America's Best Secret Neighborhoods
“The suit-and-tie crowd has a little trouble here,” says David Bishop, owner of Atlanta’s 97 Estoria bar, “but everyone else has a blast.” The here Bishop is referring to is Cabbagetown, an historic quarter with factory-worker housing, abandoned warehouses, a dwindling drug trade—and some of the hottest spots in Atlanta. Cabbagetown is Atlanta’s next big thing.
Areas like Cabbagetown—artsy, foodie, edgy, and brand spanking new—are blooming in cities around the country. After years of decline in the post-WWII era of big suburbs, bigger houses, and even bigger cars, America’s neglected urban areas are finally experiencing a renaissance-according to the U.S. Census, almost every major city has grown in the past 10 years. Welcome to the 21st century, the Era of Urban Emergence.
“Most of the established areas are all bought-out and very expensive. So folks are driven to seek out ‘secondary’ neighborhoods,” says Doug Farr, author of Sustainable Urbanism (Wiley, 2008), a primer for environmentally friendly design in these newly booming cities.
Travelandleisure.com searched from coast to coast to uncover the country’s most happening ‘hoods—formerly downtrodden parts of town that are currently enjoying a renaissance, like the Belmont in Charlotteville, Pilsen in Chicago, and downtown Kansas City. And while New York City, with its five boroughs and eight million souls, is bound to be nurturing several areas at any given time, Prospect Heights, in Brooklyn, takes the cake. Long home to a mixed demographic—including a strong Caribbean community—Prospect Heights now also welcomes young Manhattan expats and Brooklyn bargain-hunters into its brownstone embrace.
“I originally moved here for good subway and park access,” says Eric Herman, a music producer who moved to Prospect Heights just over a year ago. “Since then, a wine bar, a beer garden, and at least half a dozen restaurants have opened—this place is blowing up!”
Further to the west in Texas, the epicenter of artsy alternative culture may be Austin, but its East End neighborhood is ground zero. “The East End is an area with incredible cultural history and, until recently, a pretty dodgy present,” says Beth Krauss, from Austin’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Now, though, it has become the city’s ’it’ area—the pulse of Austin’s progressive arts and nightlife scene.”
While gentrification is inevitable in the era of urban emergence, it can also be a force for good. Ideally, new residents invest in the neighborhood emotionally as well as economically—they complement its existing charms by restoring old buildings and opening exciting new businesses. It is precisely the eclectic mixture of old and new that makes these places so distinctive: not too shabby, not too chic, the hotbeds of what’s good in that city.
So, visit these neighborhoods on the rise as soon as you can: the change from cutting edge to can’t-get-a-dinner-reservation will happen before you know it.
Tenderloin, San Francisco, CA
Then: In truth, “then” is now—the TL’s the epicenter of the city’s crack problem, homeless population, and government housing projects.
Now: But it’s got the allure of authenticity, and the TL’s location—between downtown SF and upscale Nob Hill—makes development inevitable. And so it begins: among other hot spots, a swanky speakeasy, Bourbon and Branch, opened last year; and Sean Penn chose the Buddhist-themed Bambuddha Lounge to host the wrap party for his film, The Assassination of Richard Nixon.
Don’t Miss: Sunday service at the “church without walls,” Glide Memorial, where singers of every stripe—all with lungs like Aretha—power through rock, gospel, and freedom songs.
Pilsen, Chicago, IL
Then: This lively—but gang-infested—barrio brimmed with music, taquerias, cantinas, and Mexican bakeries.
Now: The 36 galleries around 18th Street and Wolcott Avenue started the movement here in the late 1980’s with their 2nd Fridays Gallery Walk.
Don’t Miss: Potato and pepper quesadillas from the late-night taco truck parked outside the church on 21st and Wolcott (no phone).
Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, NY
Then: A residential, mostly Caribbean neighborhood that deferred the boutiques and bars to nearby Park Slope.
Now: Cool is everywhere; the Neoclassical Brooklyn Museum hosts an exhibit-themed dance party the first Saturday of every month, while more laid-back revelers sip Brooklyn Brewery beers and enjoy screened films (shown Mondays from October through April) in the plush-velvet back room at Soda.
Don’t Miss: Brunch at the 70-year-old local institution, Tom’s Restaurant, inspiration for the eponymous 1987 Suzanne Vega song, where Tom greets every customer and his staff doles out coffee and cookies while you wait.
Wynwood Arts District, Miami, FL
Then: Blighted warehouse district, with poverty, crime, and a drug-riddled park.
