2016-11-01 13:50:20
Frugal Traveler: Want the ‘Real’ Brooklyn? Go Cheap

Green-Wood cemetery seemed a natural place to spend a few hours in the midst of a hectic urban tour. I passed under its imposing Gothic Revival gates and began heading uphill on Battle Avenue, named after a Revolutionary War battle that took place across its nearly 500-acre grounds. The views of the surrounding area and New York Bay became impressive after just a few minutes of walking. After several days in Brooklyn, I was realizing not just how huge it was, but how flat — so even the smallest changes in altitude provided for some great panoramas. The highest natural point in Brooklyn, Battle Hill, stands (at a mere 220 feet) within the cemetery.

Walking the lush, quiet grounds, perusing different headstones of the over half-million people interred (including Samuel Morse, Boss Tweed and Jean-Michel Basquiat) provided a sanctuary from the city. But it was also a promising stop in my quest to discover the essence of the borough today — the quote-unquote real Brooklyn. And I was doing it in a way that’s particularly improbable these days: on a budget.

I initially feared that would be something of a fool’s errand. Brooklyn denizens are fiercely protective of it; many who have left are highly critical of it. Everywhere is “the Brooklyn” of somewhere else; any coverage is liable to instigate a think piece. The layers of scrutiny make the borough a palimpsest.

Standing on a hill in Brooklyn’s landmark cemetery, with its peaceful environs and wonderful views, assuaged my anxiety and filled me with hope, as well as some historical context. “This is Brooklyn,” I imagined Boss Tweed’s whiskey-soaked voice in my ear. “It’s too damned big, so don’t even think about trying to cover everything.”

What I found over a long weekend was a borough that’s not merely deserving of exploration in its own right, but one that has also become downright touristworthy. Longstanding, inevitable comparisons to Manhattan have not only become unnecessary, they’re not really even relevant anymore: Brooklyn is a bona fide cultural capital, with world-class art, performances, street fairs and museums. And the depth and quality of its food and drink options are impressive and rewarding. Best of all: Despite sharp increases in cost of living (the average price of a home in parts of Brooklyn Heights now dwarfs that of, say, one on the Upper West Side) and tasting menus that can run to over $300, deals can still be found that won’t bust the budget of even the most hawkish penny-pincher.

I found that traveling cheaply is actually the best way to find the essence of Brooklyn — its street fairs, dive bars and supermarket food courts are what gave me a sense of how people in the borough actually live. While I spent quite a while in the neighborhoods close to Prospect Park, where I was based, as well as in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick, I cast my net wide.

I went to an intense, uplifting morning service at the Brooklyn Tabernacle church downtown and walked through Atlantic Antic, a street fair that bills itself as the largest and oldest in Brooklyn. I went to a baseball game on Coney Island, channeled John Travolta during a visit to Lenny’s Pizza in Bensonhurst and visited Chilo’s, a great bar in Bed-Stuy with a taco truck permanently parked in the back patio area.

I was particularly proud of the deal I scored on my lodging through Airbnb, which happened to be in Prospect Heights: $75 a night for a private room on the top floor of a gorgeous townhouse. The owners, who work in the visual arts, were generous and accommodating. The neighborhood itself, a small sliver wedged between Park Slope and Crown Heights, ended up being an ideal location. It’s well served by the subway system (2, 3, B, Q) and was a great launching pad for getting into surrounding neighborhoods. While I shared a bathroom with a visiting couple, perks like the outdoor roof deck made this a great bargain.

It was late when I checked into my Airbnb, and I needed to fill my stomach with either food or alcohol, preferably both. I ended up at a fun Bushwick night spot, Bossa Nova Civic Club, avoiding the $10 cover charge by entering before midnight. Red light from a backlit bar and purple lasers cut through machine-made fog that was quickly filling the dance floor and bar area while house music pumped through the small space.

I picked up a $5 can of Modelo and danced for a bit. The club, which had a prominent sign declaring “No racism; sexism; homophobia; transphobia; violence,” had a welcoming, diverse crowd.

I zigzagged down to the corner of DeKalb and Myrtle, where I spotted a big, empty lot where a colorful food truck was parked and a tarp under which a small group of people were animatedly debating politics. I picked up a $7 chicken arepa from the truck, Papelón con Limón, and joined the group at the moment the skies opened up and sheets of rain came pouring down. Everyone crowded in to avoid getting wet, and the conversation continued.

“Look at the rest of the world,” said one man, an actor originally from Nigeria. “Margaret Thatcher. Angela Merkel. Women rulers are absolutely the bomb.” A young woman from Brooklyn was eloquently denouncing Donald Trump. The space features musical acts from time to time; the Pink Tacos, the band playing that night, were unfortunately scrambling to put away their gear because of the rain.

