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When Momofuku restaurant opens on the street where you live, you think to yourself “Ok, it’s time to move on” explains Allison with a smile; she is one of the Urban Oyster tour guides who, every Saturday, describes Brooklyn through the eyes of its inhabitants, its historical stores, its families and foodies. Manhattan doesn’t stand a chance, this is where the real food scene of New York is to be found, along Smith St. and in the area between Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Carrol Gardens. But not for much longer perhaps.
Evolution of a Borough
Brooklyn used to be a working class area, inhabited by the dockhands of Red Hook and the Italian, Irish and Middle Eastern immigrants of the early twentieth century. It survived the port crisis when, those who could, fled from a district that had become so disreputable that there was a move to raise it to the ground in order to eradicate the degradation and decay.
In the seventies, its inhabitants showed the first signs of resistance by forming local committees and protest groups. They were successful in their intent and hence the survival of shops like Staubitzil the butcher (on the same premises since 1917 as well as being the oldest in New York), the Sicilian cake shops such as Court Pastry Shop, and coffee roasting shops like that of D'Amico, which is still in business today and run by the children of the founder’s children.
The first wave of gentrification
In the nineties, many young people left Manhattan in their search for less expensive areas to live in, and moved here. Creative professionals, journalists and writers gave a new lease of life to the district, bringing the first wave of gentrification which pulverized the previous local lifestyle and paved the way to what has been defined as the first New York food and wine scene, based on local produce, high quality, fashionable venues and the phenomenon labelled “made in Brooklyn”.
The newcomers became well integrated and created an independent economic system which made the district one of the most interesting parts of town, excessively so perhaps.
The wheel has turned a full cycle and, today, the same Democratic WASPS are threatened in their turn by another wave of new inhabitants, new stores and a consequential rise in prices. Rents have become too steep for those just selling books, baking biscuits or brewing beer, let alone people who are trying to start a family and need more living space.
The district is so trendy that there is no longer space for the shop signs that have determined its success in the last twenty years. Hence, places like Stinky Blynk the cheese shop, the Clover Club (one of the world’s top bars), the Italian Caputo Bakery store or the One Girl Cookies shop specialized in biscuits, risk closing down. Nearby, you can see the shop windows of many tradesmen who have already given up, with notices that bring a lump to your throat. "Thank you for having loved us for 70 years, we have loved you too" one of them says.
Resisting or moving
Those who do resist issue a kind of word-of-mouth war bulletin on the latest victims of real estate speculators. "Look, this one has sold up for 5 million dollars" says the butcher forlornly, with a flyer from the local committee in his hand. It’s not the first and he knows only too well that it won’t be the last. Because, if you have been here for generations and have already bought the building you operate in, then you’re safe, barricaded behind your own doorway, otherwise you have no choice but to close down or move out towards Williamsburg, Gowanda or even New Jersey.
Before coming, I had intended to dine in one of the restaurants opened up here by some Manhattan chef, but I changed my mind. I took the underground and went to Coney Island to see the Freak Bar full of tattooed girls and rockabillies, Hispanic-American families pouring out of the underground, deep-fried Oreo and ceviche served in plastic beakers – before they all disappear forever – taking with them an authentic piece of New York.