Outer Boroughs That Are Worth the Day Trek

BROOKLYN AND QUEENS aren’t just boroughs anymore. For better or worse, they are concepts, states of mind, styles, sometimes even memes. There’s a push and pull that goes along with this: long-time residents often find themselves displaced as neighborhoods become rejuvenated by newfound coolness. And they become potentially crowded out by bars, restaurants and shops that pop up everywhere. I took to the pavement to parse through the language of the streets and navigate the distinct neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. These communities have long been known for their nightlife, but it turns out they are equally as dynamic by day.

Not just late-night cocktails

This northernmost Brooklyn neighborhood was traditionally known as a Polish enclave and that spirit remains alive with shops and eateries hawking kielbasas and pierogies along the main drag of Manhattan Avenue. But Williamsburg’s next-door neighbor has exploded in popularity, despite the fact that it’s primarily accessible from Manhattan only via the much-maligned G train.

When Saturday morning rolls around, it’s time to hit up Five Leaves, an eclectic café/bar on Bedford Avenue just off the Nassau stop. Its founder and CEO Jud Mongell moved to Greenpoint in 2004, drawn to its proximity to downtown Manhattan and small neighborhood feel. “[It’s] transformed from a largely Polish neighborhood into an artsy community with a Summer of Love-meets-Left Bank aesthetic,” he said. “We love being at the very heart of this metamorphosis.”

Try to get there when they open at 8am. Otherwise, by 9am or so, you might be facing a 45-minute wait. It seems this is where all of Greenpoint begins their Saturday mornings, probably to wolf down the pillowy, saucer-sized ricotta pancakes topped with honeycomb butter and fresh fruit.

Hunger satiated and buzzing after my second strongly brewed Americano, I was in need of a walk. Destination: WNYC Transmitter Park. It’s a green space that opened in 2012 and was formerly the site of the public radio station’s working transmitters. But since it’s a bit of a hoof, I took in some uniquely Greenpoint diversions along the way.

Five Leaves in Greenpoint

Five Leaves in Greenpoint.

Beacon’s Closet is a thrift store fanatic’s fever dream, just a block west and around the corner from Five Leaves. The Greenpoint location is worth the stop (there are several throughout Brooklyn), even if only for window-shopping. They sell a carefully curated selection of vintage t-shirts, wool sweaters, pants and blouses. Watching the locals line up to hock their “wears,” the diverse selection for sale becomes representative of the creative, forward-thinking attitude of the neighborhood residents. I browsed through some well-worn jeans and moseyed on.

The vinyl revival is alive and well in Greenpoint too, as evidenced by Captured Tracks. It’s a small indie record label and it’s flagship store’s selection of new and used albums and DVDs suits the adventurous musical tastes and small-business-friendly attitude typical of the area. The label has released records from popular indie bands like California dream pop artists Craft Spells and local rockers Diiv, whose albums you can find alongside obscure jazz, 90s alt rock and 70s prog.

Reaching the park, it was a chance to take a beat from commerce and cuisine. It’s a great spot to relax, take in the views of Manhattan and watch locals fishing off the pier. But Greenpoint, like any Brooklyn ’hood worth its salt, is also home to an excellent distillery, Greenhook Ginsmiths. I decided to haul over to this gin joint’s sparse, urban warehouse space to take a tour (offered Saturday afternoons), admire the beautiful copper pot still and sample product, like the Beach Plum Gin Liqueur. I was certainly feeling summer’s good vibrations by now and headed back down bustling Manhattan Avenue—home to much of the neighborhood’s confluence of new- and old-school flavor—pizza was calling.

Turning west down Greenpoint Ave I made towards the water to Paulie Gee’s. Here the afternoon ended joined by a hungry crowd focused on devouring meat and veggie-topped pies with names like the Brian DeParma, Monte Cristo and Mo Cheeks.

july16 neighborhood watch_0000_Layer 42

Daric Schlesselman pours Red Hook’s Van Brunt Stillhouse whiskey to produce unique quaffs.

On the waterfront and back in time

Part of Red Hook’s appeal is that it’s a little hard to reach by subway—the closest stop still requires a bus ride (or long walk) to get to the heart of the neighborhood. It’s a small, tight-knit community of bars, restaurants and businesses, many located along the main strip of Van Brunt Street. Mary Dudine, a Long Island native who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, is co-owner of Dry Dock Wine + Spirits, one of Brooklyn’s best liquor stores for finding local adult beverages, including spirits from Red Hook’s own Van Brunt Stillhouse and Widow Jane. She summed it up like this: “You come to Red Hook to get to Red Hook, you don’t just pass through.”

The community reminds her of Freeport in the 70s or Montauk in the 60s, with “a group of hale and hearty people living at land’s end.” Many of these folks were united by the struggle to recover after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the area in 2012. The disparity between the newer wave of Red Hook residents and the denizens of the Red Hook Houses (known for its history of poverty and violence) is as pronounced as it was highlighted in Spike Lee’s 2012 film Red Hook Summer. But overall, the community seems to be trying to find ways to make it work for everyone.

