The Local: In Ridgewood, In Come the Hipsters and Out Go the 'Drunks and Crackheads'

ridgewood The Local: In Ridgewood, In Come the Hipsters and Out Go the 'Drunks and Crackheads'Ridgewood, Queens, lies to the east of the up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood du jour, Bushwick, and is perhaps best known for suffering an identity crisis in the late 1970’s. Until then Ridgewood shared a border and zip code with Bushwick–which was even called Ridgewood, Brooklyn, at one point, lumping the neighborhoods together both practically and in the popular imagination. Much like the realtors who tried to rebrand Bushwick as “East Williamsburg” in the ‘90’s, Ridgewood residents tried to distance themselves from Bushwick when its reputation took a nosedive after widespread looting and riots there during the 1977 blackout.

Since then the debate about which borough Ridgewood belongs to has become almost irrelevant—though it resurfaced briefly when tenants of an illegal loft near the western boundary between Queens and Brooklyn were given a vacate order last month. As real estate prices push people further away from Manhattan, what’s most important for new arrivals is that Ridgewood is on the L line. Structurally, much of Ridgewood looks nearly the same today as it did 50 years ago—The New York Times said it is “zoned for the dead” in a 2006 article—but while it has firmly rooted itself in the borough of Queens over the past two decades, its composition has been shifting.

Maria Zakovic, the owner of Zakovic Realty on Fresh Pond Avenue, immigrated to Ridgewood from Czechoslovakia 39 years ago and has watched it change from a predominantly German and Italian neighborhood to an Eastern European enclave. In the 1990’s, immigrants from former Soviet Bloc countries like Romania and Yugoslavia filtered into the neighborhood, and lately Poles, often from Greenpoint, have flooded into Ridgeway, she said.

“Greenpoint is too expensive so they are all coming here. I know because every time I put a listing in a Polish paper it goes like that, ” she said in a thick Eastern European accent, snapping her fingers. “You look outside, every store on Fresh Pond Avenue is Polish–jeweler Polish, appliance store Polish, because it is still affordable. Here you can find a two-bedroom for $1,100; in Greenpoint you’re lucky to find one for $1,600.”

While prices are rising in Ridgewood, Ms. Zakovic says, the property market is not influenced by Manhattan as much as neighborhoods in closer proximity to the city, like Astoria and Williamsburg.

Not much in the Polish section of Ridgewood bears the influence of its cosmopolitan neighbor over the river. Fresh Pond Avenue, the commercial artery of Polish Ridgewood, harkens back to the days when people went to the butcher for meat, the green grocer for vegetables, and the bakery for bread. Neat rows of nearly identical townhouses line the immaculate residential streets jutting off the avenue.

As you get closer to Myrtle Avenue, Ridgewood slowly begins its transformation from a 1950′s suburban throwback to a busier, slightly grittier (but no less anachronistic) commercial drag. The open butcher shops proudly displaying carcasses in storefronts are replaced by clothing, fast food, and drug-store chains, and Mexican and Columbian restaurants. Even on Myrtle Avenue, the stores are reminiscent of another era. Marshall’s is the most recognizable clothing store and nearby is a KB Toys store. Spanish-language radio stations blare and Spanish starts to replace the Polish and Russian chatter heard on Fresh Pond Avenue as you near the newly renovated Myrtle Avenue terminal—eight stops from Bedford Avenue on the L line. A gleaming new high-rise building towers incongruously above its surroundings with sold signs taped in the windows of a few vacant apartments. Only a faraway church steeple rivals its height.

As Ridgewood’s residential profile rises, the property markets have been heating up, says the managing partner of the Queens headquarters of Massey Knakal Realty, Tom Donovan. Though he was aware of two condo projects in the pipeline, due to “light zoning and small plots” there is not a lot of room for 40- to 50-unit developments in Ridgewood. Sales of two- and three-family homes have and continue to be the engine of the area’s residential market. Three-family homes are selling in the $800,000 to $900,000 range, he estimated, and the few condos on the market go for $450 to $500 per square foot. Meanwhile, rental rates have increased 30 to 40 percent over the past few years.

“Over the last two or three years there has been some kind of construction going on almost every block; we’re getting new stores and clothing shops [on side streets off Myrtle Avenue], and new people are moving in,” Mr. Donavan said. “There are two types. We have people coming over from Greenpoint and Williamsburg because prices are too high. Then there’s a new, younger generation of people who are moving to the city straight from school and, instead of paying $2,500 per month for a place in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, they’re taking one or two more subway stops and paying $1,500 per month.”

To cater to the projected demand, many disused industrial buildings on the border of Bushwick are starting to be converted for legal residential usage.

Robert Rodriguez, a 10-year Ridgewood resident by way of Bushwick, says hipsters have begun to penetrate the southern reaches of Ridgewood from neighboring DeKalb and Jefferson avenues in Bushwick “little by little." With their arrival, the neighborhood has improved.

“They’re definitely coming in and cleaning things up around here… They’ve even made it to Wyckoff. There are fewer drunks and crackheads, the shopping is even better,” said Mr. Rodriguez, who works in construction by day and dances with the Chin Pao Ninja Dance Troupe—soon to appear on America’s Next Top Model–in his spare time. “I don’t want to say it’s because of the hipsters and yuppies are coming, because it’s not like they are pushing people out; but when they arrive things do tend to get better.”

The young transplants from Williamsburg and Greenpoint are mainly clustered near the Bushwick/Ridgewood border, an area populated by vacant industrial warehouses-cum-artists quarters, that is, by all appearances, as unhip as it is desolate. For evidence of what the neighborhood used to be like, says Mr. Rodriguez, “all you need to do is look at all the security cameras” on the facades of the de-facto lofts. Jefferson Avenue used to be serious stomping ground for prostitutes, he offers.

Nonetheless signs that neighborhood might be the next “East, East Bushwick” are few and far between. Some alternative clubs and venues like Silent Barn and the fringe music guru/promoter, Todd D, have lately taken to organizing concerts in Bushwick and Ridgewood. Still, the neighborhood has yet to cross into the territory of its hipper, less quaint neighbors.