By Ilan Strauss
Hailing from South Africa, Ilan Strauss lives in the New York neighbourhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He teaches macroeconomics at Rice University’s online MBA.
I followed the hipster gold rush and moved from Cape Town to Brooklyn in 2014 to pursue a PhD in economics. Brooklyn, once a byword for industrial decay and long commutes, is now a hub for oat milk cortados, parks and dogs (and dog parks), and new condos.
Not all is lost in this gentrification. Brooklyn offers an immersive and multicultural New York experience without Manhattan’s unrelenting intensity. Larger apartments, quieter streets and relative isolation from tourist hordes make it more liveable. Families, advertising executives, freelance journalists and finance professionals are among those who call it home.
Williamsburg, where I live, is the epicentre of gentrification in Brooklyn. Bedford Avenue, the main street, looks more like Manhattan’s Madison Avenue than the offbeat outpost it once was. The likes of Whole Foods, the Apple store and Equinox gym (with membership at $250 a month) line its crowded, narrow pavements.
For those who can afford the rents, which are comparable to those in many Manhattan neighbourhoods and generally more expensive than in other parts of Brooklyn, the area offers convenience par excellence and is just one subway stop from Manhattan. Although only a four-minute commute to First Avenue (Manhattan) on the L train, the subway cars are suffocatingly full during the rush hour. Most Brooklyn subway lines seem to suffer from perpetual delays and make running late a way of life. Prepare for this eventuality, and Brooklyn becomes less stressful.
Finding a good apartment will be the hardest thing you do. Do not begin looking seriously more than five weeks before you plan to move here and stay in an Airbnb while you search. New condos are ubiquitous but, while they are full of amenities, beware their thin walls and the sense of isolation they can engender. I live in a building with only eight units. There is a lovely private rooftop where my housemate grows plants and I discuss rent, washing machines and gas leaks with our neighbours.
McCarren Park is a two-minute walk from my apartment. With its free to use, Olympic-sized outdoor swimming pool, this excellent park is the epitome of public spaces in the New York summer. It attracts a diverse crowd and is well maintained.
Alternatively, get a dog and make friends in the dog parks. A married couple with whom I eat Sichuan Chinese food on Sundays walks their dog in Fort Greene Park, further south.
For a walking tour of Williamsburg, start with a $6.50 (including tip) oat milk cortado at Devoción, a Colombian coffee shop with a brick interior and one wall covered in living plants. Then go to Andante for ramen or Gelateria Gentile for gelato. Take your ice cream and walk to Domino Park on the site of the former Domino Sugar Refinery, dating to 1882 and the largest refinery in the world at the time, with the impressive Williamsburg Bridge in the background.
For something more refined, the William Vale hotel offers free Monday night jazz and spectacular views. Alternatively, go to Skinny Dennis for its Southern honky-tonk vibe and whole shelled hot peanuts.
Living in Brooklyn requires new skills and routines to manage its stresses and to become part of the community. I try and take regular exercise classes at Chalk Gyms, fictionalised in the 2014 sitcom Broad City. West African dance on Fridays is fun and friendly. Otherwise, yoga and barre classes are on almost every corner. Running clubs are another great way to take exercise and meet people.
Getting a therapist is a must. Health insurance can often cover the cost and it helps turn city living challenges into opportunities for personal growth.
And when you have had enough, take a holiday. Living in Brooklyn for the long haul requires regular escapes. For as good as Brooklyn gets, it never gets easy.
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Photographs: Dreamstime; Getty Images; Alamy