This entire post should have been dedicated solely to my wonderful experience that I had hanging with Jessica Festa during her Bushwick Beer, Bites & Street Art #Instawalk last May. Honestly, it’s a wonderful tour, that takes you through Brooklyn’s revitalized Bushwick neighborhood filled with really great eats and cool experimental public art and murals. The day was actually perfect and everything went according to plan. As we toured the neighborhood that day, I shared snaps with my friends on Facebook. The feedback was mostly positive but not everyone was in awe or felt inspired by the colorful murals and scenery that I was sharing.
My visit to this very gentrified neighborhood drew the ire of a few of my friends and my attempts to discuss my decision to promote a tour of Brooklyn with one of them thrust me onto the front lines of controversy. Controversy is not a place that I like to be, however, and this post was sidelined for months as a result. The discussions (well, criticism) that followed and experience also caused me to do a lot of soul searching and questioning of what my responsibilities are as a blogger to my own communities (plural). Should I do more to promote Caribbean and African American businesses, communities and neighborhoods? Should I make a greater effort to write about the black experience including the negative effects of gentrification?
While these questions were swirling in my head I had the opportunity to travel to Grand Cayman to meet my grandmother’s family. A few weeks after returning, she passed and then we had to travel to Jamaica for her funeral. I traveled to my alma mater Syracuse University a few months after that for a reunion of sorts with the leaders of an organization where I served as member, vice president and president. Earlier this year I rented out my condo and moved out of the inner city to a house in the suburbs. I also had the opportunity to travel to the United Arab Emirates and Oman recently. The things I saw and experienced most of them pertaining to connectivity, renewal and the black experience during my travels and my interpretation of them helped to shape the direction of this post and also this blog. By the way, call me a sell out, oreo or whatever, but revitalization (cough, cough gentrification) is a great thing for black communities. If the gritty neighborhood where my condo was located had experienced half the revitalization that Bushwick did I probably would have stayed. That’s another story though.
So almost a year later, here is my recap of my Bushwick Beer, Bites & Street Art #Instawalk post….
THE BROOKLYN THAT I KNEW OF
One of the things that was missing from Jessica’s tour is a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. The Bridge is not actually in Bushwick but a tour anywhere in Brooklyn without walking over that bridge feels incomplete. She can customize your tour to include that though, so just ask. Although she touched on it a little, the other thing that was missing was the history of Brooklyn’s urban community. Listen, it was not all gang banging, drugs and pregnant teens. I transitioned from child to teen in the late 80’s and back then when it came to the best urban shopping, the best parties, the biggest dance hall’s, the biggest Caribbean festival, all roads led to Brooklyn. The New York City borough is the birth place of almost every chart hitting hip hop artist of the 90’s. Brooklyn was also the mecca of Jamaica’s dancehall reggae music scene. If you were a dancehall head back then, you would have attended several parties, concerts and legendary sound clashes at the Biltmore ballroom. Because of the hip hop and dancehall reggae music influence, for me Brooklyn was the capital of all things “urban”.
Brooklyn was also the home of most of my college friends. Apparently Syracuse University and every other upstate school recruited heavily from this borough back in the 90’s. The enrollment of the Brooklyn massive at upstate schools was well, MASSIVE and they were proud, loud and vested as we heard and saw during the “where you at” roll call at our college parties.
Despite all of this history, cultural and friend connections, in the 30 plus years that I have lived in the northeast, I had only been to Brooklyn three times before my guided tour of Bushwick last May. My first trip to Brooklyn was to visit my cousins who lived in brownstone on a tree lined street of the borough which is a rarity in New York. My second time was to visit a friend who escaped the exorbitant rent of Manhattan by settling in a 1 bedroom of a five story walk-up in Prospect Heights. I remember him mentioning something or another about gentrification back then but the topic did not hold my interest for long. He’s black by the way. I only mention that because the myth is that gentrifiers are white. Besides, My third visit to Brooklyn was to my friend’s 40th birthday party which was held on the roof of a chic downtown Brooklyn hotel. Coincidentally, it was that friend that aggressively reintroduced the discussion about gentrification which for her was all negative.
GENTRIFIERS, COME THROUGH
Apparently over the years other Manhattan residents also discovered the “gem” (e.g. cheaper rent) that is Brooklyn. When a steady influx of the college educated, professional, wealthier New Yorkers began to settle in her more affordable properties, there was an identity and price shift. None of it was favorable or beneficial to the established, but poorer community that held the City down through the late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. This resulted in an exodus of the “established” Brooklyn residents (most of them Black and Puerto Rican) who left the City in search of more affordable housing. Cutesy coffee and pastry shops, high-end boutiques and artisanal breweries emerged next to the bodegas and Caribbean food stores that was part of Brooklyn’s established urban identity. For me and many others this seemed like progress and urban renewal, but for the thousands of residence who were squeezed out or allegedly forced to move, that “progress” felt more like an invasion.
