Close-Up on Bushwick, Brooklyn

From its graffiti-strewn artists' lofts, to the hip-hop shops on Knickerbocker, to the volleyball courts jammed with Hispanic kids in Maria Hernandez Park, Bushwick is as diverse as Brooklyn itself. And it is booming.

This is springtime in the life of Bushwick, with businesses sprouting up across its terrain, the shells of factories being cleaned out and re-inhabited, and sparkling new condos finding footholds. If a metaphorical thaw is upon us, winter must have passed. Indeed: The late 1970s saw the last area breweries close their doors. And due to the massive blackout and subsequent riots and then sustained power outages and looting, housing stock declined 20 percent.

This bust and boom comes 350 years after Bushwick, along with its neighboring Williamsburg and southern Queens, was last owned and inhabited by the Canarsie natives. Dutch settlers bought the land in 1638, calling it Boswijck—"town in the woods." Two centuries later, Boswijck joined four towns to its south to become Brooklyn. With the merger, Brooklyn inherited the rich farming community that Bushwick had become (its ethnic composition was never simple: from Dutch, it became predominantly Scandinavian and French, then German in the late 18th Century and Italian in the 20th) and profited from its small breweries.

Rheingold, Schlitz, and Trommer's were all part of Bushwick as the century turned—and, somehow, the breweries survived prohibition. Or, as Toni Schlesinger described in these pages, "Men named Karl and Dieter made beer in vats as big as a room and sometimes fell in." After 1950, many Italian families were edged out by the influx of Puerto Rican immigrants and African Americans—both groups still dominate Bushwick. What's missing is the breweries.

What's here is the mid-"L-ification" of what is becoming "East Williamsburg," with art spaces, vintage stores, organic markets, and music venues popping up between the Montrose and Morgan L train stops. It can be tremendously hip—homemade skirts paired with hundreds-dollar boots don't need to follow their resident wearer to Manhattan on weekends. The inexpensive west Bushwick loft apartments may be hummus-happy, drafty roach citadels, but they are filled with musicians and crafters who create by-hipster-for-hipster entertainment at home. One loft contains an indoor skate park; another (a former opera house) has a yoga studio. I saw a post-punk Lauper-wannabe on stage at an art space that seemed to serve homemade moonshine. Archive, a film library and coffee shop, hosts screenings, chats, and occasional music.

But most of the time, hanging in the sunshine at Maria Hernandez Park feels a lot more genuine. One-fifth of the area's residents are on public assistance, and garment factories and pungent food-processing plants are prevalent. But so are Make the Road by Walking, a social justice group comprised of hundreds of low-income community members, and Still We Rise, a nonprofit community-advocacy group focusing on HIV/AIDS, education, and affordable housing in Bushwick.

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Hipsters are here.
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com

Boundaries: Bushwick Avenue the northwest, Broadway to the southwest, the Queens borough border (north of Metropolitan Avenue) to the northeast, and a mess of cemeteries to the southeast.

Transit: Subway: L; M; G; and J/Z within walking distance. Busses: 13; 52; 54; 60; Q24.

Main Drags: Flushing Avenue, Broadway Avenue, and Bedford Avenue by car; Wycoff Avenue and Knickerbocker Avenue by foot.

Prices to Rent and Buy: Studios can be found for $700 and up; one-bedrooms, $900 to $1400; two-bedrooms, $1,100 and up; three-bedrooms, $1,500 and up. Loft space can be had for as little as $550 per person. Two-family homes can be found for $500,000 and up; three-family brownstones run upwards of $600,000.

What to Check Out: For vintage stores and coffee shops of good caliber, scope the blocks surrounding the Montrose and Morgan L stops, especially McKibbin Street. For great food (or any late-night establishments), head toward Flushing or Broadway. An eerier spot at night is 205 Knickerbocker, the former site of Joe and Mary's restaurant, notable for the death there of notorious mob big Carmine Galante, yes, with a cigar still clenched between his teeth. Feeling unaccomplished? Seek out the remnants of the Bushwick Avenue home of Frederick Cook, the boaster who claimed to be the first to summit Mount McKinley (he made it within 10 miles) and later reach the North Pole (he was way off).

Hangouts and Parks: Families and teens stroll Knickerbocker, browsing for clothing and kicks and scoping out all weekend—it is downright bustling in summertime, with ices dripping from many hands. Maria Hernandez Park is likewise a neighborhood hub in the summer, where all ages, all languages, and all styles seem comfortable.

Places to Eat and Drink: New to the hood is Northeast Kingdom, an Alpine-flavored hipster-tinged diner at Wycoff Avenue and Troutman Street—and it's one to try for hearty winter dishes. More bang for the buck is easy to find, though, at area taquerias. King's County bar serves the McKibbin loft set, but head toward the train tracks for an alternative to the alternative.

Crime: In 2004, Bushwick's 83rd precinct recorded 49 rapes and 21 murders, up slightly from 1998, though down dramatically from 1990, when the precinct recorded 77 murders and 80 rapes. In 2005, 409 burglaries and 393 robberies have been recorded.

Politicians: City councilmembers Erik Martin Dilan and Diana Reyna, State Assemblymen Vito Lopez and Darryl Towns, State Senator Martin Malave Dilan, and U.S. Representatives Edolphus Towns and Nydia Velasquez. All are Democrats.

 
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