Brooklyn is the fourth-largest city in the country—as such, it is a complex place. For some, it is a throwback to the greatness of immigrant America, for others, it is the frontline of international hipster monoculture... Whatever the case, the idea of "Brooklyness" has never been more out in the world, even if it's impossible to pin down. What follows is a look at the people who've created that idea, and in whose hands its future rests.
The Three Kings of Kings County
Lopez has represented Williamsburg and Bushwick in the state assembly for close to 30 years, but his real power derives from his chairmanship of the Kings County Democratic Party, which he has held for five. He might be under investigation by the FBI and federal prosecutors, battling once-in-remission cancer, and under attack by a reformist wing of his party, which accuses him relentlessly of corruption (his girlfriend, for example, pulls a salary of over $300,000 from the social services agency he founded and funds in part with public money). But, hey, he's still chair of the county party in an effectively one-party county.
Though powerless to undo new bicycle infrastructure (phew!), Marty remains a mighty political force, by far the likeliest borough president to make a bid for city hall if/when Bloomberg's reign ends. Brooklyn has changed dramatically since the third-term prez took office in 2001. He's notched noble efforts in education and affordable housing, but there's the far more substantial list of less laudatory causes Marty has championed: tearing down Admiral's Row; turning Brooklyn from a place where people live into a brand that people buy; and a little real estate project called Atlantic Yards—he harnessed the power of denial for a recent video message courting potential Chinese investors, proclaiming: "Brooklyn is one thousand percent behind Atlantic Yards!"
Duh! As the senior senator from New York, Schumer is perhaps the state's most powerful politician, as well as one of the country's. But he flexes his muscle to effect hyperlocal issues in Brooklyn, which is where he was born and where he raises his own family. His intervention in the Jelly summer concert series in Williamsburg last year was bizarre, and his wife Iris Weinshall's participation in the oligarchic crusade against the Prospect Park West bike lane—despite her husband's proclivity for bicycling—is downright infuriating. Keep out of it, Chuck & Co.!
The Reformer:Lincoln Restler
We've given plenty of ink to young Lincoln (just 27 years old at press time) because we like a good underdog story. Last year, Restler scored a surprising victory against a disciple of Big Boss Man Vito Lopez in the race for District Leader of the gentrification zone (Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Fort Greene). What kind of power does a District Leader really have? Well, it's a bit fuzzy, but as the face of young Democratic reform in Brooklyn, Restler has a bright political career ahead of him.
Losing Power:Duh, Vito Lopez
See above, specifically: Lopez is "under investigation by the FBI and federal prosecutors" and "under attack by a reformist wing of his party." Sometimes when you squeeze too tightly, it all just slips through your fingers.
Roberta's and Brooklyn Grange:
New Food Darlings
In a pizza principality dominated by Famous Ray's, Ray's Original and Grimaldi's, who'd have guessed that the best pies (and some kick-ass bread) would come out of a small warehouse in Bushwick named Roberta's? Not only that, but the concrete-chic dough-masters have precipitated a wave of creative new pizza joints all over Brooklyn. And who'd have thought that when co-owners Chris Parachini and Brandon Hoy, and Roberta's farm manager Gwen Schantz started growing select pizza ingredients atop abandoned shipping containers in their graffiti-adorned garden that they were serious about urban farming? But two years after the Italian wood-fired oven at Roberta's roared to life in January 2008—and about one year after the Heritage Radio Network began broadcasting local music and natural food movement news from studios built inside the aforementioned backyard shipping containers—Roberta's Farm had overgrown its little plot of dirt and needed more cultivable land. They teamed up with Ben Flanner (the man behind New York City's first rooftop soil farm in Greenpoint) to create the new commercial organic farm Brooklyn Grange.
Actually located in Long Island City (37-18 Northern Boulevard to be exact, in case you want to stop by for some veggies or a volunteer shift), the sixth-story acre of high-tech engineered soil was only planted last spring and already generates enough produce to supply local restaurants, a veggie stand at Brooklyn Flea and another in Bushwick and, of course, toppings for delicious Roberta's pizzas. But that one acre is just the beginning. Their goal is to expand Brooklyn Grange to rooftops throughout the borough, providing more super-local organic produce for hungry masses of locavore foodies and restaurants while training a small army of professional urban farmers through volunteer and apprenticeship programs. As Brooklyn returns to its farmland roots, the hipster pizza wizards from Bushwick are leading the way.
