The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide

The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide

by William B. Helmreich

Paperback(with French flaps)

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A one-of-a-kind walking guide to Brooklyn, from the man who walked every block in New York City

Bill Helmreich walked every block of New York City—6,000 miles in all—to write the award-winning The New York Nobody Knows. Later, he re-walked Brooklyn—some 816 miles—to write this one-of-a-kind walking guide to the city's hottest borough. Drawing on hundreds of conversations he had with residents during his block-by-block journeys, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows captures the heart and soul of a diverse, booming, and constantly changing borough that defines cool around the world. The guide covers every one of Brooklyn’s forty-four neighborhoods, from Greenpoint to Coney Island, providing a colorful portrait of each section’s most interesting, unusual, and unknown people, places, and things. Along the way you will learn about a Greenpoint park devoted to plants and trees that produce materials used in industry; a hornsmith who practices his craft in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens; a collection of 1,140 stuffed animals hanging from a tree in Bergen Beach; a five-story Brownsville mural that depicts Zionist leader Theodor Herzl—and that was the brainchild of black teenagers; Brooklyn’s most private—yet public—beach in Manhattan Beach; and much, much more. An unforgettably vivid chronicle of today’s Brooklyn, the book can also be enjoyed without ever leaving home—but it’s almost guaranteed to inspire you to get out and explore one of the most fascinating urban areas anywhere.

  • Covers every one of Brooklyn’s 44 neighborhoods, providing a colorful portrait of their most interesting, unusual, and unknown people, places, and things
  • Each neighborhood section features a brief overview and history; a detailed, user-friendly map keyed to the text; and a lively guided walking tour
  • Draws on the author’s 816-mile walk through every Brooklyn neighborhood
  • Includes insights from conversations with hundreds of residents

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691166827
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/04/2016
Edition description: with French flaps
Pages: 424
Sales rank: 387,443
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

William B. Helmreich (1945–2020) was the author of many books, including The Manhattan Nobody Knows, The Queens Nobody Knows, and The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City, which won the Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He was Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the City College of New York's Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center.

Read an Excerpt



GREENPOINT EXTENDS FROM COMMERCIAL AND ASH STREETS and Paidge Avenue on the north, to the Queens border on the east, on Maspeth Avenue and Frost Street to the south, and roughly N. 11th, West, and Commercial Streets along the western border. It is one of the last remaining working-class enclaves in the city. In the nineteenth century, Greenpoint was an industrial area, and shipbuilding was its main activity. It was also the location of the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company, glassworks, a sugar refinery, brick foundry, chemical producing factories, a rope manufacturing company, and other industries.

The area was already home during this early period for Polish immigrants. The Polish-owned establishments are dwindling, slowly receding into the history of the neighborhood as it gentrifies. Yet one still sees Polish men, likely immigrants, trudging home in their work boots, wearing faded shirts and trousers, at the end of the day, and carrying their knapsacks, usually filled with the tools of their trade. Their weather-beaten faces are creased with the lines of hard work and perhaps the assorted worries and even disappointments that have marked their transition from the old world, an ocean away. Why has Greenpoint remained so strongly Polish for 130 years? That's a really long time for a group to remain in one area, especially when it's the one in which they first settled. First, the lack of easy transportation to Manhattan creates insularity. And the G train has spotty service, so much so that it is also referred to the "Ghost Train." Most important, successive waves of immigration from Poland, especially after World War II and in recent years, have replenished the population.

Finally, Greenpoint is a full-service community, with ethnic stores of every kind, churches, and cultural organizations that, given the inherent conservatism of the strongly identified Poles, makes them content to stay put. In fact, 13 percent of Greenpoint residents can walk to work — more than twice the New York City average of 6 percent.

And yet gentrification is really on the move in Greenpoint, where it seems as though every inch of available space is being used. Glass and steel buildings, anywhere from six to nine stories high, are going up, not just on quiet, tree-lined blocks, but on busy, noisy, and not especially picturesque McGuinness Boulevard. Moreover, Greenpoint is yet another example of the segmented way in which neighborhood change occurs. Most of the stores on Manhattan Avenue and Nassau Street are Polish owned and operated. But on nearby Franklin Street it's a different story. Franklin has almost no Polish presence, dominated instead by bars, cafés, an English-language bookstore called WORD, and newly constructed apartment buildings. Manhattan and Franklin are parallel to each other and one block away, and yet it's almost as if they are two separate neighborhoods.

