With a different view of New York, Brooklyn beckons
Don't be a Brooklyn dodger - the borough has a lot to offer.
Jake Gyllenhaal is walking into my New York hotel.
It's not on Fifth Avenue or one of the trendy corners of lower Manhattan. It's in Brooklyn. And it — the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge — might be the buzziest new hotel in the city, star sightings or no.
Because the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, like the William Vale Hotel and the Williamsburg Hotel, both new to Brooklyn's waterfront, have something that Manhattan doesn't have: the skyline panorama.
Developers have newly awakened to the Wall-Street-to-Harlem vista framed across the East River and begun touting it via rooftop bars, hotel rooms, and improved parks.
From early fan Walt Whitman to the contemporary Avett brothers, centuries of artists have sung the praises of Brooklyn, among the largest cities in the nation before neighboring New York swallowed it in 1898. It's the center of the country's craft renaissance, where creative entrepreneurs and artisanal food producers thrive, giving rise to a hipster culture that has spread flannels and beards to the Nashvilles, Austins, and Omahas of the nation.
But for a traveler visiting New York, is Brooklyn enough? Can you do the Big Apple without taking a bite of Manhattan?
The short answer is no. Broadway, and specifically the teen-angst Tony-winner Dear Evan Hansen, was too compelling to keep me solely in the borough. But the long answer is mostly. And here's why.
The 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 trains are your friends
First, understand that Brooklyn, measuring 71 square miles of land, is sprawling and that not all of it is convenient. But if you stick to Brooklyn Heights and downtown Brooklyn, the closest quarters to Manhattan and serviced frequently by the 1 through 5 subway trains, you have access to both boroughs and cheaper rates on food and lodging (fashionable Williamsburg is less accessible, but Uber-friendly).
Staying in Brooklyn, my son and I got off the 1 train from our Broadway visit (20 minutes by train) to a very quiet downtown Brooklyn at 11 p.m. on a Friday night. We dubbed it the "city that sleeps," and that's not such a bad thing when it comes to hotels, which are proliferating there.
We found great value, compared with Manhattan quarters, in both the recently renovated New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge (rates from around $200) and the 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge (from $350). The latter's views of the fabled bridge and the more distant Statue of Liberty warrant room-service dinner.
When it comes to meeting the locals, Brooklyn, a bedroom community for New York's business districts, is friendliest. And a mini-boom of entrepreneurial guide services has made finding them easier than ever.
I joined the Brooklyn start-up Local Expeditions on one of its locals-led neighborhood itineraries, a three-hour bike tour of DUMBO ($40), the historic area Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, where viaducts shelter weekly flea markets and historic warehouses frame distant skyscrapers in Instagram-popular images.
Ironically, I had to meet my guide on the Manhattan side of the bridge.
"I like to start over here because the biking across the bridge is spectacular, and there are always Citi Bikes (a bicycle-sharing program) available on this side," said Nancy Blaine, a former textbook editor, nearly lifelong Brooklynite, and founder of Local Expeditions, as we pedaled over the scenic span.
Based on guides' interests and expertise, Local Expeditions itineraries explore the multifaceted borough from Jackie Robinson's Brooklyn to the murals of Bushwick, but they always include a snack stop. Ours was at the petite Almondine Bakery, where Nancy bought us creamy almond croissants to share.
"We want to get to know people, and around food, it goes so well," she said.
During our Manhattan detour, we stopped for a $21 tostada at Cosme in the Flatiron District. Granted, it came from Mexico's Michelin-starred chef Enrique Olvera and contained sea urchin, but it was certainly an only-in-New-York indulgence.
The next night, we ate at Leuca, chef Andrew Carmellini's new restaurant in the William Vale Hotel in Williamsburg, where the line to get to the hotel's rooftop bar, in full thrall of the Manhattan skyline, started around 4 p.m. The ground-floor restaurant wasn't an easy reservation, either, but the menu was equally exciting — two words: goat fazzoletti — and a full meal came in around $50 a person.
Brooklyn has its own cadre of celebrity chefs lured across the river by lower rents. But it's not a mini-Manhattan for the budget-minded. It's its own animal, somehow more inviting and accessible to the 99 percent. Here, the singer Iggy Pop was posing nude for a drawing class when we visited the art-filled Brooklyn Museum and jazz great Ramsey Lewis was performing a free concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard, an expansive, 300-acre patch of waterfront established in 1801 and the birthplace of the USS Maine, now serves as an incubator for start-ups. We visited the center of green entrepreneurship, hosting everything from a film studio to an eco-manufacturing center and artist studios, on Turnstile Tours' two-hour trip around the docks ($30) that drew both history buffs and hipsters.
We closed our Brooklyn spree in the aural company of filmmaker Ken Burns, who narrates a new Detour walking tour atop the Brooklyn Bridge ($4.99). He calls it "one of the greatest achievements in human history." The handsome 1883 suspension bridge was the first to connect Manhattan and Brooklyn by something other than a boat.
The span helped pave the way for Brooklyn's loss of independence 15 years later, when it became a part of the larger city. Still, more than a century after, its indie identity is alive and well — and more hospitable than ever.