The Diner Empire and Its Satellite States
If Roberta's/Brooklyn Grange is the current talk of the
town borough, they have the folks behind Brooklyn's first New American Food Empire, Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow, to thank for, uh, setting the table. High-end comfort food/hipster mecca Diner was opened under the elbow of the Williamsburg Bridge way back in 1998, and quickly became shorthand for a "new" Brooklyn culinary sensibility that updated classic American simplicity with hyper-local ingredients and proto-skinny jeaned waitstaff. And boy did it work. Firth and Tarlow went on to open grocery/cafe/restaurant Marlow and Sons, and then butchery/grocery Marlow and Daughters, from whence sprang hipster butcher extraordinaire, Tom Mylan, who would go on to open The Meat Hook... You see? Everything is connected.
Inventor of Williamsburg: Zeb Stewart
A Northern California native and a sculptor at heart, Stewart moved to Brooklyn in the mid-90s. After working in construction building high-end restaurants and bars, he decided to do it himself, and the three places he opened in Williamsburg have gone on to very nearly epitomize (or introduce) their own subcategory of typically "Brooklyn" establishment: there's neighborhood stalwart Union Pool, the standard for fun, dive-y bars with live music and taco trucks out back; Hotel Delmano (which he opened with partner Michael Smart), the best of Brooklyn's takes on the Manhattan-born speakeasy trend; and the French bistro across the intersection, Cafe Colette. No other local restaurant and bar mini-mogul has been quite so successful or so versatile when reinvigorating overused signifiers of "Brooklyn-ness."
Hey, we ain't got nothing against Junior's cheesecake or steak from Peter Luger or any of the dozens of classic old-school Italian red sauce joints that dot Brooklyn... But when new-school spots are doing it just as well (or better), with local, organic ingredients, it's hard to justify paying more money for the museum experience.
The Bowery Presents... Everything
According to the company's website, Live Nation Entertainment is "the world's leading live entertainment and eCommerce company, comprised of four market leaders: Ticketmaster.com, Live Nation Concerts, Front Line Management Group and Live Nation Network." Like you, we have basically no idea what any of this even means—but one thing is clear: it feels awful, like a shining example of the multi-pronged conglomeration we automatically assume is trying to fuck us over one way or another. Someone's gotta be benefiting from all those relationships, after all, and it certainly doesn't seem to be us. Fortunately, while the unnaturally long arm of such a company might be unavoidable in other parts of the world, this is New York. We have a perfectly viable alternative.
Run by partners Michael Swier, John Moore and Jim Glancy, concert promotion company The Bowery Presents got its start booking shows at the Mercury Lounge, the Houston Street venue long known as an integral stop on every young band's path from unknown to known. Then in 1998, they opened the 550-capacity Bowery Ballroom, a venue that to this day pops up just about every time a band is asked to name their favorite place to play. By 2007, they'd made their way to Brooklyn, taking over the spot formerly known as Northsix and reopening it as the Music Hall of Williamsburg. They do shows at Brooklyn Bowl now, too, not to mention Webster Hall, Terminal 5 and the Wellmont Theatre. Or, for that matter, Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden. That they can arrange for an artist to perform in front of anywhere from 250 to 20,000 people is perhaps chief among the many reasons they've been so successful here in the city. They now have the ability to cater to artists at any stage of their career, rather than providing a starting point and then ultimately losing them to Live Nation. Remember when Arcade Fire played the Garden? Getting ready to see James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem there in a couple weeks? All Bowery Presents. They've made their presence felt in a major way, and they've managed to do so while maintaining a surprisingly high taste level and keeping service fees to a minimum, at least in comparison to their competitors.
With the number of truly independent traditional music venues at perhaps an all-time low here in the city, you could of course make the argument that Bowery Presents is well on its way to becoming exactly the type of monopoly they first sought to break up—that it's always bad when too much power is in the hands of one company, no matter how benevolent said company seems to be. You could also just be grateful you don't live anywhere else. It could be much, much worse.
