Things I love about Brooklyn
Today’s post is the first in an occasional series I’m going to do about people & places that I love in New York. I’m going to start with Roots Cafe.
I’ve written before about this subject: New York is chock-full of freelancers, who drift from place to place bringing nothing but their shiny silver mac powerbooks with them. These mobile workers range from impecunious freelance journalists to a man I met at the weekend who designs video games. A host of cafes has arisen to serve this tribe, each with its own atmosphere and clientele: in posh Boerum Hill, my computer-game friend works alongside well-known writers and established journalists. In my part of town, grad students and younger writers ply their trade.
Which brings me to Roots, owned by an Alabaman named Jamey Hamm. It’s a delightful place. The cafe is located in a very slowly gentrifying part of Brooklyn’s 5th Avenue (at 18th Street), which is nice enough for there to be some cool bars nearby, but where you’ll still see old men spitting on the sidewalks. Last week a nail salon on this street, north of Roots and close to where I live, was totally trashed, the windows shattered and the interior looking like it was in the midst of renovations. Somehow people are finding the cafe, though, and it recently featured in the New York Times as one of the best places to get a coffee in Brooklyn.
Hamm wanted to create a community as well as a cafe. This could be just jargon, but if you go there as regularly as I do, you’ll see it’s not. Hamm himself works there almost everyday and is friendly and full of smiles and always ready to chat (perhaps it’s a southern thing). His niceness means it’s hard to be grumpy here — it puts everyone else on their best behaviour.
The cafe is tiny and narrow and somewhat dark. Tables and stools line the walls, with armchairs and a couch squishing up against bookshelves. One wall is festooned with guitars and rock posters; the other works as a rotating gallery for local artists. The music is a mix of pop and rock from recent decades — while I’ve been writing this Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in my pocket” has given way to the Beatles’ “Here comes the sun” — and plays at a crooning level.
Although it started up mid-recession last year Roots does a great business. In February when it snowed you’d have expected it to be deathly quiet. Instead it was packed, as locals sought refuge when the electricity/heating/coffee-makers in their own homes broke down.
A group of friends and freelance-colleagues has sprung up around the cafe, which has become a place of networking and serendipitous meetings. The man sitting beside me today, for instance — a writer, who is wearing a nice peaked cap — came to look at my apartment when I was thinking of subletting it last summer. I’ve bumped into friends here; and I’ve listened in as people exchanged contacts and got gigs.
Last night (ok, so I was here yesterday as well) two older men, one sporting a pony-tail, the other with fluffy white hair and spectacles, started twanging on a guitar and singing. I threw them dirty looks, but as more and more guitar-wielding guys came in the door I realized I was outnumbered. It was open-mic night. The barista picked up a guitar and started to sing; a newcomer joined him and began playing the cello. It felt a far cry from the alienation you’d associate with a big city and which, I imagine, is more a feature of Manhattan life.
It’s raining now, as it’s been doing non-stop for several days. Roots may not not quite be the place where everybody knows your name but most people there will at least know your face. On a wet, cold day it is cosy and warm, a sort of Cheers for the 21st century Brooklynite. Plus, I’m sure it’s cooler than that cheesy Boston pub ever was.