Editor’s note: Like so many artists before him, musician and TLD contributor JP Bowersock made the decision some time ago to leave the Lower East Side. He still spends a lot of time in the neighborhood, but these days Sunset Park is home. We asked JP to give us his take on “Life After the LES.”
When we moved to the Lower East Side in 2005, I found the mix of restaurants, businesses, housing and people from all walks of life exciting. It was still “affordable” by Manhattan standards. Shoe repair shops stood a stone’s throw from stores selling $300+ jeans. It was a neighborhood in transition, which comes with growing pains, but that’s always exciting.
As a musician with wildly variable income, it was a good place to be. On a day-to-day basis I could exercise my frugal nature shopping in Chinatown or at the Essex Street Market. When the time came to go out for a splurge, I could visit any of the very good restaurants on Clinton or Orchard streets. And I could still walk to many of my gigs, just like when I lived in the East Village.
But it was obvious to me that I was falling behind the zeitgeist over the seven years we lived on the Lower East Side. More upscale restaurants were opening up than I could afford to try. Once a neighborhood becomes a fine dining destination it’s no longer really suitable for a musician. (That’s part of what drove us out of the East Village in 2005). The idea of cutting loose from Manhattan began to seem like a wise move to us. We were empty nesters, and Cynthia wanted to spend more time on her photography and sourdough bread baking, less writing computer code. It was the perfect time in our lives to downsize, or I guess the new word is “right size.” Whatever, it was time for that.
We began a two-year process of looking at Brooklyn. A younger me had lived there a couple of times, but neighborhoods had changed quite a bit in 20 years. The “trick” was to find an area not already on the radar as the next “it neighborhood.” Bushwick, where our sons lived, was out in that regard. I wanted to live in a neighborhood where the opening of the first wine bar was still years in the future.
Sunset Park was at the top of my list. It was not “hot” as far as real estate was concerned, but there was a fast growing Chinatown. That was important to me, as I’d become pretty dependent on living next to Manhattan’s Chinatown for both grocery shopping and casual dining. The fact that this Chinatown happens to be three blocks from a strip of Mexican shops and restaurants didn’t hurt, either.
That was not quite enough to sell Cynthia, however. After nearly three decades of identifying as a Manhattanite she was not going to leave the LES just to be near another Chinatown. So we kept looking around, and kept coming back to Sunset Park. The park itself is beautiful, with a panoramic view of Manhattan Harbor and Ellis Island that was even more dramatic than the East River view from our apartment in the Seward Park Co-op. While Sunset Park is almost six miles from the LES on the map, two express subway trains made it feel a lot closer.
What finally sold my wife on the new neighborhood was the Finnish co-ops, some of the first cooperative housing built in the United States. Not a bad enticement, since her father was a first generation Finnish-American. These prewar buildings, often laid out in courtyard configurations, were not only located on some of the nicest blocks in Sunset Park, but the prices were impossibly low compared to many other neighborhoods. We began watching and waiting. And waiting.
It took a year for the right apartment to hit the market. When it did, in 2012, we jumped, placing a bid and putting our Seward Park place up for sale. Friends balked. Why would we sell our apartment before the market had recovered from the 2008 downturn? The answer was simple: the place we were buying was even more devalued by that downturn. Such a move was not going to increase our net worth, but is was going to knock our overhead way down, allowing us to return to a more bohemian lifestyle, which is exactly what it did.
In the summer, I wake up to Chinese flute music wafting into my apartment from the park across the street, while fan dancers practice. Last Father’s Day a ten piece Mexican brass band was playing a party there. One of my neighbors had a mariachi band in her backyard one Saturday evening. But at night it’s completely quiet. Nightlife has yet to arrive here. There isn’t even any fine dining, although there are two good bistros. My neighbors include an opera singer, a violist, a folksinger and another musician/producer. Our building has solar panels on the roof. And some of the best tacos in town are just a few blocks away.
What do we miss about the LES? Living in the Grand St co-ops meant that we had many neighbors and friends within a few blocks of us. Dinner parties, meeting up for drinks or just chatting on the sidewalk happened spontaneously. Cynthia and I used to joke that our social life often seemed to take up as much of our time as our professional lives. And so many people concentrated in one place makes it really easy to find good things. No one on the Lower East Side is more than a few blocks away from a perfectly pulled shot of espresso, a good glass of wine, great doughnuts, bialys and pickles sold from barrels.
Brooklyn has more than its share of great things, but it’s more spread out. Instead of operating over a five to ten block radius I now cover thirty without much of a second thought. Having a car (and easy street parking) helps, of course. We went for years without a car on the LES, because we didn’t need one. It’s really useful in South Brooklyn. Then, of course, there’s the feeling of being right in the thick of New York that only Manhattan provides — the sense that everything happening around you is important because it’s happening on the most important island in America.
Brooklyn may have gained quite a bit in terms of cachet over the last couple decades, and there’s plenty of cool stuff going on here. But my little corner of Brooklyn can feel a little remote sometimes, and sleepy in the evenings. Good thing the subway ride back to the LES takes a mere 15 minutes.