Lately I’ve really been liking my neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens. It has more than a little to do, I’m sure, with the fact that I now own a home here and thus am more invested in it. Still, I’ve taken to really appreciating it lately, taking aimless walks through unfamiliar parts, snapping photos, thinking about what I’d like to see happen here and what I wouldn’t like to see happen here.
But as much as I love it here, Forest Hills is not hip. It’s not Chelsea or the Lower East Side. It’s not Williamsburg, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, the hot parts of Brooklyn. Its location in terminally uncool Queens isn’t even an excuse anymore–Astoria and even grungy Long Island City have long passed it on the hipness meter, and as they become more prohibitively expensive and hipsters are forced farther away from Manhattan, Sunnyside, Woodside and Jackson Heights have blown by the Hills, too.
But why? Why is Forest Hills, lovely and livable as it is, still an address that will elicit a “Where?” at best or a snicker at worst when you mention it to someone with a couple of tattoos? Admittedly, in the two-and-a-half years I’ve lived here, this enclave of elderly Jews and taciturn former Soviet nationals has become significantly younger–largely, I think, due to the morbid fact that old people, well, die–and a bit more fashionable, but it’s still not really on the radar of the kind of people who read Radar. I’ve done some thinking about this, and I’ve come up with some theories:
It’s too far from the city.
After all, everybody wants to be in Manhattan, but now that the entire island has become a playground for the rich and very rich, it’s the neighborhoods just outside that become gentrified first. Formerly industrial and dangerous Williamsburg, after all, is just one stop away from the chic East Village (itself a neighborhood that was once plenty undesirable) on the L train, aka the Williamsburg Party Shuttle. Hoboken, New Jersey, is five minutes from the Village on the PATH train. And Long Island City, one stop away from Midtown on a huge array of trains: the 7, F, E, V, R, N, W and–when it runs, which isn’t too often–G, has for years been the perfect candidate to get classed up. Forest Hills sure looks far away when you see it on the subway map. But thanks to the E and F express trains, it’s not really so far at all–20 fast minutes to Midtown. You can’t do better than that in an emerging neighborhood like Prospect Heights, and you’ll do far worse in Bay Ridge, which has been getting some attention lately. And there’s walking to consider. I live two short blocks from the subway, but many people will pay significantly more than me to live a long haul from the train in Boerum Hill, where they won’t get to Manhattan any faster than I will. And they’ll be walking while I’ll be sitting. Well, sometimes.
It’s too expensive.
Hipsters want to live cheaply, the theory goes, so they move to unhip neighborhoods where they can score a big spread for peanuts. They attract hip shops and restaurants, and moneyed hipsters follow, driving up prices. Forest Hills has always been a good neighborhood, so the first wave of impoverished hipsters never showed up. But the problem with this theory is that the process moves so fast today, many emerging neighborhoods are still plenty unhip by the time they catch up to the Hills in price. Take the outer reaches of Williamsburg, which still have nothing to offer and are nowhere near public transportation but are way more expensive than Forest Hills. And neighboring Rego Park and Kew Gardens are even cheaper, yet they haven’t experienced any of this process.
There isn’t good space for artists.
A lot of neighborhoods gentrify because artists need cheap, large spaces to work in. Forest Hills doesn’t have this space. But despite the Williamsburg success story and the beginnings of a similar phenomenon in LIC, not all hip neighborhoods get hip this way.
It doesn’t have hip retail.
Forest Hills lacks trendy bars and clubs, my cutting-edge wife is unimpressed by the selection in most of the independently owned clothing stores, and “live music” is so unheard of here that you’d be shocked to learn that this neighborhood once hosted a famous Bob Dylan concert and produced Simon, Garfunkel and the Ramones–and come on, who’s hipper than the Ramones? But the way it generally works is that the hipsters come first, then the retail comes in to cater to them. That’s what we call capitalism. Still, Forest Hills already does have some businesses that, while not exactly ready to be frequented by Moby, you’d think would be appealing to hipsters just as a start. There’s a great natural-foods supermarket, a big Barnes & Noble–though Barnes & Noble is not in itself hip, all hip neighborhoods must have one–and about 50 decent Thai restaurants. Hipsters love Thai restaurants. All this is probably better than Williamsburg was doing in 1992.
But what really gave me some insight was a little walk I took today. It’s January 6, but it feels more like June 6. Melissa was indisposed all day, so I decided to take the opportunity to do a little gallivanting. First I took the subway down to Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, a neighborhood in the late stages of hipification. It’s not Williamsburg in terms of coolness, but it’s pretty cool. I had a lovely time. Then I hopped back on the subway to check out a neighborhood everybody’s talking about: Red Hook.
Let’s talk about Red Hook, shall we? Not located on any subway line, Red Hook is an industrial corner of Brooklyn boxed in by an expressway and once notable primarily for its huge housing project. Lately everybody’s been moving to Red Hook. Far cheaper than the adjacent neighborhoods of South Brooklyn such as Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill, skinny white kids are headed over in droves to take over a largely minority neighborhood and, one can assume, force out its current denizens. I did some research on Red Hook before heading over and learned that its main drag is called Van Brunt Street. I mapped it and looked into how to get there. Everything I read suggested taking the F train to Smith-9th Streets in Carroll Gardens and catching the bus over. But the map didn’t make it look like it was so far from the subway, so I decided to walk.
