The Williamsburg Loop

The last millennial I interviewed wrote an essay in the Fall of 2013 as she was beginning her training for the NYC marathon. She describes the culture and structures along her favorite running route, the Williamsburg Loop. I love it and wanted to share. She agreed. Here it is.

I’m training for the 2014 New York City Marathon. Well, in truth, I’m training for the official marathon training which begins in June. After a glimpse at a sample week of official training, I realized I should probably start running more than once a week. I’ve decided to do a slow ramp-up so I’m aiming to run 4 miles twice a week through March. So far, the winter weather gods have favored me and I have managed to run at least once per week outside.

Throughout my life, I’ve run in many different cities due to my parents’ penchant for moving and my own nomadic ways. I’ve run along the bay in Texas, the rivers in both D.C. and Boston and among pine trees in Georgia. Although all of those landscapes were undoubtedly beautiful in their own ways, my favorite run will always be what I call the “Williamsburg Loop.”

The Williamsburg Loop, the ugly sister of all of the beautiful landscape routes, has incredible personality. The Loop starts in front of our apartment building on Ainslie St. in Williamsburg Brooklyn. We live in the Italian area of Williamsburg, made-up of beautiful tree-lined streets of multicolored row houses. While the main area of Williamsburg is being swallowed up by modern structures, our area remains charmingly quaint. The local area Mafiosos stand in their well kept front yards with their large dogs and conduct business with the several Escalades that stop by throughout the day. Old Italian ladies set up shop on stoops in colorful folding chairs to discuss the latest gossip. Holiday decorations are always delightfully tacky and in abundance. This part of the Loop usually entails a few hellos to neighbors that I now know by name.

As I cross Grand St., I enter into the Latino south-side of Williamsburg. You can tell you are in a new area by the change in buildings. There are whole block, concrete apartment complexes as well as projects. The few row houses in the area look exactly the same, with imposing, head-high black fences around overflowing front yards. Depending on the time of day, I either run past grumpy mothers taking kids to school or get cat-called by construction workers. This part of the Loop is short and I soon come upon Broadway Ave.

Broadway runs east to west right under the raised subway tracks of the J,M,Z train lines. The area is a bustle of commercial activity, with a McDonald’s on one corner and a Bank of America on the other. It is also the collision of the Latino community with the Hassidic Jewish community whose enclave starts at Broadway and continues south. In the mornings, I am forced to weave around the various commuters on their way to the subway. Later in the day, the heavy pedestrian traffic dwindles only slightly as the local shops on the street conduct business.

As Broadway begins to near the Hudson River and the elevated train tracks leave its path to follow the Williamsburg Bridge, the avenue changes character. It seems nearly empty after the hustle and bustle of a few blocks before. Peter Luger, the famous steak house, comes up on my left while the right side is taken up by new, hipster restaurants, bars and shops. Within about 3 blocks, you can buy modern furniture pieces made out of wood from old churches, eat Korean-American Fusion short ribs and wash it all down with expertly made Prohibition era cocktails by a guy with a man bun. The difference in wealth from one end of the avenue to the other is staggering considering the small distance. As I make a mental list of all of the bars and restaurants in that area I want to try, the wind pick-ups and the feeling of being entombed among buildings diminishes.

The East River is dead front, the view obstructed only by a few low rise factories. At this point, I have no option but to turn left or right onto Kent Ave, which runs north to south parallel to the East River. I take a right, toward the Williamsburg Bridge. This is my favorite stretch of the Loop because I can run nearly 1.5 miles completely uninterrupted by stop-lights or heavy pedestrian traffic. Before and a little after the bridge, the buildings are all low-rise factory buildings housing everything from a welding company to a gymnastics/dance studio.

Up ahead on the left, the massive Domino Sugar Refinery looms in a severe but eerily beautiful manner. Built in 1882, it stopped production in 2004 but I love that you can still smell sugar in the air in its vicinity. Sadly, the refinery will shortly meet its doom as it will be knocked down to create a monstrosity of modernity, the subject of much wrath in the neighborhood. Past the refinery, Kent Ave turns into a strange few blocks of high-rise luxury condos and the various commercial shops, restaurants and bars that have popped up in their wake. While the high-rises are also controversial in the neighborhood, a lovely consequence of the development is a beautiful stretch of minimalistic park land right on the water. Right after the last high-rise, one of these parks stretches all the way from Kent Ave to the water and I get one of the most beautiful views of the Manhattan skyline, with that regal old lady the Empire State Building on one end and the new commanding Freedom Tower on the other.

I enjoy this view for another 6 blocks as Kent turns into Franklin Avenue and I enter Greenpoint. Once again, I’m running on quaint streets of different color row houses but in this area, Polish immigrants dominate. Strangely similar to my Italian neighborhood in appearance, the character of the people provides the main difference. The Polish are more reserved and have an air of industriousness among them. I have yet to run through this area and fail to see at least one person in their front yard working carpentry, painting a fence or doing some other laborious chore. Even the artists and hipsters infiltrating the northern area of Brooklyn feel different in Greenpoint. The shops, studios, restaurants and bars feel more cutting-edge and unique. I imagine Greenpoint is a glimpse of what Williamsburg was like 15 years ago before the developers took over.

After 6 blocks in Greenpoint, I take a right onto Lorimer Street which will take me all the way back to Ainslie St. It begins in Greenpoint and goes all the way to McCarren Park. McCarren Park is made up of two different park areas. One area is green space and softball fields. The other is dominated by a running track surrounding a soccer pitch. The track is one of my favorite places in the neighborhood because it is the ultimate clash of all of the ethnic enclaves in the surrounding area and the infiltrating hipsters. On a given day, you can see two Hassidic Jewish women in their uniform outfits walking and talking around the track, a completely tattooed Latino man doing pull-ups on the fitness equipment, a hipster girl running in un-matching brightly colored American Apparel gear with bright orange leg-warmers and a full-blown Polish men’s league soccer game complete with professional jerseys. In the summer time, the park is packed to the gills and shows that no matter what our background is, all of us New Yorkers crave green, open space. The greenery and energy of the people in McCarren always provides a nice pick-me-up as I am approaching the point of tiredness on my run.

From the Park, it is about 7 blocks back to Ainslie St. and I find myself once again in my Italian neighborhood and pretty soon on my stoop. As I head up into my apartment to stretch out my tired muscles, I always feel emotionally reinvigorated and happy that I live in such a unique and vibrant neighborhood. Although one day I will have to force myself to do other, more challenging runs, I will always delight in the Williamsburg Loop, especially since I know her personality will continue to change and evolve throughout the years.


The featured image is “Wash Day – A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn” by William Merritt Chase painted in 1886. Works by Chase (1849-1916) are in the public domain

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