Dean Street, Prospect Heights
By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
GG's, recently opened in the East Village, is attracting crowds with its New York-style pies — New York 1
I'm no longer young. I don't think that I'm old. I am just now convinced that I am no longer young. The reason I believe this is because of a recent discussion with a bartender at Dean Street (755 Dean Street, Prospect Heights).
It was the kind of Sunday afternoon that is ideal for day drinking—cold, snowy and devoid of any responsibility that couldn't wait until the next day. I hadn't been out late the night before, so I wasn't drinking away any lingering demons. Instead, I was able to appreciate the relative quiet as I watched the snow accumulating outside while occasionally glancing at the television to see if the Bulls could stage a late comeback against the Clippers (they didn't). There is something enchanting, something ineffable, about sitting in a bar on a snowy afternoon. A place like Dean Street may not be as ideally suited for it as, say, a rustic ski lodge—with a roaring fire, free flowing cognac and sullen animal heads glued to the walls—but it was warm, the taps were clean and the bartender was the type of person with whom you could talk for half the day.
As I was the only person sitting at the bar for the first hour or so I was there, that's more or less what happened.
Chances are this wouldn't have happened in Manhattan. Just about every bar in Manhattan would have been far more crowded, even on a snowy Sunday afternoon. I recognize that this is precisely the type of luxury that people enjoy when they leave Manhattan and come to Brooklyn. There is more space. However, this is not just a space issue. A lot of bartenders in Manhattan, even when they're not busy, are somewhat distant or aloof. It's not just the type of hesitance that comes with the territory. (No bartender wants to get stuck talking to a stalker, Jesus freak or someone who's just come off an Ancient Aliens bender and wants to blow your mind with a few dozen theories that will make you doubt everything you know, provided you know absolutely nothing to begin with.) It's more that they relish the time that they're not frantically running around behind the bar trying to take and remember drink orders while dealing with ramblers, mumblers and surly customers who can rarely be appeased, consoled or tolerated. Unless you're in the Village in the middle of the afternoon before happy hour begins and you want to talk about how horrible the NYU crowd is, most attempts to befriend a Manhattan bartender are going to fall on deaf ears.
Brooklyn bartenders tend to be a bit more accommodating. A cynic could see this from a strictly economic point of view. A bar in a busy Manhattan neighborhood, such as Midtown, doesn't need to have a lot of regulars. It is always busy and it will always be busy. Consequently, there's no reason to be overly friendly to people. There are very few streets in Brooklyn where this is the case. Consequently, in order to assure a good shift, Brooklyn bartenders are going to have to make sure to get asses in seats—which will, in turn, usually lead to more asses in seats (if given the option of sitting in a crowded—but not packed—bar and an empty one, most people will chose the crowded one). One of the best ways to do this is to have a sizeable set of regulars be loyal to a bartender—or, failing that, just the bar. This is just one of the reasons why you tend to find more gregarious bartenders in Brooklyn. It's also why they tend to be a bit more generous with the free drinks—especially if you live in the neighborhood.
It's no surprise then, that the first question a bartender in Brooklyn will typically ask you when you sit down on a slow day concerns the location of your apartment. The bartender at Dean Street was no exception to this rule. Upon finding out that I didn't live in the area, she remained as talkative as before, and we were soon in the midst of the same incredulous conversation that takes place a thousand times a day in any neighborhood overwhelmed by the shadows of cranes and half-erected condo buildings. It was not only the changes taking place in the neighborhood, or in her parents' neighborhood, but in Manhattan, too.
Brooklyn is certainly undergoing some serious changes. In fact, an entire city block to the west of Dean Street was torn down to make way for one of the buildings involved in the Atlantic Yards project. It is a terrifying prospect if this rate of growth continues. The pinnacle of the Brooklyn skyline will cease to be chimneys and water towers; it will become, instead, penthouse suites and buildings crowned with corporate logos. That Brooklyn is changing is not what is so bothersome. What is upsetting is that Brooklyn and Manhattan may be indistinguishable in twenty or thirty years.
Anyone who was priced out of the Village in the 1990s or the 2000s takes a kind of masochistic pride in the fact that they once lived there. That same pride comes up when we commiserate about the fact that we won't be able to live in Brooklyn in the not too distant future. Being priced out of a neighborhood tells other people that you're not one of the people moving into the condos that are destroying the previous character of the city. It's a badge of honor. It tells people that you lived in a place back when it was cool.
I wear this badge of honor. The bartender does, too. We were both priced off the island of Manhattan, and we both told one of the younger waitresses about how the East Village used to have an edge. Sure, there are still some institutions that are left over from when the neighborhood was the place to be, we told her; but she would never fully understand what it was like to live in the cultural center of the universe like we did. The waitress nodded and smiled. The bartender and I reiterated just how cool the East Village once was.
What was once commonplace had become deified.
As I was walking to the train from the bar, I realized the problem with this line of reasoning. The people who lived in the East Village before me and before the bartender had been telling us this same line for years. When I lived there in 2005, I regularly got an earful about how I didn't understand what the real East Village was like. Sitting at a bar, I'd nod and smile as I was lectured about how 1995 was when the East Village was really cool.
Of course, it didn't always end there. Sometimes someone else would join the conversation. This person, however, knew that 1995 was when things started to change. He remembered back in 1985 when things were far better. There was grit. There were real artists living in the area. Andy Warhol was still alive! People were dropping like flies because of AIDS. Crack was eviscerating the ghetto. The city was kind of a nightmare, but it was real.
Before finishing, however, another person would interrupt to talk about how they, too, remember how the Village used to be cool. The year was 1975….
In a city that seems to have an insatiable hunger for nostalgia about itself, talking about the past never gets old. There's nothing necessarily sad about that. However, there is something preposterously decadent and pathetic about the way that even New Yorkers who weren't born here (myself included) have taken it upon themselves to so frequently lament the fact that our city is changing without acknowledging the beauty in the fact that there are still places like Dean Street to go where we can have these commiseration sessions.
If nothing else, my time in New York City over the past thirteen years has been a time of ceaseless transition and change. It doesn't end. There is no apotheosis of any community, neighborhood or borough. All of these things change, sometimes in subtly, sometimes profoundly. My hope right now is that that waitress is not sitting at some bar in Prospect Heights ten years from now waiting to tell someone many years her junior about how Prospect Heights used to be back in 2015.