It wasn’t long ago that visitors to New York were warned to steer clear of Brooklyn, but an intense few decades of gentrification (much to director and local Spike Lee’s disdain) has seen the city’s southern borough become the epicentre of hipsterdom and a mecca for creative types. But it’s not all ironic moustaches, craft beer and pourover coffee. A culturally diverse and creatively intriguing community, Brooklyn has developed a unique personality that increasingly distinguishes itself from its elder sibling.
A distinct sense of calm embraces me as I emerge from the steps of the subway. Manhattan might be just across the river, but its frenetic, non-stop intensity is a world away. The pace here in Brooklyn is markedly slower. The morning air is fresh, as the scents of a nascent spring glide delicately on the breeze. Looming brownstones on either side of the narrow, one-way avenue create a cosy, sheltered stretch, with the occasional glimpse of the Empire State Building standing tall in Manhattan visible through breaks in the buildings.
Floral explosions of virgin-white and cherry-pink blossoms burst from the neighbourhood’s trees, as if they can’t contain their exuberance after having remained dormant through a long winter. Laced in history both glamorous and sordid, the striking brownstones and row houses imbue the streets with a stately elegance. Buildings that had previous lives as carriage houses, brothels and drug dens now live in glory thanks to Brooklyn’s gradual gentrification, and where sinister characters once loitered, cheerful neighbours now converse.
Row upon row of the Italianate brownstones radiate an irresistible charm, their sturdy front stoops almost beckoning to be sat upon to watch the world go by. Spacious bay windows reveal the occasional daydreamer gazing out from between the curtains. Wrought iron curls adorn windows, balustrades and balconies, while ageing red brick exteriors contrast emphatically with their green awnings. Weaving itself into intricate patterns like a verdant spider’s web, decades’ worth of ivy growth snakes down the building facades.
Many of the intriguing dwellings of this particular part of Brooklyn – the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill historic districts – have been home to some of Brooklyn’s most creative souls, and it’s easy to be swept away imagining their lives walking these same streets. Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe shared their first apartment as struggling artists here. Walt Whitman wandered this very neighbourhood searching for inspiration while penning his poetic opus, Leaves of Grass. And Christopher Wallace, better known as The Notorious B.I.G., grew up just down the street – his spirit still kept alive today in the neighbourhood through a giant painted mural that reads ‘Comandante Biggie’.
Wandering along Lafayette Avenue, I’m struck by just how many churches of all faiths stand eminently along this short stretch of road, as if harmoniously contributing to a communal sense of faith. As I near a weathered Baptist church on a corner, the dramatic cries of a preacher sail through the open doorway, and are then answered in unison by his congregation. I resist the urge to peek inside, seeing that my casual weekend attire doesn’t quite match the standard of the elegantly dressed parishioners gathering at the door. The first few bars of a glorious gospel harmony ring out from within, sung with such devotion that even the least spiritual person would find it hard not be moved. My heart swells at the passion, and the soulful strains linger in my ears as I wander further down the street.
Emerging from its winter hibernation in a Williamsburg warehouse, the Brooklyn Flea – a Saturday-morning tradition for local denizens and adventurous Manhattanites – has set up its first outdoor iteration for the year, with more than 100 stalls clustered tightly into a schoolyard in Fort Greene. While there’s still a slight chill in the air, the bleary-eyed revellers have pulled themselves out of bed for the cause. Quirky antiques, vintage paraphernalia and handmade goods pile on, around and under trestle tables. Old maps, rare vinyl, kitsch trading cards and well-loved, at times peculiar, furniture are all up for grabs for anyone willing to fossick.
And then there are those who come for the food. At the back of the flea market, stalls of food vendors offer all manner of provisions, many of them signature to Brooklyn. Gourmet hotdogs, locally roasted coffee, enormous fluffy doughnuts, pupusas, tacos, meatballs and fresh watermelon juice are just some of the delicacies on offer, making brunch a casual yet delicious affair. If this is what Saturday in Brooklyn is like, I think I’ll stay.