As I begin my walk, I'm standing in front of the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center at 1155 Manhattan Avenue. Peering through a metal-grated window, I see a man working on a design for a building column. Not surprising, as this nonprofit company specializes in rehabilitating former manufacturing buildings, which it then rents out to small companies. This rehabbing is one way in which a community stays close to its historical roots. It's also an attraction for many gentrifiers who want to live in areas that have a certain gritty feel. It's almost as if they're traveling into the past, yet enjoying modern-day comfort.

This is where Manhattan Avenue dead-ends at Newtown Creek, and I see a launching pad for both kayaks and canoes. This is no small matter because the presence of boaters here sends a message — we are reclaiming this area for those who live in the world of the outdoors. No, you're not going down the Delaware River enjoying a view of the woods, but your mode of travel isn't a car or a subway either. You won't catch many, or any, ocean liners going through Newtown Creek, I think, as I watch a barge, the Cape Laura, laden with layers of crushed automobiles, slowly pass by a kayaker heading toward the East River.

One unique place that doesn't fit into the hotel chain category is the Box House Hotel, located two blocks away at 77 Box Street. It looks pretty ordinary on the outside, but inside is a different story. It's a boutique hotel, one of a kind, and was originally a window and door factory. The unusual rooms are spacious and beautiful, with sixteen-foot-high ceilings, modern kitchens, and flat-screen TVs. Like the standard-looking hotels, the Box House Hotel caters to a foreign clientele, the room price can be as low as $219 a night, and you can be in Manhattan by subway in fifteen minutes. These moderately priced hotels in the outer boroughs of New York are becoming quite popular as more and more visitors gravitate to them.

The Newtown Creek Nature Walk is at nearby Paidge Avenue, an eastward continuation of Box Street. The nature walk was designed by sculptor George Trakas, who wanted to teach visitors how nature and industry are integrated. As I walk along Newtown Creek, metal plaques describe how the plants and small trees growing along the side are related to industry. For example: the bushy bluestem, whose stems are cut and bound together to make brooms and brushes; the horsetail, which was used as a scouring brush to polish arrow shafts, and whose roots were cooked with whaling oil and salmon eggs and eaten as a delicacy. The wood from the Kentucky coffee tree serves as material for constructing boat ribs, furniture pieces, fence posts, and railroad ties. It was also a source of coffee during the Civil War. There's the American cranberry bush, used to treat high blood pressure. Not to be omitted is the Joe-Pye weed, a remedy for bladder and kidney stones. It was named after a Native American traveling medicine man in Maine. Of course, the use of natural products in industry is nothing new, but to see the plants next to end users in this industrial section of Greenpoint makes it all the more real, especially when on an outing with the kids.

Retracing my steps, I exit the park and head back to Manhattan Avenue. This portion of Manhattan Avenue, from Box Street until Greenpoint Avenue, does not have much of a Polish presence. It's fairly nondescript, with walk-up apartment buildings, take-out joints, Hispanic-owned grocery stores, and Laundromats lining the avenue.

I spot an unusual name for what turns out to be a Yemeni-owned place, the God Bless Deli. A worker there tells me: "I hate this whole business with 9/11. We, in the grocery business, didn't do it and Islam doesn't agree with killing innocent people." It's a view I've heard many times in the city, and he admits to having told this to many non-Muslim customers. Such interactions on the job between people of different nationalities is an example of daygration, the daytime contacts that people of different cultures have with each other as they meet on neutral ground. However superficial they may seem, they provide people of varied backgrounds, in this case Hispanics, Poles, Yemenis, and gentrifiers, with a chance to meet and engage each other in commerce and chitchat.

As I cross Greenpoint Avenue, I notice, halfway up the avenue, an unusual name for a fairly nondescript restaurant — the Chinese Musician. I am unable to associate Chinese food with anything musical, except the name of the waltz, "Chopsticks." I wonder how and why it got that name, but the cashier inside is not too helpful. "I just work here," she says. "The restaurant is owned by a man who is now living in China." She tells me that many have asked her about the name but she hasn't a clue.

