|The Decadence Issue|
|A Tale of Two Brooklyns|
|old-school vs. new school|
|By Elias Ravin, Amy
|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
329 Court St. Carroll
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
NEW-SCHOOL BAKER: Renato Poliafito
Where he works: Baked, 369
Van Brundt. Red Hook.
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
Dislikes about Brooklyn: Too
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
OLD-SCHOOL JOURNALIST: Virginia Bednarek
works: The Greenpoint Gazette, 587 Manhattan Ave.
Birthplace: Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
lived in Brooklyn: All of them.
Manhattan: Less than once a month
Brooklyn: “Coney Island [is] a spectacular part of
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
Where he works: At
Years in Brooklyn: 10.
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
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
MUSICIAN: Mikhail Smirnov of
to Manhattan: Once or twice a week.
about Brooklyn: Everything; especially all of the
Disikes about Brooklyn:
“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.”
NEW-SCHOOL MUSICIAN: Fraser McCulloch of
Years in Brooklyn: 3.
Manhattan: Every morning for part-time job on NYU
If you weren’t doing this? I’d be
Likes about Brooklyn: It’s
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:
Where she works: Kellog’s
Diner, 514 Metropolitan Ave.
Birthplace: Washington, D.C. but
spent a lot of time in Poland growing up.
Goes to Manhattan: Daily,
for one thing or another.
If you weren’t doing
this? I’d be an esthetician.
Brooklyn: The atmosphere.
Brooklyn: 4 o’clock in the morning.
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.
Years in Brooklyn: 3.
Manhattan: Once a week.
If you weren’t doing
this? I’d be a professional musician.
about Brooklyn: The community of
Dislikes about Brooklyn: The
segregation of people with varying incomes.
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.
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.
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.
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
NEW-SCHOOL DESIGNER: Amara
Where she works: Eildolon,
233 Fifth Ave. Park Slope.
Years in Brooklyn: Almost
Goes to Manhattan: About once or twice a
If you weren’t doing this? I’d be
working as a design assistant at a studio.
about Brooklyn: The mellowness, the brownstones, the
Dislikes about Brooklyn:
“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
OLD-SCHOOL BARTENDER: Mark
Where he works: The Abbey,
536 Driggs Ave. Williamsburg.
Years in Brooklyn: Lived and
worked in Williamsburg for 16 years.
Manhattan: Three, four times a week doing errands
for the bar and going to bookstores.
Brooklyn: Places like the Abbey.
about Brooklyn: Nothing, except I generally
disrespect people who overvalue their own
“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
NEW-SCHOOL BARTENDER: Sarah
Where she works: The Subway
Bar. 527 Metropolitan Ave.
Birthplace: Laguna Niguel,
Months in Brooklyn: 8.
to Manhattan: Once a week.
If you weren’t
doing this? I’d be into graphic design and
Likes about Brooklyn: The
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.
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