(Dusting this off – this is part of an ongoing quest to visit all of the neighborhoods in New York City.)
I actually end up in neighborhoods like this a lot – places where the artists and freaks all gravitate and have just started to establish a toehold, and end up being the verrrrry early stages of eventual gentrification. I was one of the first wave of people to do that to the Lower East Side, I saw it happen to Williamsburg, and I’m seeing signs of it happening in Bed-Stuy.
People have started catching wise to that now, though. I’d actually been to Bushwick once before, when I went to review a play in 2007; it was still calling itself “East Williamsburg” then, and in true artiste fashion, the play was staged on the roof of an abandoned warehouse (I didn’t know why then, and I still don’t know why today). Back then it was a real sort of back-of-beyond place, the sort of neighborhood where you could round up friends and all go in on a raw loft apartment for cheap – but if you wanted walls you had to make your own. Or, the sort of neighborhood where your family has lived there for three generations since Papa moved there from San Juan and lives in the house two doors down from where you’re living with your two kids which is good because Papa can watch them while you work nights cleaning offices.
The long-timers in such neighborhoods have started catching wise to what’s looming if suddenly a lot of young artsy people show up. People generally were keeping to themselves, but there were a couple of streets where I sensed a certain unspoken tension.
Change seems to so far be coming slow. I turned up on the last weekend of a free “open studios” festival, where all of the artists threw open the doors on the spaces they’d carved out of basements or storefronts or workspace shares and people were free to wander in and see what was going on. A handful of gallery spaces also had group displays. I first stopped in at one such gallery set up in a disused garage – three bored-looking artists scattered throughout a room, all sitting on lawn chairs, each in front of a wall covered with their work. One woman saw me eyeing her project – she had a stack of leaflets with the word “Because” printed on them and a big line underneath, and people were encouraged to complete the sentence; she was posting them on the wall. She encouraged me to contribute something of my own, and I considered contributing “[because] I choose to”, but then realized I’d only thought of that because I’d seen Matrix Revolutions the night before. I declined. Another garage/gallery had a bit more of a crowd – it had a collection of indie games, and people were poking at the handful of Playstations and laptops and iPads cued up with their work, trying them out. I lost badly at a game where you were a poultry inspector tasked with removing diseased chickens from a conveyor belt. Still another building had turned its ground floor into a series of workspaces, most of which were open – one door promised live tarot readings, but I couldn’t find anyone there. I passed another door where a wide-eyed little girl was watching an artist set up an installation of a room full of Barbies, dressed as ballerinas, and turned into marionettes. One woman had turned her space into a vintage clothing boutique instead, where the gimmick was that everything was ten dollars; I didn’t see anything that suited me, but I did help myself to a glass of the free rum punch she was offering.
There definitely was a centralized street for the artsy types – the bigger galleries were all on the few blocks radiating out from one of the few subway stations in the neighborhood, mixed in alongside indie organic food shops, restaurants and yoga studios. Iced coffee was in abundance, and every shop had Wi-fi. Elsewhere, the further-flung and quieter bits of town were mostly families doing chores in the yard, kids on the sidewalk, and maybe a guy with a card table hawking Puerto Rican flags or t-shirts. I saw a couple of artists mixed in there too – one bored-looking guy sat in a storefront festooned with what looked like wall hangings made of fur. I passed another guy on another lawn chair on the sidewalk, checking his iPhone under a sign reading “art” with an arrow pointing towards a basement. He looked up briefly as I approached, but the stairs looked rickety and the basement looked dark; I walked on.
I did poke into Molasses Books, though – a used bookstore/coffee shop operating out of an old storefront. There was a decent assortment of books for such a small space, and the guy behind the coffee counter was blasting Kraftwerk’s Autobahn when I went in. I’d actually brought a couple books just in case, and ended up getting quite a fair price; enough for a free iced coffee and a discount on a new (to me) book to take home. It was quiet and homey in the place, and I ended up staying to finish my coffee there and flip through another book; I was there long enough to hear the sound switch over from Kraftwerk to Side Two of Born In The U.S.A. Further north, I also stumbled upon Green Village, an impossibly packed junk shop where I browsed a good 20 minutes despite myself.
Towards the north end of Bushwick I actually crossed over into another neighborhood without even knowing it. Ridgewood – at least the part I saw – was more of the same sort of jumble of older houses mixed with little storefronts mixed in with warehouses. I saw a few kids playing handball in some kind of sports park, and stopped into the Onderdonk House, a Dutch Colonial House (or the recreation thereof) from the 1600’s. They had a side gallery from the Bushwick festival set up on their yard, and a staff member offered to direct me to the tour that was then starting; I declined, preferring to wander around through the house. First I poked in the back garden, peering in at a pen of chickens, then saw an open door towards the back of the house and walked in. There was nothing there but shelves upon shelves of books. I wandered through a couple more similarly-book-heavy rooms, puzzled, then through another door. As I was closing that door behind me, I finally saw the sign – “Office Use Only – do not enter.”
The remaining few rooms were given over to displays of some of the bits of pottery or glassware they’d found on the site, and recreations of “a typical Dutch Drawing Room from 1680” and the like. An older man was giving a young family a tour of the place, but I left them be, giving things a quick look before casually walking out the front door past a staff member who thanked me for coming. I thanked her and said nothing about my unorthodox entry.