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04.16.2008
Changing Tastes
What and where a neighborhood eats can reveal a lot about it and is a reliable barometer of change. Brooklyn's Bushwick is the latest in a long series of New York neighborhoods where new restaurants signal that the process of gentrification is well underway.
Edwin Montoya

To understand how food can reflect the debates surrounding a gentrifying neighborhood, look no further than the Bushwick entries on the blog Chowhound. One writer calling himself LittlePiggy asks for help dealing with “the food wasteland of the Morgan stop.” Another retorts, “MOVE BACK TO MANHATTAN!!!! This is a neighborhood that is primarily Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Mexican. You will find great food all around you if you stop expecting to see a French Bistro (I am sure there will be one soon).”

Bushwick, a neighborhood until recently viewed as down-and-out, victim of both looting after the 1979 blackout and the end of big manufacturing in New York City, has become popular with artists looking for large spaces at lower rents than in Williamsburg or in Greenpoint just to the west. A highly visible sign of the undercurrent of change here has been the handful of restaurants opening in the last few years, places meant to appeal to people newly moved into the area—young, single, often white. Of course, there are many Latino restaurants in Bushwick, from Los Hermanos, the popular taco cart parked in a tortilla factory on Starr Street, to the homely Mexican and Ecuadorian storefronts like El Jarro on Knickerbocker Avenue. But the newer places, with comfort food menus and rustic-chic designs, work like an extended living room for the “loft kids,” the not-always-flattering moniker for new residents. Like the highly-designed Thai restaurants in Williamsburg and the first bistros on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, these restaurants telescope a clear message to potential residents and investors: The neighborhood is safe, interesting, and poised for middle-class gentrification. Whatever prejudices this might reveal, the arrival of more upscale restaurants signals neighborhood regime change.

Though the Chowhound writer viewed the Morgan Street stop on the L train as a culinary dead end, it happens to be sited near the newest Bushwick eatery. Right beside the subway is a cafe and DVD rental store called the Archive, a well-stocked grocery named Brooklyn Natural, and a new pizzeria, Roberta’s, which was recently reviewed in the $25 and Under column in The New York Times. The reviewer, Peter Meehan, said the restaurant, which opened on Moore Street three months ago, “has a D.I.Y. feel, like a Bushwick loft.” That aesthetic isn’t so surprising given the restaurant’s former incarnations: It had been a construction depot, a commercial landscaping factory, and a nuts and bolts warehouse. Before Roberta’s opened, the building was vacant for three years.


Northeast Kingdom is one of Bushwick’s newer restaurant arrivals.


Latino restaurants and bodegas line Knickerbocker Avenue. 
 
 

 

From the outside, the restaurant looks less than unassuming with a cinder block facade. Inside, the look is still rough, but considerably warmer: There are two long wooden tables that lend themselves to communal dining, and smaller round tables in back. A stack of firewood lines one wall, the fuel for the focal point of Roberta’s: a red pizza oven the owners bought in Italy and shipped to Brooklyn. The ingredients used are geared toward a hip, health-conscious clientele—fresh mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, and organic Berkshire pork—with prices to match. A personal-size Margherita costs $8; a Milennium Falco with tomatoes, breadcrumbs, parmigiano Reggiano, onion, and pork sausage, $13.

Chris Parachini, one of the restaurant’s three owners and himself an artist and musician, moved to Bushwick two years ago because he wanted a neighborhood quieter than Greenpoint, where he had lived for a year in the late 1980s. He believes that in the most industrial sections of Bushwick, “there are no old-timers. It was like moving out to the country.” He believes the new, non-manufacturing businesses haven’t been the cause of the neighborhood’s financial tensions. “They were kicked out by the laws of economics,” he said of local factories, not by small restaurants and cafes. Parachini maintains that artists are, in their way, keeping the industrial tradition alive in Bushwick: “People are still manufacturing, but they’re working alone in their studios.”

Yet according to one advocacy group, true manufacturing continues in Bushwick, if on a smaller scale than a generation ago. Paul Parkhill of Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center, a group dedicated to keeping light industry in New York, said that while many factories look empty, they house small manufacturers. Small companies’ greatest hindrance isn’t foreign competitors but the cost of rent in New York, Parkhill said. Landlords know they can get more from newcomers.

At the same time, small delis and restaurants that catered to factory workers find business considerably slower. Maximiliano Gonzalez, owner of the I & B Deli, had dozens of customers from manufacturing plants who would buy groceries or the hot lunch Gonzalez serves—roast pork, boiled platanos, and mondongo, a stew of tripe and potatoes. Gonzalez, who has been in business for 20 years, said that with so many factories closed he can no longer count on a steady flow of customers during the day, even with new residents moving in. If people aren’t working in the neighborhood, his business suffers. “They go to work in Manhattan and buy their things there.”

For others, the arrival of Roberta’s, along with the older Life Café NINE83 and Northeast Kingdom, means not having to go to Williamsburg to get the kind of food they want. Paige Newman, a 27-year-old trend forecaster, said that at Northeast Kingdom, “I can get nitrate-free bacon and mac-and-cheese with gruyère.” Newman, who moved to the neighborhood in 2003, likes Bushwick because of its relaxed atmosphere, less conspicuously fashionable than the world of Bedford Avenue.

Around the corner at Ad Hoc Gallery, Andrew Ford talks to three high school boys who have come by to see the exhibit called Brick Ladies of NYC showing the work of legendary graffiti artist Lady Pink and street artist, Aiko. Ford has been working in Bushwick since 2003 and likes to eat at a diner on Flushing Avenue called Tina’s, a place that opens at 3:30 in the morning and closes at 4 in the afternoon to suit the schedules of truckers coming into the Boar’s Head meatpacking plant across the street and cops from around the corner. He’s glad that new places like Roberta’s have opened, but Tina’s, he said, is an old standby: cheap, simple, and a gathering place for a different demographic in the neighborhood. “It’s real. You know what I’m saying?”

Angela Starita