A warm afternoon at the Red Hook Ball Fields is a good start. I opted to take an Uber instead of dealing with the complicated subway/bus/walking combination otherwise required. I was dropped off on Bay Street amidst the numerous trucks of the Red Hook Food Vendors, which offer some of the best Central American and Mexican cuisine to be found in the city, from huaraches to empanadas to pupusas. I ordered some grub, along with a watermelon juice and horchata (when in doubt, get one of each), and grabbed a seat at a picnic table to watch the soccer games buzzing along on a pleasant NYC day.

Matches settled, I strolled over to the Ikea on Beard Street—not to shop, but to enjoy a brisk walk along the waterfront of Erie Basin Park outside the mega-store. I watched the Ikea ferry dock and unload its passengers on the way to a stop at the Waterfront Museum. Open only on Thursdays and Saturdays, the century-old barge/floating house of history acquaints guests with the maritime tales and backstories of the neighborhood, and of Brooklyn in general. With about a mile already underfoot and a head full of culture, it was time to refuel the internal engine. On past weekends, a diner-style meal at Hope & Anchor on Van Brunt has done its best to bust my gut (rumor has it the weekend night karaoke here is something to behold). But a summery afternoon calls for one thing: barbequed meat, and lots of it.

One of the best, and newest, additions to the NYC barbeque scene (yes, that’s actually a thing; deal with it, North Carolina) is Red Hook’s Hometown Bar-B-Que. In addition to delicious brisket, ribs and pulled pork, the bar is a whiskey lover’s dream with countless varieties of bourbon, rye and scotch. I washed down my piled-high tray with some hard to find brown spirits from Texas and Ohio.

Some things can only be found at M. Wells Steakhouse in L.I.C., like eggs in aspic.

Some things can only be found at M. Wells Steakhouse in L.I.C., like eggs in aspic.

Green spaces and active outdoors

Queens’ Long Island City neighborhood is becoming more and more popular, with lots of new housing and a growing community of bars and restaurants. It’s a great home for commuters and an easy trip for visitors. MoMA PS1 has long been the cultural hub of the neighborhood, hosting various exhibitions. Its Sunday Sessions and legendary Warm Up has made LIC a summertime destination for music, food and art. This year the festivities begin on June 27th with DJs from Germany, Mexico, Edinburgh and more.

Socrates Sculpture Park is a verdant destination, worth a trip from any neighborhood in NYC, no matter how far removed. I paid an afternoon visit to this large green space along the East River. The day was bright and the crowds sparse, a perfect chance to walk and enjoy the river views. During the summer, the LIC Art Bus will transport you from there to other art venues like PS1 and the Noguchi Museum as part of a program that connects institutions focusing on the arts in the neighborhood.

This season, the park’s 30th anniversary, features free yoga and sculpture workshops all summer long, as well as free kayaking and canoeing in Hallet’s Cove. The LIC Community Boathouse offers people of all ages an opportunity to participate or volunteer, no prior boating experience required. Paddle out every Wednesday evening in July and August for a spectacular waterfront view of screening outdoor movies at the park—or just enjoy from the comfort of dry land.

The Boathouse also offers lesser-advertised weekend paddling at Anable Basin right across from its main facility. The spot coincidently occupies the same building as my next stop, the recently renovated Rockaway Brewing Company. A ten-minute taxi ride is all it takes. Two summers ago the brewery expanded from a tiny two-line taproom to a bustling bar serving eight drafts. I ordered a chilled Black Gold Nitro Stout and did my best to blend with the mixed crowd of locals and cyclists out for afternoon rides. The last group is no coincidence; across a three-foot hallway from the bar area resides Recycle-a-Bike’s Queens satellite shop. If up for it, patrons can stop in and lend a hand wrenching on bikes that will service local schools and outreach programs.

This little corner’s amalgamation of local-serving bikes-brews-and-boats is an interesting juxtaposition to the high-rises shooting up across the street along the waterfront. The Queens West Development project was completed several years ago and along with a relocation of the iconic Pepsi sign, it included 40,000 square feet of expanded parks and lawn space, an offshoot of Gallantry Park. A walk over confirms that it was money well spent; it’s a beautifully appointed green space, if almost too planned, exuding a very modern aesthetic.

After enjoying the great outdoors, NYC style, such as it is, some burgers from The Corner Bistro—the LIC outpost of the famed West Village institution—would be a fitting end to a sunny afternoon. This is no-frills, dive bar-style comfort food, but it’s well worth a visit, for the grub as well as the atmosphere. I found an empty wooden booth and tucked in. Then it was time to head home, tired but impressed once again with the eclectic offerings that New York City’s outer borough neighborhoods have to offer by the light of day.