A visit to Willamsburg

Yesterday (Saturday), I continued my exploration of Brooklyn.  With the weekly weekend shutdown of certain parts of the 4 and 5 subway lines, getting over there can be a bit of a pain, but that’s only because I keep thinking of “Brooklyn” as the southern part of Brooklyn rather than the huge place it really is.  Last week’s visit to Greenpoint (“Little Poland”) had me take a new route using the 7 line to the G line and that works very nicely.  Of course, this week I mostly ignored that new route.

So, what’s special about Williamsburg?  Right now it’s a very trendy place where a lot of the artists and all seem to be moving.  I watched the local TV show “Cool in Your Code” which did an episode on Williamsburg, but found it oddly uninformative.  I later found out why.

The neighborhood is right across the East River at Manhattan’s Canal Street level.  I took the subway down to Canal Street and then the J train to Willamsburg.  In two weeks, two new subway trains taken.  That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to break out of just wandering Manhattan:  I keep using the same paths and seeing the same places.  It’s time to break out of that rut.

Never, ever, ever let it be said that the subway maps they hand out for free should be used with any belief that they are to scale.  They ain’t.  I know it, and I knew it before; but I guess I just couldn’t help myself.

I looked at the map and used the show and a view of Wikipedia to determine that the place I wanted to see was Bedford Avenue.  According to the map, I could get off at Flushing Avenue and then do a straight shot down the avenue to Bedford and then have a nice long stroll on Bedford and see whatever the trendy set was up to nowadays.  I was in for a surprise.

The train ride was really nice.  It goes over the Williamsburg Bridge and the view is wonderful.  The train car and station was older and little less inviting than the typical Manhattan ride, but that’s just my Manhattan-centric persona speaking.

So, I got to Flushing Avenue, made note of which was was east-west (I wanted west) and started to walk.  One interesting site:  the first business I saw was a law office with the warm and welcoming phone number (posted in very large letters) “1-888-I-Can-Sue”.  The whole area was a little rundown with little activity.

I kept telling myself that “This is Brooklyn.  Crowded, noisy, boisterous Brooklyn.”  No, it wasn’t.  This was deserted, quiet, and empty.  I started walking and found the area a little nerve-wracking.  Where was everyone?  Everything was closed.  On a long street, there would only be one person every hundred yards or so.  Very few cars.  I went by a couple of “project” style buildings and saw only a couple of people, and heard no noises.  Where was everyone?  I walked and walked and walked.  Every business was closed.  Every building appeared deserted.  It was the middle of the day and I couldn’t figure it out.

Eventually, I saw what I took to be a main street intersection.  The map I had was bare of almost any street names, but I had a feeling it was Bedford Avenue.  As I got closer, I saw a number of people walking across it and started to feel a bit relieved.  I noticed that something was a little odd and a moment later I had the solution to the problem: it was the Hasidim.  That is, I saw a number of Orthodox Jews walking and realized it was the Sabbath and they actually are the dominant population in this part of Williamsburg.  For some reason, I thought they were further south of where I was, but that may have been the map scale issue.

I got to Bedford Avenue and hung a right (heading northward).  It turns out that I was absolutely positively in the middle of their early afternoon leaving/going to “services” and the streets were crowded with them (I don’t know if they were “Lubavitchers” or the “Satmar”).  Okay, wasn’t really crowded and jammed with people like I’m used to.  There were certainly hundreds of the faithful that I passed on my way and I was the only Gentile for a very, very long time.  Two really interesting facts about them that I wasn’t really aware of:  large families and hats.  They were going in family units and there was almost always one or more children with them.  The kids were very well behaved; usually “Dad” was firmly holding the child’s hand.  If more than one, “Mom” usually was controlling the bunch of them.  I only noticed one or two teenagers, but the men were all dressed in the same sort of uniform:  black coats/pants and usually a prayer shawl of some sort (always white with minor designs).  But the coolest part was their hats.  The men all had these huge, round fur hats.  Actual fur hats.  They looked great for winter but horrible for the summer weather.  I did some research latter and found that these were traditional for the group with the fur being supposedly beaver but often actually rabbit.  It didn’t look like rabbit to me, but it did look like a good fur of some sort (I can attest that is was long haired fur).

Everyone was quiet.  The men often would speak to each other in low tones, and I didn’t hear the women or children speak at all.

I felt pretty much like an outsider.  No one would look at me and I was insulting them by wandering their area without a hat (I had taken special care with the sunscreen and thought I’d walk in shadows as I just hadn’t felt like wearing a hat).  I’ve heard that they can make their displeasure known and aren’t really welcoming to outsiders; but I guess the Sabbath was far more important to them than some hatless jerk wandering their streets and distracting them from their worship.  That just made me feel worse.

I walked and walked and walked.  It seemed like forever.  Everyplace was closed, of course, but I was getting thirsty.  I spotted a vending machine, but knew it would be off even before I got close (and it was turned off).  Nevertheless, I took the opportunity (it was a very shady area) to pull out my map and try to figure out how I was going to find my way to the more secular areas.  At that point, a woman with a child showed up and put the child on the ground (I’m guess the little girl was 18 months or so).  The woman didn’t look at me but I got the distinctive feeling she was more than willing to help me find where I was.  I wasn’t really lost (I knew I just had to keep walking and eventually I’d find my way to someplace), but I took the opportunity to ask her where I was in relation to the map.  She apparently didn’t know the map but said there was a subway stop a number of blocks to the northeast, but I was determined to continue on Bedford.  I quickly thanked her and left.  She was the only unescorted woman I saw that whole trip and I did notice a man walking in our direction as I left.  It was the only time I think one of the men looked directly at me.  I hope I didn’t cause her to violate any cultural taboos, but I think she was just trying to help a stranger.

So, I kept walking and eventually found myself at the Williamsburg Bridge again.  That’s on Brooklyn’s Broadway and I just hung a right and found myself in regular Brooklyn.  I walked past “Peter Luger’s” which is the premier steakhouse in all of NYC.  I was a little tempted to go in, but they don’t post the menu in the window and I decided that I didn’t want to run from the place once I discovered how expensive it might be (I’ve mentioned that I’m cheap). 

Actually, I really liked that area as it had an elevated subway and all the businesses were in the shadows of the traintracks.  Really nice visuals to it.  I walked up Broadway for a while and eventually found myself at the G train.  Hey, it was lunchtime and on a whim, I decided to go back to the “King’s Feast” in Greenpoint to pig out on the pierogies.  So, I did.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t anything like it was last week.  I wasn’t happy with the meat pierogies and simply decided that I’d only have the “Poland Plate” if I ever go back.  The service was better this time, though.  I guess you can’t have everything.

So, I went back home and that was it for the day.

And I never did see “trendy Williamsburg”.  I guess I what I saw was actually more interesting.  It wouldn’t have made “Cool in Your Code” as I can’t see them ever promoting the Hasidic lifestyle as something that every New Yorker needed to try for a while.

 Incidentally, I didn’t have a camera at this point, so no pictures.  Too bad, the area was fascinating.

-H

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