Living the high life — and reliving the past — on Brooklyn’s revitalized East River waterfront
From the two-tone wicker armchairs on the patio at Cecconi’s, the glamorous new DUMBO restaurant from the owners of the Soho House, the East River glistens beneath the setting sun. The Manhattan skyline on the far shore is an EKG of the city’s heartbeat, irregular and pounding. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, the span of the Brooklyn Bridge — up close and from this steep angle — takes your breath away. There’s a reason this vista has inspired poets including Hart Crane and local boy Walt Whitman, who famously celebrated the “river and sunset and scallop-edg’d waves.” These days the river is tranquil but for the Jet Skis whining in puny chorus and the occasional laden barge heading into the harbor.
On the marble-top table a pair of complimentary grissini arrive in a tall glass like edible antennas attuned to the zeitgeist. They are brought by a handsome Italian waiter, the kind, one imagines, who roams the world to evangelize the inarguable suavity of the Italian lifestyle. I’ve seen his type before at another Cecconi’s. There are already seven other branches, in similarly photogenic settings — Berlin and Barcelona, Miami and London and Istanbul — peddling a similar deracinated Italianate sophistication. They are the mess halls for jet-setters, many of whom belong to the Soho House, a members-only club with locations around the world. Later this year, the newest, the DUMBO House, will occupy the upper floors of this building. Each location is populated by the sort of well-moisturized limber volk who exude success and leisure. They are creatives who call themselves creatives and have wrung from the field monetary recompense in ways that remain mysterious to me. Their ease in this world is as reflexive as their sunglasses are reflective.
The world reflected is a refraction of capital and culture’s interaction. DUMBO is being remade, brick for glass and hell for leather. Boutique hotels, condo towers, domes of pleasure rise with astonishing speed. The clip is astounding, as even Jay-Z concedes. Now the question is, who’s the new DUMBO for? Clearly it’s made for the eyes of those dining on the edge of this show-pony park. Meanwhile, the Watchtower’s gone dark and the Witnesses are out and Jared Kushner’s moved in and few are left who know how it had been. The artists, who once displaced needle trade workers and mannequin makers, are themselves displaced by manic bankers and Wall Street traders. Now mothers push expensive strollers, sporting rocks the size of molars, to indoor playgrounds and outdoor structures. Every store sells third-wave coffee, not to mention those that sell chocolate and toffee. The final piece in DUMBO’s transformation was the Empire Stores, one of the last brick warehouses left on the shores. Long vacant and eye-sore, now it’s been redone and reborn, tony and sceney, to give succor to those who enjoy negroni and grissini.
I’m here, on the other hand, with Julie Golia, the public historian for the Brooklyn Historical Society, who is both professionally and personally more circumspect. As part of the redevelopment of the Empire Stores, the Brooklyn Historical Society has been afforded a stunning new 3,200-square-foot home just above the restaurant. The building also houses a West Elm store, the West Elm corporate headquarters, a FEED coffee shop, a grab-and-go outpost of Vinegar Hill House, and a strange showroom of vintage luxury cars whose purpose is hard to divine. Were they to buy, to rent, or just to admire as the latest example of function turned to form?
Besotted by a deep-orange 1970 Porsche 911T Targa, I didn’t notice Golia had paused beside a wooden column. “Look,” she said, pointing at faint scoring on the beam, “in the nineteenth century, this is how workers would keep track of how many bags they had stacked in the warehouse.” Back then, she explained, the Empire Stores was a general storage warehouse. Stores, then, meant a place to store goods, not sell them. It was full of a type of burlap from Calcutta called jute, animal hides from Argentinian campos, sacks of coffee from South America, linseed oil, and grain, all of it borne on barges and ships that docked at private piers now turned into playgrounds and carousels. Later, most of the space belonged to the Arbuckle Coffee Company — “the Starbucks of the nineteenth century,” as per Golia — which had also taken over large swaths of the waterfront.