Our group split up, and I hustled across the street to wait out the rain in Flowers for All Occasions, a bar and art space that just walks the line between eclectic and too precious. I sat in an empty seat and caught the attention of the bartender, a friendly young woman with sparkly eye makeup and bottle caps attached to her temples. I was still hungry, and asked if any food options were available. “Well,” she said, “I could make you, like, a Cheddar pretzel thing.” I ordered that ($6) and a Narragansett tallboy ($4).

The doughy pretzel and cheese cubes were forgettable, but the interesting vibe made up for it. Couples played board games, and one woman appeared to be painting on the floor; the wiry, middle-aged D.J. started blasting “Aquarius” from the cast recording of “Hair.” I took that as my cue to leave; I love that musical, but wasn’t sure how much irony I was prepared to deal with.

Flowers for All Occasions was later derisively dismissed by James, a friend and Williamsburg resident, via an Instagram comment: “3rd wave hipster bar.” Many discussions of Brooklyn, I learned, necessarily touch on complicated issues of gentrification and seniority: How long has this business been there? What was there before it? How long have you lived in the neighborhood? The answer — two years, 10 years, 40 years — can influence attitudes.

Some residents hold newcomers — and their money — responsible for the expulsion of long-established residents and businesses in given neighborhoods. But among the many Brooklyn residents I spoke to, there was no uniform answer as to whether gentrification was a positive or negative thing. I met up with Christian Lauro, 42, at a concert at Villain, a newer event space in Williamsburg. He moved to Brooklyn in 2000, and decided to leave when his portion of rent in a shared apartment jumped from $300 to $900.

“All the good venues, everything good is gone,” Mr. Lauro said. He conceded, though, that the area is now much safer than it was. “Between here and Greenpoint used to just be garbage, piles of junk cars. You could crawl through them and sit by the water. And now you’ve got this.” He trailed off, gesturing broadly toward Kent Avenue and the East River.

On the other side there’s Ezra Aubain, a Bergen Beach resident who works at the Brooklyn Museum and grew up in East Flatbush. (“Rugby, actually,” she corrected, referring to the old name for the area.) She was overwhelmingly positive about the changes to the borough that had come about since she was a child, namely how much safer it’s become. Her neighborhood was “crime-ridden,” she said. “You were scared to go outside. I went to Catholic school and would go to my white friends’ houses. They weren’t scared. You wouldn’t get hurt; you wouldn’t hear gunshots in the morning.”

Ms. Aubain was unabashed: “I love gentrification,” she said. “If you grew up where I grew up — I used to pray for my mom. She used to work in the night to pay for Catholic school.” Ms. Aubain’s mother, an immigrant from Belize, has enjoyed the increase in her property’s value: She now rents out her home.

I met Ms. Aubain as I was wandering through the Brooklyn Museum. The stunning 1895 Beaux-Arts building houses around 1.5 million pieces; the museum, New York City’s third largest, is certainly worth the admission fee. Or, I should say, is worth what the museum suggests you pay, $16 — technically, visitors may pay what they wish. I went to a great exhibit on sports photography, “Who Shot Sports,” as well as a Brooklyn-focused exhibit of beautiful Williamsburg housing project murals of the 1930s.

If you’re going to the museum, it’s worth your time to visit the adjacent botanic garden as well (and maybe stop at the Mister Softee truck parked on Washington Avenue on your way). A combo ticket to the museum and garden is $23 — a $5 saving over purchasing them separately. I met up with a friend and her husband and young son. The garden is great for children, by the way — a whole section has toys, games and activities for younger visitors, even a big wooden xylophone for them to play.

An hour or two later, we ended up sitting in Brooklyn Bridge Park at the Brooklyn Americana Music Festival — we joked that, of all the Brooklyn things to stumble upon, a music festival was one of the most Brooklyn-esque. We had stocked up for a picnic at Sahadi’s, a fantastic, sprawling store that sells all sorts of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean groceries and prepared foods. The Sahadi family, originally from Lebanon, opened their Atlantic Avenue shop in 1948. The selection of nuts, olives and cheeses is enough to wow even the most particular food snob. I bought a container of hummus, some spanakopita, grape leaves, freshly baked pita chips, and tangy flatbread covered in thyme and sumac, all for about $20.

Walking into the park, we heard music and followed it to the festival grounds, a grassy area in the shadow of a temporary Martin Creed sculpture that reads “Understanding” in letters so red and intimidating that it seems more of an imperative than a suggestion. We sat on the grass, enjoying the festival as well as our food.

The American music festival (which was free) was something we lucked upon. Some of Brooklyn’s other cultural offerings have a price, but are well worth it. I took a friend to “Remains,” a dance performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, known as BAM. The show was excellent and the $24 seats were reasonable. A word of caution, though: When tickets say “obstructed view” at BAM, they’re not kidding. There was a big pillar directly in my line of vision. (Fortunately, I was able to shift over to a better seat.)

