Written and produced by Sabine Rothman Photographs by John Bessler
Saturday Night Fever? Forget about it. The Dodgers? Dem bums! Walt Whitman? In his words: "Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine." It was.
It's pretty clear that nostalgia helps define New York City's premier outer borough--apologies to Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island--and cements the idea of it in our collective consciousness. Brooklyn's unique character has roots in the past yet always looks forward with creative gusto. That's the balance that keeps it alive and continually desirable to never-ending waves of people from all over who arrive there--each with his or her own reasons--whether from Des Moines, Russia, Haiti, or, yes, even Manhattan.
With approximately 2.5 million inhabitants, the borough--if it ever seceded from New York City--would still rank as the fourth largest city in the United States. Independent or not, Brooklyn boasts a rich history--and a bright future. Its cultural, architectural, and demographic diversity continues to contribute to the borough's vibrant character, which is as varied as it is exciting, a confluence of history and the avant-garde.
Some of the borough’s most elegant residential neighborhoods have been in vogue since the 19th century, when rows of brick, limestone, and brownstone houses sprang up to line streets set in more or less regular grid patterns. This is the area known as Brownstone Brooklyn, which includes Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Park Slope. It’s plainly beautiful. And the real estate prices are nothing to sneeze at. In fact, many properties in these areas are pricier than housing in Manhattan, although most Brooklyn residents will tell you they settled here because you get more for your money, which is still generally the case.
So where do you start to explore? Ironically, as close to Manhattan as possible--on the Brooklyn Heights Esplanade a.k.a. The Promenade. Posted on this stretch above the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), Brooklynites watched the twin towers fall. But that searing memory has only made the view that much more special, a reminder that life goes on.
Wandering around the surrounding neighborhood offers the prettiest of tree-lined streets--among them are Willow and the fruit streets: Cranberry, Orange, and Pineapple. Brooklyn’s also notable for lovely mews lined with carriage houses, including the practically pristine Grace Court Alley in Brooklyn Heights. VERANDAH PLACE is a row of 1850s carriage houses fronting Cobble Hill Park, in the Cobble Hill Historic District, just across Atlantic Avenue from the Heights. Cobble Hill’s Warren Street MEWS on Warren Place are a different story, having been built as workers’ cottages in 1878. With lush central and side gardens, they’re magical--even more so because of their proximity to the Tower apartment building, “model tenements” built in the 1870s by Alfred Tredway White, and to the rushing traffic on the BQE, just half a block away.
Once these parts were home to Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, and Truman Capote. Now, the brownstone neighborhoods are attracting the likes of Norah Jones and Maggie Gyllenhaal, writers Jonathan Lethem, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Paul Auster, and countless more or less celebrated creative types.
The borough has become a haven for anyone who loves design. Preservationists fiercely protect their 19th-century blocks, while emerging (and established) designers continue to bring new ideas. According to Judy Stanton, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association--which is celebrating its 100th year--protecting the architecture helps preserve a sense of community. She was instrumental in the fight to make the Heights New York City’s first landmarked neighborhood, which means that a board of overseers must approve all exterior renovations and new buildings. She also helps protect the neighborhood’s 50-foot height limit, a zoning regulation that contributes to maintaining its human scale. Meanwhile, in areas like Williamsburg and Bushwick, young artists and designers push things forward, living in lofts, former tenements, and apartments that they make their own.
Says interior designer Kathryn Scott, who has lived in the Heights for more than 20 years with her husband, artist Wenda Gu, and now their young daughter as well: “I had a specific vision of the kind of house I wanted. I was looking for certain proportions. I looked in Manhattan for two years and couldn’t find anything I liked. I thought: What does it take to get what I want?! So I came to Brooklyn and found my house the next day. It has charm, intimacy, and a certain quietness.”
She’s not alone. People love living in Brooklyn because it’s a pleasant place to, well, live. In 1939, James Agee described it as “this borough of ‘being’ rather than . . . that of doing and bragging.” There’s light, air, space, and a sense of belonging that’s as strong as anywhere. Interior designer Eric Hilton moved into Fort Greene in the mid-1980s, well before the recent wave of gentrification. His street is generous in width, with a row of brownstones on one side and Fort Greene Park on the other. “Why do I live in Brooklyn?” he asks. “That’s easy. I love to see the sky. And it’s beautiful.”
GREEN SPACE AND CULTURE
Fort Greene Park was Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's first foray into greening Brooklyn. PROSPECT PARK, their longer-term project, is one of the borough's crown jewels. It's home to the famed Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which boasts a Cherry Esplanade, a Japanese garden, and Daffodil Hill--a magical respite. Prospect Park is a place for pickup soccer games, family barbecues, runners, bikers, dogs, and lying about.
Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh, BROOKLYN BRIDGE PARK is the newest open landscape. Pier 1, next to the Fulton Ferry landing, and Pier 6 are the first areas completed. They boast lawns, playgrounds, a dog park, and views of Manhattan.Next spring, the Empire-Fulton Ferry section will house an antique carousel in a pavilion designed by French modernist Jean Nouvel. The carousel is a gift from David Walentas, the developer who spearheaded the gentrification of the DUMBO area (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), and his artist wife, Jane Walentas.
As to art, what's life without it? Luckily, there's the BROOKLYN MUSEUM. Home to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, it also houses a breathtaking Egyptian collection and fine decorative arts.
As well as the major institutions, of course there are myriad small galleries and alternative spaces. Check out the new MURIEL GUÉPIN GALLERY and THE INVISIBLE DOG in Boerum Hill, and Williamsburg pioneer PIEROGI.
