It was a frigid February night, the moment I knew it for sure. The polishing up of the borough of Brooklyn had been under way since the 1990s, steadily marching east, luxury condominium by artisanal bakery-cum-bike shop. But on that chilling New York night in 2013, Bushwick’s transformation from genuinely gritty — shootings were a serious problem — to merely comfortably edgy — the shooting is now carried out by hip fashion photographers — was clearly and tangibly complete.
Leaving a Sunday-night dance party at the Silent Barn — a tiny arts venue described on its own Twitter feed as an ‘auto-didactic co-operative performance space’ — I spotted an orange light heading down the avenue. A yellow cab, here? Was this Bushwick or Brigadoon? I put away my subway card, surrendered gratefully to gentrification and flung my right arm in the air.
Like much of the city, Bushwick was originally settled by the Dutch, its name derived from the word ‘Boswijck’, meaning ‘little town in the woods’. Later, German immigrants began building breweries and factories in the area. By the 1970s, however, Bushwick was less than bucolic. According to the New York Times, ‘In a five-year period in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the Bushwick neighbourhood was transformed from a neatly maintained community of wood houses into what often approached a no man’s land of abandoned buildings, empty lots, drugs and arson.’
In the mid-2000s a project called the Bushwick Initiative aimed to reverse the decline, pouring funding from the city and state into improving the quality of life and increasing economic opportunities in 23 blocks around Maria Hernandez Park. Efforts were made to combat drug dealing, the one entrepreneurial activity that was truly thriving, and artists and musicians began moving in, pushed east along the L train line by the soaring rents in neighbouring Williamsburg, newly and fearsomely hip. The derelict warehouses and factories which had made Williamsburg so desirable were being torn down and replaced with shiny high-rises, but they still existed in abundance in Bushwick.
Vast murals began to appear, decorating metal roll-gates on factories and disused depots which had been shuttered for years. Recording studios began to spring up, along with live-work communities and DIY (read: unlicensed) performance spaces, such as Shea Stadium, an unvarnished venue, unremarkable from the outside, on the edge of industrial wasteland, where unknown bands and enthusiastic DJs play rip-roaring sets.
But Bushwick is no longer only a haven for underground artists in latter-day garrets; there’s also a mainstream thrust, with organisations such as Arts in Bushwick producing neighbourhood art festivals — the area even has its own annual film festival. It’s entered the lexicon of popular culture too, featuring in multiple storylines in Lena Dunham’s Brooklyn-set HBO show Girls. One of the show’s stars, Zosia Mamet, was a resident herself until recently; Mamet sold her 21-room home at 896 Flushing Avenue for $1.6 million. A couple of years ago, Vogue anointed it as the seventh coolest neighbourhood not merely in the US, but in the world.
Where the artists lead, the Vogue-reading middle classes invariably follow, and the young professionals are now setting up home here. Between 2011 and 2013, the number and price of development sites sold in Bushwick more than doubled, leading to a slew of spacious lofts and apartments carved from industrial buildings, warehouses with vaulted ceilings and exposed brick, and quirky converted grocery stores. There are also slick new condos, such as 330 Bleecker Street, featuring apartments with bamboo flooring, top-range appliances and a doorman, and 13 Melrose Street, which has stone worktops, rainfall showers and white oak floors.
Slick, secure homes are all very well, but New Yorkers, famously, do not use their own kitchens; Bushwick’s affluent new demographic demands brunch. Maria Hernandez Park now has a farmer’s market, while Roberta’s, the restaurant that first helped put Bushwick on the map in 2008, serving its famous Bee Sting pizza, now also has a tasting-menu-only space, Blanca, which boasts two Michelin stars.