Even though East New York has a rough, violent past (gangster John Gotti grew up here), the community offers a wellspring of support, especially for its younger residents.
The neighborhood lies south of the Cypress Hills Cemetery and north of Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, with residents who deeply care about helping the youth by providing learning and job opportunities at local cafes, farms and art galleries. East New York offers an interesting perspective of a community working hard to change its culture from the inside out.
So if you find yourself in the southern Brooklyn neighborhood, make sure to stop by the following places to get the most out of it.
Word Up Cafe
Word Up Cafe has an unassuming storefront, but inside the cheerful eatery boasts a healthy menu popular among locals and an entire space dedicated to weekly open mic nights and group meetings. Everyone is welcome and people are encouraged to participate in its community-centered events, which also include paint and sip nights, gospel brunches and more. Customers are invited to stay -- books line its shelves (from young adult novels to civil rights histories) and board games are readily available. The cafe actually partners with community organizations to provide summer internships for local youth who learn customer service skills firsthand. (652 Pennsylvania Ave., New Lots, Brooklyn, facebook.com/Word-Up-Cafe)
The black bean burger at Word Up Cafe.
Buy local produce
East New York has more community gardens than any other neighborhood in the city.
Since 1998, East New York Farms has been a community-led source of fresh and organic produce for the community. Operating three urban farms, the organization employs locals, from the elderly to school-aged kids, who learn about sustainable food production, community service and clean eating.
The farms grow just about anything you could imagine: sunflowers, lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage, scallions, onions, squash, mint, potatoes, corn, beets, string beans, okra and Caribbean specialty crops like karela, bora and callaloo. Each Wednesday, there's an open farmers market from 1:30 to 6 p.m. at the farm on New Lots Avenue, between Alabama and Georgia avenues. If you stop by, you'll be welcomed with open arms and take home some of the freshest produce you'll find in NYC.
"As years have gone by, the community is finding it necessary to have this farm," said Ben Brown, a local who farms there. "Produce isn't like it used to be -- the garden is saving that part."
Take in the greenery
The closer you get to the Jamaica Bay, the more green East New York becomes. Many housing developments have been built further south, which boast green fields and small gardens, including Scarecrow Park off Vandalia Avenue. Not only are there nice big benches to rest on, but there's a water feature that dances up from the cement that you (and kids) can cool off in. There's also a huge, green field you can sunbathe on. Nearby is the Gateway Center, a large shopping district with shops like Best Buy, J.C. Penney, DSW and more. There are a number of chain restaurants you could eat at too, including Smash Burger, Olive Garden and Applebee's.
Get a glimpse of Hendrix Creek
There's a nature preserve by the Gateway Center. Walk across Gateway Drive, and you'll come up on the Fresh Creek Nature Preserve. Although it is a bit unkempt, there is a trail that leads up to the water and a deck that you can stand on to see out across the creek and to the beginnings of Jamaica Bay. It's a nice opportunity to get a glimpse of the water and take a breath before heading back into the urban landscape.
Go shopping at Aquaduck Flea Market
The thrill of the hunt can be found at the Aquaduck Flea Market at 700 Fountain Ave. You'll find electronics, vintage and new clothing, home goods, grocery items, bath and body products, accessories and a slew of food vendors offering tastes from around the world, including Thai, Haitian, Mexican and other cuisine.
Unlike a lot of markets across Brooklyn that cater to more well-off customers, Aquaduck offers an old-school flea that has something for every price point, according to its owner, Dominic Ammerman.
"It's got an eclectic mix of new and vintage merchandise and it's a great place to find deals," he said. "You could potentially walk out with $100 of stuff worth $10,000."
Many of the vendors at the market do home clean-outs, purchase overstock and turn around and sell it for an affordable price, he said.
"In a world where people are hurting economically, it's hard to find vendors who sell you something for the fraction of its price," he said.
The market is open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Learn what the community is doing to improve the neighborhood
ARTs East New York, which has gallery space at 534 Livonia Ave., works to beautify the area, mentor kids and encourage the arts by providing a space to hold cultural events and use art as a vehicle for change.
The organization holds a free performing arts festival in July and August at the farmers market, community gardening volunteer days, outdoor mural painting and regularly holds open gallery hours.
Check out its website to see what events are going on so you can stop by and get some East New York culture in your life.