Bushwick city limits (Financial Times Weekend)

The most exciting restaurant opening in New York City in recent months isn’t in the West Village and it doesn’t have a booking line that shunts civilians to Siberian 5.30pm or 11pm bookings. Momo Sushi Shack serves innovative, sublime Japanese food to an already slavish following. It looks like an artfully gentrified garage on the corner of a deserted industrial Brooklyn block, but it’s actually the epicentre of the burgeoning Bushwick scene. Right next door, in a breezeblock bunker identifiable by a distressed curtain emblazoned with an ‘R’, is Roberta’s, a gourmet pizzeria which justifiably commands waits of an hour upwards for a table and regularly attracts stray downtown celebrities. In the back is the herb garden that supplies Roberta’s ingredients, and a few blocks away sit the warehouses that host semi-legal parties with trapeze artists and fire-eaters. This is New York City’s new artisanal bohemia.

‘I’ve lived here for 12 years,’ says Phill Gilmour, owner of Momo Sushi Shack. ‘I’ve been watching it develop. Opening up my restaurant here made sense; the rents are a seventh of what they are in Manhattan, and there are fewer douche bags.’

The food scene in Bushwick is the most obvious indicator of the upswing in its fortunes, from the gastro pub fare of North East Kingdom to the raptures that regulars go into about the tacos at unpretentious Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos. ‘The buzz surrounding Roberta’s was enormous because when it first opened it felt like a diamond in the rough,’ says local food writer Scarlett Lindeman. ‘It started making awesome pizza with a local and sustainable slant and became a poster child for the new Brooklyn aesthetic – young, artistic, interested in food and craft and with enough cash to drop $17 on a 12 inch pie. Now the opening of Momo Sushi Shack shows that the waves of gentrification have rippled out from Williamsburg.’

Bushwick is 15 minutes from Manhattan on the L train, but – stylistically at least – its three square miles have more in common with the graffiti-patterned, paranoid low-rise cinescapes of The Warriors thirty years ago. It has an intense, decadent, photographic beauty, from the aluminium loading doors at the Boars Head Meat Factory that resemble air locks from 1970s science fiction movies, to the hidden-away art galleries – like English Kills and Sugar – that exhibit the kind of edgy emerging urban art which has disappeared from SoHo and Chelsea. Bushwick doesn’t advertise its attractions; some of the most popular parties and offbeat happenings are at Brooklyn Fire Proof, an arts community space on Ingraham Street marked only by a blazing mural out front. Spaces open and close frequently according to whim and legality. The Market Hotel, beneath the tracks of the J, M and Z subway lines, was a Dominican speakeasy in the 1970s and in recent years became a squatted hub for the Brooklyn independent music scene, with eight young artists quite literally in residence. It was closed down by the police after an Easter weekend raid, but recently reopened as a ‘non-commercial spiritual home for independent rock music and independent art’ with DJ-accompanied yoga classes as well as live bands on its rooftop.

The streets in the north of Bushwick can seem neutron-bomb quiet, apart from the odd skateboarder with dreadlocks piled high, gliding across a block, from right to stage left. Turn a corner and the Empire State Building appears on the horizon, like a distant miniature replica, just-seen between anonymous dilapidated warehouses. A few years ago this area was, as they say ‘sketchy’ (and the 1977 Bushwick blackout riots are the stuff of nightmares), now it’s much less so. The cheaper rents that Phill Gilmour mentions have attracted young creatives, long since priced out of the Lower East Side and the western parts of Brooklyn. Walk into Café Orwell on any given afternoon, and it’s full of twenty-something hipsters, all working on identical titanium Macbooks while Sufjan Stevens plays over the gurgle of the espresso machine. Later that night, they’re sipping cocktails in the sleek new Deco-style bar The Narrows and, after midnight, in Kings County, a petite, candle-lit rock dive that requires night vision to navigate.