An Internet search is similarly unenlightening, though one site called "Lost City," titled its review of the place: "A Good Sign: Chinese Musician Restaurant." Concluding (as did many other reviewers) that the food was, at best, average, it observed that the joint "has one of the better, and more curious, names in the city. You sorta want to eat there simply because it's called Chinese Musician. And the sign is pretty damn good too." One commenter, Ken Mac, demanded: "This mystery must be revealed. Where are the musicians?"

Continuing south on Manhattan Avenue, I confront an imposing structure, St. Anthony of Padua's Roman Catholic Church, which was established as a parish way back in 1858. It is a tall, imposing red brick and white limestone structure, with white terra cotta facing, in the Gothic Revival style. As I gaze upward from the street, I have a sense of going far back in time, to a place where there were no cars, no paved streets, just rutted roads, where people wearing hand-made clothes walked the streets on a Sunday morning to see and be seen and entered the church to be at one with God. It is this sense of timelessness that attracts so many to the old churches; Brooklyn has more churches than any other borough. The churches have, however, changed over time as their clientele has shifted. While the denominational affiliation stays the same, they can sometimes become a bridge between the locals of long standing and the new arrivals.

On nearby Diamond Street, I pass by Blue Bloods Productions. There's a trailer that's been driven here all the way from Universal Studios, California. Right now they're filming The Good Wife. But in a week or a month it could be another series or film. Greenpoint has, in fact, become a popular location for film/TV studios, and there are quite a few scattered throughout the area.

As I walk up the block, I see that stoop culture is apparently alive and well in areas like this, consistent with their old-timey feel. People sit on the steps and give me the once-over as I pass, feeling no doubt, as I did growing up, that if I pass by "their stoop" or property they have the right to check me out. Sometimes they're drinking water, juice, or beer, and sometimes they're looking at their iPad, while grabbing some fresh air on a nice day. It's a very New York thing to do.

Continuing again on Manhattan Avenue, I enter Music Planet at number 649. It looks like any old video store with but one major difference — it has a large selection of Polish CDs and videos. There's Star Wars in Polish, but there are also many originals from the homeland, like Tobie moje Serce (You My Heart). The clerk assures me that this is the biggest such operation in the area, even as he laments the departure of so many native speakers from this place of first settlement. The store is mostly empty at 5:00 p.m. and the future does not look bright for places like this. The future and the present are quite bright for Lomzynianka Restaurant across the street at number 646. This upscale Polish eatery named after a town in Poland caters to young professionals looking to connect with the locals and is often quite crowded.

Unlike Lomzynianka, Pyza Restaurant, on Nassau Avenue, does not attract a gentrified clientele. It's a working-class Polish cafeteria that is very typical of such establishments. There are others like it along Nassau, Manhattan, and Norman Avenues. They are more authentic than Lomzynianka, both in terms of food and clientele, but they lack the outer trappings of what urban professionals expect. They're reasonably clean, but they're self-service, the sugar shakers are ordinary, the eating utensils aren't polished, the tables are very plain, the lighting is dim, and the service is, well, rather gruff, with people behind the counter who speak English haltingly, if at all. Despite the lack of amenities, they do attract some non-Polish patrons.

In truth, those who want to experience another culture fall into two types. One group wants culture lite — a good meal that happens to be Polish or Thai, a couple of signs in another language, a deli mixing sausages or bialys with more familiar fare. For them it doesn't matter whether or not it's the real deal, so long as it feels like it is.

The second group wants what the sociologist Sharon Zukin has called "authenticity," the genuine article. For them, Lomzynianka, despite its Polish staff, won't do. It's too dressed up. The menu seems tailor-made for tourists, the Polish customers are outnumbered by gentrifiers, and the prices are high. They want Pyza, around the corner, where they're outnumbered and no one pays much attention to them. The menu is on the wall in Polish and English, to accommodate the workingmen who frequent it and the occasional tourist. They have a wide selection, including goulash, chicken and pork cutlets, pierogies, stuffed cabbage, and mashed potatoes with gravy, served by the scoop. Just about everything's under ten bucks.

What accounts for this craving? For most it's an intense desire to see what it really feels like to be somewhere, even someone, else, however temporarily. It's the same as going to an ethnic music festival or street fair. And for those whose roots are Polish it's a way of coming home and feeling at home.

