What does Brooklyn evoke now? In this era of condo development and organic pastas, the borough which once evoked tree-lined streets, sweat-smeared work clothes and nostalgic immigrant grandmothers, is changing fast. What remains is a place where that yellowed image comes to life every day alongside a new generation of toilers, more alike than different in their pursuit of a common goal.
OLD-SCHOOL BAKER:James Caputo
Where he works: Caputo’s Bake Shop
329 Court St. Carroll Gardens. Birthplace: Brooklyn, NY (Carroll Gardens I believe) Goes to Manhattan: Every night, to sleep. Likes about Brooklyn: The diversity, the food.
In the 101st year since his great-great-grandfather Giovanni Caputo opened Caputo’s Bake Shop in Carroll Gardens, James Caputo works twelve hours a day, seven days a week to keep the bakery rolling along. His pride in the family tradition seems to take the edge off the punishing schedule: “My dad did the same thing,” he says with a grin, and for a guy who has to wake up every morning to be at work by 4am, James Caputo actually grins quite frequently. He has two small children, a three-year-old and a twenty-month-old, but for now he has the potentially dire sleep situation under control. “I was in bed around eight last night” he boasts. “I went to bed before they did.” With cement floors and very little in the way of ornamentation, James Caputo’s bakery is not much to look at, but a bite of his ciabatta goes a long way toward explaining the shop’s endurance. Five generations’ worth of inherited experience makes for some quality baking. “You can’t find real Italian bread once you leave Brooklyn,” says James, and his product backs him up eloquently.
NEW-SCHOOL BAKER:Renato Poliafito
Where he works: Baked, 369 Van Brundt. Red Hook. Birthplace: Middle Village, Queens Years in Brooklyn: On and off for ten years. Goes to Manhattan: Two or three times per month. Likes about Brooklyn: Sense of authenticity. The history, and the architecture. Dislikes about Brooklyn: Too expensive.
Red Hook is a neighborhood in flux, a “pre-Williamsburgy type of community,” as Renato Poliafito puts it, and as far as he can tell the local patrons at Baked mostly represent Red Hook’s new constituency, “A lot of artists and craftsmen,” though the occasional dockworker does pop in looking for coffee. Renato himself was born in Queens, spent his adolescence in Florida and currently resides in Park Slope. He is not unaware of his own role in the changing look of Red Hook. “This place used to be a church,” he says, noting there was no great community outcry when the storefront was converted into a sweets bakery. Renato co-owns Baked with two other investors, and puts in about 45 hours a week as a manager. Though he is not personally involved in much of the actual baking process, he describes the bakery as his passion, and Baked’s sweets do taste like somebody at the top of the totem pole must care about quality (the cupcakes in particular are unspeakably good). “We’re flying by the seat of our pants,” says Renato, but business has been steady, and if Baked can make it another couple years, it may be in Red Hook for the long haul.
OLD-SCHOOL JOURNALIST:Virginia Bednarek
Where she works: The Greenpoint Gazette, 587 Manhattan Ave. Birthplace: Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Years lived in Brooklyn: All of them. Goes to Manhattan: Less than once a month Likes about Brooklyn: “Coney Island [is] a spectacular part of life.”
Virginia Bednarek looks far too young to have racked up 30 years of experience working at one newspaper. She seems a bit taken aback herself, hearing her own voice pin such a big number on her tenure with the Greenpoint Gazette. The cause for the cognitive dissonance isn’t anything tacky like surgery or Botox — she just started working very young. Her mother, Adelle Haines started the Greenpoint Gazette 33 years ago with Ralph Carrano, out of the Kingsland Avenue home where she raised Virginia and her six brothers. Virginia joined the paper’s staff right out of high school, “As soon as I had the skills,” she explains. Thirty years later, Ms. Bednarek publishes the Gazette and its sister paper, the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Gazette. Though she doesn’t yet have the weathered face of your typical 30-year journalism vet, she does exude an intimidating aura of competence — the kind that makes far less experienced journalists prattle on about how they grew up near Virginia and her name is Virginia and isn’t that something. Thankfully, she suffers fools graciously. Even fools who confuse Marty Markowitz with Marky Mark of the Funky Bunch when the talk turns to politics. “The borough president,” she says, smiling understandingly, “he’s a great guy.”
