JUST BENEATH the 1880s-era gothic granite towers and steel cables of the Brooklyn Bridge there is a series of benches perfect for idling. It was here, during my four-year stint in New York City, that I would sit and stare west toward the Manhattan skyline, mesmerized by the Empire State Building, the shiny chrome of the Chrysler Building and the angular mass of skyscrapers that comprise the Financial District at the southern tip of the island. So iconic is this particular view of the city that even those who have never been to New York imbue it with a certain romance; from a distance, it shimmers with the promise of fill-in-the-blank (love, money, sex, success). Manhattan, for most people, is New York.
And yet, for many New Yorkers, Manhattan has lost its edge, or more precisely, its authenticity and grit. Once alive with chaotic energy, and defined by neighborhoods such as the East Village, Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem, the city’s most famous borough has been co-opted by chain stores in the past dozen years and scrubbed just a little too clean. Sure, Manhattan will always have Times Square, the biggest museums and ferry service to the Statue of Liberty, but the Big Apple’s increasingly megamall feel inspired the city’s weekly magazine, Time Out New York, to ask on its September 20 cover, “Has Manhattan Lost Its Soul?”
That’s a question that countless restaurateurs, musicians, boutique owners and young professionals already know the answer to, because, well, they live in Brooklyn. New York’s most populous borough, on the other side of the East River, has become a tourist destination in its own right. Brooklyn is the New York that remains home to 93 ethnicities, 150 nationalities, and, most important, dozens of neighborhoods where working-class people, artists and new immigrants can still afford to live. Here you’ll find tree-and-brownstone-lined streets, waterfront industrial zones and enclaves of new arrivals—places where an old-world cosmopolitanism and a modern frenetic buzz converge. It’s the same kind of atmospheric mix that once gave Manhattan its heady allure.
The next time you book a flight to New York in search of a big-city fix, buy an unlimited Metrocard and spend a leisurely day strolling the streets of one of these Brooklyn neighborhoods—a vibrant part of the city that few visitors bother to see.