"Quooklyn" and the story that started with Houdini's Pizza
A few months ago, a curious new neighborhood appeared in the pages of The New York Times food section and was swiftly spat on by Brokelyn, Gothamist, Brooklyn Magazine, and others. "Quooklyn": that little known borderland on the Queens-Brooklyn boundary that is supposedly the hotbed of New York's next hipster takeover and is technically actually just called Ridgewood, Queens.
From the New York Times:
The trajectory is familiar, and the players have slid into familiar position: broke millennials, underemployed artists, craven property speculators, fearful natives and first-time homeowners priced out of other markets.
Cafes with vegan muffins, yoga studios and destination pizzerias have (naturally) sprouted. Bars with names like Milo’s Yard and Bierleichen are slated to open. Guitar cases, tote bags and shearling coats are increasingly frequent accessories on pedestrians.
Ridgewood is in the chrysalis stage of an outer-borough transformation that shrieks “Brooklyn.” Except it’s not in that overhyped borough.
With a setup like that, we couldn't help but check it out and share what we found. Below you'll find an anatomy of a neighborhood in transition, with its "hipster capital of the future" potential evaluated against a few criteria assembled from many a weekend wandering this city's neighborhoods.
And lets be clear folks, yours truly isn't waiting for this neighborhood (or any of the other charming places we write about) to gentrify and price out the people living here. This guide is an observation of what happens and how it happens, in an effort to identify perhaps how we could write a different story for Ridgewood that isn't the homogeneous "cafes with vegan muffins" future that the NYT projects.
1. Stellar coffee, preferably roasting one of the names: Stumptown, Tony's Estate, La Colombe
+ extra points if its a combination coffee shop / florist / motorcycle shop / book store
2. Vibrant streets with inviting storefronts
+ extra points for chalkboards outside with witty jokes
+ extra points for logos with great typography
+ extra points for vintage shops and stores that sell items of questionable necessity, e.g., vintage soldier's mess kit, $68
3. Restaurants and bars in reclaimed industrial spaces
+ extra points for a unique culinary and cultural heritage in the neighborhood and/or destination-worthy menu items
4. Wine bars, beer gardens, and upscale liqueur stores
+ extra points for breweries, distilleries, and any other craft production on site
5. Upstart art galleries and affordable studio spaces
+ extra points for open studio events
6. Uncomfortably rapid increases in residential real estate values
What's missing in this list? Let us know in the comments.
1. Stellar coffee: Barely there, but might be coming soon. Build it and they will come?
Topos Bookstore Cafe is really a charming place with a charming owner. And, it opened the day we walked in. Talk about witnessing the pace of change. This lovely place is so new that it doesn't yet have a beverage permit (or a working espresso machine) required to actually be a cafe. Topo's gets extra props for the combo cafe concept and having a beautiful space and well curated used book selection, but its unclear whether and when the coffee starts flowing, let alone if its a good strong cup of brew.
Norma's coffee seems like the neighborhood spot, crowded on a Sunday afternoon with families, young people at their laptops, and grandmothers having an afternoon tea. Homey, neighborhood vibe: yes. Stellar coffee? Unfortunately no, but it'll do if you need to re-hydrate with caffeine.
2. Vibrant streets and inviting storefronts: getting there, but lets call it pre-Astoria
There are a few really well-trafficked sidewalks in Ridgewood, namely Myrtle Ave. When we were there over Christmas, there were even dedicated Myrtle Ave speakers hanging from the stoplights playing non stop Christmas tunes. Not saying I want that in my neighborhood, but its at least a sign of a community trying to create some cheer. As for its hipster potential, Myrtle has everything you need but not much more; no hand crafted homewares or trendy vintage clothing stores. It does remind me a lot of Astoria though, a neighborhood that is arguably two or three giant steps beyond Ridgewood in its transition.
For the most part though, the streets in this neighborhood are pretty quiet, with some bordering on deserted.
