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…