Street Life in Morgantown
I have been spending a lot of time in “Morgantown” recently, as my girlfriend lives in one of those infamous Bushwick lofts off of Bogart Street. The neighborhood is young, lively, and vibrant. No one, other than brave Manhattanite who journey out here for Roberta’s for pizza, seems to be over 30. The area draws heavy criticism from some, as there may be no other neighborhood that better represents one segment of today’s (or yesterday’s) Brooklyn hipster culture. Once getting off the L-train at Morgan, one may never again find the need to get back on the subway. There are restaurants, supermarkets, bars, stores and gyms, providing whatever a young Brooklynite may need within only a few blocks. The area is sectioned off from the surrounding residential areas by three wide avenues, Bushwick, Flushing, and Knickerbocker, creating an isolated and self-contained “community,” the form of which can surely be traced back to site’s former industrial zoning. Thus, the neighborhood functions as a sort of tiny of post-industrial satellite village—an accidental urban transit-oriented development.
The one thing that the tightly formed Morgantown lacks is a defined public space. The former industrial quarter, made up nearly entirely of warehouses, had no need for distinct civic spaces. Now, with a new function, the lack of such a space is apparent. But in its place, the wide sidewalk of Bogart Street has assumed this crucial role. From the L-train exit at the corner of Bogart and Harrison, two blocks south to the corner of Bogart and Moore, the western sidewalk of the street is alive. The surrounding streets, lined with blank warehouse walls and mostly devoid of storefronts and seating, are cold and empty. On the other hand, the two-block stretch of Bogart provides eight storefronts, multiple sets of building-side benches, a few planters with built-in seating, and a range of street vendors. Additionally, nearly everyone that lives in the area, as well as all of the visitors, must walk down this small segment of sidewalk on their way two and from the L-train during their daily commutes, assuring a constant stream of people.
The strip exhibits many of the qualities that Holly Whyte and Jane Jacobs indicated were necessary in creating active and engaging streets and public spaces: storefronts and commercial activity, seating, triangulation, food, mixed uses, couples, women, etc.. Additionally, the post-industrial nature of the site contributes to its invitingness and openness. Bogart is a wide street, but there are rarely very many cars driving down it, thus allowing for pedestrians to cross as they wish, cyclists to ride at the leisure, and skaters to casually cruise along. Chance encounters can occur in the middle of the street without worry of oncoming vehicles. The sidewalks are wide enough so that, in many places, three or four people can walk alongside each other. Smaller groups and individuals can easily pass slower walkers or avoid oncoming pedestrians.
At the center of the activity is Brooklyn Natural, a 24-hour organic grocery store that, while overpriced, draws in a constant stream of customers. The store’s hours, along with the fact that it is one of the few places to buy groceries in the area, assure the store is always busy and that the sidewalk in front of it is always teaming with people. There are long wooden benches on either side of its entrance, so that one can sit and eat the sandwich just ordered inside while enjoying the warm sun and watching others pass by. In the evenings it is not unusual to find a panhandler sitting aside the entrance asking customers to spare a dollar. Occasionally a homeless man will use the benches as a bed.
The other business on the block include a café, middle eastern restaurant, sushi restaurant, another natural food store, a vintage shop, liquor shop, the aforementioned Roberta’s, and usually a mobile-vintage shop housed in a trailer, with a few bars no less than a block east or west, as well as a handful of ATMs, which have their own social function. While the range of commercial services within the neighborhood is indeedlimited, this small set of businesses provides a diverse enough range of services to complete their social role. They draw in slightly different demographics of customers and their businesses peak at different times of the day.
Aside from the benches outside of Brooklyn Natural, seating is supplied by a series of large wooden planters along the sidewalk between Siegel and Moore. These planters have wide benches on three sides, providing for a wide range of seating options. Sitters face the storefronts, so their eyes become drawn to passerbys and unconsciously monitor who goes in and out of the stores. As such, the passerby must visually engage with the benches, as they lie directly in one’s field of vision as one walks down the sidewalk. As the population of Morgatown is relatively small, mostly falls within the same age group, and is geographically and socially isolated, everyone seems to know each other and chance encounters among those sitting and walking are undoubtedly plentiful.
The final components of the social and commercial landscape of these two blocks of Bogart are the street vendors that operate along the western sidewalk between Harrison Place and Siegel. Usually, between two and seven vendors set up shop along the sidewalk. As one would expect, warmer days draw more than colder days. On a sunny day, one will find a Mexican food-cart that also occasionally serves breakfast, a small grill that serves kabobs, a bookseller, and a few jewelry, record and knick-knack salesmen, as well as frequent political canvassers and various artists and crafts people.
While the aesthetic and layout of the neighborhood does not recall the spaces that were so beloved by Jacobs and Whyte, I am sure they would be pleased to see the flourishing street life that has managed to spring up in Morgantown.