By Holly Dutton
A neighborhood with a turbulent history, Bushwick is garnering a new reputation as a hip ’hood for people escaping high rents in Manhattan and prime areas of Brooklyn — and businesses are moving there, too.
Dubbed “the new Williamsburgˮ by the New York Times, Bushwick is attracting young people fleeing east from the crowds that have flocked to both the Brooklyn Brownstones and the new condos that now proliferate the East River waterfront.
Once known mostly for its breweries and later as a “no-man’s land of abandoned buildings, empty lots, drugs and arson,” the graffiti-riddled neighborhood still bears the scars of its gritty past.
But today, intrepid house-hunters and entrepreneurs have followed the immigrants and artists who first laid claim to the new Bushwick in the early 2000s. And trendy eateries like Roberta’s pizza joint on Morgan Avenue are even attracting presidents.
Bill and Hillary Clinton hosted a birthday party there for Democratic donor Susie Tompkins Buell, founder of Esprit Apparel, recently.
Restaurants are a great sign of a neighborhood’s growth, according to Mitchell Moss, New York University Professor of Urban Policy and Planning, who spoke on the growth of Brooklyn at a New York Appraisal Institute Conference Sept. 19 in Midtown.
There are 27,000 restaurants in New York City. Cheaper land prices and rents are helping turn Brooklyn and Queens into culinary hot spots in their own right, but any restaurant opening is a reflection of the fact that people are living there, said Moss.
“People come [to Brooklyn] to eat,” he said.
Photos by Holly Dutton
With soaring rents in Manhattan, Moss said the creative workforce has moved to Brooklyn, shifting the culture and creating new opportunities for small business owners.
“People say to me ‘I can’t afford Manhattan,’” said Moss. “I say, who cares? Most of the population doesn’t live in Manhattan.”
In the 1970s, during the dark days of Bushwick, a local politician suggested shutting down the L train line because “no one was riding it,” said Moss. Today, ridership is so high that L trains are often overcrowded by the time they reach Bedford Avenue, the last stop in Williamsburg before going into Manhattan.
While the immigrants and artists were the early residents of Bushwick’s pre-war buildings and converted warehouses and lofts, several new developments have sprung up catering to young up-and-comers and families.
On Knickerbocker Avenue and Hart Street, a new four story, 49-unit luxury condo dubbed The Knick is being built by The Hudson Companies and marketed by Corcoran.
According to StreetEasy.com, average prices per square foot at The Knick are $512. The average price for the whole of the neighborhood is $547,440. Compare that with Williamsburg: $738,024 and Manhattan: $1,370, according to Trulia.
In the year from June 2011 to 2012, sales jumped 32% in Bushwick and 4.7% in Williamsburg. At their peak during the boom, Bushwick kept average prices pegged at $424 psf.
Median rents based on active listings show Bushwick at $2,250, while next-door neighbor Williamsburg is $3,450. Across the East River, median rents for the East Village are $3,200, West Village $3,750 and the Upper East Side is $3,000, according to StreetEasy.
Corcoran broker Tom Le is marketing the units at The Knick. He has worked in Williamsburg and Bushwick for nine years, and has seen a huge exodus of people leaving Williamsburg and moving to Bushwick.
“People are being priced out,” he said. “There’s more infrastructure coming in to Bushwick and fueling demand.” Positioned directly east of Williamsburg and accessible by 5 subway lines, the J, M, Z, L and M trains, the neighborhood has easy access to Manhattan.
Prospective buyers, from single professionals to families, tell Le they are looking for more space for less money, and Bushwick is proving to be the answer.
“It’s a neighborhood destination at this point,” he said. “A lot of creativity and commerce are existing side-by-side with long-term residents.”
In addition to the bigger spaces and more affordable prices, which “are starting to get up there,” he noted, investors are looking to the neighborhood for long-term value.
“I think the future looks very good for Bushwick,” said Le.
In June, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) responded to the subway overcrowding by adding 98 more L-train weekly round trips. A MTA study released in 2011 showed that since 1998, average weekday ridership has grown 93%, while average weekend ridership has grown 141%, pointing to the fact that Williamsburg, Bushwick and Brooklyn in general is drawing people from Manhattan as a destination spot for entertainment and culture.
In Cobble Hill, Smith Street has become a hotspot of restaurants, bars and retail shops. Moss remembers when the street was considered “edgy” because of its proximity to the Gowanus Houses projects.
“Now, it’s like restaurant row,” he said. And indeed, it is not unlike Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, a main drag of commerce and entertainment.
And Bushwick is grabbing its fair share of the action. Wyckoff Avenue now has a string of bars, restaurants and an organic grocery store.
Anna D’Agroso and Scott McGibney opened Café Ghia in April 2010. Both Bushwick residents for years, the two friends decided to open the restaurant because “we got hungry,” said McGibney with a laugh.
McGibney worked for several years at the Northeast Kingdom, one of the first restaurants to open in Bushwick on
“There was really no lunch places,” he said. “There were delis, but no good food places.”
The pair signed a lease in April 2009 and opened a year later. Their location, on the corner of Irving Avenue and Jefferson Street, a block from Wyckoff Avenue, is ideal, two blocks from the Jefferson L train station.
“When this spot became available, we were like, great!” said D’Agroso, who previously lived across the street from the location.
Since opening, the restaurant has been welcomed by the community. “It’s still a work in progress,” she said, “but business has been great.”
D’Agroso bought a condo in Bushwick in 2008, just before the market collapse. Before moving to the neighborhood, she lived in Prospect Park and Bed-Stuy. But she fell in love with Bushwick.
“I just knew I wanted to stay in Bushwick and that’s what the neighborhood needed,” she said of opening a restaurant. “We love it here and all the people we’ve met here.”
Other popular local spots now include Green Streets Salads, coffee shop Three Birds by the Park, and most recently, bars Dear Bushwick and Miles.
“It really seems like there’s a trajectory,” D’Agroso said of the influx of residents. Having previously covered events for now-defunct website BushwickBK.com, she got to know the community well.
“Once businesses opened up, people started really staying here,” she said. Now, people come from Manhattan and Williamsburg to enjoy the nightlife.
“The last 12 months have exploded,” McGibney added. “There’s something for everyone now.”
On a recent Friday night, every bar and restaurant in the neighborhood was packed, said D’Agroso, who knows many of the business owners in the neighborhood. “It’s amazing we can all be full at the same time,” she said.
D’Agroso has seen the changes that Williamsburg and Bushwick have gone through first hand. On a visit to Williamsburg in 1996 from Manhattan, where she attended New York University, she recalled it looking like “the end of the earth.”
Looking ahead to the future of Bushwick, D’Agroso hopes the neighborhood’s true spirit remains unchanged. “My hope is we maintain the charm and friendliness and community spirit of the neighborhood,” she said.