“Bushwick may not be East Williamsburg. But for those seeking the newest Bohemia, this neighborhood is arguably the coolest place on the planet,” proclaimed The New York Times Real Estate section. A few months ago when I read this in an article, dated back to July 2010, I remember thinking what a particularly bold statement that was to have made.
More recently, the September 2011 issue of Conde Nast Traveller UK edition commented on Bushwick as one of the upcoming cool neighbourhoods on the Morgan Avenue stop of the L subway line. And furthermore, what was this supposedly influential Roberta’s pizza place that I was hearing so much about?
Exterior of Roberta's
With all this information plus other countless references to Bushwick being on the up and up, I had to check the area out again. Surely, after having spent a few years in California, the area hadn’t changed that much? Or had it? Thinking back, Ali had dubbed Bushwick to be the next hot spot and I guess he was onto something…
View from our loft in 'The Loom', Bushwick, 2007
I have a soft spot for Bushwick as it was the location of the first place that Ali (then boyfriend, now husband) and I had moved into, four years ago. Our loft was huge, about 1,200 square feet, with wood paneled floors and copper rosette ceiling tiles, inherited from its former life as a commercial factory. Called The Loom, the best thing about living in this industrial part of Brooklyn, apart from the space, was that we were right by the Morgan Avenue stop on the L line which meant a quick ride into Manhattan. Worst part: the not-so-sweet smell of the garbage facility opposite us, especially during the summer months. But that didn’t bother me too much. After all, this was part of the industrial vibe. And the rent was good.
There was really nothing that surrounded us at that time, apart from a few bodegas, a supermarket, and a laundromat. Oh, and those factories and warehouses. That said our apartment building had filled up fast with many young tenants, including ourselves. Back then, Ali had joked that he should open a café in the then-vacant ground floor to cater to the new loft community. Judging by what we saw today as well as the recent rave reviews of Bushwick, maybe he should have pitched the idea then.
Mural on a side street
Walking around Bushwick today, I have to say, it hasn’t changed as much as I would have thought. There is a lot of interspersed street art which is always good to see – unexpected murals on the sides of buildings that add colour to an otherwise blah neighbourhood. We visited our old apartment block and, as it happened, its ground floor is dedicated to various retailers – an art gallery, yoga studio, grocery store, hairdresser and a café to boot! (That said most were closed by 5pm).
Looking into the art gallery, Shops at The Loom
Other than that, the area is still pretty much a haven for industry. Whether more of the commercial buildings have been converted into loft spaces, it was hard to tell as there wasn’t much activity on the streets nor could one tell given the lack of signage.
After a short walk around the area, we stopped for an early dinner (or perhaps this was a late lunch based on Bushwick’s standards) at this infamous Roberta’s. New York Magazine had dubbed the immediate area around Roberta’s restaurant as ‘Robertasville’, and number 16 of the 20 Neighbourhoods of Tomorrow. Apparently since it opened three years ago, Roberta’s has established a sub-neighbourhood within Bushwick and influenced other businesses to follow suit and open shop right around the corner from it. These include a wine store, a couple of galleries, and The Swallow Café (I couldn’t get past the sheer number of Mac’s in this place. Collectively they lit the place up enough to save the cafe installing lighting fixtures).
Home of the Mac toting resident - Swallow Cafe
The mural on this particular side of the block read ‘Welcome to Morganstown’ after Morgan Avenue… so I’m not sure where all these different ‘hood names have come from, though they seem to be adopted for the very same area.
Roberta’s is located within a non descript block across the road from an empty lot that could pass for a truck loading dock. I’d read about the ridiculously long waits for a table here in peak times as a by-product of some New York Times reviews, and as we were here at non-peak there was no wait.
The atrium, and studio for webcasts (right)
Converted from a former garage, Roberta’s has been refurbished into a cosy spot, reminiscent of a cabin with its wood paneling and mosaic tiled wood burning oven. Seating here is communal at long wood tables, with a bar towards the back. Off the main dining room is an atrium with further seating, which is a perfect example of industrial design. Recycled printed and rusted metal sheeting line the walls, and clear plastic and corrugated iron forms the roof of the atrium. To one side of the room is a glass pane that allows diners to look into a studio from where The Heritage Radio Network hosts its programs. In addition to playing audience to a live webcast, it was a really nice spot to sit and enjoy a meal on this rainy day. The pitter patter up top was a perfect complement to the warmth radiated from the fireplace. Now, if only the wooden bench seating had a back to it…
The atrium's industrial design
I can now understand why there’s been the hype about Roberta’s. Having created a world away from the industrial surrounds is a great thing, and the prices are comparable with Manhattan’s to rival any opponents (despite being a bridge apart). Our meal was very good, with the highlight being The Specken Wolf wood-fired pizza – a light crispy crust topped with mushrooms, red onions, mozzarella, a good amount of speck and very fragrant oregano, perhaps one of the pickings from the restaurant’s on-site garden. Our mizuna salad would have been quite sparse if it hadn’t been for a few lardo topped fig halves adorning the sides of the plate, and the orecchiette oxtail ragu was decidedly on the small and spicy side. Add a glass of cava and a margarita, and we had tallied up a $65 bill plus tip plus tax. Though there are plenty of places we have yet to check out in Williamsburg and Manhattan, we’ll definitely be back for dinner to sample the menu and its dessert selection (only gelato was available for lunch).
The Specken Wolf pizza
Stepping back onto the dark, quiet, poorly lit street after 5pm, it feels as if Bushwick has a ways to go before it becomes a neighbourhood as gentrified as what became of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the rise of Williamsburg’s north. That said, I am still fascinated as to the way “Robertasville” placed Bushwick on the map and in the minds of so many.
Bogart Street, and Roberta's (right)
A streetscape in Bushwick
Lofts in Bushwick