Jazz is floating through my window and it’s coming from the taqueria across the street. At Mesa Azeteca, there’s live jazz on Thursdays and mariachis on Fridays. Welcome to Bushwick, 2013.
The restaurant sits on Wyckoff Avenue near Hart Street, which has become a clear dividing line between two different worlds. To the west, dilapidated factories and warehouses have been converted into loft spaces inhabited by tattooed young professionals and creative types. To the east, dollar stores and Mexican bodegas abound. You hear Spanish in Puerto Rican to Dominican accents. Cars drive by blaring salsa, samba and reggaeton.
After just five months of living on this borderline, I feel right at home. I was born in Mexico to a Mexican father and lived there until the age of 12. But I’m also half Australian: I lived in Melbourne until I was 24 and went to a private Anglican school. Much like Mesa Azteca, I’m caught between two worlds: Hispanic and hipster.
When I walk into one of the bodegas east of Hart Street, I feel slightly unwelcome, as if the clerk is thinking, “Here comes another white yuppie.” With my white skin and freckles I come across as a skinny Caucasian. Then I speak in Spanish. At first there’s confusion, and so the reply is in English. But once it becomes clear that I’m fluent, and that I grasp the nuances of Mexican slang, there’s often much greater warmth. Once, I got a dollar discount off my sandwich.
Jose Hernandez, the owner of Mesa Azteca, moved to Brooklyn from Puebla, Mexico in 1987. Back then, he says, Bushwick was known as “Vietnam” because of the deadly levels of crime.
Since then, the police presence has increased, according to Raoul Garcia, who works at Grill Deli on Wyckoff. “This door is open 24/7 and we have no security,” he notes. In the year that he has worked at the deli, he says, “everything has gotten better. Business is better, the street is better.”
Of course, this steady gentrification has occurred as young artists and early career professionals seek to escape ever-rising Williamsburg rents and migrate east. My friend Ben Klein studied film archiving in Amsterdam before he moved to Bushwick. Like many others, he “wanted to live off the L but Williamsburg [was] too expensive.”
To find his apartment, Ben turned to Nooklyn. The real estate agency’s founder, Harley Courts, says that people are attracted to Bushwick because of (you guessed it) lower rent. “You can come start a business with a very low budget, you can do [creative] projects and do things that you can’t normally do or fund in other areas,” he told me.
Indeed, in the last year or so, Heavy Woods, Mazelle, and Cobra Club have opened up on Wyckoff Avenue. Pickthorn, a “custom hair shaping studio” where “each person is seen as a unique canvas,” opened this year. Another new business, Bat Haus, offers workspace for freelance writers, designers and computer programmers in a large, open studio. Even Nooklyn, with its hip young employees and converted-loft office, is representative of the change in the area.
Meanwhile, east of Hart Street, the restaurants have names like Taqueria el Paisan and El Sol de Quinto – and they don’t offer WiFi or cappuccinos. Places like Big Poppa’s Barber offer buzz cuts for $15. Street vendors sell fruits, vegetables and flowers on the corners.
The contrast inevitably brings some tension to the neighborhood. And it hasn’t always been subtle. When my neighbor, Mabel Rodriguez, moved here seven years ago, a Bushwick resident approached her at a local restaurant.
She tells the story: “He came and started screaming about, ‘You people come in here and raise our rent and you make it hard for us to stay here and live here – you people are horrible!’”
Rodriguez, who is African-American and describes herself as a “blue collar worker,” has become somewhat sympathetic: “the one thing I will say that I do not appreciate is: the more yuppies, the higher the prices.”
Though I’ve experienced this tension to a degree, I enjoy living on the border because I can engage with both sides of my cultural self: I can go down the street and enjoy a cappuccino, or I can walk up the street and get some amazing chilaquiles and feel right at home.
But even the Hart Street barrier is eroding.
Courts admits that when Nooklyn first opened, “it was always ‘I will not go past Montrose.’” Now, he says, “a lot of people come in and say ‘I will not go past Myrtle-Wyckoff.’” The trend carries over to commercial properties, too: “People are showing interest in being the frontiers of those areas,” Courts says.
One such establishment is Fritzl’s Lunchbox, a new restaurant on Irving and Stockholm, two blocks past Hart Street. Dan Ross-Leutwyler – formerly of Roberta’s, Fatty Cue and the Breslin – says he opened Fritzl’s on a block that was “further out than most other restaurants in Bushwick” because he liked the idea of “being a little bit out ahead of the wave.”
He says he was “very conscious of prices” when creating his menu, as he wanted to “capture the nurses and doctors from the hospital, the artists and casually employed who work from their homes, the old guard who may be resistant to the changes in the neighborhood.”
As places like Frtizl’s open farther east, the Hart Street barrier is bound to dissolve. For now, Mesa Azteca acts like a cultural bridge.
Hernandez admits that it’s primarily for the neighborhood’s relative newcomers that he started doing jazz on Thursdays. He says it’s now one of his busiest nights.