Kim Fraczek is a jewellery maker who left Manhattan for Bushwick six years ago. ‘I moved here because of the enormous, light-filled space available to build a studio and a home. And I love the creative people around me.’ Fraczek’s loft is in an old knitting factory, whose rooftop is a regular venue for late night parties, and her bedroom overlooks the hot tub of the New York Loft Hostel, the sole hotel in the area, a decidedly modernist and recherché take on backpacker’s accommodation.

While the knitting needles left Kim’s building years ago, they are part of offbeat pursuits at the Yarn Café – a coffee shop and wool retailer for a new generation of knit lovers. It’s a part of what locals term ‘the hipster mall’ on Flushing Avenue that also includes Index Ltd., an appointment-only vintage furniture store trading in hefty, chic industrial pieces with a well worn patina, and Better than Jam, a local design co-op that specialises in screenprinted fashion and accessories.

Bushwick has a junky, magpie aesthetic, as if many of its attractions have been put together from the bombed out remnants of a fallen city, then strewn with fairy lights. At The Wreck Room on Flushing Avenue, the booths in the back of the bar have been fashioned from recycled car seats, and at Goodbye Blue Monday on Broadway, a different band plays every night of the week in the midst of what looks like an exploded junk shop. The space has morphed over the last decade from antiques shop to café to bar and gig space. Once a month it hosts the Bushwick Book Club, which invites a bill of songwriters to compose songs inspired by one particular book; creating something new from something old or classic.

Foraging for curios and essentials for your unfurnished loft at Green Village Used Furniture and Clothing is something of a Sunday afternoon ritual. All human waste is here, on an epic scale: golf clubs, suitcases, knackered Disney memorabilia and weird 1970s kitchen gizmos, all piled precariously up to the ceiling along narrow pathways. One wonders how, should anyone ever want to buy them, the cracked Formica sideboards that make up the structure of each path could ever make it out of the shop without a major deconstruction of what might count as the most arresting art installation in the city.

Looks aside, Bushwick feels reminiscent of 80s downtown New York City; a touch of youthful pioneer spirit mixes with hedonism and white middle class anarchy. It’s still possible to open a weekend-only gallery or shop here, and abandoned warehouses beg, as always, for reappropriation. ‘There are always under the radar events,’ says Jeremy Sapienza of the BushwickBK.com local news website. ‘That’s the nature of a place with so many illegal living spaces and venues. It’s a continuation of what has always gone on in NYC.’

There are still very visible layers of an older Bushwick. Head towards the M subway line, along Knickerbocker Avenue, and you’ll frequently encounter Hispanic block parties along with remnants of the area’s Italian past, most ornately in the form of Circo’s Pastry Shop, with its ice cream cakes in the window and gorgeous 1940s neon signage over the door. ‘The vast majority of the neighbourhood isn’t industrial at all,’ says Sapienza. ‘It’s packed densely with apartments and small homes, it’s not just an unpopulated wasteland discovered by creative little whitesters.’

It’s the native diversity as much as the imported cool that makes Bushwick so vibrant. Walk down Morgan Avenue on a Sunday morning and you’ll pass through noxious meat-packing smells, past rainbow-coloured graffiti friezes, and the Latin wails of worship and percussion from the pentecostal La Pena de Horeb church. Then you can brunch with a Slammin’ Egg Burrito and a bloody mary at the Life Café.

But like so many areas in New York City that have been resigned to awkward acronyms and the tourist trail, Bushwick represents a certain kind of day trip that won’t exist forever. As restaurateur Phill Gilmour says, ‘Bushwick’s air of industrial cool will remain for maybe five more years. Then Starbucks will move in.’

Delta Airlines fly three times daily between London Heathrow and New York JFK from £398 return. 0845-600-0950; http://www.delta.com.

*Photo by Chance Johnston*

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2 Responses to “Bushwick city limits (Financial Times Weekend)”

  1. So glad FT made it to Bushwick. Here are my photos of my favorite part of New York City

    Felicia: Bushwick, Brooklyn
  2. Damn that hood is dope 🙂

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