Peering through the window of your yellow cab, you see the glittering skyscrapers of Manhattan. A nighttime skyline that rises then falls, then like none other rises again – the Himalayas of commerce – but you’re embarking on a different adventure. Nearing the Williamsburg Bridge the Big Apple is five minutes away and its time to turn off the expressway into the streets of Brooklyn, find the hotel, weave through the hipsters to a wine bar, then sushi? Maybe that Portuguese restaurant on North 7th Street. North 7th Street! Yes, you are a tourist. No, you’re not insane. And yes delightedly so, you’re not staying in Manhattan… Or at least I didn’t. On recent travels to NYC I’ve had the inescapable impression that Manhattan is not the place where Mapplethorpe would do a self-portrait in bondage gear, where the Velvet Underground would sing avant-garde odes to narcotic episodes, where the savage drama of mass-immigration would be played out down the road from the world focal point of jazz. My point is that this high rise and high rent island has long since lost its edge and if you want to experience an East Village on par with the sixties, you should try West Brooklyn.
Williamsburg is a good place to start. This area saw the arrival of artists and musicians priced out of the apple two decades ago and now has some of the most exciting independent galleries in New York. It also has a gigging scene to rival anywhere (one publication would state this literally, describing Williamsburg as ‘the coolest place in the universe.’) A night out might reveal a punk band with a harmonium player, young Brooklynites experimenting with urban bluegrass, a transvestite pianist crooning obscenities with touching gentleness and sincerity. Many acts form the next wave of the anti-folk scene, made famous by Regina Spektor and Moldy Peaches, approaching acoustic music from a subversively punk angle. Numerous venues have playfully leftfield design, one with a gargantuan sculpture of Poseidon above the stage, another a twenty foot square pool of neon lit water flanking its entrance, continuing the aquatic theme there’s a restaurant carpeted in sand. Food here varies from chic restaurants to unassuming eateries serving anything from Korean to Puerto Rican staples.
If you’re interested in the influence of Asian immigration and you feel like sending your palate on a rollercoaster ride, the 7 train in Queens moves through a spectrum of Asian communities. The Flushing Main Street stop is based in New York’s largest Chinatown, while an earlier stop in Jackson Heights will take you to a South-Asian area. Indeed the nearby US Open is not the only reason why the world’s eyes should be attracted to Queens. The MOMA’s PS1 gallery shows world class exhibitions of contemporary art: I saw installations by Olafur Eliasson such as an anti-gravity waterfall and a huge reality distorting combination of ceiling suspended mirrors, video art varying from bands of hysterical businessmen in the arctic to ‘complaints choirs’ from around the world delightfully singing their grievances off their chests. Excepting the formidable political art floor, the work was as playful as it was thought provoking.
For anyone wanting to widen their smile with more visual treats and seeking a helping of the super-genteel I’d recommend a visit to Brooklyn Heights. From the Heights Promenade the spectacle of downtown Manhattan, a thousand foot forest of shimmering skyscrapers is awe inspiring. The changing reflections and angles of the dramatic, nuance filled architecture have you and your fellow walkers mesmerized. Looking where you’re going is made even more difficult by the sight of the Statue of Liberty, the epic Brooklyn Bridge and currently a number of Eliasson’s 120ft waterfall installations peppering the vista. When you do finally take in the brownstone houses and tree-lined streets awash with cafes, bookshops and boutiques you might start to wonder if you’re in Brooklyn or Paris. Coupled with a feeling of tranquility and intimacy it’s easy to see why houses go for as much here as the Upper East Side and Michelin starred restaurants are just as keen to ‘amuse le bouche.’
So Brooklyn and Queens have edginess and eggs Benedict. Great, but the best experiences to be had in these boroughs might not fall into any category or be on your itinerary. I walked back to the subway from a gig and saw a movie being projected 40ft high onto a wall of an industrial container. Is that art gallery displaying overnight? No, the owners are watching a cheesy nineties movie. “Have a seat, man.” A few days later I happened upon a riverside park and took in the midtown sunset as a Hispanic man taught his son to fish, two couples chatted as their dogs frolicked, and others sat gazing across the sundrenched waters. Earlier that day I’d walked through an expansive area with an almost entirely Hassidic population, a wonderful reminder of the influence of Jewish communities on New York. Williamsburg is a ‘super-social’ place and you’re certain to meet people everyday. I visited friends in Bushwick; we’d met on my previous trip. In their backyard, about the same distance from where Jay-Z grew up and an art gallery exhibiting particularly kitsch painting, a few acts played a show. The first was a string quartet who played Shostakovich and Dvorak. Next a fellow with a post-modern take on eastern European folk playing keyboard and singing lines like “Julius Cesar will embarrass us all.” Then a psychedelic band, and finally a melodic nightcap from two singers accompanying themselves with keyboard, saw and bow and ukulele.
You may have similar experiences or completely different ones, but that seems to be the nature of a trip to the boroughs; taking part in things that feel unique. A Brooklynite friend of mine, who’s played to crowds of hundreds in America and Europe, told me of a gig her band once did on a Pennsylvanian doorstep. The crowd was blown away, excitedly asking whether they’d ever played a venue, recorded an album… Looking back on this she said that it felt far more satisfying to play something special like that than to the same old kind of fans at the same old kind of venue. This sums up why I’m into the boroughs over their more famous neighbour. The Big Apple feels like a museum that we know too well, even if it is the first visit, while Brooklyn and Queens are moving and shaking everything up from the arts to their atmospheres, giving more and more reasons to take a trip into their dynamic neighbourhoods.