NEW YORK -- For the last few years, a neighborhood called Williamsburg has been the epicenter of Brooklyn cool. But with prices for Williamsburg condos hitting $4 million and up, young creative types are migrating to trendier -- and less expensive -- ground. They seem to have found it in nearby Bushwick, known for colorful street art (please don't call it graffiti!) and kale pizza at a place called Roberta's.
Yet Bushwick's emergence as part of cutting-edge Brooklyn has not completely erased memories of the bad old days, when the working-class neighborhood was notorious for crime. Maria Hernandez Park is named for a woman who was killed in 1989 after standing up against drug dealers. Today the park is filled with flowers, skateboarders, dog-walkers and families. "No more shootings," said Elvin Alvarado, sitting on a park bench. "It used to be at 8 p.m., you could not pass. People were waiting for you."
Joe Ficalora grew up in the neighborhood; his father was killed by a crackhead here in 1991. But Bushwick's murder rate has dropped 90 percent since then, and Ficalora is thrilled with the transformation. He points to an old warehouse, now renting out gleaming apartments, as proof that the neighborhood will not "turn into Detroit."
"No one wanted to live here before," said Ficalora, who promotes street art through a group called the Bushwick Collective. "No one wanted the beast. Now everyone loves the beast!"
Where the hipsters of New York City go, tourists are sure to follow. So for out-of-towners willing to explore Bushwick, take the L subway line to Jefferson Street and start wandering. You'll find great eats and great art.
Along Troutman, Starr, Wyckoff and other streets, artwork decorates old factories, warehouses and even small apartment buildings. There's everything from a portrait of Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai to a picture of a flotation device with the words: "Street art saved my life." On a recent afternoon, several young men chose a mural of the late rapper Biggie Smalls as a backdrop for filming a music video. "I was looking for good artwork and this caught my eye," said the video's 20-year-old star, who goes by the name Flispy Flexin.
You may see artists at work with spray paint, stencils, ladders and other tools of the trade, and you can sign up for a Bushwick street art tour through FreeToursbyFoot.com, where participants pay what they wish for tours. Organizers estimate some 500 people have taken the two-hour "New York Graffiti and Street Art Tour" since it launched March 1.
Ficalora also organizes an annual street festival showcasing artists, musicians and others contributing to the neighborhood's renaissance. It's planned for 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. June 1 on Troutman between Wyckoff and St. Nicholas.
Ficalora's family operates a steel products company that's one of a number of manufacturers still located in Bushwick. But some industrial buildings have been repurposed for residential and retail use, like Shops at the Loom, which houses 20 stores in a renovated textile mill at 1087 Flushing Ave., including Gnostic Tattoo, the Bushwick Food Cooperative, Brooklyn Yarn Cafe, Loom Yoga Center and Kave, a coffee bar that offers nut-milk lattes and Wi-Fi.
Archie Broady owns a boutique at Shops at the Loom named for his mother, Iola. In his store, he says, "anybody should be able to find something beautiful." His eclectic wares and "found objects" range from hand-cranked candles wound around a coil, to bandages designed to match various skin colors.
Passing through Shops at the Loom on a recent day was Laura De Marco, an Italian visitor scoping out loft space for a photography workshop. "A lot of young artists live here," explained De Marco. "We're looking for a big space with light. Brooklyn is the place to do photography. This is the real Brooklyn."
Even folks from other parts of Brooklyn are intrigued by Bushwick's newfound trendiness. "I'm from Williamsburg, but I'm here for a few days to explore the neighborhood," explained Jodi Jones, a fashion photographer stopping by the Kave cafe. "I keep hearing the hipster scene is in Bushwick."
Eating and drinking
Bushwick is an increasingly important player in Brooklyn's foodie scene. A tiny, upscale restaurant called Dear Bushwick at 41 Wilson Ave. offers a sumptuous "English Country Kitchen" menu with entrees in the $22 range like stuffed bass and roast chicken. Intriguing vegetable sides include roasted carrots with "medieval nut pesto" for $7. Try Dear Bushwick's version of Pimm's, a refreshing gin cocktail that originated in 19th-century London. And enjoy the quirky decor: A picture of a caped damsel on a white horse sits next to a handwritten nursery rhyme, "Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross, to see a fine lady upon a white horse."
Ficalora recommends Northeast Kingdom, 18 Wyckoff Ave. "Awesome place, comfort food," he says. Menu offerings include "This Morning's Farm Egg" for $12, seared local scallops for $25, and maple walnut bread pudding for $8. Other area bars, nightspots and cafes include Bodega Wine Bar, 24 St. Nicholas Ave.; The Rookery, 425 Troutman St.; and Pearl's Social & Billy Club, 40 St. Nicholas Ave.
No description of Bushwick would be complete without Roberta's, 261 Moore St. The industrial-zoned block can seem deserted even when there's an hourlong wait for a table. Sometimes you can snag a seat at the bar and order food from there; additional tables are located in an atrium inside converted shipping containers, a hipster dreamscape of corrugated industrial-chic green. In warm weather, there are outdoor tents and a tiki bar.
Food critics rightly laud Roberta's fabulous thin-crust pizza. Kale is a favorite topping but an excellent option is "Tonya Charding" pizza with robiola cheese, speck (cured meat), chard and green garlic for $17.
Roberta's co-owner Brandon Hoy says "there weren't a lot of people with their eyes on what was happening here" when they opened in 2008. "There's a fine line between dangerous and wildness, and the neighborhood still has this very art-centric feeling of wildness," he said. "That's what drew us here and that's the foundation that created this art scene and culture. Craziness happens here in a fun way."