by John Delach
The Ridgewood of my youth was a humble, blue collar, working-class neighborhood located on the Brooklyn / Queens border. Originally settled by German immigrants just prior to the start of World War I, their influence remained into mid-Century albeit tempered by later arriving Italian-Americans. Corner saloons, pork stores, bakeries, social clubs, knitting mills and mom and pop shops gave Ridgewood its character. A sleepy community isolated from the frenzy of “the City,” most neighborhood activities revolved around churches, schools and these local stores. Weekday mornings I ran my daily errand before school, first to Edelman’s candy store for the Daily News and Daily Mirror then to Bauer’s Bakery for fresh rolls and crumb buns.
Meat at dinner came from the Emil, the butcher or from the pork store. Vegetables came from Carmine, the green grocer. We had Penesi, the shoemaker and his cousin, Penesi, the barber. Myer’s Delicatessen, Koch’s Drug Store and Schneider’s Funeral Home were all less than a block away on Onderdonk Avenue.
But, as the 1950s progressed, Ridgewood’s future grew dim as people of Color from the South and the Puerto Ricans came to dominate nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick making it seem that it was only a matter of time before “white flight” would add Ridgewood to the list of old neighborhoods left behind by the exodus of people escaping to those new tracts rising in the endless dust from former potato fields in Nassau and Suffolk. Those of us who stayed watched our friends, neighbors and family leave adding sadness to this time of discontent.
Despite this despair and the fires and violence of the 1960s and 70s that consumed swathes of Bed-Sty and Bushwick, Ridgewood hung on remaining true to its blue collar. As the old Germans and Italians died off, their kin stood fast and the neighborhood assimilated a broad spectrum of new residents, a multi-cultural collage of New Yorkers seeking affordable housing. All the while, Ridgewood remained below the radar as Williamsburg, then Bushwick, gentrified.
It seemed the neighborhood was immune to gentrification being too far from Manhattan putting it beyond the range where urban pioneers felt comfortable. But a subway runs through it from Manhattan, the old 14th Street-Canarsie Line. A long, local, multi-stop, dingy train line, that meanders through Brooklyn backwaters without joy. But, now re-named, the L Line, it was recently voted the cleanest subway in New York. According to its critics, the reinvigorated L has progressed“…from zero to hero.” Ridership has soared as a new army of hipsters wearing their defacto uniforms of “knit caps, skinny jeans and sporting intrepid takes on mustaches”, toddlers in tow with names like August and Apollo are pushing further and further east along the line out of Williamsburg across Bushwick to the very edge of Ridgewood.
Now, according to a report the New York Times, it would appear that unassuming Ridgewood may one day evolve into a trendy “left bank” center where truly starving artists gather to exhibit their creations.
True, at this stage, Ridgewood remains the lesser to the now hip and trendier Bushwick where the Times noted: The new gallerists, most with more hope than cash, are transforming a former gritty manufacturing and warehouse neighborhood into an art scene.
But the grabber in a recent article by Jed Lipinski entitled, Next Stop, Bushwick, published in the Style Section read:
And though technically in Ridgewood, Queens, a more upscale neighborhood to the east, new spaces like Valentine are considered part of the Bushwick gallery boom. Fred Valentine, 60, a painter who was priced out of Williamsburg 14 years ago, founded his gallery last summer by cutting his studio in half and installing some track lighting and a bar.
An accompanying map put Fred’s studio on the corner of Seneca Avenue and Harmon Street in the heart of the old neighborhood, one block from where I grew up. How thrilling! I think Fred’s studio is in an old knitting mill and I hope he included the bar as a tribute to the time when it seemed that almost every corner in Ridgewood offered a saloon to ease the thirst of the local population.
So good luck Fred and your fellow pioneering artists; may culture reign supreme. But then again, if they succeed; I fear, there goes the neighborhood.