The DIY Impresario: Todd P
For those of you who'd rather avoid service fees altogether, there's always Todd P, the city's smartest, most reasonable, and most ambitious DIY promoter. For years now, he's consistently provided local and touring musicians not only a stage, but an audience, too. In a lot of ways, Todd's shows function the same way record labels used to: you'll go because his name is attached to it, just as you once would have bought a record simply because it said Sub Pop on the spine. (Go to toddpnyc.com for a schedule of upcoming shows.)
The Scorekeeper:Ryan Schreiber
You're not gonna like this one, we know. But honestly, it would be straight-up foolish to pretend the founder of Pitchfork doesn't have a huge amount of influence on the bands people of this city decide to go see, regardless of where they're being held or who booked them. (Not you specifically, of course, but, like, all the other people...)
College Radio Stations
To say the city's college radio stations (WNYU, WFUV) are losing power is perhaps being too kind—it's not clear they have any power left to lose, now that everyone thinks they know everything and no one values individual voices as much as they do the generally idiotic hive-mind of the internet. Progress? Not exactly.
The Minister for Culture:
Karen Brooks Hopkins
Since becoming President of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1999, KBH has doubled the institution's budget and tripled its attendance—not entirely surprising for the woman who literally wrote the book on successful fundraising for arts and cultural organizations (it's called Successful Fundraising for Arts and Cultural Organizations). Following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Harvey Lichtenstein, Hopkins has built the most comprehensive one-stop culture shop East of the East River—at least. The Next Wave Festival is a premiere showcase for dance and adventurous theatrical and multimedia productions; the BAMcinematek, which only opened in 1999, is arguably the best repertory film program in the city, and through their annual cinemaFEST, is becoming the major NYC launching pad for American indie film; and the Harvey Theater, as it continues to host Britain and Australia's premier theater companies, is now the best place in the city to see famous people with accents live and legit—like Cate Blanchett's Blanche DuBois, or Alan Rickman doing Ibsen, or Geoffrey Rush flying out to the Oscars and back around performances of Diary of a Madman.
Talking to us in 2008, Hopkins noted that BAM's education programs and community outreach—even little things like featuring Afro-pop and Latin jazz at the BAMcafe on weekend nights—have "formed closer bonds with the diverse local community." With its something-for-everything programming, BAM has helped Fort Greene's gentrification go as gently as possible: even evidence as facile as the options for pre-show drinks or post-show dinner suggests a colorful, hopeful coexistence of ethnicities and income brackets. We'll see, we guess, how this goes on a larger scale, as the BAM Cultural District—Lichtenstein's brainchild, and overseen by local, city and state development agencies—aims to lure more arts organizations to the neighborhood, while building mixed-income high-rises off Flatbush and prettying up the neighborhood. It's like when Robert Moses built Lincoln Center, except with actual regard for human infrastructure.
This is How We Will Read: Electric Literature
"We want to reach readers, not just writers," co-founding editor and Brooklyn College MFA Andy Hunter told us as the Fort Greene lit mag launched in aught-nine. Pointedly challenging other little magazines to aim beyond the Creative Writing-Industrial Complex, Electric Lit pays big money for big-name short fiction, produces viral art video adaptations, and runs a lit-gossip blog, The Dish—the better to cover the self-contained literary community that is itself their most important product.
Art Where the Artists Live: Arnold Lehman
Brooklyn Museum president Arnold Lehman has been more creative than any of his predecessors in trying to overcome the world-class institution's relative isolation. Since taking over in 1997 he's taken heat for populist exhibitions like a 2002 show of Star Wars artifacts, 2008's Takashi Murakami retrospective and the museum's participation in the art-themed reality TV show The Work of Art, overseen the construction of the inviting new entrance pavilion and the just-completed Great Hall renovation. Recent efforts aim at making the museum a hub for a younger, more diverse crowd, including Brooklyn's thousands of artists. Exhibitions in the last few years by local contemporary artists, along with later weeknight hours begun last fall, are Lehman's way of getting the Brooklyn Museum back to its million-visitors-per-year glory days.
Come to My Art Party: Jason Andrew
Bushwick has recently emerged as Brooklyn's most vibrant gallery district, now counting well over a dozen spaces. The community is mutually supportive to a fault, but its most powerful participant is Jason Andrew, who tirelessly promotes the Bushwick scene, including two spaces he's involved in: one he runs out of his apartment and another, Storefront, which he co-founded with artist Deborah Brown. He also runs the non-profit arts organization Norte Maar, frequently produces dance performances, collaborates with the local community group Bushwick IMPACT and organizes the neighborhood-wide "Beat Nite" gallery parties. "My efforts have been to bridge the relationship of the arts community and the greater population," he tells us, "Artists for too long have accepted the role of a transient population."