I listened to the bitter complaints about the effects of gentrification and the price gouging by shady realtors who had discovered “gold” in the once upon a time blighted and drug infested ‘hood’. I heard the complaints about the “newcomers” who clutch their purses, avoided eye contact and make people feel uncomfortable and unwelcomed in the neighborhood that they have called home for decades. I also heard the complaints about the emergence of tours through the very streets that were once scorned in the days when the borough was going through its spate of crime, gang and drug activity. The fact that I was a participant in one made me part of the “problem.”
Look what revitalization did for Dubai though. Last year, 17 million tourists flocked to see her massive buildings built on sites that was sand dune filled with sand vipers only 20 years ago. A City can only maintain a specific identity for a limited time period and in my opinion, gentrification was good for the borough.
BUSHWICK, BEER, BITES AND STREET ART #INSTAWALK
My tour wasn’t of the entire Brooklyn though. It was of Bushwick that little spot in Brooklyn neighboring Williamsburg that in the beginning was simply just bushy lands. As settlers moved in, it became known for its breweries. After the riots in the 70’s, Bushwick became known for its blight and crime. Now the neighborhood has re-established itself as a thriving art community.
So there I was that chilly Saturday morning, camera in hand waiting for Jessica. I was standing in front of a coffee shop which was part of my tour itinerary, but they were closed that day. As I waited, I observed a nail shop, Botanica and a fruit stand that was about a block down the street. They had the prettiest, ripest, and sweetest looking mangoes available outside of the tropics and I remember making a mental note to buy a few of them before heading back to Connecticut. I observed that things had certainly changed, but a lot of the “urban” Brooklyn was still visible. The cold air got the best of me and I stepped inside the deli/convenient store to warm up and to find some facial tissue to stem my runny nose. Back outside I took a few steps around the corner and saw the first mural. I remember back in the days when the murals were known as “graffitti” and was considered vandalism and not art. As a matter of fact, most communities in Connecticut still have not embraced this art form and still view it as a nuisance instead of anything of value. I snapped a quick picture, turned around and that’s when I saw Jessica.
Jessica Festa is a native New Yorker and the bubbly travel blogger from Jessie on a Journey. She is also a great photographer and as I soon learned, New York enthusiast, Bushwick history buff and New York City certified tour guide. She explained that we were originally a party of three and waited a few more minutes to see if the other person would show. When they didn’t, we started the tour through Bushwick’s art community filled with murals which depicted life in Brooklyn then and now and/or art that conveyed social injustice messages. We stumbled into a pop up shop with local startup entrepreneurs selling their goods to the new Brooklynites. I stopped to pose with the mural featuring iconic rapper and Brooklyn legend Christoper “Big Poppa,” “Biggie Smalls” Wallace and blew kisses to mural featuring Beyoncé’s husband, music mogul Sean “Jay-Z” Carter. She gave me a few pointers on how to shoot instagram perfect murals and then turned her camera in my direction so that she could capture me during the tour.
There were even a few “commercial commissioned” art murals which I learned was frowned on by the community and one behind a chained link fence that might have been created by the illusive and famous British street artist, Banksy. She showed me the buildings that were once the offices of area breweries which somehow survived time, the ’77 riots and the blight that the area was known for. We stopped at a “panaderia” where we purchased the most delicious, inexpensive and freshly made desert treats which we enjoyed at a park across the street named after slain activist Maria Hernandez. Remembering the Maria Hernandez story helped to put the negative egging and guilt induced discussions about gentrification behind me. Seriously, gentrification was definitely a good thing for Bushwick.
We ate the best tasting tacos that I had ever tried, hopped on the subway and ended the tour with a tasting of craft beer paired with cured meats. It was definitely a great day.
With the weather warming up, now is a great time to join Jessica’s Bushwick, Beer, Bites & Street Art #Instawalk tour. The availability of tours like this one is a reminder that you don’t need a passport or to travel very far to see history, attractions and really great public art. Here are a few of the highlights of the tour:
- A look at historic #architecture and German breweries from the 1800s in #Bushwick.
- Photos within #NYC’s largest outdoor art gallery.
- The chance to have a #beer in a historic 19th century brewery.
- A visit to a decadent raw #chocolate factory, including samples.
- The most #delicious taco you’ve ever savored in an authentic tortilla factory.
- A bite of #sweet goodness at a Mexican bakery that’s been open for 18+ years.
- Tasting of #local #rum made with 100% domestic ingredients.
Disclaimer: A big thanks to Jessica Festa of NYC Tours and Photo Safaris for comping the tour which allowed me to share my experience with you. Obviously all opinions expressed are my own.