Jason Specland: An Occasionally Funny Software Guy

Making it up as I go along. Always.

Tag: brooklyn

Brooklyn Walks: Bushwick with Forgotten New York

Since my appetites for historical walks and physical pain are apparently insatiable, I spent Sunday on the Forgotten New York walking tour of Bushwick. I won’t go into extreme detail about the tour itself: That ground will no doubt be better covered both on Forgotten New York and on the blogs of the plethora of attendees who’ve forgotten more about New York history than I’ll ever know.

Years ago, when I was roommates with my friend Duncan, we were watching a marathon of TV shows in a series about the history of booze in the United States. There was an episode on cocktails, an episode on beer, an episode on wine, etc. In every episode, they’d eventually come to the 1920’s, and the narrator’s voice would turn ominous and say, “…and then came Prohibition!” And so the fortunes of the boozemakers would take a turn for the worse…

Well, that’s kind of what happened to Bushwick. The Germans immigrated here, built all kinds of breweries, made piles of money with which they built mansions… and then came Prohbition! If I ever make a fortune in a product that is known to cause moral panic, I’ll be sure to diversify.

My impression of the area is much the same as Bed-Stuy. Bushwick is a gorgeous renaissance of achingly beautiful brownstones, punctuated with depressing pockets of poverty and neglect. While we were walking, a gentleman of the neighborhood shouted out, “What!? They’re bringing tourists to Bushwick!?” I wanted to say, “Yes. You live in a beautiful and historic neighborhood. You should open your eyes to the breathtaking architectural artistry all around you.” But what I actually said was nothing at all.

One of the most exciting parts of the trip for me was meeting several of my internet heroes. I met Kevin Walsh, the proprietor of Forgotten New York and author of the book by the same name. I met Mitch Waxman of the Newtown Pentacle, a half-historical, half-paranoid exploration of the neglected semi-industrial cemetary area around Newtown Creek. I met Miss Heather of New York Shitty, whom I’d actually met briefly once before since, by amazing coincidence, I work with her husband. After most of the tour broke up, we had a quick dinner at a Mexican/Italian (yes, really) restaurant in Williamsburg, which was kind of a real-life version of celebrity dinner, except with New York neighborhood bloggers.

I don’t know when the next Forgotten New York tour is, or where it’s going to be. I just know I’m going to be there…

Brooklyn Walks: Bedford Ave.

You should never tell me that any road is the longest road in a particular borough of New York, because I’ll feel somehow compelled to walk that road from end to end.

So it was when I heard that Bedford Ave. was the longest road in Brooklyn. Stretching about ten miles from Greenpoint to Sheepshead Bay, it cuts a cross-section through our most populous borough. Like a geologist, one can study the strata from this thin cross section and get a good feel for what Brooklyn means to its many people.

I tried this walk before, but the first time was more of a spur of the moment trip, and I got quite a late start. So late, in fact, that I had to abort the mission at Eastern Parkway near Prospect Park due to darkness. But this past Saturday I got started (comparitively) nice and early, determined that I would traverse the borough.

I got off the G at Nassau, and started my journey. One arrives almost immediately at McCarren Park, also known as the white-hot center of the Hipsterverse.

Personally, I think hipsters (insofar as one can even define such a diverse group) get kind of a bad rap. I mean, were we not grungy slackers in our youth? Were our parents not dirty hippies? And how about those beatnicks, with their jungle music? As much as we bristle at the stereotype that seems to encompass our idealistic age, so too should the “hipsters” bristle at our over-generalized scorn.

That said, there sure are a lot of hipsters at McCarren Park. 🙂

I then came upon North Williamsburg, where the Williamsburg Walks festival was going on. It was a street fair, but not like the arepas, socks, italian sausage, lemonade, repeat ad nauseum fairs that have been the subject of recent complaints. However, I could have done with less “make our city liveable” politics and more “eat this food” food. I availed myself of some mint chocolate chip ice cream from the Van Leeuwen Ice Cream Truck.

Since it was brutally hot on Saturday, I knew that every few blocks, I should get some water from the nearest bodega. And so I did, until North Williamsburg gradually became South Williamsburg. Soon, the on-the-street population began to thin. The beards became less scruffy and more completely unshaven. The clothes went from ironic to far too hot for this kind of weather black coats and dresses from Little House on the Prairie. I’d entered the Jewish part of Williamsburg.

Now, technically and culturally, I’m Jewish. But these people are Chasidim. Beyond Orthodox. By their standards I’m no more Jewish than Pat Boone. An outsider. A goy.