NEW-SCHOOL JOURNALIST: Robert Lanham
Where he works: At home Birthplace: Richmond, Virginia. Years in Brooklyn: 10. Likes about Brooklyn: Has everything Manhattan has, but without the tourists. Dislikes about Brooklyn: The trains are always messed up; it’s hard to get from one point in Brooklyn to another using public transportation.
Robert Lanham launched his blog, Free Williamsburg, in 1999, three years after moving to Brooklyn from Richmond, Virginia. He originally conceived the blog as a neighborhood events guide and an easy way get his writing published. On the second count, the blog wound up succeeding well beyond supplying Robert with a little résumé filler. “I got my first book deal through the website,” says Lanham, referring to The Hipster Handbook, his satirical field guide to the many different species of hipster. In Free Williamsburg’s first year, Robert posted portions of the project and attracted the attention of the agent who got the Handbook published. Lanham’s professional writing career has since taken off; he published a second book in 2004, (applying the satirical field guide approach to non-hipster America), and he is currently preparing a book on the Evangelical right. Free Williamsburg now has several writers as opposed to just one, and over the years it has come to focus more on Washington politics than neighborhood events. Through it all, however, the fundamental nature of the enterprise remains low key; no one involved makes money, and like most blogs, there’s very little done in the way of primary-source research. In Lanham’s words, “It’s a total pajamas blogging endeavor.”
OLD-SCHOOL MUSICIAN:Mikhail Smirnov of Barynya Ensemble
Birthplace: Moscow. Goes to Manhattan: Once or twice a week. Likes about Brooklyn: Everything; especially all of the Russians. Disikes about Brooklyn: Nothing.
“I love marrying Brooklyn girls,” says Mikhail Smirnov with a laugh. It’s a happy coincidence, as Brooklyn girls seem pretty into marrying him — at least four have gone to the altar with Smirnov since he moved here from Russia in the early 90s. Perhaps he excites their matrimonial instincts because, in a borough swarming with wannabes, Mikhail Smirnov is the real deal: a Brooklynite musician who actually makes his living playing music. Mikhail is a self-taught garmoskha player (it’s a Russian folk accordion), and the artistic director of the Barynya Ensemble, a ten-member troupe of dancers and musicians he helped found shortly after his arrival in the States. Mikhail winds up playing about ten gigs per month, ranging from the occasional wedding to opening galas for the Guggenheim’s RUSSIA! exhibit. Mikhail’s first home in Brooklyn was Borough Park, but these days he lives in Brighton Beach, happily ensconced in the thriving Russian community. Asked to state his critical opinion of the borough, he answers succinctly: “Brooklyn is perfect.” www.barynya.com
NEW-SCHOOL MUSICIAN:Fraser McCulloch of Mistakes
Birthplace: Boston, England. Years in Brooklyn: 3. Goes to Manhattan: Every morning for part-time job on NYU campus. If you weren’t doing this? I’d be audio engineering. Likes about Brooklyn: It’s cheap Dislikes about Brooklyn: The crowding on the L train.
Fraser McCulloch cannot stand up straight in his bedroom. The ceiling is low, and he is, as a proper rock musician should be, skinny and tall. At under $400 a month though, the price is liberating: “It gives me the chance to work a part-time job, so I can spend the other half of my days on music.” Fraser lives in a Bushwick loft with his band Mistakes, and though his bedroom is miserable, the rest of the loft is an anarchic vision of rock band Shangri-la: half-dismantled motorcycle outfitted for use as desk; graffiti and street signs on wall; mannequin torso by TV. In a corner far from any neighbors is the walled-off rehearsal space. At two-and-a-half-years old, Mistakes sound a bit like late-period Clash with a dash of Mike Patton, but like other good bands, their sound can’t be described all that easily. “We like to think we’re writing pop songs” explains Fraser with a shrug. Though Mistakes’ shows have recently begun drawing significant crowds, Fraser maintains a down-to-earth outlook. “I don’t live under the facade that these things last forever,” he says, but he hasn’t let fatalism hinder the headlong pursuit of his dream. “Music’s pretty much what my entire life’s based around.