The concert I attended at Villain in Williamsburg, which had the spacey surf-rocker Morgan Delt as headliner, cost $10. The acoustics in the cavernous space weren’t great, but at least the drinks were moderately priced: A beer and shot cost me an additional $10.

The Villain event was just one of dozens that night in Brooklyn; the borough is so busy it can be tough to keep track. The Skint and Nonsense NYC are good sites that try to organize it all. Both have mailing lists and cover everything from bands to gallery openings to fashion shows, even food.

I didn’t leave my meals up to a mailing list, though. Instead, I put my trust in a friend from college, Yng, who lives in Carroll Gardens with her family. I met up with them, and we headed down to Sunset Park to Fei Long Market on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 64th Street. The grocery store within was amazing — row after row of Asian dry goods and conventional produce, as well as more difficult-to-find items like dragonfruit and durian. The fresh seafood selection was impressive, as well: huge containers of geoduck, clams, crab, sea cucumber and a wide variety of fish.

The reason Yng brought me there in the first place, however, wasn’t the groceries. It was for the food court within the market. There is a large, cafeteria-like room with roughly a dozen restaurants serving hot food. An order of six juicy, pork-filled soup dumplings from Shanghai Xiao Long Bao cost $4.75; a big bowl of noodles in salty black bean paste with vegetables was another $5. “Isn’t this place amazing,” Yng, who is Taiwanese-American, asked me. “It’s just like China.” She was referring to the good food, of course, but also to the, shall we say, lack of niceties: The bathrooms didn’t have toilet paper, and the only way to differentiate the men’s from the women’s room was if you could read the Chinese symbols hand-scrawled on the door.

The search for the “real” Brooklyn goes far beyond its art and food, however — being a Brooklynite, I learned, means being active. In the summer, there is free walk-up kayaking every Saturday and Thursday between Piers 1 and 2 in Brooklyn Bridge Park. (I made my voyage before the summer season ended.) It’s first come first served and an easy process: Just pick out a life vest, take off your shoes and hop into a kayak (there are one- and two-person vessels). It took a little getting used to, but once I had the hang of it, the 20 minutes positively flew by. The water between the two piers is calm and tranquil, and the views of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge are some of the best you’ll find.

It’s biking, though, that really defines Brooklyn. I checked out Spinlister, a bike share site that connects you with local bike owners for rentals. Many listings offer gear like helmet and lock, which is a plus. I was looking for something immediate, though, so I ended up going to one of the many stations in Brooklyn and renting one of the famous Citi Bikes by Fort Greene Park. I know, I know: very third wave.

Some Citi Bike lessons I learned: Give the bike a good once-over for damage before you rent (it seemed as if half the bikes at my station had their rear reflectors pried off), and check the tire pressure. A day’s rental is $12 plus tax — the trick, though, is that you can ride for only 30 minutes at a time. If you keep the bike out for more than half an hour, you are charged $4 for each additional 15 minutes. These are meant to be commuter bikes, not all-day transportation.

I had decided to do a meandering ride between Fort Greene and Red Hook, winding up through Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) before going through Brooklyn Bridge Park and all the way to the docks by Ikea (the ferry out back, which runs to Wall Street, is free on weekends). I got the ride route from the Spinlister site, incidentally, which has a useful (if irregularly updated) blog.

I would not have been able to do the entire ride in 30 minutes at a leisurely pace, so I took my time and checked into a Citi Bike station every so often, then checked it out again, ensuring I wouldn’t be charged extra. The result was a fantastic mini-tour. It was interesting noting the changes in character from neighborhood to neighborhood, from outrageously expensive Dumbo to the harder, more industrial areas of Red Hook. I capped off the ride with a well-deserved drink at the beloved Fort Defiance bar, where I ended up closing down the place.

As it frequently happens, the more I saw and learned of Brooklyn, the more I wanted to see and learn. When I went to Green-Wood cemetery, I was amazed to find out it had been the site of a major Revolutionary War battle — the first after America declared independence on July 4, 1776. I was told by a woman handing out maps at the entrance to look for a black statue of Minerva on Battle Hill, that highest of Brooklyn altitudes. If I looked carefully, I’d be treated to an extraordinary sight: Minerva was waving directly at the Statue of Liberty, far across the bay.

After a 10- to 15-minute climb, I found Minerva on the hill, looking out over the water. I turned and followed her line of vision, looking out for the Statue of Liberty, but all I could see was a large, relatively new condo development. Then I saw her. She was nearly obscured behind someone’s rooftop deck chair and umbrella. For about 10 seconds, I was upset at the existence of this condo: How dare they?

But Lady Liberty seemed not to care: She had been there, and would continue to be there. This condo was now part of the landscape, and there was little anyone could do about it. Later I found out that the condo was originally planned to be much higher, completely blocking the view. The developers, it turned out, yielded to protests and compromised. And so this view, for better or worse, was what change looked like.