The Chasidim in Williamsburg are known for their reproductive prowess. Every window is covered in bars that overhang the street, not just for protection, but to create a tiny outdoor play area for their children. It’s almost like being surrounded by birdcages filled with Jewish children. In one apartment building where the front lobby door was open, I saw a bank of parked strollers large enough to resemble a used car lot.

The signs are all in Hebrew lettering. I assume the language is Hebrew as well, but it could be Yiddish. In any case, my long-ago Hebrew School education did not enable me to decipher any words but the few obvious ones I remember like “Yisroel.” My brain, always compelled to produce a soundtrack for my mood, was running “A Shtetl Is Amerike” from “Ragtime” in a loop.

Being a Saturday, all the stores were closed. The heat was brutal. But I perservered until, many many blocks later, I came to a Hess gas station with a tiny kiosk in the middle where one could buy snacks and drinks. The glass was bullet proof. I’d arrived in Bed-Stuy. My internal soundtrack appropriately switched from “Ragtime” to Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right.”

One of the striking things about Bed-Stuy (and about Bushwick, which I will write about shortly) is just how beautiful much of the neighborhood is. Despite the blight, the poverty, and the horrible violence that rocked these neighborhoods in the 70’s and 80’s, many of these gorgeous brownstones and other structures have managed to survive. Like the first new buds after a bitter winter, these flowers of archetecture bloom once more.

Which is not to say that the place has lost its character. Outside a bodega, a Middle Eastern store owner straight out of Central Casting was screaming at a kid to “Get out of store you son of bitch!”

I walked past the apartments at Ebbet’s Field. I know this is ho-hum to people from that neighborhood, but it’s pretty exciting to be so close to a part of baseball history. I love old ballparks, and even though no vestige of it remains it’s easy me to get sentimental. Although I can only get so sentimental considering the Dodgers left Brooklyn before I was born. (Speaking of things that have gotten vastly better since the 70’s and 80’s, I’m absolutely giddy about the fact that baseball stadiums that they’re building today look a lot more like Ebbet’s Field and a lot less like Round Cement Multipurpose Arenas.)

I walked past the apartment of our friends Booth and Suzanne. I pondered stopping to say hello, but my feet were aching and my resolve was flagging and I had a very long way yet to go. I knew that if I set foot in their air conditioned apartment, I might never complete my mission. I looked up at their balcony and soldiered on.

I passed the gorgeous Art Deco Sears building, and shortly thereafter I entered the breathtaking neighborhood of Prospect-Leffert’s Gardens. I know I’m about a century or so late to this party, but WOW! What a neighborhood! Row after row of perfectly manicured low-rise brownstones. Every block looked perfect to the last detail — and so it should since it’s a landmark district. It was the only location on the journey where I thought to myself, “Wow. I could live here.” Now if only I had a few million to spare…

The avenue eventually became increasingly suburban. Real lawns. Driveways with parked cars. The housing stock became an interesting mix of gorgeous, large old houses with beautiful porches and modern abominations of marble and chrome worn like bling — a garish show of class indicating the owner has none.

Importantly for my purposes, there were no bodegas on these residential streets. Thankfully, I ran into a few lawn sprinklers along the way. I reached Avenue D and said out loud, “I’m in the alphabet now, bitches!” Little did I know how very, very long the alphabet can be.

I reached the ivy covered and surprisingly beautiful campus of Brooklyn College, crossing over the Bay Ridge branch of the Long Island Railroad. (Something only a train geek like me would know or care about.) After the campus, block upon relentless block of nondescript housing. Nowhere to buy water. I screwed my courage to the sticking place (wherever that might be) and continued on.

Lettered avenue after lettered avenue I trudged. I started counting streets backwards from Z, knowing my eventual destination was shortly thereafter. Ave. L… M… N… O… P… Hey, did you know that Ave. Q (of Broadway musical fame) is actually just called Quentin Rd.? And it’s actually not very unpleasant at all. (At least it’s not unpleasant where it intersects Bedford Ave.) And Gary Coleman wasn’t a live-in super! Moving on… R… S…

Around, oh let’s say Ave. V or so, the houses started to look a little more like… well… Brooklyn! Smaller. More compact. Between Ave. X and Y there was a playground with a public bathroom which I used happily. I reached Ave. Z! The end was in sight!

As I approached the underpass for the Belt Parkway, I began to despair. I saw construction crews and a huge tarp. I was afraid that construction had closed the avenue, and that there would exist a tiny, tiny sliver of Bedford Ave. that I could not say I’d walked on. My entire trip, so close to its conclusion would be in vain. Thankfully, I soon realized that only half the street was closed, and the pedestrian walkway was still intact. I continued with a spring my step had not seen in hours. I could smell the sea air.

