Brooklyn's Fort Greene is a culturally rich, walkable part of New York

I couldn't believe my luck. There he was, walking out of a bagel shop in Fort Greene. I knew the offices for his film company, 40 Acres And A Mule, were just around the corner in a former fire station, but honestly, you've got to believe me, I wasn't stalking him. 

What were the chances of actually seeing Spike Lee? 

I walked up and said hello, then blathered on about She's Gotta Have It being one of my favourite films. I knew it was filmed right here in Fort Greene in the summer of 1985. He looked at me a bit warily, patiently listened, said thanks, adjusted his baseball cap and walked on, no doubt wanting to get away from a scary white middle-aged fanboy. He probably just wanted to eat his bagel in peace. 

Still, that little encounter sums up Fort Greene, a unique Brooklyn neighbourhood where New Yorkers can rub shoulders easily. 

Yes, as Lee passionately pointed out in 2014, gentrification has changed the place he knew as a kid growing up in the '60s and '70s, at 165 Washington Square Park, in what was then a predominantly African-American neighbourhood. And today there is still most definitely a dividing line between the picture-postcard feel of the tree-lined streets and beautiful 19th-century brownstones south of the park, and the looming public housing projects over on the northern side. 

But for a visitor, Fort Greene is a bucolic place to explore and one of the most walkable neighbourhoods in New York. 

The park itself is the area's epicentre, designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, the duo responsible for Central Park. It slopes out on all sides from a hill capped with the The Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument, a granite column that is a 45-metre tall reminder of the 11,500 prisoners who died on British prison ships during the American Revolutionary War. 

On a recent Sunday the park had a positively Sesame Street-like atmosphere. The sun was out, fat white clouds hung in a blue sky and everything was glowing. A Prince song pumped from a bluetooth speaker, two girls played badminton, a father threw a Frisbee with his kids, bike riders and dog walkers made way for each other on the paths, lovers embraced and canoodled on picnic blankets, while black, Hispanic and white families all happily hung out next to each other on the grass.

Earlier in the day my first stop was breakfast nearby at Smooch, an inviting corner cafe run by an eccentric photographer from Sydney who used to be known as Brett Cochrane before reinventing himself as Basquali. Smooch is a popular local hangout in a pie-slice shaped space with vinyl spinning on the record player. 

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The bizarre but entertaining menu reflects Basquali's out-there personality. It's covered in jokey footnotes and features dishes with names that are either uniquely Australian references (The Tamarama, The Neville Bonner) or a little bit nuts (The Stupid Omelette For The Super Intelligent; The Not So Voluptuous Anymore Vixen Salad).  

"Fort Greene really does have a great sense of community that's lacking in other parts of the city," says Basquali, who moved to Manhattan in 2001, shifted to Fort Greene two years later and never left. "Aesthetically, it's beautiful. It's relatively small and it's a historical district, which limits the amount of development, so a lot of the architecture is pretty much the same as it was a hundred years ago. It's like living in a little English village but we're on the doorstep of Manhattan."

I always like to spend a blissful few hours aimlessly wandering while gawking at Fort Greene's architecture. The neighbourhood is famous for its brownstones from the mid-1800s. These elegant low-rise apartment buildings with front stoops and iron railings are best viewed on the leafy streets that run south from the bottom edge of the park. 

In Fort Greene, the quaint and the imposing sit side by side. The Joseph Steele House on the corner of Lafayette and Vanderbilt avenues is a yellow clapboard Greek revival house that looks like it's straight out of a storybook. Some say it's the most Instagrammed building in all of Brooklyn. 

The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, on the other hand, looks like it's straight out of Batman's Gotham City. You might recognise it from starring roles in the movies Prizzi's Honour and Catch Me If You Can, the TV series Boardwalk Empire and Bored To Death, and the Jay-Z/Alicia Keys video for Empire State of Mind.

The Byzantine-Romanesque beauty was built in 1929 and was the tallest building in Brooklyn for more than 80 years. Today, the tower has been overtaken by many of the nearby modern glass towers emblematic of gentrifying Brooklyn and sits just across from the imposing curves of the Barclays Centre, an arena that opened in 2012, is home to the Brooklyn Nets basketball team and hosts other big sports events and concerts.

Wander along DeKalb Avenue and your mouth will start watering. This is Fort Greene's restaurant row. Madiba is one of the area's pioneering eateries – since 1999 it has been serving up traditional South African township dishes such as biltong (dried beef) and pap and boerewors (a local sausage and polenta).

Roman's is a superb American-Italian joint owned by Andrew Tarlowe, the man behind Diner, Marlowe & Sons and Renaud's in Williamsburg.

Walter's is a popular weekend brunch spot by day and a stylish restaurant and bar by night – a couple of years ago they added a Japanese izakaya and speakeasy called Karasu, which is accessed through an unmarked door at the back. 

For a real Fort Greene communal experience, watch an outdoor movie at Habana Outpost, screened on a wall in the beer garden every Sunday night from early May to late October. The Cuban food is tasty – I usually go for the fried catfish with mac and cheese – the margaritas have a sting and I've watched everything from a Twilight Zone marathon to my old buddy Spike's film Do The Right Thing on that wall. 

Across the road is Greenlight Books. It seems that every week we read about another legendary New York bookstore closing down, but this place is a much loved, well-stocked and neatly categorised hold-out, and is a great spot to browse, to buy and to see author readings. 

I was in there combing through the music section and found myself rubbing shoulders with a lanky guy with a scraggly beard. On closer inspection it was Wally De Backer, the Australian singer-songwriter better known as Gotye, who had a worldwide hit in 2012 with Somebody That I Used To Know

We got talking and it turned out he had lived in Fort Greene since 2015.

"I first came here because friends lived in the neighbourhood," he told me. "I found it was this quiet oasis amidst the bustle of Brooklyn and the madness of Manhattan. 

"I love it here in Greenlight because I always make incredible book discoveries when I come in. If you're hungry, Baba Cool has excellent sandwiches and grain bowls and Frank's is a great bar if you feel like a beer and striking up a conversation with long-time locals."

I boasted that I had actually struck up a conversation with a long-time local that morning, a certain Mr Spike Lee. 

Well, as you know, he only said "thanks" before scarpering. But six hours later I was already exaggerating our encounter. I'm sure in a few years' time I'll manage to stretch that into a tall story about my long, rambling chat with the famous film director on a sunny Sunday in Fort Greene.

Barry Divola travelled as a guest of Brand USA, Hotel Beacon and The Wellington Hotel.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/newyork

visittheusa.com.au

nycgo.com

FLY 

Qantas offers three flights from Australia to Los Angeles each day from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, connecting to their daily LAX-JFK service. Phone 13 13 13. qantas.com

STAY

Hotel Beacon is a 1920s beaux-arts property that has modern, spacious rooms, located on the Upper West Side just a couple of blocks from Central Park. 2130 Broadway at 75th Street. beaconhotel.com

The Wellington Hotel in the heart of midtown has old-world charm and has sat across the road from Carnegie Hall for almost 120 years. 871 Seventh Avenue at 55th Street. wellingtonhotel.com

 

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