Billyburg Blues: Graham Avenue Greets Tragic Hip

Like many Manhattanites who have fled downtown for Brooklyn, I was desperately seeking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, to carve out a living space far from the madding crowd. What I found in the cluster of modest streets radiating from the Metropolitan Avenue–Graham Avenue intersection was better than I’d dreamed: an old-fashioned Italian enclave close enough to the Bedford Avenue “scene” without the stylishly rumpled bedheads in horn-rimmed glasses and Harris tweed. Had I died and gone to a heaven filled with cannoli, cigar-puffing men guarding neighborhood card dens and pizza-tossing heartthrobs hotter than John Travolta sans pompadour?

I’d stumbled onto the real Brooklyn as I’d imagined it: Sinatra tunes blasting outside the Caffe Capri, year-round festoons celebrating every saint’s day, a local fish market whose owner’s brother is the butcher across the street. My landlord (who also lives across the street) proudly decorates his front lawn with a statue of the Virgin Mary; his father shows up in our garden at 7 o’clock in the morning to tend the basil and tomatoes. Could life get any better for $750 a month?

Of course, my starry eyes didn’t keep their twinkle for long. Real-estate secrets are rarely kept in New York, and reality wormed its way into my dolce vita before the first impatiens sprouted in my flowerbox: Others my age soon discovered Graham Avenue’s Old World charms. I started bumping into just about everyone I’d sought to avoid on the other side of the East River. At first, I was mildly bemused by the occasional colleague sightings at El Loco Burrito. I knew I was in trouble when I took a sleepy Sunday-morning walk with my boyfriend and ran into an aspiring editor-cum-socialite from my office, sitting a few paces from my stoop. It was a beautiful day in my neighborhood; why couldn’t she be someone else’s neighbor on Avenue B?

Overnight, it seemed, my Moonstruck-inspired Brooklyn fairy tale had morphed into Sartre’s No Exit.

Perhaps I should have anticipated this when I started seeing supermodelesque sprites holding copies of Derrida and discussing the merits of Fellini with Ewan McGregor look-alikes on the subway. I might at least have read the writing between the lines of the grand-opening banners for yoga studios and chichi wine shops on Via Vespucci (Graham’s local alias): My cozy little corner of the world has turned out to be a baby cousin of the meatpacking district, growing up way too fast. While the bright young things of Manhattan aren’t taking over Canarsie just yet, prices in Bushwick are on the rise; not even weekend construction on the L can stop trend-setting twenty- and thirtysomethings in Chelsea, Soho and the Lower East Side from packing up their designer cowboy boots and moving farther east.

The changes I’ve witnessed in the last year alone have been surprisingly dramatic and often deeply dispiriting, though they do have their convenient perks. Vegan restaurants are popping up next to hoppin’ O.T.B. sites, and even my beloved dry cleaner has moved to a spiffier location next to the Middle Eastern café down on Conselyea (I’m predicting a hookah bar by the summer). I can’t even flip through a magazine these days without critics picking faves in my ’hood: the Alligator Lounge, Sweet Ups, even Enid’s, where locals stop in on the way home from work for a quick beer and handfuls of peanuts. Is nothing sacred? Residents of the furthest corners of Williamsburg should heed this warning and hold onto their seats: My generation of Brooklyn hipsters will leave no bar stool unturned.

Friends in Carroll Gardens and Park Slope have shared similar complaints. We expect museum guards to shepherd us around like cattle at the Diane Arbus opening, but would hope for a bit more privacy when a little bird recommends a new spot around the corner. Recently, while penning this very Diary, I decided to take in a quick bite at Dumont, only to be greeted by a host who informed me that the wait would be at least half an hour. The gimlet-serving bar was so packed, I was asked to kindly stand outside in the cold with the smokers, though I was eventually rewarded with a cardamom-encrusted tuna and sea scallops in a blood-orange reduction.

Why can’t I have my coconut flan and eat it, too? I’m almost ashamed to admit that I occasionally stop in at the newly renovated Satchmo’s, where Betty Page wannabes in sheepskin chow down on acai fresh from the Brazilian rainforest and doodle on paper placemats as they wait for their soy lattes. I find it endearing when an older Italian woman at Settepani gives me the evil eye for ordering my cappuccino with skim milk, but I also enjoy the option of choosing from six kinds of tofu at the all-night bodega. I’m thrilled not to have to take the L into Manhattan for yoga on Saturdays—Greenhouse Holistic hosts Jivamukti-style classes—but would rather not dine next to my teacher at the crowded La Locanda that night. What’s a native Jersey girl to do?

My concern about crossing paths with Manhattan-bred acquaintances has developed into full-fledged paranoia. I scan the subway station for literati I don’t want to see and am forced to look presentable 24/7 in case I run into any old flames at the Laundromat. No wonder I worried for weeks that the space for rent on the corner of Leonard and Jackson would become a Eurasian fusion tapas-sake bar. I was delighted, however, by the arrival of the Beehive Spa—a retro salon decorated with pink walls and 1940’s pin-ups—and recently stopped in for a quick manicure; the pretty aesthetician (with a tattoo of a girl—a geisha, perhaps—peeking out from above her collar) proceeded to tell me how much she adored the Italian ladies who came by on weekdays and rattled off stories about the old neighborhood: Denise from across the street, Sal and his seven grandkids down the block. The Beehive’s clientele is primarily local, but she expects that to change in the spring, after a full-page ad in Elle hits the stands.

My raven-haired spa technician might as well have thrown an olive pit in my Shirley Temple. Falling in love with old-time neighborhoods on the cusp of cultural explosion can be a heartbreaker (I’m all for the avant-garde, but not when everyone else is doing it). I’ll take Our Lady of the Snow’s zeppoli over Beard Papa’s cream puffs any day, but hope I have that option by Memorial Day and can still land an appointment at Beehive. Otherwise, I’ll have to start scouting out Greenpoint, where the pirogies at Christina’s rival my grandmother’s—if the waitresses haven’t traded their T-shirts in for kimonos by then.