Honk! Vrooom! New York Is a Drivers’ Paradise

ratner observatory Honk! Vrooom! New York Is a Drivers’ ParadiseThe cars came by twos and twos, ones and threes, swimming into the parking lot of the Red Hook Fairway like salmon returning to their childhood stream.

It was shortly after four on a summer Wednesday—not even rush hour—but the six lanes of asphalt lot were already two-thirds full. They were jammed with cars of every shape and origin—with boxy Acuras and slope-backed Subarus, snub-nosed Jeeps and bug-shaped Jettas, braggy Mercedes, rah-rah Fords, and a strange BMW-minivan chimera the color of a fresh picket fence. In the distance, the Manhattan skyline reared up flat and two-dimensional, signifying City. But here, as car alarms twittered and shopping carts squeaked, as shoppers kowtowed to the shrine of their trunks, the vibe was pure car-country nirvana.

“I didn’t realize how much I missed the car until I had it here,” said Lauren Robinson, a 25-year-old dietician with pixie-cut brown hair, a fetching dimple, and a bearded beau who was dutifully loading groceries into her Honda CR-V. The Honda was a relic of her youth in upstate New York, but she had recently brought it to the city after moving from car-hostile Manhattan to auto-friendly Brooklyn. She didn’t really need the vehicle, and, theoretically, she could have grabbed a bus to Fairway. But, as she explained, “It’s just so easy to jump in and drive somewhere.”

“I don’t think you need a car,” she said, “but I think it’s definitely a plus. And it definitely makes me feel more”—she paused to search for the word—“well, not like such a city person.”

Vrrrrrroom!

Ms. Robinson is hardly alone in her secret suburban car lust these days. In fact, for all the talk of the evils of automobiles, she is in decidedly turbo-charged company. From Greenpoint to Red Hook, Inwood to Astoria—across all of the city’s young, lifestyle neighborhoods, really—New Yorkers of a certain breed and background have taken to toting their four-wheeled friends down to the city, dragging them through the streets like well-worn baby blankets. Lured by the musk of vinyl and gasoline, they have lined the lanes of Fairway with out-of-state license plates. They have given their cars names like Ruby, Monty and … Digger. (“I call it my baby,” said Digger’s driver, Michelle Barlak.) And though few would dare admit it, they have made sections of the city seem so, well, L.A.

“Oh, I hope New York’s not becoming L.A.-ified, because I moved to New York to get away from L.A.,” gasped Laura Allen, 24, a giggly SoCal native, right before she hopped into her boyfriend’s white Jeep Cherokee and turned its muscular tires onto the smoothness of Williamsburg’s North First Street.

New York, of course, has always been more of a car town than romantics like to admit. From the earliest days—or at least from as far back as anyone reading this paper can probably remember—Gothamites have used cars, improbably and impractically, as everything from performance pieces and getaway vehicles to status symbols, primal therapy props, bumper cars, mafia-mobiles, and avatars in the giant video game that is New York.

But there is something strange—or particularly strange—about the car culture that has taken root in certain swaths of the city in recent years, sprouting up alongside the former kids of suburbia as they have continued their march across Boerum Hill, the South Slope, Williamsburg, Astoria. As many of these drivers will admit, they wouldn’t keep a car if they lived in the parking-space tundra of Manhattan. But with their move to the boroughs—to the land of “far-flung” specialty stores, parking-space-lined streets, and the accelerated domesticity of brownstone life—they have realized that they can resurrect the customs of their pre-urban past.

Never mind the weird, globally warmed weather patterns or the congestion-clogged streets. And forget the fact that many of these drivers probably came here to escape the cul-de-sac culture of their youth. For reasons both deep and ineffable, these young transplants just can’t help bringing suburbia with them.