A short block later, I reached Emmons Ave. in Sheepshead Bay. I waited for the light to change, so I could cross the street to it’s absolute terminus. The light stayed red for approximately ten thousand years, but I was finally able to cross the street. I smacked the ground with my hand. I sat in a public bench overlooking the harbor. I tweeted my victory. I rested.

No rest (or at least, not much rest) for the weary, though. I was desperately hungry, and I had to make it back to Manhattan for Paula’s final performance of “Green” in only a few hours time. My protesting legs moved me up Sheepshead Bay Rd. to catch the Q train. I stopped at a pizza place by the station. This would be a costly mistake.

When I got to the station a Coney Island bound train just left. The station agent announced that, due to a tree falling on the tracks, there was no Manhattan-bound Q service. “No problem,” thought I. “I’ll just take a Q to Coney Island, then take an N right to Paula’s show.” Well, that was not to be either, since I apparently just missed the last Q. After waiting for about 20 minutes, the station agent let us know that that last Q was the last Q that was on our side of the tree. My feet, legs, and knees all screamed in agony.

I caught a bus to Coney Island, overflowing with everyone else who was waiting at that stop and had the same idea. No room to sit. By this time, my lower extremeties were talking with attorneys about naming me in a class-action lawsuit. The bus stopped well short of the train station at Stillwell Ave. “Better get off here if you’re taking the train. Lots of traffic ahead.” I did, and, to the horror of my legs, walked to the train.

Thankfully, the trip on the N train back to Manhattan was long, cool, and relaxing. I didn’t mention to my legs that we’d be going on a walking tour of Bushwick the next day. And the next day would be even hotter…

Long Walks: Sea to Shining Sea (Broadway/Grand)

You can sometimes tell the old roads in a developed area because of the way they twist and turn and cut strange swaths through an otherwise orderly street grid. Two of the older roads in Queens are Broadway (although it’s western terminus in Astoria/Long Island City is somewhat younger) and Grand Ave., which becomes Grand St. in Brooklyn. Grand Ave./St. is particularly old, as it used to be the main drag to get to the ferries that would take the masses to Manhattan in the pre-bridge era. And both these streets have the interesting property that they meet exactly at their terminus at Queens Blvd., as if they were one continuous road.

So I vowed that one day I’d walk Broadway/Grand from terminus to terminus. That day was today.

I started at Broadway near Costco at about 1:00 PM. I stopped off to use Costco’s restroom, as it is one of the few places along the way that I’d have a chance to do so without buying anything. The trip began through the familiar territory of the Astoria/Long Island City border. (I had a doctor in the hospital tell me quite emphatically that Broadway was that border…)

Broadway is one of the great international streets of Queens. It’s got some Greek flavor in Astoria, which rapidly becomes Hispanic as you approach Woodside. Then it actually becomes quite Asian for a bit, then tilts back to Hispanic. At Northern Blvd., you encounter one of my favorite sights: the viaduct that carries Amtrak traffic out of the Sunnyside Yards and eventually to the Hell Gate Bridge and points north. The cement work is beautiful, but is falling apart with pieces of ancient rebar visible.

A bit further down Broadway, you cross over the BQE for the first time, and just beyond you cross over the Bay Ridge branch of the Long Island Railroad (which now carries only freight), also for the first time.

After about two hours of walking, I hit Queens Blvd., the aptly named Boulevard of Death. In fact, when you go to cross it at Broadway/Grand, there is a sign that specifically says that a pedestrian died here, and you should be careful.

Shortly after crossing Queens Blvd., I hit Patacon Pisao, a place that serves Patacon: a Venezuelan sandwich that uses smooshed-together plantains in place of bread. I’d been holding out for some good ethnic food, and I was not disappointed. Just as I was leaving, Paula texted me, “Where are you?” “Elmhurst.” I replied. What else is there to say? When I go on these long walks, I walk a long way, and then I come home…

Grand Ave. gradually morphs into Maspeth and Ridgewood. I crossed the LIRR Main Line, and then the Bay Ridge branch again, with even less fanfare. During its stint as the main drag of Maspeth, the street is downright quaint, dotted with old looking pizza places that I would assuredly have patronized had I not already had my fill of Venezuelan goodness. It crosses over the LIE… It was at this point that I bailed the last time I attempted this walk, scurrying down 69th Ave. to catch the M train. But not today. Today, I was determined to make it to the sea.

I briefly stopped at an Italian pastry shop called Russo’s, to grab an apple turnover and a coffee. I’d been out in the cold for about three hours now, and it was starting to get to me. It was unremarkable, but warming. I continued along some lovely residential areas, that gradually became less lovely until, quite suddenly, I came to the real fascinating part of the trip: The industrial wastelands near Newtown Creek.

