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Bushwick vs. Washington Heights: Why this twentysomething would rather stay uptown

By Dennis Golin  | September 1, 2016 - 3:44PM
In 1776, the Continental Army in Brooklyn was under mortal threat by those diabolical English Redcoats. Sensing an imminent defeat, their commander General George Washington mustered a fleet of ships and, in a single strategic masterstroke, decamped (okay, retreated...) across the East River toward Upper Manhattan's Fort Washington. Today, the site of his fort on 184th Street is commemorated with a playground, a flag and, just in the hopes of luring stray ghosts, a cannon.   
Perhaps it is the hilly, defensible nature of Washington Heights that makes it such a daunting destination for my post-college friends who prefer the borough of Kings instead of taking their chances in Manhattan. They seem more comfortable with the flat, bikeable meadows of Wyckoff Avenue, or maybe they find the 30-minute A train ride from 14th Street too lengthy, considering it must be augmented by another 30-minute ride on the L train in more judgmental, wet-dog-smelling circumstances. ​
Either way, it seems many Brooklynites have serious reservations about venturing uptown, thus missing out on the eclectic, dynamic scene developing in Washington Heights. So, jaded twentysomethings, I present to you my appeal: Take a chance uptown and, sooner than you think, you'll be able to say "I moved there before it was cool." 

Handsome townhouses on Sylvan Terrace in Washington Heights (Flickr/Phil).

I've been here since the day I was born, living with my Mom for my first twenty-ish years and roommates for the past three. The glowing, larger-than-life George Washington Bridge bookends my days as both my watchful night light and gently humming alarm clock. If the Instagram shots that friends take on my roof are any indication, riverfront views are something that need to be held onto. In fact, I'd say a very good case can be made for Washington Heights as having the most picturesque views in the whole city with downtown, the Palisades, and Inwood Hill Park all within sight.
Ecologically and ethnically, this is an incredibly diverse neighborhood, where a simple pharmacy sign is written in English, Russian, and Spanish. The old generation of German Jews sit at park benches next to domino-playing Dominicans, as teenage skaters and young couples pass them by. An average stroll could land you in the middle of an idyllic scene so vibrant and multigenerational, you'd think everyone was hired by Central Casting. With a place this good, who'd want to miss out on it? I asked my Bushwick-dwelling friend, who told me, frankly and without hesitation: "The music is down here, the food is down here, we're all down here—you should come to us." 
Sorry, buddy, that's a non-starter for me. I fully understand that if I go out on a Saturday night wanting to see a show for under $10 or have a cheap-n-dirty backyard barbeque, I'm probably going to Brooklyn. That's because it's a night spot, a weird place where you get blitzed listening to a harsh noise band in someone's ramshackle basement, and then go the hell home. I'd take the A Train any day over having "Larry and The Creepazoids" practice next door to my plywood loft every weeknight. Sometimes it's nice to have actual adults with actual apartments as neighbors—they give you perspective, wisdom, and occasionally, Werther's Originals.   

Sunset from a Washington Heights rooftop (Photo credit: Dennis Golin).

The little red lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge (Flickr/Shinya Suzuki).