Working conditions, Golia says, were harsh. “One in ten adult men died in industrial sites in the late nineteenth century,” she noted. “It’s hard for us to even wrap our brains around that.” For context, look around your office. Count to ten. Poor Brad from IT. Kid never had a chance. For much of the past year, Golia has been using census records, newspaper reports, and classified ads to track down the fate of one of them, a man named Michael Harkins, whose death notice she found in the Brooklyn Eagle. She can recite it from memory: “He was hit by a bag of seed and it fractured his skull. He was carried to his home at 195 Plymouth Street and he died there with his family.” After Harkins’s death, Golia says, his wife, Mary, supported the family as best she could. His daughter was pregnant and married by thirteen and worked as a housekeeper. “The story becomes about matriarchal strength and perseverance. This becomes like a women-run family.”
That kind of hardship is absent in today’s DUMBO, a metonymic acronym synonymous with urban cool and therefore the filament to which the tourists flock, lens to face and pack to fanny. “Ah, Brooklyn!” they say in polyglot accent — more likely Western European than Midwestern — as a cool breeze blows down Front Street, past the succulent-studded lobby of the new ultra-luxe One Hotel and through the branches of West Elm to carry them along, gently in reverie.
Neither I nor Golia nor any non-stinker holds the tourists or the new DUMBO-ites to blame. Kelly Anderson, the activist and filmmaker whose My Brooklyn chronicled the DUMBOfication of Downtown Brooklyn, tells me, “It’s not people. It’s the city’s policy around land use.” She points to changes in zoning codes that drove manufacturing out, replacing it with retail. “But come on,” she says with exasperation. “West Elm — are you fucking kidding me? No one comes to New York for West Elm.”
But on a recent night, West Elm is doing a brisk trade in tassled pillows while next door, at Cecconi’s, a pizza — one of four offered, this one topped with porchetta and olives — arrives. “It’s just like you’d find in Italy,” says the waiter, “and I’m Italian, so I’d know!” The line is pat but true and the pizza is legit, worthy of the DUMBO D.O.C., which includes the O.G., Grimaldi’s. (The chef, Trieste-born Riccardo Bilotta, comes from the luxe world of A Voce and the Lamb’s Club.) In cut crystal, eight varieties of negroni are available and an Italo-centric wine list is well chosen and, surprisingly, well priced. An appetizer of burrata atop a bed of small summer tomatoes quivers like an odalisque atop an Ikea ball pit and is just as yielding. Later in the evening, as the golden light grows in intensity, and Jane’s Carousel spins, dover sole glides by, trailing a plume of lemon and caper. Nothing pushes boundaries here. Not the prime rib with mashed potatoes and truffle jus, not the chicken paillard, not the spaghetti with lobster and saffron. Yet all that was meant to flake, flakes. That which is supposed to hold together, holds together. Cecconi’s is nothing if not professionally pleasurable and damn near perfect at what it does. In the golden-molasses days of summer, there is no better place to be in all of New York.
The question is how much we owe the ghosts of the past, men like Michael Harkins and women like Mary Harkins? If Whitman thought of us back in 1856, writing, “you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose,” does that mean consideration through time is commutative? What, if anything, connects him and the Harkinses to us? We occupy the same space, certainly, but at times so far removed they seem but faint scores kept too long ago in games that are over now. Is it wrong to watch the sunset with the ice clinking in a tumbler, washed over by a sense of benessere among beautiful people in the selfsame spot where thousands of workers suffered and the gears of capitalism wore men into skeleton dust? Certainly not. For if the voices of the past were heard at full volume, pleasure would not be possible amid the dreadful cacophony. Still, before we settle in with our cocktails we might do well to climb a few flights of stairs to visit the historical society, to pause and wonder who those people were who carved numbers into the columns and to realize that we too will one day be part of a past. As Whitman thought of us, let us too think of Whitman. And though the image of Instagram influencers snapping Aperol spritzes never entered Michael Harkins’s mind, that doesn’t mean he must be absent from ours. His body is gone but the voice can live on.
In this way, Cecconi’s does, in fact, have the perfect view in Brooklyn. One sees land and one sees water and beyond it land again. As landlubbers, we think of Manhattan as an island and Brooklyn as an island too. We build towers and lives and walk dogs and zone schools and use Tinder and order Seamless with the confidence of the solid ground below us and borders all around us. But from the river’s point of view, there are no islands at all. There is just flow.