On a chilly autumn day in New York, the steamy laundry I go to is almost like a tropical haven. I like Island Bubbles on Rogers Avenue, mainly because the friendly storekeeper greets me with a sunny smile and a “yes, Mami”. Her accent and cheery disposition make me want to hum a Bob Marley tune.
West Indians and African Americans are the dominant ethnic groups in my patch of Brooklyn, Crown Heights. Go just six blocks west to Prospect Heights/Park Slope and the demographics change startlingly, as illustrated in this handy racial and ethnic distribution map created by the New York Times. Enter 11216 in the zip code box.
Park Slope Hair Salon on Flatbush Avenue, located on a green-dotted block on the map, was my destination on Monday. I was determined to treat my locks to some tender loving care after six months of backpacking and foregoing luxuries such as a cut, colour and dry.
Spend a couple of hours in a hairdresser’s chair and inevitably you get the back story. The shopowner (and, for now, sole hairdresser) is named Marat. He opened the shop late because it was his son’s bar mitzvah that morning, he announced proudly, as he brushed colour on my hair.
A Russian Jew, Marat travelled with his parents to the US as refugees, over 25 years ago. He met his wife, also a hairdresser, while on vacation in Israel. Both astute entrepreneurs, they now own three hair salons, a spa and a wedding gown shop. Meanwhile, Marat’s brother runs the drycleaning business next door. He popped in for a chat and didn’t miss his window to promote his services to a captive audience. The hardworking family is proof that anything is possible in the land of opportunity.
Russians are a small minority in Brooklyn, comprising just 3.8% of the population. There are, however, plenty of Jewish people around.
Hasidic Jews, walking in groups, have stopped my Australian husband and Swiss friend on the street several times, asking, “Are you Jewish?” They, of course, don’t approach me because an Asian can’t possibly be Jewish. One of these days I will tell any white companion of mine to say yes, so we can find out what the mysterious bearded men are after. Asians make up 9.3% of the Brooklyn population, a decent portion but seemingly small compared to the Jews. Out of all Brooklynites who identify themselves as religious, a quarter are Jewish.
Also on Monday, I met with a redhead originally from California, Casey, about a social media business she runs with an Ethiopian lady Garnett and a white ex-professor Mike. We met at Garnett’s lolly shop on Franklin Avenue, easily the street that is gentrifying the fastest in the neighbourhood.
Diagonally opposite the lolly shop is Chavelas, hands down the best Mexican restaurant in the area. A Chilean friend of mine, and my visiting Swiss friend who is married to a Mexican, are both impressed with the authenticity of the cuisine. I’ve eaten there four times in two weeks, including at midnight last night.
Convenience stores run by Hispanics are ubiquitous on Brooklyn’s street corners. The stores are called bodegas, which did confuse me at first, because I’ve bought dishwashing liquid, newspapers and milk from the one nearest me, but have yet to spot wine on the shelves.
Other than English, the most common language spoken in Brooklyn homes is Spanish. New York’s subway trains have signs in English and Spanish. Target’s instore signs are also in Spanish.
In the melting pot that is Brooklyn, Australians are considered exotic. Aussie singletons, are you looking for love? Come to Brooklyn and you’ll find out what it’s like to be French. Case in point — online restaurant reviews about a café called Milk Bar on Vanderbilt Street make for an entertaining read. The broad accent and laidback attitude of the Aussie wait staff score favourable mentions amongst the clientele. The coffee’s not bad either — I tried it last weekend.
One of the oldest ‘ethnic’ groups in Brooklyn has nearly disappeared. Also on the weekend, I visited Brooklyn Museum, a welcome change of pace after too much wining and dining. On the top floor are installations of Dutch houses that had been uprooted from sites all over Brooklyn and carefully restored by curators. The Dutch settled here in the 1600s. Now only 0.2 per cent of Brooklynites have Dutch ancestry.
Again on the weekend, on my way back from a Caribbean-themed Zumba class (the instructor decided to freestyle), I got caught up in an animated conversation between an older black ex-DJ cleaning out his house via a yard sale on his stoop, and a young white, self-confessed music geek. They were expounding the superiority of record players over iTunes, especially for tracks by jazz legends like Herbie Hancock. They doled out advice on where to buy the gear (corner of Atlantic Avenue and something) and how to set it up. Dropping a needle on a record is more interactive than pressing a button, they claim.
Last week I took the subway out of Brooklyn to Broadway, to see Mountaintop, a moving and cosmic production about Martin Luther King. It was interactive too, in places. When Samuel L Jackson, who plays the reverend, addressed the audience with ‘Can I get an amen?’, we answered back, like an obedient congregation in one of those Harlem churches that tourists like to visit. In fact, here in Brooklyn, it seems there is a church like that on every second block. On Sundays, your spirits can be lifted just from strolling around and listening to the good god-fearing folk belting out gospel songs.
This week I am exploring surrounding neighbourhoods, not by choice. Because we only sublet our apartment for a month, and asked for an extension too late — yes, we are kicking ourselves over this — we are looking for another apartment. Our search took us to Greenpoint today. The Polish are the dominant ethnic group in this area. It’s only a few stops away on the subway but the colours of Brooklyn change dramatically again.