It never really went away, of course. Manhattanites always made pilgrimages to Grimaldi’s and Peter Luger, to Coney Island and the Botanic Garden (see "Guide to Brooklyn"). But they came seeking humble, Brooklyn-y things: pizza, steak, roller coasters, trees. They didn’t expect a salad of braised squid and pea shoots, or a stylish cocktail bar, or a killer music scene. Today, they’ll find all these in spades, as well as those curious trees. Now friends from London, San Francisco, and even TriBeCa are eager to discover this "Brooklyn" everyone’s talking about. They want in like Tony Manero wanted out. Brooklyn’s renaissance is far enough along that the novelty angle is finally, blessedly moot, so restaurant critics and fashion editors no longer add "And it’s in Brooklyn!" as a parent might say "And she’s only a toddler!"
I admit the borough’s new cachet comes as some vindication. (Taste it, 212!) And, sure, I love braised squid and fancy cocktails as much as the next yuppie arriviste. Happy they showed up. But I wonder if curious visitors aren’t coming with misplaced expectations. If someone told you Brooklyn is "the next Manhattan," they got it dead wrong. Brooklyn is nothing like Manhattan. Brooklyn looks and feels and is like no place else.
The first thing you need to know about Brooklyn is that it is huge: New York’s most populous borough, home to nearly a third of its citizens. An independent Brooklyn would be the nation’s fourth-largest city. Brooklyn is a vast metropolis blessed and cursed to lie 500 yards from Manhattan.
The second thing you need to know about Brooklyn is that it is small. Big in breadth and attitude, but intimate in the height of its buildings, the modesty of its storefronts, the compactness of its communities. Defined by the stoop, the bodega, the bocce or basketball court, Brooklyn has an enduring neighborhood-ness. Come to my block next month and they’ll be decking the stoops for Christmas; come in June, and the kids next door will be manning a lemonade stand.
Brooklyn has a singular ecology, sustaining a great variety of quirky or exotic things (and people) that have little or no place in Manhattan, nor in many other American cities. Things like bocce courts and lemonade stands and pick-your-own herb planters. Stickball games and ice cream trucks. Taquerias with screened porches, bistros with dogwood-shrouded patios, Russian beer gardens, Georgian supper clubs. The city’s only South African restaurant, its only aquarium, its only carnival-style freak show. Rock concerts staged in an empty swimming pool, rock concerts staged in a Polish community center where old ladies sell stoned kids pierogi. An industrial canal that now attracts intrepid kayakers. And, throughout the borough, an incredible range of architecture, from Park Slope’s Italianate brownstones to the 19th-century carriage houses of Clinton Hill.
With relatively ample space and some creative ways of using it, Brooklyn offers plenty of room for exception. Consider the five following examples, each of which could only exist here.
Case Study #1: The World in 73 Square Miles
I write about travel for a living, so really, there’s no other place for me to live. Close to 100 ethnic groups are represented in Brooklyn, among them 935,000 immigrants. Some years ago, my wife and I got a car—a car! in New York City!—and began exploring Brooklyn as we would Miami or Los Angeles: on wheels. Now we spend weekends traversing what might as well be other hemispheres. You want Saigon? Sunset Park will do. Dakar? Fort Greene. Damascus? Atlantic Avenue. Krakow? Bedford Avenue. Kingston? East Flatbush.
Then there are the French, who have been flocking to Boerum Hill and Fort Greene, lured by cheaper rents and an unrushed, Continental pace. Smith Street is now lined with francophone hangouts such as Robin des Bois, Provence en Boîte, and Bar Tabac. Every July the latter hosts an epic Bastille Day bacchanal, when the surrounding streets are filled with sand for an all-day pétanque tournament. Gratuitous cultural stereotypes? We’ve got them too.
Case Study #2: Di Fara Pizza and Brooklyn Cuisine
Brooklyn is especially renowned for its restaurants. Media darlings like Applewood, the Good Fork, and Al Di Là share a distinct 718 sensibility. All are disarmingly personal, defined by the whims of the chef, who usually owns the place. A DIY aesthetic prevails, from the handwritten menus to the house-cured salumi. Creativity reigns, but pretense is banished.
Di Fara, a 44-year-old pizzeria in workaday Midwood, may not appear to have much in common with the above, but in a way it was a template for all that followed. It’s chef-run (when owner Domenico DeMarco is sick, Di Fara shuts down), homespun (no LCD screens, just an ancient brass cash register), and reliant on, er, local produce (oregano and basil plants spilling over the windowsill). The kitchen is a model of inefficiency: DeMarco, 70, makes every pizza himself. Instead of prepping ingredients in advance, he’ll grate just enough mozzarella and Grana Padana for a single pie, shreds only a few leaves of basil at a time. Making one pizza takes, oh, about seven hours. Watching DeMarco work, you think, This guy would be eaten alive in Manhattan. Which is why no one there makes pizza half as good.