When I got off the subway, the first elevated stop on the line and the highest elevated stop I’ve ever seen, including in Chicago, the neighborhood already looked a little questionable. There was a bus ready to pull away for Red Hook, but I decided to walk anyway. Big mistake. The walk was, well, kind of terrifying. I was accosted two minutes in by a guy named Marty who said he was from Staten Island, only had $5 on him and needed another five to catch some kind of a taxi home. I pulled out my wallet and told him I could give him a dollar, as I handed him the bill. “Yeah, but do you have $5? I really need $5,” he said. I told him that was all I could spare and walked away.
Though nobody else tried to talk to me, it was only downhill from there. As I walked, the neighborhood got worse, particularly after I crossed under the highway overpass and headed into Red Hook proper. It was desolate and felt like there was tension in the air. When there was human life present, it was a bunch of guys working on cars up on blocks. At one point, I passed a bodega actually called “Project Food Store.” Even if the projects are right there, who names a store after them? I noticed a family walking together in the same direction I was–a man, a woman and their young child–and sped up so I’d be close to them. I hoped they were following my exact route, but they eventually turned off and I found myself alone again. The streets got emptier and emptier and creepier and creepier, but on the plus side, the fabled Van Brunt Street got closer and closer. I started to think of it as an oasis, as the promised land, and of myself as on not an aimless jaunt on an unseasonably warm day but on a journey. Finally, on a street as scary as any, I saw somebody jogging toward me in a T-shirt and shorts, headphones dangling from his ears, and knew I was nearing the promised land. Nobody dangerous jogs. (This is also true of people walking dogs.) I got to Van Brunt half a block later.
Van Brunt didn’t feel nearly as dangerous. Yet it didn’t feel completely safe, either. I felt about 90-percent safe. The really strange thing was this: On a 72-degree day in January, on the hottest street in the hottest neighborhood in Brooklyn, there was hardly anybody there. Boerum Hill had been packed–even the side streets had a healthy amount of pedestrian traffic–but on Van Brunt, I’d only pass somebody every block or so. I’d say about three out of every four people were old-school locals, and the fourth was an obvious hipster. As for the street itself? From a sociological standpoint, fascinating. As a destination, nothing to write home about. There were lots of little convenience stores and places selling things like vacuum parts, interspersed with a hip shop, restaurant or bar every two blocks or so. What felt really strange was that on this gritty, unspectacular street in what still felt like a “bad neighborhood,” there was tons of construction going on and empty storefronts had signs in the window informing passersby they were for rent by Corcoran. If you want to see what a neighborhood in the early stages of gentrification looks like, head straight to Van Brunt Street. But take the bus.
But the most interesting part of my visit to Red Hook was that it really drove home what I was already settling on as the answer for why Forest Hills never got hip:
It isn’t grungy enough.
Hipsters of all economic strata like to feel like they’re “slumming it.” When I was looking for a good outer-borough neighborhood to relocate to with Melissa, I misinterpreted this truth. I looked at neighborhoods that were once undesirable and were now the talk of the town, and I figured the common thread was that hipsters liked the idea of living in uncool neighborhoods because doing so made them so much cooler. As tough as it might be for a recent New York transplant to believe, there was a time not so long ago when nothing sounded less cool than “the Lower East Side,” “Williamsburg,” “Astoria,” “Long Island City.” I like to call this the Knitting Phenomenon. Ten years ago, the least hip thing in the world was knitting. So of course, a few intrepid hipsters had to start doing it, because they don’t care what you think! They’ll engage the same hobby as their grandmother and they’ll like it! Today, of course, knitting is so hip that it’s probably becoming unhip again. I figured, hey, Forest Hills is unhip. What better neighborhood to sprout some T-shirt boutiques and poetry-slam coffee shops?
But nobody is ever going to move to Forest Hills and feel like they’re slumming it. It includes Forest Hills Gardens, one of the richest neighborhoods in all of New York City, where small townhouses routinely go for $2.5 million. It’s home to a snooty, exclusive tennis center that hosted the U.S. Open for years. It’s continually ranked one of the safest neighborhoods in the five boroughs, safer than any neighborhood in Manhattan. Worse yet, it feels safe. Somehow, you can be on a deserted back street and feel like you could wave around a couple fifties. Even if you move to fashionable Williamsburg and pay twice what I do for significantly less space, you’re going to score way better street cred. Beggars! Graffiti! A whiff of hard drugs! And if you can do this in a neighborhood where celebrities live, just imagine how awesome you’ll be when you live in Red Hook. Or Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood so cool that no less of a dork than Billy Joel once suggested in a song that he was afraid to enter it.
Melissa and I would love to live in an ultra-hip neighborhood. But sadly, we’re lousy gentrifiers. We’re scared of our own shadows and would not like to become the victims of street crime anytime in the near future. And we don’t have enough money to move to a neighborhood–Boerum Hill, say–that’s still cool but no longer feels dangerous.
But I like it in Forest Hills. I like it a lot. And many a sour 75-year-old biddy agrees with me.