Sure, due to its cultural ubiquity (off the top of my head I can count at least six shows on TV right now that take place there), the Brooklyn Brand has never been more powerful and attractive. Throughout the world, the word 'Brooklyn' is appropriated as a shorthand for "cool, youthful, alternative, etc." There are Brooklyn Cafes in Helsinki, Brooklyn Hide Bagels in Australia, and, strangely enough, the Brooklyn Pancake House in Tokyo. 
Like the pioneers of yore, (mostly young) people have been flocking to the borough in droves. Between 2010 and 2014, per the U.S. Census Bureau, Brooklyn experienced a 4.7 percent increase in population, compared to 1.9 percent for New York as a whole. Most don't come with dreams of establishing a homestead, raising bilingual kids and taking up beekeeping. They want to live in decent housing with a modicum of basic services in the surrounding area. (Don't we all?) Perhaps unbeknownst to them, all five boroughs offer that very same living arrangement, often with better living arrangements and local amenities. That's where the hype comes in.
Many post-college young adults with big dreams and skinny wallets seem to think Bushwick (and, yes, Williamsburg) is the only destination for them. The allure of having a little cafe on the corner by the Non-Imperialist Book Shop, across from a health food store/gallery strikes a chord with the community-minded kids who think of the borough as one big campus. It's like a Kibbutz where everyone is working towards that non-tangible, ever elusive "good" way of life—heavy on the ethics and light on GMOs. Of course the promise of cheap rent doesn't hurt. 
Yet as more outsiders pour in and the echo chamber grows louder, the very word 'Brooklyn' is fast becoming a used-up punchline, shorthand for an overly finicky, self-obsessed, needlessly Byzantine way of life that whole swaths of the country despise. Try watching that Kimmel "sequel" to Do The Right Thing and see if you can stop yourself from cringing—not just from irritation but also familiarity. The borough's history and culture has been so thoroughly scooped out by gentrification that even Joe Six-Pack in Ohio can throw on the TV and have a laugh about it. How can the generation so supposedly immune to traditional advertising so eagerly buy into the manicured "authenticity" afforded to you by a Brooklyn address?
Luxury developments are proliferating atop the ruins of the Brooklyn Counterculture, not developing it. The Albee Square Mall immortalized by Biz Markie was demolished to make way for... what, exactly? An Armani Exchange, a Gamestop, and a tower are still under construction. That's the perpetuation of a very troubling trend in real estate: the supremacy of high income residents. Those glass and steel Williamsburg waterfront monstrosities lure "independent-minded working professionals" with gyms, saunas, famous Dutch architects, and of course LEED certification (silver-ranked and above only, thank you!). Everything about them, down to the $6000 a month price tag, reeks of intensive boardroom development.  Another lifelong Washington Heights resident, upon seeing an upscale Williamsburg apartment, remarked "it's a residential cubicle. There's no authenticity to that identity, like a screen with nothing behind it." 

Medieval Festival in Fort Tryon Park (Flickr/Trish Mayo).

Fall in Fort Tryon Park (Flickr/Kristine Paulus).

A look at the raw data on shows the extent of misinformation. An average apartment with between one and three bedrooms runs you $2,658/month in Bushwick. In Washington Heights, try $2,467/month. In terms of crime, the Heights has the security advantage in robbery (243 compared to 280 for Bushwick in 2014), murder (134 to 166), and motor vehicle crime (79 to 93). The supposedly "youthful" Bushwick contains about 5,000 fewer 20-to-29-year-olds than the Heights—24,444 to 29,388. And Tinderers take note: Washington Heights is 25.4 percent single, a full 5.1 percent more than Bushwick.  
Far from a cultural backwater, the Heights boasts impressive cultural institutions like the Uptown Arts Walk, the UPCA's events like "Hip-Hop Nutcracker," and the always amazing Medieval Festival. New restaurants and bars proliferate along 181st street, Broadway, and Saint Nicholas. Our Olmsted Jr.-designed Fort Tryon Park contains the Cloisters Museum, an amazing collection of Medieval art housed in a mash-up Monastery shipped from Europe by a benevolent Rockefeller. Yet, the times are undeniably changing: the charming, ancient Coliseum Movie theater retained its independence for nearly 90 years before closing up in 2011. Though the ornate Beaux Arts building still commands the corner of 181st and Broadway, its fate remains in limbo. 
Buildings with inner courtyards, roofs, gardens, and plenty of green space are abundant. While it has its share of horror-story housing, I doubt anyone in the Heights would have the sheer chutzpah to rent out a room like this in Bushwick for $475:

(courtesy of The Worst Room)

Here's what I'm trying to say to the kids looking to plant their feet in this city despite everything they've got working to push them out: Know your options. Whether that means Washington Heights or Astoria or LES or the Bronx, it's up to you to find the right balance between a place to live and a place to play.
Despite the allure of being able to call oneself a "Brooklynite," the echo chamber is most deafening from inside. And for those who find their rents rising with fewer Brooklyn-based options to fall back on, perhaps you should take a cue from General Washington and head north.
**This post originally ran on December 30, 2015.**
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