Jun 5, 2017
Unjust Deserts: Eating in Brooklyn’s New Micro-City
I grew up in Brownstone Brooklyn at a time (think “Ford to City: Drop Dead”) when things seemed to either go backwards—Bushwick on fire—or pretty much stay the same as they had ever been. Carroll Gardens was Italian, Fort Greene was African American, the WASPs were in Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO was…well, nothing, it didn’t exist as a residential designation, and while there were some tallish office buildings near Borough Hall, there was exactly one real skyscraper on our side of the river, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, at the crossroads of Flatbush and Atlantic. Its four-sided, red outlined clock face, which seldom actually told the right time, was our night sky’s urban lighthouse (helpful, especially, for navigating late-night, post-bar walks back home).
Some years ago, this solitary skyline in my part of Brooklyn began to quietly but definitively change shape. The Morgan Stanley corporate headquarters on the corner of Pierrepont and Clinton Streets, built in the 1980s, kicked it off, but its green gabled aged-copper style triangular roof was joined by other upstarts breaking up and out from the grey concrete of the city’s most populous borough. The Brooklyn Marriott on Adams and a new Courts building on Cadman Plaza East soon reached for the sky in this little corner of Kings County like our seemingly indestructible sycamores cracking up through the concrete and searching for the sun.
But while development and neighborhood regeneration is nothing new—New York in general and Brooklyn in particular is a constant process of the new growing from the fertilizer of the old—right now there’s something different happening, something on a scale never seen before in our Borough’s long history: An entirely new skyline is forming, emerging in the middle of two neighborhoods, and forming another small neighborhood that is all together brand new.
This new neighborhood, let’s call it The Flex—sounds slick and modern, just like the buildings at its center (quality notwithstanding)—straddles the FLatbush Avenue EXtenstion. All together, The Flex is contained within roughly 12-blocks that form an irregular rectangle: Its short end is on the DUMBO side of Tillary Street from Gold to Adams; its long edges tracing a rough perimeter down Adams towards Atlantic, then run along Livingston through part of Boreum Hill, and follow a chunk of Downtown Brooklyn (now called DoBro) to the Flatbush Avenue extension, before making a sharp turn on Rockwell Place in Fort Greene, and finally heading back to Fulton at BAM’s Peter Jay Sharp Opera house on Lafayette. If you can envision all of that, you would find something truly remarkable within this imperfect little box: no less than 12 large buildings, each over 20 stories tall, that have risen in the last three years many in the last few months. Additionally, in this same little oblong box, there are at least seven hotels (an Aloft, a Sheraton, the Dazzler, a Hampton Inn, the Indigo, the Even and a Holiday Inn). Plus, there are no fewer than 16 skyscrapers that are under construction right now, many of which are thirty stories or more. All of this adds up to over 30 (thirty!) big new buildings compacted into one very modest patch of asphalt. One behemoth takes up an entire city block from Nevins to Bond on Willoughby Street. All told, this represents by far the single largest concentration of skyscrapers ever erected in Brooklyn, and one of the largest NYC construction booms in the last decade. And to the extent that most of this construction comes in the form of residential towers, it is pretty much unprecedented in the City’s history.
Of course, most of them are luxury oriented and not close to cheap. These are full service buildings complete with 24-hour doormen, concierge services, lap pools, finished roof decks, well equipped gyms, in house dry cleaners, and attractive inducements like small down payments, three months rent ‘free’, ‘legacy’ parking, “75% corner windows!” (Schermehorn off of Nevins, lots of angles) and as one doorman told me, appealing little sweeteners such as a yearly Metrocard, prepaid Lyft accounts, and on demand premier tickets to BAM and Barclay’s. In the next five years, in Downtown Brooklyn alone (not even considering the rest of Brooklyn, much of which is experiencing construction booms of their own) around 6,500 residential units will be added, stacked within this new vertical ‘hood. This means that (at least) twice that number of people will be added to the area’s population in a singularly-accelerated period of time. And that, of course, raises a series of hard question: Who will buy these apartments? What will that do to the character of the neighborhood? Where will their kids go to school? How will the already-stretched transportation infrastructure support an additional strain from so many new commuters? And finally: where the hell will they all eat?