Now: It’s not hipster heaven yet, but with its colorful warehouses, wide gallery-gazing sidewalks, and premier shoreside location, this hood has the promise of greatness. Since 2002, a thriving art scene has been Wynwood’s draw: more than 20 galleries participate in the Second Saturday Art Walk, including the pioneer Bakehouse Complex, housed in a former bakery.
Don’t Miss: The western edge of Wynwood (5th Avenue from 24th to 28th streets), where throngs of seamstresses turn out wholesale wares at cut-rate prices, and vintage men’s clothiers like Austin Burke keep male sophistication alive.
Downtown, Kansas City, MO
Then: A typically beleaguered American city center of the suburban era.
Now: The city invested $5 billion to restore this Art Deco district, inaugurating the all-glass, 18,500-seat Sprint Center, which hosts sports events and concerts, and the Power and Light District, packing more than 30 restaurants and clubs into a mere eight blocks.
Don’t Miss: The public park atop the roof of a three-story building at 12th and Main streets—it’s a haven of green surrounded by skyscrapers.
Roosevelt Row, Phoenix, AZ
Then: Boarded-up buildings and drug dens, in a historic area just north of downtown.
Now: In 2002, artists began reclaiming abandoned buildings as studio space. Soon a light-rail, scheduled to open in December 2008, will stop right in the area’s heart, providing easy access to local happenings like the First Fridays art walk, which attracts more than 20,000 people from throughout the metropolitan area to the neighborhood’s 100-plus exhibition spaces.
Don’t Miss: A fried-egg sandwich with fritters—and a side of gossip—at the Welcome Diner, an eight-seat, artist-designed, all-metal restaurant-on-wheels.
East End, Austin, TX
Then: A low-income barrio, with booming drug, prostitution, and blues-music scenes.
Now: After East Enders complained about crime in 2004, the city invested a little money—and a lot of police—to recover the area. Thanks to some visionary entrepreneurs, locals and visitors alike now flock to cool places like El Chile for ceviche, nachos, and the best margaritas in town, and the cowboy-cool-meets-cyber-chic Club De Ville.
Don’t Miss: The down-and-out blues, strong drinks, and free buffet (with killer sloppy joes) at TC’s Lounge, an authentic old-school gem.
Jamaica Plain, Boston, MA
Then: Despite the neighborhood’s vibrant Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban communities, crime around abandoned industrial areas and vast housing projects kept most Bostonians away.
Now: First the gay community discovered this eclectic area in the mid-1990’s, whose attractions include the glacial Jamaica Pond, 265-acre Arnold Arboretum, and 19th-century Samuel Adams Brewery. Hip types followed, and JP is now poised to replace Cambridge as the city’s official outpost of funky.
Don’t Miss: Simultaneously boogying (to Dj’d rap and synth jams) and bowling (New England candlepin-style)—at the subterranean Milky Way Lounge and Lanes.
Belmont, Charlottesville, VA
Then: One of the nation’s earliest planned neighborhoods—born in the 1890’s and raised around the local woolen mills—it declined precipitously when the industry shut down in the 1960’s.
Now: Converted riverside mills, restored Victorian bungalows, and a central location primed this historic district to be the city’s hottest new hood. Más restaurant’s open-air deck and Spanish tapas like creamy croquetas de jamón first lured crowds from nearby downtown in 2001.
Don’t Miss: Organic dinners, live bluegrass, or your pick of 130 microbrews at Beer Run.
Cabbagetown, Atlanta, GA
Then: A quarter for cheap housing—with $15,000 residences and factory-worker apartments—in a booming southern metropolis.
Now: Only a few miles from downtown, this gritty-chic neighborhood started drawing tattooed musician-types with its still-affordable housing—but now boasts more than a few upscale condos, as well as hangouts like 97 Estoria, an anything-goes bar in a 1930’s grocery store, featuring live local rock and surprise shows by major national acts.
Don’t Miss: November’s Chomp and Stomp, a chili cook-off and bluegrass festival with live music and pleasant 60-degree weather in this oft-sweltering city.
Collinwood, Cleveland, OH
Then: Immigrants from Croatia and Slovenia came here in the 1880’s to work in the railroad yards of this shoreside neighborhood in the far northeast corner of the city.
Now: A neighborhood development group started to stimulate growth in 2004 by buying buildings and leasing them at low cost to boho businesses such as Music Saves, an indie-rock record store selling original vinyl as well as tickets to rock shows at the next-door Beachland Ballroom.
Don’t Miss: Slovenian smoked sausage at Raddell’s Sausage Shop, supplying Clevelanders with bona fide Eastern European meats since 1979.