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By George! Washington Avenue is making a comeback

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Ken Crichlow remembers when the drug of choice on Washington Avenue was crack cocaine, not microbrews served in weird tall beakers with wooden stands.

Crichlow was marking changes in the neighborhood at craft-beer- (and dog-) friendly Washington Commons, one of at least four new saloons which will have opened on the eastern border of Prospect Heights by summer’s end.

Way Station, another bar expected in mid-August, will include a performance space; and the Flying Monkey expects to turn on its taps in July — both joining Tracy Westmoreland’s “The Manhattans,” which opened last week.

The new spots look to transform the budding strip between Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue, already lined with restaurants offering cuisine from Barbados to Bangkok, into a true nightlife destination.

No, Washington is no in imminent danger of becoming “the new Ludlow,” as the Brownstoner half-seriously dubbed the street. But it may in fact be turning into the new Vanderbilt, Prospect Heights’ more developed, “scenester” avenue to the west.

Despite always being the gateway to the Brooklyn Museum and Botanic Garden, Washington’s evolution from bleak to sleek began about five years ago, with the first wave of new restaurants like Café Shane, a diner-cum-lounge that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner; and the Islands, a Jamaican jerk chicken favorite. Before that, the area was a “dead zone,” according to Crichlow.

“It was a no man’s land,” said the Park Place resident. “They used to call it ‘Ghost Town.’ I remember staying in my grandmother’s house in the summer of 1981 and counting gunshots to go to sleep at night. They seemed to come from either avenue — bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. When I moved here in 1996, I’d see these German exchange students walking across Washington and think: ‘They better have Uzis.’”

Crichlow says that the street is still lively — but this time he means lively in a good way: “It’s amazing: We’re back from the dead.”

Multiple restaurants followed, including Gen, which boasts a legendary salmon citrus roll; Thai joint Udom; and Ginger Root, a Caribbean boite and caterer that offers fresh baked goods (including great carrot cake) from Guyana-born owner Lyra Petrie.

Another all-day, eclectic menu was added to the avenue in December when the upscale, but comfortable, Ortine opened.

The airy and spacious back courtyard of Washington Commons attracted Tosca Giamatti, a food consultant who lives on Washington and Gates in Clinton Hill, to head down south on the avenue on a recent spring day.

“There are no bars opening up [north] of Atlantic on Washington,” said Giamatti, explaining her presence, as she was waiting for friends to arrive for happy hour. “A great outdoor space — that’s definitely something that’s lacking in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.”

Reuben Kleiner, a cinematographer who lives on Park Place between Washington and Classon, said that when he first moved to Prospect Heights six months ago, the avenue was still dominated by “a lot of barbershops.”

“But now I feel I can stay on this side of Prospect Heights when I want to hang out locally,” he said, downing a drink at the Manhattans. “Normally, I would’ve walked over to Vanderbilt.”

Andy Heidel, who hopes to open Way Station by the summer, knows that sentiment, given that he currently works at Beast, a popular Vanderbilt Avenue eatery. Heidel said he wants his “booze and blues” venue to remind people of “Moe’s in Fort Greene and Barbes in Park Slope.” Expect blues, jazz, singer-songwriter bookings.

The Flying Monkey is art-friendly: Jesse Levitt, also the owner of Bushwick’s Kings County, said he’s currently looking for local artists, both in the neighborhood and elsewhere in Brooklyn, to create installations he can embed directly into the countertop of the bar, which should expose patrons (or at least their elbows) to his vision, as well as that of local denizens.

“It’s really just a friendly, comfortable bar for people who live nearby,” Levitt said.

None of the saloons have kitchens, so they complement, rather than compete with, the existing restaurants.

“They’ll be an asset for us,” says Priscilla Maddox, chair of the economic development committee of Community Board 8 and co-owner of Kitchen For Hire, a shared-use commercial galley that will reopen in June as a takeout barbecue and dessert joint.

“I’ve already sent my scouts out to see if they want to buy hors d’oeuvres from us,” Maddox said. “A couple of places have already said they’re interested. It’s wonderful!”

Marceline Watler, who was getting takeaway sushi at Gen, said she was overcome by the street’s changes. Watler, who has lived on the avenue for 45 years, said the “new” Washington reminded her of quaint “old London.”

While virtually no one is looking for the area to garner a Park Slope vibe — Washington has a ways to go before it becomes as stroll-worthy as stretches like Fifth and Seventh Avenues on the other side of Prospect Park — many seek a more pedestrian friendly street.

But for now, at least, there are multiple options for neighbors to get their drink on.

“Finally,” said Gen patron Catherine Weisnewski. “There’s something east of Vanderbilt.”

Cafe Shane [794 Washington Ave., between St. Johns and Sterling places, (718) 399-9001]; Flying Monkey [706 Washington Ave., between Prospect Place and St. Marks Avenue, not open yet]; Gen [659 Washington Ave., between St. Marks Avenue, (718) 398-3550]; Ginger Root [702 Washington Ave., St. Marks Avenue and Prospect Place, (718) 857-1274]; The Islands [803 Washington Ave. between Lincoln Place and Eastern Parkway, (718)-398-3575]; The Manhattans [769 Washington Ave., between Sterling and St Johns places, no phone]; Ortine [622 Washington Ave., between Pacific and Dean streets in Prospect Heights, (718) 622-0026]; Udom [661 Washington Ave., at St. Marks Avenue, (718) 622-8424]; Washington Commons [748 Washington Ave., at Park Place].

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Reader Feedback

Suzanne from Crown Heights says:
This article is extremely cool, glad to know my neighborhood a bit better!
April 24, 2009, 1:46 pm
Kens411 from Kensington says:
I miss the weed spots. The crack heads. Rotten food at the grocery store.

That's when a massive tin of Jerk Chicken was $5.00, you could still buy "quarter water", and lower income people weren't forced out of their apartments by hipsters.
April 28, 2009, 10:23 am

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