OLD-SCHOOL COFFEE SERVER: Iwona Jurasz
Where she works: Kellog’s Diner, 514 Metropolitan Ave. Williamsburg. Birthplace: Washington, D.C. but spent a lot of time in Poland growing up. Years in Brooklyn: 14. Goes to Manhattan: Daily, for one thing or another. If you weren’t doing this? I’d be an esthetician. Likes about Brooklyn: The atmosphere. Dislikes about Brooklyn: 4 o’clock in the morning.
“There used to be four or five movie theaters in this neighborhood, and now there isn’t even one! We need a movie theater out here,” says Jurasz as she hands me my cup of coffee with the hurried sweetness and attentiveness that is the trait of the best diner waitresses. Sitting in a blue and red booth, vase of fake roses on the table, lite FM playing in the background, Jurasz tells me of her years in Brooklyn. She moved here because of connections to the Polish neighborhood in Greepoint and because it was cheaper than living in Manhattan. “I stay because I already have an apartment,” she says, but judging by the way she treats her customers, and the friendly smiles she gets from just about everyone, you can tell its more than just practicality keeping her here. “Ten years ago I saw an ad on the door, and I’ve been working here ever since,” says Jurasz, referring to Kellog’s Diner, which has been in Williamsburg for over 80 years. She has nothing but good things to say about the changes that have taken place and appreciates the renovated buildings, the new businesses, and the reduced crime rate. As much as she loves her neighborhood, though, Jurasz says she would like a vacation, which she has not had for ten years. When asked where she would go she replies, “Poland. Somewhere peaceful.” Not a surprising sentiment for a waitress. “I might go”, she says, “but I can’t imagine not coming back.”
NEW-SCHOOL COFFEE SERVER: Nick Cregor
Where he works: Fix, 110 Bedford Ave. Williamsburg. Birthplace: Milwaukee. Years in Brooklyn: 3. Goes to Manhattan: Once a week. If you weren’t doing this? I’d be a professional musician. Likes about Brooklyn: The community of artists. Dislikes about Brooklyn: The segregation of people with varying incomes.
“Walking down Bedford is no longer like walking down the runway in a fashion show, like it was when I first moved here,” says Cregor, sitting comfortably on a velvet sofa in the back room of Fix, one of Williamsburg’s trendiest coffee houses. Cregor moved to Brooklyn, like many, for financial reasons. “It was cheaper, and close to the city, but not the city.” He got the job at Fix through a friend and has worked his way up over the years to the position of manager, which he appears to be pretty pleased about. “Business is good. We have a good community of workers here,” he says. “For the most part I don’t feel overly affected by the gentrification clash, but I do feel its kind of inevitable and a little bit sad.” If he could change anything about his neighborhood it would be to somehow bring the community of artists closer, with East Village-type art festivals, or through places like Fix, where artists (or anyone really) can convene and talk about, well, art. Judging by the clientele I saw on my visit, he’s well on his way to seeing that dream realized.
OLD-SCHOOL TAILOR: Nancy Fong
Where she works: Tim Tailor, 210 Bedford Ave. Williamsburg.
Years in Brooklyn: 17.
Goes to Manhattan: Three times per week.
If you weren’t doing this? I’d be a housewife and/or a gardener.
Likes about Brooklyn: Susanna and Magnus. (Susanna is a loyal client who happened to be in the shop when I stopped in. Magnus is her son.)
Dislikes about Brooklyn: The noise from the music club next door.
“She likes the neighborhood better now then it used to be,” says Nancy’s 13-year-old, pony-tailed daughter Mandy, “Before, it was too boring.” Mandy is translating for her mother, who is Chinese and speaks little English. It’s clear that Nancy prefers to express herself with her plants (which are spread about the tiny room), her exotic fish (who swim in a tank near the window), and her sewing needle. She and her husband Tim studied tailoring in Hong Kong before moving to Williamsburg, which they chose because Nancy’s brother was already living here. In what has turned out to be a financially lucrative decision, they bought the building at 210 Bedford Avenue and have lived in it for almost 17 years. Unfortunately, they are going to have to relocate to the third floor, as the space they are occupying now on the ground floor is zoned for business. With the gentrification of Williamsburg (particularly Bedford Avenue) comes a crack down on laws of this sort. Still, the only complaint Nancy has is that there aren’t more trees. “They cut down the one in front last month,” she says, pointing to a stump on Bedford Avenue’s sidewalk. For someone who has lived here longer than it took to grow that tree, it seems a small request.