While very real issues of gentrification, displacement, equity, and authenticity are not going to be solved through an anecdotal and incomplete analysis of where all of this new population can walk to get dinner, the arrival of new eateries to meet that need will be as inevitable as a concurrent parking shortage. And indeed, there are already quite a number of restaurants serving up high-end grub to cater to those who have enough bank to buy into their brand new mini-city. So in the spirit of Brillat-Savarin’s “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”, here’s what we have:
On the Tillary side of The Flex, the pickings remain slim: most guests of the Dazzler (there’s a beer garden now and a fancy “meat centric” (!) restaurant scheduled to open this summer), and of the Hampton Inn grab a cab into the city, or walk up to DUMBO, the Heights, or Fort Greene; but in the lobby of the last building before the entrance to the BQE on Tillary, there’s the Brownstone Bar & Restaurant, a straight-forward gastropubby spot with a wallet friendly happy hour and the added bonus of maybe catching Sweet Mary behind the bar, an Atlantic Avenue legend who worked the departed and much mourned Waterfront Ale House for over a decade.
Turning southish in The Flex, you hit a small cluster of newbies oriented around the corner of Flatbush and Johnston. The Peruvian Pollo D’Oro offers a variety of South American “classics”, including roast chicken specials and pisco happy hours; the men and women of the Eight-Four around the corner on Gold pack into Jun Shokudo at lunch for sushi rolls and moderately priced lunch bentos. Forno Rosso’s Naples-born chef dishes out wood-oven cooked pizzas and southern Italian mainstays, and Myrtle & Gold up the block gives you southern BBQ options like the “Tennessee Hot” and ten taps serving a range of American crafty, micro-ish brews. In the new City Point mall, you’ll find the soon-to-open (still waiting…) Dekalb Market Hall, which will offer an appealing variety of diverse, Brooklyn centric food stall vendors including a Han Dynasty, Fortina (pizza), Lioni’s old school Italian heroes, and an Ample Hills ice cream as well as Queens’ own Arepa Lady, and the Lower East side’s heavyweight deli champ Katz’s first foray into Brooklyn.
On the easily-overlooked Duffield Place, the curious restaurant Kimoto, which offers the slightly odd combination of rooftop beer garden and pan-Asian influenced Japanese (perhaps channeling the spirit of the recently-departed Duffield legend Jose O’Shea’s, a mash up of Irish bar and taco cantina) is right next to the expense-account Northern Italian food at Avere as well as Brooklyn Brewhouse, which delivers predictable atomic wings just off of Albee Square West. Around the corner on Bond, the small but mighty Ganso plies you with really tasty and comforting bowls of rich ramen with unusual ingredients in tiny digs. Inside the new Alamo Drafthouse movie theatre, you can come early to your screening and poke your head into the House of Wax cocktail lounge for a proper glass of more than ten different New York State brews and ciders or one of their professionally prepared house cocktails before settling into your plush jumbo recliner, where in-seat servers bring you cold cans of Tecate, classic if kinda bland New American-y offerings, and upmarket nibbles (plus occasional movie themed specials, e.g Korean short ribs burgers for a recent showing of “Colossal”). Across Flatbush, if you can get past the vortex of the oddly jolly bar at Junior’s Cheesecake (i.e. if you haven’t had too many of their punishingly stiff mixed drinks), the new Papaya Dog (please note direct correlation between that bar and those hot dogs), Applebee’s, and the recently opened The Wei (fast casual Chinese food) near the Nevins Street subway station, you walk past a new tower called The Ashland, the center of The Flex’s culinary gravity as you head into Fort Greene.
In its lobby on Fulton Street you’ll find the much-publicized Gotham Market. Designed as a “European-style food hall” this booze centric foodcourt with a mix of vendors gives thirsty Flex’ers a wide range of fairly anodyne options including Brooklyn’s first Boqueria, where the well-heeled (this is truly not a cheap place) can munch contentedly on jamon serrano croquetas washed down with a nutty Amontillado before heading over to see the latest exhibition at BRIC, or the newest offering at the BAM Harvey Theater, both across the street. This segmented market hall, already perpetually crowded, offers a number of options to the happy hour and pre- and post-theater crowds: Crown Heights’s own Crabby Shack occupies their rotating pop up space (to be filled with Brooklyn vendors only), Apizza Regionale, Flip Bird, the Dinosaur BBQ people’s take on chicken, and the soon to open Egg @ TheBird for take away breakfast sandwiches. Finally there is the Mason Jar (broadly imagined “Southern” food with live music and bourbon tastings) and Bar Granger, for their version of “curated” cocktail hits.