Once upon a time there were three Jonathans, talented, successful writers who shone as an example of Jonathanly power to Jonathans all across Brooklyn. Oh how we all wanted to be Brooklyn Jonathans, with million-dollar advances and prestigious awards and forthright columns... Well, now one of the Jonathans lives in California, another has yielded to the siren green screenglow of the teevee, and the third, well, wrote a book about meat. (Who will rule us next? The Joshes?)
You Start with the Acronym:
David and Jed Walentas
The phrase "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass" didn't appear in the Times until the late 90s—a decade and a half after the downtown Manhattan real estate entrepreneur David Walentas had bought into the neighborhood on the advice of artists. Two Trees Management, the company he runs with his son Jed, has cannily granted generous lease terms to hip tenants—including, at one time, a fledgling listings guide called The L Magazine—filling its commercial loft spaces with publishers like Verso and lit mags like n+1, with new-media startups and savvy marketing firms, and fostering the district's big-league gallery scene. Last fall, Two Trees effectively took over the Dumbo Arts Festival from their tenants, the Dumbo Arts Center—expanding the fest exponentially from years past, to the accompaniment of grumbles from some first-wave gentrifiers and other cultural watchdogs.
But that is, in essence, what the Walentases have been doing all along. They've curated an entire, culturally central Brooklyn neighborhood essentially from scratch, and you can see why, as you sit outside at Pedro's, in the alternating shadow and glare of newly constructed high-rise condos; if you squint a little, the very buildings seem, like the rest of the neighborhood, to arc along the SoHo price curve. David Walentas, for his part, lives in the 15th-story penthouse of the Clock Tower building at One Main Street; his new upstairs neighbor, in a three-story condo with views through actual clock faces, moved in last year in a rumored rent-to-own contract after the unit went on the market with a borough-record $25 million asking price.
Most recently, Two Trees has been proceeding with a 17-story residential tower to be nestled into the crook of the Brooklyn Bridge. Objections from neighborhood residents will be compensated for by a new public middle school, which the Walentases will build and lease to the city for $1 a year—a public-interest component, emails published by the Brooklyn Paper in 2009 revealed, which was in the works even before the city announced the need for a new school in the area. But what's a little collusion between city agencies and developers, after the shiny new neighborhood they've given us?
The Forever Yards: Bruce Ratner
However many of Atlantic Yards' planned infrastructure-toppling residential towers ever go up over "blighted" Prospect Heights, given the current housing market (and however many pol-placating low-income units they ever include), the man still brought major league sports back to the BK, and the shockwaves—like Park Slope's panic over a stadium-crowd-catering hip-hop club—have already begun.
The Trump of South Brooklyn: Joe Sitt
Brooklyn-born Sitt's development firm Thor Equities made a nice profit on the land in Coney Island's amusement area it finally sold off to the city—not the first highly profitable sale it made down there, either—but that didn't take him out of the neighborhood: Thor still owns much of the surrounding land, on which stood the historic buildings that it's been tearing down all winter. And Sitt's presence in Brooklyn extends far beyond Coney: he also owns properties, and potential developments, in Brooklyn Heights, Red Hook, Bensonhurst and Downtown Brooklyn—where he has also turned a nice profit by selling off property.
Needs More Ugly:
Look out the window: if you're in Brooklyn, Long Island City or Downtown Manhattan, odds are any ugly condos or tumorous additions to older buildings you can see were designed by Robert Scarano, a Dumbo-based Brooklyn native whose scary-ugly condos are so ubiquitous that last year the city's Department of Buildings barred him from filing new construction plans. That hasn't kept his work from rising out of watery pits as construction on recession-halted projects has resumed. His firm's power derives from its success at bending and circumventing zoning laws. Scarano buildings you might know include most new behemoths on Fourth Avenue and the years-in-the-making "finger building" on North 7th Street in the heart of Williamsburg. The New Brooklyn condo style is largely this mini-Robert Moses's work.