NEW-SCHOOL DESIGNER: Amara Felice
Where she works: Eildolon, 233 Fifth Ave. Park Slope. Birthplace: San Francisco. Years in Brooklyn: Almost 12. Goes to Manhattan: About once or twice a week. If you weren’t doing this? I’d be working as a design assistant at a studio. Likes about Brooklyn: The mellowness, the brownstones, the community character. Dislikes about Brooklyn: Nothing.
“I always wanted to open my own store,” says the charmingly bespectacled Amara Felice, seated behind an antique desk in her cozy Park Slope clothing boutique. Amara’s move to the Slope 12 years ago was born mostly out of the necessity of finding an affordable apartment fast, but she was also drawn to the neighborhood because it reminded her of her hometown, San Francisco. After working in various aspects of the garment business, six and a half years ago she realized her dream of opening up a store, with the help of fellow Park Slope designers Andrea Fisher and Yukie Ohta. As far as the changes her neighborhood has undergone, she has mixed feelings. “The gentrification is good for business, and it’s safer to walk around.” However, there is the inevitable rent hike and, according to Felice, a serious wave of shoplifting. “Luckily,” she says, “most of the stores on the street look out for each other and let each other know when it happens, so we can all help protect the neighborhood.” Sounds pretty cozy to me.
OLD-SCHOOL BARTENDER: Mark Quinlan
Where he works: The Abbey, 536 Driggs Ave. Williamsburg. Birthplace: Philadelphia. Years in Brooklyn: Lived and worked in Williamsburg for 16 years. Goes to Manhattan: Three, four times a week doing errands for the bar and going to bookstores. Likes about Brooklyn: Places like the Abbey. Dislikes about Brooklyn: Nothing, except I generally disrespect people who overvalue their own nostalgia.
“The Abbey is one of the last honest bars in Brooklyn,” says Mark Quinlan, New York Times in hand, steaming up his black-rimmed glasses while sitting over a pot of tea at a local loft style teahouse. Quinlan moved to Brooklyn from the East Village in 1990 for two reasons: his design and production studio was already located there, and the crack wave had just hit his neighborhood. Like all old-school Brooklynites, he’s seen his share of changes. The vitality that comes along with the new wave of people and business is good, he thinks, but the downside, naturally, is that it costs too much to live here now, and some veterans of the neighborhood are being pushed out. Quinlan says he is sometimes tempted to move, if only for the challenge of living in a new place. “Sameness kills,” he says. Some possible options include the Bay Area and Paris. But wherever he ends up, he says he will probably always remain connected to Brooklyn somehow. For the sake of true barflies everywhere, we certainly hope so.
NEW-SCHOOL BARTENDER: Sarah Mead
Where she works: The Subway Bar. 527 Metropolitan Ave. Williamsburg. Birthplace: Laguna Niguel, California. Months in Brooklyn: 8. Goes to Manhattan: Once a week. If you weren’t doing this? I’d be into graphic design and screenprinting. Likes about Brooklyn: The cultural diversity. Dislikes about Brooklyn: The cost of living.
“The changes you see in Williamsburg are natural in the life of a city. It doesn’t bother me. I have more important things to worry about,” says Sarah Mead, clad in a striped shirt and jeans, sitting rogueishly on the counter as the afternoon light streams in over the wood panels and liquor bottles in this dark, welcoming bar. Mead moved to Brooklyn because she knew people in the neighborhood and they were able to hook her up with a good deal. She used to work in Manhattan, and although the money was great, she says it was too stressful, so she decided to look for work here in Williamsburg. As a relatively new Brooklynite, her only wish is that they fix the roads so you can ride a bike and not have to dodge potholes. Although she seems to have a pretty secure life here, tending bar at Subway and also working at Dokebi (a restaurant in the area), she does admit to thinking about moving back to California after a few years. Maybe if we can get somebody on those potholes, we can convince her to stay.