Just west of Fourth Avenue’s long-shuttered Brooklyn Tile Supply Corp., along the shores of the Gowanus Canal sits a neighborhood that seems to be waking from its grimy, industrial slumber. Flanked from the east by an expanding Park Slope and from the west by the Smith Street renaissance, signs of change have lately arrived to Gowanus in the form of summertime kayakers who are committed to the revitalization of its murky inland waterway. Discussion of transforming the rusty waterfront into something like San Antonio’s famed River Walk remains mostly talk for now, but new bars, restaurants and music venues are already attracting attention to Gowanus. In the process, this Third Avenue–anchored stretch of Brooklyn, formerly known best by truck drivers and drug dealers, is beginning to lose its designation as a bleak blip on the map.
A thriving community of artists first colonized Gowanus, converting fallow warehouses into spacious studios decades after Brooklyn’s maritime industry began to fade. But proximity to the hip, moneyed clientele of the surrounding areas (not to mention the promise of cheap rent) has lured a variety of new businesses to the area. “You get a good bang for your buck out here,” claims Erik Serras of Ideal Properties Group, who handles transactions for new commercial ventures on and around Third Avenue. Recent deals have included an impending Caribbean-themed nightclub, a second location for Manhattan’s high tech print house Digital Plus and even a proposed trapeze school. Others, like the DeGraw Street performance-and-arts space Littlefield, which opens this weekend, are helping to usher in an exciting wave of lively local divertissements.
Littlefield’s owners, Julie Kim and Scott Koshnoodi, were drawn to Gowanus’ surprising accessibility and abundance of big open spaces, and decided on an old 6,200-square-foot warehouse near the Union Street R train as the site for their dream project. The couple, who met while working together at an environmental engineering firm, spent five years saving startup capital and perfecting their business plan before signing a lease in early 2008. Their “organic meets industrial” vision for Littlefield was born of a marriage between that green background and the locale’s gritty edge.
The crux of the operation is, of course, how it will relate to the community around it. Utilizing Koshnoodi’s culinary prowess and bartender friends—he was a chef at Manhattan’s WD50—the duo is planning a menu of tasty nibbles and a full cocktail menu. And, with the versatility of a movable wall between the 200-person performance space and a cozier front lounge and bar, the layout can shift to accommodate varied programming.
“We’re looking at a 70-30 split between music and other media types, including art installations and movie screenings,” reveals Kim, who tapped veteran talent buyer Maria Porcaro to lead outreach efforts.
While creating a dynamic lineup of young talent is the ultimate goal, in the first few months “we’re hoping to book larger music acts than would normally accommodate Littlefield’s capacity,” offers Porcaro on her strategy for establishing Littlefield within the world of New York clubs. Eventually, the hope is that a relaxed vibe and distinctive entertainment will entice more than just the artsy Third Avenue crowd.
The venue’s visibly green ethic may provide another draw for conscientious boozers. In an attempt to reduce waste and lower building costs, “we tried to leave as much of the original structure as possible” explains Scott, “and use reconstituted materials where we could.” Evidence of these efforts abound: concrete floors, exposed steel beams and a plain wooden ceiling remain from the site’s past life, while recycled components comprise much of the rest of the space. Bathroom tiles are fashioned from cut-up car windshields and reprocessed rubber tires double as acoustic walling near the stage.There’s even a salvaged bowling lane, impeccably restored, for a bar top.That came from the now-defunct Elks Lodge in Elmhurst, Queens, as did their most exciting find, a vintage baby grand piano whose ivories were once tickled by the likes of Thelonius Monk during the Lodge’s heyday.
With the arrival of new establishments like Littlefield to Gowanus, the area’s residential face is beginning to change too. For decades, Gowanus Houses and Wyckoff Gardens, housing projects near the canal’s northern terminus, accounted for most of the local inhabitants. Recently though, a sizeable contingent of young—and thirsty—Midwesterners has descended upon the comparatively affordable apartments around those brick high rises.
Althea, a Chicagoan transplant who tends the taps at the divey, three-year-old Canal Bar on the corner of President Street and Third Avenue, just a few blocks from Littlefield, noticed the trend when she started showing Bears games on Sundays.
“I advertised the games on meetup.com and met a whole lot of new neighbors.” When asked if she had any reservations about living near the public housing units, she assures me, “It’s not scary, I promise.”
The area’s shifting gastronomy is further evidence of the changing tide that Littlefield is riding into town. In the mid-’90s, before Erik Serras was closing real estate deals in the neighborhood, he lived on the corner of Union Street and Third Avenue where he had but one local eating option, the familyowned Two Toms Restaurant.That enduring culinary staple provides a stark contrast to newcomer Bar Tano, an Italian bistro where Erik regularly lunches on
$9 plates of spaghetti con polpette.The eatery arrived last year
complete with an extensive whiskey collection, and sits right across
from his office in the shadow of the elevated F train. And with brand
new specialty beer house Draft Barn and a planned Whole Foods just a
few blocks away, Bar Tano proprietor Peter Scalfano couldn’t be
“The more places the more people. It’s great for
things to open, it can only help.” Fellow newcomer Jack McFadden, part
owner and talent booker at Bell House, the Gowanus outpost of rock club
Union Hall, shares that feeling. He likens this neighborhood on the
verge to the Lower East Side of the mid-’90s. Unfortunately, the
economic downturn seems to have slowed the pace of progress. “I’m
impatient. I’d love to have a tamale shop or a book store around here;
anything to increase foot traffic.” But even as he waits he remains
optimistic, and continues to enjoy the freedom that his industrial
Seventh Street setting provides. “This block will never go
residential,” he boasts.
With Brooklynites finally emerging
from their cold weather cocoons, if Littlefield can find its own niche
and capitalize on the neighborhood’s momentum, the future is bright for
a district once defined by manufacturing and shipping alone. “You have
to care about the community to be successful,” concludes Kim, whose
excitement at being a part of the transformation is palpable. After
miraculous summer sightings of jellyfish and horseshoe crabs in the
once-toxic canal, this enclave’s gray veneer may indeed be lifting.
622 DeGraw St. (betw. 3rd & 4th Aves.), Brooklyn, no phone, www.littlefieldnyc.com