3. Restaurants and bars in reclaimed industrial spaces: Check. Lets talk converted factories.
Houdini Kitchen Laboratory and its NYT restaurant review is in fact the source of the "Quooklyn" name. Just a few blocks from the famed magician's grave, this 1880s brewery turned factory turned pizzeria serves up a solid gourmet slice. Its not Roberta's but it is in the same category. We had a delicious pie with prosciutto and chili oil and another with brussels sprouts and goat cheese. Get yourself ready for the journey with the NYT's absurd lead in below:
To the trophy-hunting diner, the more difficult a restaurant is to find, the more alluring it is. Consider, then, the checklist for Houdini Kitchen Laboratory: No sign. Unmarked entrance at the back of a former brewery. (Better yet, through a fence to the back “yard,” a.k.a. loading dock.) On a bleak block of industrial buildings with graffiti palimpsests and rusted drips from what pass for windows.
Of course, there are now artist studios upstairs, and a free tattoo party may be in swing down the street. But to a first-time visitor, clutching a MetroCard, the scene is desolate. You are 10 stops out of Manhattan on the L line, in the borderland where Bushwick, Brooklyn, blurs into Ridgewood, Queens. (Welcome to Quooklyn.)
Rudy's Bakery and a handful of others represent what is fast becoming the former identity of Ridgewood as the epicenter of the city's German immigrant population. Your writer is German and did recognize some unique treats, but overall, some of the best and most authentic baked goods may long have left this neighborhood. Either way, making something unique of this cultural heritage is hopefully something that will be explored as the neighborhood continues to define its future.
4. Wine bars, beer gardens, and upscale liquer stores: a modest check, check, and check
Gottscheer Hall is the neighborhood's iconic German establishment, a beer hall complete with massive event space and a solid selection of German brews on tap. Having celebrated its 90th anniversary last October, this is one of the few long standing centers of old world Bavarian Ridgewood community. Don't be surprised if you see kids (and adults) in lederhosen here.
Julia's is an incoming wine bar (not even yet open at the time of our visit) with all the branding and interior design you'd expect in a neighborhood like Park Slope or Williamsburg. Owned by the same folks as Norma's, its an answer to the neighborhood's need for more gathering space and has promised to locally source all of its goods. I'd say on the scale of hipster qualifications, this ranks pretty high.
5. Upstart art galleries and affordable studio spaces: life after Bushwick
Outpost Artist Resources has their space here and offers resources for artists exploring video, experimental sound, and new media. Not sure how big it is, but I did see some studios and its a start. I could see artists moving here from the Bushwicks of the world as they get priced out and migrate further down the L line.
I hear there are also some DIY style music venues and the Knockdown Center, a 50K SF art center with an art gallery, events, and lectures.
6. Uncomfortably rapid increases in residential real estate values: I'd bet its coming.
According to the NYT, rents are about 20% cheaper per square foot in Ridgewood vs Bushwick, making this border neighborhood pretty attractive to the Brooklynites next door looking for something a little more affordable. That said, the real estate folks see the line blurring very quickly. Housing developments are already springing up along Wyckoff Avenue and permits were filed late last year (2014) to demolish commercial buildings near the train station on lots that allow for a 13 story 120 unit residential tower. Hello "Quooklyn" indeed. Lets just hope that name isn't the one that dominates the latest real estate broker vernacular.
So what's the verdict?
In sum, while Ridgewood does tick a lot of the boxes along our criteria for the hipsterification of a place, in most cases it has just one or two spots that fit the bill or, in the case of Topo's bookstore cafe and Julia's wine bar, they've just opened and haven't yet proven whether the neighborhood demand is there yet to support more of these kinds of businesses. Anecdotally, spots like Norma's seem pretty packed and the sidewalks sure are crowded on streets like Myrtle, so there does seem to be potential.
But, is this the next Bushwick? I'd say no. Ridgewood is ultimately in Queens, which isn't just a geographic designation but is also something you can see in a lot of the building styles and the way the neighborhood seems to be developing. If anything, it looks like the next Astoria to me, perhaps with a twist and a slightly more artistic vibe in the future. Right now though, its just a quiet, humble working class neighborhood with families going about their business and perhaps grabbing some "Spitzkuchen" from the local German bakery on their way home.