We've heard designers say they've seen better opera at the Fort Greene-based BROOKLYN ACADEMY OF MUSIC than in Manhattan. Famous for its avant-garde Next Wave Festival, BAM--as the venue's commonly known--delivers cultural gems from vintage Hollywood movies to experimental modern opera to vibrant African dance.
SHOPPING AND COMMERCE
Looking for a fun day of shopping? Brooklyn's known for its specialty boutiques--many of our faves for furniture, flowers, and tchotchkes are listed here . And, for a truly unique day, don't miss the BROOKLYN FLEA. In two different Fort Greene locations on Saturdays and Sundays, it features more than 100 vendors of vintage goods; new jewelry, art and crafts by local artisans; plus delicious food. Dive in and discover it for yourself!
Walk it, drive it, admire it, revel in its grandeur and in its history… If you had to choose a single icon for Brooklyn, it would be the Brooklyn Bridge, which links to Manhattan. (It's almost as though without one borough, the other would cease to exist.) Pedestrians can access the bridge from Tillary/Adams streets or from stairs under the overpass at Cadman Plaza East and Prospect streets. It's famous for a reason: One of the oldest suspension bridges in America, this extraordinary structure epitomizes a striking marriage of 19th-century design and engineering. Natives think it's a wonder of the world. They're probably right. It's a rite of passage--and for some a daily ritual--to walk or ride a bike across the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan and vice versa. Just getting there is half the fun!
Why I Choose to Live Here: Ellen Hamilton
Interior designer Ellen Hamilton's brand of "happy, energetic decorating," reflects the borough where she built her business and raised her family (her daughter Gracie is in the photo with her)—and where she maintains a base of clients who turn to her to enliven their townhouses with color, pattern, and plenty of chutzpah.
"In the iconic Brooklyn house, things with provenance and things that are junk are put together with a nonchalance that's style confident," she says. "You get colorful art, lots of kids, and it's just a little messy." The sense of connection is palpable in these places—and it's not just because the row houses are physically attached, although that certainly contributes to it. "I've always said this is a place that's recognizably real," she says. "It has street life and an intimate scale. No matter where you come from, you can identify. Running into my clients on a daily basis has given me a sense of place and purpose."
Her own apartment—catty-corner from P.S. 29 where her kids went to grade school—is filled with personal meaning and provides a sterling example of her ethos. But as homey as all this seems, Hamilton also appreciates Brooklyn's worldliness. "We even see French tourists here now." (hdanyc.com)
Why Brooklyn Inspires Me: Harry Heissmann
When this Albert Hadley alum talks about living in Brooklyn, it sounds like something out of a Disney movie. "The kitchen window sold me on this apartment. And I'm not sorry," he says. "I've seen hummingbirds outside it. And, two doves nest on my fire escape. They come back every year."
Perhaps they're drawn by the whimsy with which the German-born designer decorates his Brooklyn Heights one-bedroom. He surrounds himself with beloved collections of memorabilia (every Sprout figurine ever made), art (Bert Stern's Marilyn photos and a Murakami painting), and objects of provenance (a Tony Duquette snail lamp and brackets from Sotheby's Madeleine Castaing auction.) For clients, Heissmann's work reflects their desires. At home, he expresses himself. He's particularly proud that his little place caught the attention of noted interiors painter Jeremiah Goodman, whose depiction of Heissmann's living room (shown) captures its charm and quirky glamour.
What else thrills him? "I'm excited about the new Brooklyn Bridge Park," he says. "It's my fantasy to sit out there with my walker when I'm a hundred." (harryheissmanninc.com)
From the artisanal chocolates that made JACQUES TORRES famous to the handmade ice cream at BLUE MARBLE to cute BETTY BAKERY'S coconut cake, it's easy to satisfy a sweet tooth here. NUNU's the newcomer for chocolate, but there you can also enjoy a glass of wine while your salted caramels are being made.
New old-fashioned cocktails like the Kings County Sour and the old-time atmosphere make it fun to linger at HENRY PUBLIC, an adorable saloon open for lunch and dinner.
Early riser? Head into Cobble Hill Park with a fresh breakfast sandwich from TED & HONEY or to ALMONDINE for the best croissants. Foodies flock to SAHADI'S, a long-established emporium for Middle Eastern foods--olives, nuts, hummus, and more.
To bring home authentic Italian tastes, venture to Borough Park's D. COLUCCIO & SONS. Pasta in every shape and size! And for food shopping as sport, FAIRWAY is a must--a big market in a converted Red Hook warehouse. Bonus: Statue of Liberty views from its parking lot.
Dining in Brooklyn has never been tastier—no wonder restaurants are packed! Cozy VINEGAR HILL HOUSE dishes up rustic food from a wood-burning stove—including their Red Wattle pork chop—plus chicken cooked (and served) in a cast-iron skillet. Known for Northern Italian cooking both adventurous and classic, AL DI LA has become a mainstay of Park Slope. Just a year old, THE VANDERBILT in Prospect Heights is spearheaded by Michelin-starred chef Saul Bolton.
Head to Carroll Gardens for buttermilk-fried chicken at BUTTERMILK CHANNEL, a contemporary bistro. Nearby, from the team behind Frankies Spuntino comes a new venture, PRIME MEATS, which stands by a strong commitment to local purveyors and old-fashioned nose-to-tail butchery.
DRESSLER is definitely one of the restaurants to keep on your radar, due to the menu—American fare with hints of Spanish and Austrian flavor—and the interior, with handmade aluminum chandeliers. Also in Williamsburg, FATTY 'CUE—owned by the same restaurateur as Manhattan's Fatty Crab--brings together southeast Asian cuisine and barbecue.
Brunch is the meal at Red Hook's FORT DEFIANCE, although it is also noted for its well-crafted lunch and dinner menus. Try the charcuterie, which includes La Quercia, an Iowa-made prosciutto.