Two blocks away, on Nassau Street, but in the opposite direction, I enter beautiful McCarren Park. I see people of every background — black, Hispanic, white, Asian — strolling, relaxing, playing ball, supervising their children, reading, picnicking, sunning themselves — in what can only be described as a bucolic scene. Many of the groups are well integrated ethnically. It's as if a social planner or, perhaps, real estate agent, had decided to pay people of every description to show up and demonstrate how much of a melting pot New York is. But no one did anything of the sort, and that's precisely the point. In fact, most parks in the city, though not all, have this kind of mix. The reason is that New York's areas are increasingly becoming multiethnic and multiracial. Ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods are no longer the norm. This has enormous implications for attitudes, friendships, and marriages.

On Bayard Street, where it meets the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), I come to Lentol Garden, named after former assemblyman and state senator Edward Lentol. The garden, surrounded by an eight-foot-high black steel fence, features juniper and holly trees, a Chinese dogwood, roses, tulips, black-eyed Susans, and other flora and fauna. Inviting looking, wooden benches line a landscaped path where you pass by a birdfeeder and a birdbath. I notice that one side of the park border is literally attached to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which runs right by here. Children play, do their artwork, and water small potted plants, scattered through the area on wooden tables, seemingly oblivious to the traffic crawling by on the visible elevated highway, a mere 50 yards away. It's an oasis in a metropolis where every inch of green space counts, even if it's hard against a major expressway.

Over on Russell Street, I stroll into Monsignor McGolrick Park. Parks aren't only about beauty, play spaces, or lakes. They have specific functions — venues for art exhibits, concerts, rallies for causes, and the like. For example, every Sunday there's a farmer's market here, run by, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Does it matter? Yes, different from a local grocery store, it's more likely that shopping here will become a learning experience rather than simply another chore. Parents come with their children, who discover where the produce comes from, what organic means, and why that's important.

Large, stately sycamores line some of this exquisite park's walk-ways. While the park has its share of vandalism, it is reasonably well maintained. It features a stately, columned brick and limestone pavilion, honoring World War I veterans of Greenpoint. A statue commemorates the Civil War battle of the Monitor (Union side) and the Merrimack (Confederacy side). The Monitor was actually built at Greenpoint's Continental Iron Works. It's another example of how history lessons abound in the city's parks; those willing to stop, look, and read the explanatory plaques, either to themselves or to their kids can learn a lot.


Excerpted from "The Brooklyn Nobody Knows"
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Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press.
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Table of Contents

Introduction ix

Greenpoint 3

Williamsburg 15


Vinegar Hill 39

Brooklyn Heights 43

Cobble Hill 51

Downtown Brooklyn 57

Boerum Hill 63

Carroll Gardens 71

Red Hook 81

Gowanus 89

Park Slope 97

Windsor Terrace 107

Fort Greene 117

Clinton Hill 125

Prospect Heights 135


Crown Heights 151

Prospect Lefferts Gardens 161

Bushwick 171

Cypress Hills181


East New York 195


East Flatbush 213

Flatbush 223

Prospect Park South 231

Midwood 237

Flatlands 245

Marine Park 253

Bergen Beach 261

Mill Basin 267

Sunset Park 277

Borough Park 289

Bay Ridge 299

Dyker Heights 309

Bensonhurst 315

Bath Beach325

Gravesend 333

Sheepshead Bay 339

Gerritsen Beach 349

Manhattan Beach 357

Brighton Beach 363

Coney Island 371

Acknowledgments 381

Appendix 383

Notes 387

Bibliography 391

Index 397

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is a unique ground-level travel guide that opens up the human sides of New York's most dynamic borough, introducing the reader to the Brooklynites that bring life to its streets and neighborhoods."—Richard Alba, CUNY Graduate Center

"A superb guide to New York's most fascinating, endlessly changing borough. Written by a master ethnographer, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows will provide both the urbanist and the tourist with the sociological insight and street-level detail sure to make their wanderings through Brooklyn satisfying and pleasurable."—Roger Waldinger, UCLA

"This guidebook is a delight to read and it's going to be a big hit with Brooklynites and anyone else who is curious about the borough. Far more than the usual travel guide, it is just filled with insight. It makes me want to jump on the subway and head over to Brooklyn. I want to see all the idiosyncratic things it describes, from the City Reliquary, to the resurgence of the Syrian Jewish community, to the outlandish McMansions."—Harvey Molotch, New York University

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