymoon, and departed on the road to divorce. Launched in that apartment, the Rail would eventually move to its current location, but that hardly stopped the mail from overflowing. The spacious kitchen of my top floor abode was home to much merriment. At ground level, I became friendly with most of my neighbors; and if the front stoop were larger, I would have spent time on it. For the better part of my tenure, I liked my home.
That said, it’s a far different place than it was in ’98. A seven-story hotel with a French name that translates, inaptly, to “The Pretty” lurks across the street; the handful of sexual trysts I witnessed from my window made it only intermittently more appealing. From the rear window, which once looked out to the Chrysler Building, now hover the condo monstrosities towering over McCarren Park, at least one of which started to rust in only a few years’ time. Meanwhile, the sturdy brick factories and warehouses along Union Avenue have now become giant holes in the ground, irrefutable evidence of the “cratering” economy. If and when the economy “recovers,” the new buildings surely will be the kind that rust quickly.
But a hate letter this is not. I had too many good times in and around 43 Withers, during which I spent my years 32 to, yes, 43. I remember going into Pete’s Candy Store when it actually was a candy counter, and the ghost-like woman proprietor seemed perplexed when I ordered a hot dog; only recently did I find out that the store was indeed just a front, and that the real “action” was in the back, where the books were kept. And when Union Pool first opened, late one night my pal Jason and I spotted a couple balling outside against the plywood fence, a harbinger of things to come. I won’t get too mushy and start toasting to “all my friends,” because they know I’ll come visit—and when I do, there will be two new bars in the near future at the corner of Withers and Lorimer. It’s no place for a middle-aged man.
My now-former neighborhood indeed underwent a warpspeed transformation in my decade-plus-one-year there. In ’98, there was one full-fledged art gallery and only one bar where we congregated; over the next few years, the nightlife mushroomed and the galleries cropped up, to the point where some called Williamsburg the “new Chelsea”; then the Bush tax cuts brought the gold rush to Chelsea and most of the galleries went over there; meantime the great hipster migration began and the bars overflowed; the 2005 rezoning ushered in the speculative boom, while the whole area became a hipster playground; then the speculative boom became the enormous bust, with unfinished, unattractive, and unsold condos the defining feature of the landscape. That’s life in the “new Miami” for you.
I’ve now moved South, where I’ll be looking at Brooklyn from the “bottom-up.” On one level, that’s not true, because my new perch near the top of Sunset Park sits at one of the highest points of elevation in Brooklyn. But to the rest of Brooklyn, Williamsburg-Greenpoint is pretty much Queens—except without the diversity. Yet there is one main thing that unites Williamsburg with the rest of Brooklyn, and it is to this connecting thread that I now turn.
On the first Monday in August, I decided to take a walk. While this qualified neither as momentous nor as news, the jaunt was noteworthy for its distance: the entire length of Bedford Avenue, from Sheepshead Bay to Greenpoint. Having lived just a few blocks away from the longest street in the biggest borough for eleven years, I figured that I might learn something about Brooklyn over the course of a nine-mile stroll.
It was shortly past noon when I exited the Q station at Sheepshead Bay. I made my way down to Emmons Avenue, which runs along the fishing piers. Near the corner of Emmons and Bedford I spotted a small commercial fishing boat called “The Sea Wolf,” which lent some literary sanction to my endeavor; at the Bedford intersection there is an Applebee’s, which brings to mind nothing intellectual whatsoever. Along the piers, one charter boat captain asked another, “Whaddya guys do in two weeks when fluke is over?” Such concerns seemed a far cry from those heard in Greenpoint.
Not much happens at Avenue Z and Bedford at 1 p.m. on a Monday in early August. It was one of the few hot days of the summer, so even if folks were around, they were probably inside (or at the beach). But the brick row homes at the bottom-of-the-alphabet avenues are lovingly attended, the planters on the porches tidy, the American flags crisp and clean. I was certain that at the other end of my walk, I would find something other than such orderliness. “Bedford Beach” knows no shame, and even less decency.
Dissension is far from the norm in Sheepshead Bay, though. A mural on the handball court at Avenue X loudly trumpets God and country, with a giant American flag, NYPD and NYFD logos, and the names of fallen heroes asking that “God Bless America” while commemorating 9/11. At the Galapo Playground at Avenue U, a tall black man in a suit appears to be a politician reaching out to seniors in an election season. A father with his child on the playground wonders why I am taking notes, and so do I.
Once past Kings Highway, so little happens that I long for the comparative dynamism of Sheepshead Bay. Entirely residential along Bedford, neither Midwood nor East Midwood offer a reason to visit in any season of the year. But between Avenues I and H lies Brooklyn College, a beautiful campus that perenially inspires the life of the mind. And on the other side of it, the beat picks up, and you’d better be on your toes. Ba-dum-bump.
Shortly past Flatbush, a black woman helps two West Indian men prepare for their immigration exam. Together they sing, “Oh say, can you see…”,then she asks, “It’s called the Star ?” Just past the handsome art deco Sears, I buy a bottle of water from a street vendor; it’s hot, and I have been walking for several miles now. As I continue up Bedford, I’m soaked with sweat, causing a Caribbean man roughly my age to advise me, “Take your time, boy. Take your time.” It is sage advice.
Around Midwood Street in Lefferts Gardens, a man so hairy that not even Malcolm Gladwell could explain his predicament asks me for directions. I am in the shadow of Ebbets Field, the housing projects that replaced the fabled ballpark. But soon I’m walking behind someone wearing a Yankees 44 jersey, evincing nostalgia for a different era and a different borough. A few months prior I had almost moved to a grand old building near Ebbets in Crown Heights, only to be outbid by someone paying all cash. In retrospect, I am quite happy that my deal fell through, because nostalgia always has a price.
At Eastern Parkway, I meet up with Donald, the Rail’s fiction editor. We walk the rest of the way, through Bed-Stuy and South Williamsburg to Hipsterlandia. Our small talk switches quickly from Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice, to the vicissititudes of the real estate market. Bed-Stuy brings a preview of the empty condos we will find at the top of Bedford. In the former Soviet Union, they still refer to the architecture of certain periods by the name of the era’s ruler—e.g. “Khruschevs.” I think it’s time we started doing the same here. And “Bloombergs” are everywhere in North Brooklyn.
It is now the day before Halloween, and I’m sitting at my kitchen counter in Sunset Park. The smell of burning incense from the storefront Buddhist Temple next door wafts into my window; out back I see a stately Norway Spruce, a reminder that the neighborhood was once dominated by Scandinavian immigrants. My co-op, in fact, was built by Finns. Now the area is home to mostly Chinese immigrants on one side and Mexican and Central American newcomers on the other. Such a demographic mix, you might say, is the future.
As for me, I’ve left the land of oysters and hanger steaks for the terrain of savory tacos and Bánh mì. Here there are tree-lined blocks and modest brownstones, with only an occasional Bloomberg to be found. Yes, there will be nights when I’ll miss living around the corner from Pete’s, but Hipsterlandia will do just fine in my absence. I’ll gladly no longer be an aging crank going on about how the neighborhood used to be.
Sunset Park surely will change in the coming years, especially since it was recently rezoned. At a mid-October community board meeting, most folks seemed pleased with the outcome, particularly since it established “contextual zoning” provisions. Upon ratification, Brooklyn’s top cheerleader for development stated that the rezoning would “help encourage properly-scaled new development.” Moreover, “Every effort [will] be made to ensure that the magnificent park views of Upper New York Bay and Manhattan are preserved,” vowed the borough president.
After what I witnessed in my former hood, I think that I’m entitled to have my doubts.
To be continued…over the next eleven years.