The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: Boerum Hill

william helmreichSociologist William B. Helmreich’s urban walking guide, The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide details the beauty, diversity and history that combine to make Brooklyn what is arguably New York’s hottest borough. By simply walking around, talking to residents, and absorbing the borough’s rich history, Helmreich captures the essence and unique facets of Brooklyn. The book is filled with detailed facts and vivid imagery that will inspire a deeper look at these popular (and lesser-known) neighborhoods. We’ve been featuring a selection of these on our blog, with several more to come in the next few weeks. Today we take a look at Boerum Hill.

Boerum Hill, a small neighborhood east of Cobble Hill, hit a decline marked by poverty that started in the 1960s and lasted well until the 1980s. Today, the neighborhood is thriving and is now considered to be an “upscale community,” not to mention, a literary inspiration:

From the 1960s to the early 1980s the area was in decline. An outstanding novel by Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude, tells the story of what it was like then and how it gradually gentrified.

Boerum Hill

Susan Gardner is an art professor and artist who turned the outside of her home into an art project

Like many of the neighborhoods that make up Brooklyn, Boerum Hill features a number of can’t-miss buildings. One is a home exquisitely decorated with mosaic tiles. The homeowner, Susan Gardner, a college professor of art, explained that she was inspired to decorate her home after 9/11, as a way to combat depression.

The home is undoubtedly striking: the entire first floor is covered with a dazzling, riotous mosaic of bright colors—red, blue, yellow, purple, black, pink, orange, and green. The interior is encrusted with tiles, beads, shells, buttons, and mirrors, mostly small, of all shapes and sizes. They cover the walls, iron bars, gate, ground, and even a pipe coming out of the ground. The tiles are all arranged in an incredibly complex series of designs featuring people and angels, some of them silhouetted in windows; animals, street scenes, flowers, tree, butterflies, the sun, and all manner of shapes, some of which cannot be readily identified.

During his walk around Boerum Hill, Helmreich came across another memorable building, this time the Brooklyn Detention Complex, which features a striking mural.

On the back of the building, on State Street, there are some beautiful murals along its white brick wall, supported by a not-for-profit group, Groundswell, which partnered with the prison to create this mural. One mural features the Brooklyn Bridge and a Manhattan skyline with some young people and an elderly man standing in front of it, all with a look of sadness or worry on their faces. This was done by teenagers possibly thinking about the prison, whose barbed-wire topping hangs over these depictions at several points. The exhortations urge passerby to exhibit ‘Responsibility,’ ‘Respect,’ to show ‘Love.’

Boerum Hill is home to a diverse group of nationalities and cultures. If you fancy a delicious French pastry or cuisine, take heart:

There’s a French presence in Boerum Hill, with several French-inspired food shops and restaurants, including a great bakery, Bien Cuit, on Smith Street, between Pacific and Dean Streets. Each year, on July 14, there’s a Bastille Day celebration on Smith, which includes a pétanque tournament. This game is similar to the Italian and British games, respectively, of bocce and bowls, all of which derive from sports popular in ancient Roman times. 

William B. Helmreich is an award-winning author who has written many books including The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City (Princeton), where he wrote an analysis of all five of New York City’s boroughs. The book won him the inaugural 2014–15 Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is the professor of sociology at City  College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows is the first of five planned walking guides, one for each borough of New York City.