The thing is, The Flex will not be merely a glass and steel island—the locals have options. In fact, The Flex is being grafted onto an area already established as one of Brooklyn’s best, food-wise. A short walk further into Fort Greene yields tasty goodness including the Kwaito spirit infused loveliness that is the South African mainstay Madiba, a perfect burger and entirely obscene French Dip Sandwich at Walter’s, sublime pastas in the golden candle lit warmth of the ever sexy Roman’s, and the white hot buzz of the brand-new flame centered kitchen of METTĀ.
Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, the borough’s only Michelin three-star and one of the most creative kitchens in the borough, is only two blocks away from Gotham Market. Nearby, in Downtown Brooklyn, there’s the solid Hill Country BBQ and soup dumpling hero and relative newcomer Yaso Tangbao. Boerum Hill hosts standouts like the romantic Rucola (on the corner of Dean and Bond), the stylish French Louie, neighborhood anchor Building on Bond, Montreal deli cult heroes Mile End, and Grand Army, where oysters and cocktails are served by a multi-tatted OCD-level perfectionist/Arkansan musician in a very large civil war-y looking cavalry hat. And over in Gowanus, also a short walk away, the good people at Littleneck really do kill it with perfect, unfussy seafood and a soundtrack that I wish I always had on; Insa offers you a night of Korean BBQ, karaoke, or drinks inside of a gorgeous alternate-reality front cocktail bar; Threes Brewing packs ‘em in with perfect pilsners and saisons brewed onsite and their now-permanent food partner, Williamsburg’s The Meat Hook; and on a mild night, the spacious backyard at Lavender Lake begs you to order just one more ill advised frosty pint.
Indeed, the area as a whole has a lot to offer those in search of culinary delights as well as views of the glittering city skyline in the distance. But it remains an open question as to whether many of these new vendors—especially those in places like The Ashland—are there because of the high-volume of hungry foot-traffic they can reel in and because they are proud of their food, or just for that traffic. For the most part, these new canteens in The Flex seem to have been designed in a carefully scripted and market tested image of the developers’ imagined clients—people who pay top dollar to move to Brooklyn, but insist on specific amenities that would not traditionally exist here, and buy apartments so characterless that they could be anywhere in the country. These residents will want, the developers are betting, food options that reflect that same aesthetic—i.e., ones that are non-threatening and familiar, yet expensive enough to seem exclusive.
In the end, this area of Brooklyn, which has historically been so good at remaining itself, is building not only businesses but entire neighborhoods that look nothing like, and have little to do with, the locale in which they exist. Adding insult to this injury, few of the new Brooklyn residents seem particularly interested in the food that has materialized to serve their imagined whims. Are these neighborhood spots actually owned by people who have always dreamed of running their own restaurant? Or that own their own restaurant rather than working for a company that does? Are there owners in The Flex who wiled away countless hours of fake smiles and grumpy patrons working the front of the house, or endured slow, tipless brunch shifts after working a double on Saturday? Or who have slung cocktails to the obliviously sloppy and imagined what it was going to be like when they opened their own spot with their own music, playing to a room full of loyal local clients who love their food, mark special occasions at the big table in the back, know all the bartenders’ first names, and stop by for quick plate of pasta and glass of house red at the bar on a Tuesday after work?
Ultimately, the question is whether The Flex will or can become a part of Brooklyn’s complex fabric with its own authentic personality—as DUMBO did more than a decade ago—or if it will devolve into a parking place for the upwardly mobile, all on their way to somewhere else. Fundamentally, development at this pace seems inorganic and synthetic. So the only thing left to do is hope for an improbable outcome: that artificial life can grow something like its own soul. And as we wait to find out, we can keep paying attention to all of that food, and the people who will eat it: they’ll be the ones to let us know—the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
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