In recent years, Brooklyn, a borough of New York City, has become synonymous with a certain trend in food, fashion and design. The influence of Brooklyn is felt all over Tokyo, from stores selling selvedge jeans, to cafes and restaurants serving wholesome, old-style, yet healthy cuisine in stripped back, post-industrial spaces. My local Tsutaya bookstore has more Japanese tourist guides for Brooklyn, than it does for the whole of some other global cities, like London or Paris.
My Journey To Brooklyn
In the last article, I wrote about my reason for going to New York; to attend a workshop with artist, mentor and friend, James Victore. Since James’ studio is in Williamsburg, a neighbourhood of Brooklyn, it made sense to base myself there for the first week of this trip. So, I chose the ultra-hip Wythe Hotel (corner of Wythe and North11th St), settling into a Manhattan view room. Built in a reclaimed factory, the Wythe is standard bearer for post-industrial chic. The Wythe’s Reynard restaurant serves a fantastic, healthy breakfast, while the rooftop Ides bar is a very popular spot for evening drinks. My room was very chic, despite the bare concrete floors and there were a lot of nice touches, like the mini-bar with full sized bottles (!!!) and a great selection of locally sourced, artisanal products (like Mast Chocolates). However, the lack of room service, in-house laundry or baggage porters was a little tiring for a longer stay.
Williamsburg is, of course, one of the global capitals of the trend I mentioned above, which many call Hipsterism. For lovers of everything slow, artisanal and reclaimed, Williamsburg doesn’t disappoint. That said, the signs of rapid gentrification are everywhere and I couldn’t help but wonder how long Williamsburg in particular, and Brooklyn in general, will be able to hold onto its unique sense of cool.
Shopping, Eating And Drinking
I had some great meals in Brooklyn. I’ve already mentioned the wonderful breakfasts at Reynard in the Wythe Hotel. There was also some fine bistro food at Sweetwater (North 6th, between Wythe and Berry), fun Izakaya-inspired Japanese food at 1 or 8 (South 2nd, between Kent and Wythe), and fantastic cocktails in a luminous speakeasy space at Hotel Delmano (corner of Berry and North 9th). But, my favourite eatery was Cariño (South 4th, between Wythe and Berry), an unassuming little restaurant where, over three meals I ate some of the best Mexican food I’ve had outside of Mexico itself. Their Oaxacan Mole was a Proust-like moment that took me straight back to my travels in that magical part of Central America.
Coffee was a less straightforward affair. While all the best coffee I had during my stay in New York was in Brooklyn, I can’t say any cup I had there was truly impressive. As expected, Blue Bottle (Berry St, between North 4th and 5th) always had a gaggle of tourists, anxiously echoing how many likes their Instagrammed coffee moments were attracting. The actual coffee always tasted better at Toby’s Estate (North 6th St, between Berry and Bedford), which also seemed to draw a more local looking crowd. While the brews were not quite in the same league at Freehold (South 3rd, between Kent and Wythe) and Devoción (Grand Street, between Kent and Wythe), the vibe in both locals and the sunny aspect on the pavement tables in the early autumn afternoon light, made them memorable as places to sit, write and reflect.
I wasn’t expecting to do much shopping while in Brooklyn (my plan was to save that for later on in the trip), but I did enjoy a little retail therapy and window gazing on my last two days. The clothes in Concrete + Water were very inviting, while the vintage furniture next door in Strawser and Smith was spectacular (with prices to match). There was also a swarm of second-hand clothing stores, but I wasn’t much tempted, since we have so much of that here in Tokyo.
However, I did drop some serious cash on two pairs of selvedge jeans at Brooklyn Denim Co (corner of North 3rd St and Wythe). The range and attention to finding me the right fit was excellent, and the free cutting and finishing service was an added bonus. I could have easily blown my annual clothing budget in that store!
Finally, Rough Trade’s Brooklyn outpost (North 9Th Street, between Kent and Wythe) was an unexpected surprise. Alongside racks of vinyl, there was also books, a cafe, a live music venue, table tennis tables and a customised Photo Booth machine that delivered rocking black and white, high contrast prints.
And Room To Think And Dream
In many places, despite the gentrification, Brooklyn still retains a working class vibe. As you get closer to the East River, it’s not hard to imagine what things were like in a more industrialised era. Many of the factory spaces have now been converted to stores, studios and venues, but the relative lack of high rise and width of roads made for trucks give the streets a very open feel.
This was something I especially enjoyed in the days immediately after the workshop, when I was craving a little quiet time to think and reflect. Of course, I was never the only person in a bar or cafe furiously scribbling away in a notebook. The whole place seems abuzz with people trying to get ideas down fast (check out mister_vi’s Instagram feed, whom I saw drawing in a cafe).
This notebook obsession was brought to life in the Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project (North 3rd, between Wythe and Berry), where you can look at thousands of notebooks, illustrated and written by contributors from around the world.
What Brooklyn Stands For
Over breakfast on my last morning in Brooklyn, I found myself thinking about the influence this place seems to have on so many from around the world. There’s no question Brooklyn, and Williamsburg in particular, has the kind of creative energy many cities hope to manufacture. But, what made this place so vibrant, what brought the people and business here, what allowed for the post-industrial chic to happen, was a particular set of circumstances (including relatively low rents on quite large spaces) that are hard to replicate.
Of course, my reason for being in Brooklyn was quite unusual and specific. I was there to attend a workshop, to get my world shaken up, to find my creative mojo, all while meeting brilliant and challenging people (I discussed all this in my last article). So, while I walked almost every street of Williamsburg over the course a week, in brilliant sunshine, and by the dim night time lights, I didn’t really do so as either a tourist, or a travelling photographer, I did it as a creative soul in search of a muse.
Perhaps that was apt since the quest to act on our creative impulses feels so much a part of what Brooklyn is today. One of the artists I met on my stay there had recently taken to making art out of abandoned chairs. He would find an old chair on the street, draw patterns and symbols on it with a heavy marker, then put it up for sale. That tight circle, reclaim, make, sell, is something I saw again and again in Brooklyn, a remarkable ability to keep the membrane that separates art and commerce as thin as possible.