May 4, 2016
All Aboard the New Hello Brooklyn Cruise
On Monday afternoon, former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz stood inside a Circle Line Ship that had just departed from Pier 83, off the West Side Highway. He wore khakis and a blazer; a gold pin that said Brooklyn was attached to his lapel.
“Take your mind to a time—way before you or I, by the way—when New York City was called Manhattan, and then there was another city that was called Brooklyn.” Markowitz’s pronounced Brooklyn accent could be heard more loudly on the deck outside, where a few dozen tourists, the press, and industry guests sat a little chilled beneath an overcast sky. “And then the great mistake of 1898 happened, before voting monitors, and, low and behold, by a couple hundred votes, Brooklynites voted with the rest of the city to consolidate into a brand new city called the City of New York; well, anyway, I think things have worked out OK.”
The ship’s horn blew loudly as it hit the Hudson River and started cutting south toward the tip of Manhattan, further south toward Sunset Park, and, finally, back north along Brooklyn’s western shore. “On one of the street signs we have we say, ‘Welcome to Brooklyn, the heart of America,’ and I really, really mean that,” said Markowitz. “Once you go on this trip every day, you’ll never fuhgeddaboudit!”
This was the Circle Line’s inaugural Hello Brooklyn Cruise—the only waterway cruise in the city dedicated to showing off the now ubiquitous brand also known as Brooklyn.
New York Cruise Lines, which owns the Circle Line ships, is a 70-year-old business—the oldest tourism company in the city—and has carried 65 million guests up and down the Hudson River and Upper Bay in that time. Danny Boockvar, formerly of Weight Watchers, is its current CEO. He was on board, too, wearing a formal navy suit.
“We’re getting new boats—gorgeous new boats,” Boockvar told me, standing in the roped off first class seating area at the rear of the ship. “That was the driving factor that forced me to be like, ‘I can’t do regular old Circle Line anymore.’” The wind whipped in our faces as we talked and I sucked down a Bloody Mary filled with a Brooklyn-distilled spirit and garnished with a Brooklyn-brined McClure’s pickle. “No one else is doing a deep-dive into Brooklyn, and it’s the hottest, hippest, coolest borough.” Boockvar himself was born in Long Island, though his mom comes from Kings County and his grandpa worked in the Navy Yards.
After spending significant time making our way along the western shore of Manhattan, past the Financial District, Ellis Island, and very close to the Statue of Liberty (where we learned that, apparently, the width of its shell is only as wide as two copper pennies pressed together), we got our first glance of Sunset Park.
The voice of Bay Ridge Native Chris Mason, a Circle Line tour guide, was coming out of the sound system. “So that’s Industry City,” Boockvar says, pointing East, and “I know that is Gowanus. Let’s see what he says about Gowanus.” Boockvar says the Hello Brooklyn Cruise script was not written by his guides—though, like Mason, they are all Brooklyn natives (not a requirement, he adds). Boockvar hired an outside writer to cover all the material he thought a Brooklyn tour should include.
“I said I wanted comedy, I want films, a little history, and a lot of food, and then structure it so you go neighborhood by neighborhood,” he explained. He had worked at Weight Watcher for 11 years, and wanted to mimick the educational system he used there. Take a hypothetical, he said, say your topic is water: Each instructor would take the topic and make it their own, adding individual voice, while keeping the information consistent. That’s what he wanted from Hello Brooklyn guides. Boockvar noted Mason hit the spots he wanted inserted into the bit about the Gowanus Canal—the 506 million dollars poured into cleaning it up, and how it will be basically brand new by 2020. And then, of course, there was one very important topic to cover, whenever possible: Hamilton.
“The good thing about Brooklyn is, Hamilton is everywhere. You really can’t go wrong,” Boockvar tells me. In order to make sure the message is on, Circle Line monitors things like Trip Advisor. Still, he concedes, “Honestly, we didn’t know whether the tourists would think this is boring as hell.”
Presently, Mason was in the middle of explaining artist Deborah Kass’s “YO” installation at Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Jane’s Carousel, built in 1922 in Philadelphia, and how, if you follow Flatbush Avenue off the Brooklyn Bridge, you’ll run into Junior’s Cheesecake Factory, whose travel-size cakes were stacked high at the bar inside, free for the taking for the inaugural event (if you had a premiere-level bracelet wrapped around your wrist).
Waterway tourism competition is fierce, Boockvar says, but what Circle Line offers is unique. “Our boats are built for sightseeing; everyone else is a bunch of ferries and tries to shuttle you to the Statue of Liberty and back, jammed in like sardines. There is no good food. That’s not us,” he told me. “We’re a curated experiential business with great guides and seating.” I could attest to that: I had been wandering, leisurely, throughout the boat, drinking a Coney Island brew and eating Blue Marble ice cream. The bathrooms downstairs were clean. Boockvar noted I might be cold, and suggested we leave the roped-in seating area and head back to the heated area.
Inside, Markowitz was holding a white wine, his attention rapt, listening to Mason’s casual script. “You know, you’re going to find a lot of stories about gangs, some true,” Mason says, “Like Al Capone—he was a bouncer over at Coney Island before he was shipped to…”
Markowitz jumped in. “Chicago—he was not our greatest product.”
Markowitz now lives in Windsor Terrace, but started talking to me about the Crown Heights he knew in boyhood. “You have to understand, in the 50s, Brooklyn was the center of the world to us. We didn’t know it from crime or drugs, we didn’t know anything.” He remembers the Brooklyn Dodgers, the trollies chugging around Crown Heights, and the milk, butter, and cream delivered in carts attached to horses. And meat? That was not prepackaged; you showed the butcher approximately how much you needed with your hands. And, you thought Nitehawk is a modern day novelty? “They used to give you silverware and dinnerware, and you paid to see the movies for two full-length films plus another hour of cartoons—so you were in there for five hours,” Markowtiz recalled.
I asked if, by chance, he had been to Nitehawk in Williamsburg. Once, he said. “I don’t remember the movie, but I remember you can eat. They used to do that on a regular basis.” At that point, Markowitz was needed for a photo opportunity under a bridge with Boockvar. But he was in no rush. So I told him I lived in Fort Greene.
“I love your neighborhood,” he gushed. “I love your neighborhood!” He was suddenly much more animated than before. “I am amazed by what has happened there, I can’t tell you the change.” I mentioned Frank’s Cocktail Lounge, as the one remnant of how things used to look. “Well, yes, I know,” he said. But then interrupted himself.
“Did you already get a Brooklyn pin?”
Before we had departed on the cruise, he had been walking around, chatting amiably to passengers and handing out Brooklyn pins like candy. He had already offered me two. “Well, take another. For your boyfriend or whatever.”
Mason had finally taken us up to Williamsburg, near the Williamsburg Bridge. He mentioned the old Domino Sugar Factory (now without its iconic sign), Barbra Streisand, and Peter Luger’s steak house. At that point, the tour had already been going for well over an hour, and we stopped short of Greenpoint, to turn back down the East River.
“I’m gonna shut it down,” Mason said into the microphone, offering some quiet on our way back to Manhattan. “But get your beers and gin concoctions. We’ve got Brooklyn Cupcakes and coffee downstairs, so enjoy.”
As promised, the sun finally peeked out from behind the clouds. And just as I sucked down the last of my quite fantastic Bloody Mary, a train whizzed very loudly overhead, crossing the Manhattan Bridge and into Brooklyn.
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