During the week, so I hear, the area is a busy industrial zone. But during the weekends, the only time I can visit, the place is eerily desolate, with huge, idle factories the only thing in sight. Occasionally, a car will race by at a completely unsafe speed. I passed the aptly named Rust St., and the almost-never-used Lower Montauk Branch of the LIRR (which I vow to ride someday while it’s still in passenger service).

It is in the industrial wasteland area where you cross the Grand Ave. Bridge, which traverses the fascinatingly polluted Newtown Creek and brings the road into Brooklyn. Large swaths of the waterway were frozen when I crossed.

At this point, Brooklyn and Queens are indistinguishable zones of the same wasteland. Then, gradually, life returns to the road, now called Grand St. Crossing over the Metropolitan Ave. Bridge gave me my second view of Newtown Creek. Shortly thereafter I stopped at a gas station to use the facilities and grab another cup of coffee. The sun was setting, and a real chill was setting in.

It’s hard to say when one crosses from hardscrabble East Williamsburg to Williamsburg proper. (Well, I’m sure it’s easy to say if someone knows where the specific border is.) But the neighborhood just becomes gradually more human, and then more hipster. I got to Bushwick Ave. and the L train, the first subway I’d seen since Elmhurst. It was about here, Paula texted me again, “Are you still in Elmhurst? You okay?” Imagine her surprise when I replied, “No, I’m in Williamsburg right now. Almost at my final destination.”

And so I was. I was somewhat depressed but unsurprised to find that the ancient and storied Grand St. was cleft in twain by the BQE. I knew I had to meet that road again, but I had no idea our second encounter would be so abrupt. I walked around to Borinquen Pl., up Marcy Ave., and continued down Grand.

Grand St. here showed its next personality, transitioning from hipster poverty to hipster wealth. Upscale restaurants, boutique stores, art galleries. And then, just as I reached Wythe, I could see it: The shining blue waters of the East River, and the island of Manhattan beyond. There was a spring in my step despite the blister developing in my right foot. Finally, I went beyond Kent, to the End of the Road. I stopped only briefly to appreciate my accomplishment, and the lovely views of the Williamsburg Bridge at sunset. The time: 5:07 PM.

I texted Paula about my Great Pedestrian Accomplishment, and somehow she wasn’t feeling the same sense of victory I was. Her response was, “Are you crazy! Get in a train and come home, please.” Well, that was going to take some doing, as the closest train was the L, which wasn’t going my way, and the second closest was the G which wasn’t running this weekend. So I decided to walk some more.

I walked along Kent Ave., past the behemoth condo towers, that, while I’m sure someone will buy, I can’t imagine who. I mean, at the prices they charge, I’d rather live closer to, you know, things and people. But whatever. I continued along Kent, where industrial Williamsburg is engaged in a pitched battle with condo development. I passed Bushwick Inlet, near which industry is still very much in the lead. Kent became Franklin, and industry became actually kind of quaint Greenpoint, a place I might like to live, but the utter lack of G train today wasn’t selling it very well. I turned down Greenpoint Ave., and then up McGuinness, with an eye to crossing the Pulaski Bridge. I’d never noticed how narrow Greenpoint proper is, and how the almost highway-like McGuinness Blvd. separates residential from the hard-core industry near Newtown Creek. On the way, I saw a “ghost bike” tied to a sign, another sobering reminder of the danger of the roads I like to travel on.

As I crossed the Pulaski Bridge (and hence, Newtown Creek for the final time at its widest point), the wind really began to pick up, and the chill of the evening started to reach my bones. But I did take the time to appreciate the lovely views of Manhattan, and then on the Queens side of the creek, the very end of the LIRR Old Montauk Branch at Long Island City Station, and the entrance to the Queens Midtown Tunnel.

Just as I finished crossing the bridge and headed down Jackson Ave., a B62 bus appeared and opened its door. Chilled to the bone, I ran to it appreciatively. My walk was done.

Here’s how far I went:

View Walking the Broadway/Grand Ave./Grand St. Trail in a larger map

According to Google Maps, I walked about 12.3 miles, and cut a satisfyingly large section of Brooklyn and Queens. It would have been nice to have made it all the way home, and completed the “D” shape, but by the time I got on the bus, I was freezing and exhausted.

I love these long walks of mine. It may seem trite, but setting an ambitious goal and reaching it, even if it’s simply a long distance to walk along a specific path, is extremely satisfying. When I’m in a funk, as I was earlier this weekend, it’s quite restorative.