Tørst: The New World in Greenpoint

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The arrival of Tørst did not happen by chance. Rather, it is a story about a city, forever in the process of reinvention, that has worked hard to connect itself to other cities around the world.

On Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint there is a bar that not long ago, would not have survived. The bar is called Tørst, Danish for thirst. The interior is European chic – sparsely decorated, dark wood, bright lights, high ceilings. On tap is a selection of craft beers from, among other nations, Denmark and Norway.

In the back is a restaurant called Luksus, Danish for luxury.

Across the street is a Polish travel agency. It has been there for a quarter century.

Tørst opened last March.

The arrival of Tørst and Luksus did not happen by chance. Rather, it is a story about a city, forever in the process of reinvention, that has worked hard to connect itself to other cities around the world. It is also a story about Brooklyn, and a neighborhood that until recently was synonymous with pirogues, kielbasa and where, as a recently as a year ago, the language spoken in the Golden Café was Polish. Tørst has, literally, taken the Golden Café’s place.

Globalization may appear inevitable. But it is not. It is a result of the planning and zoning to make a city attractive to those who might come and invest, as well as the growing ease with which networks of people around the world share news, ideas and information – among them chefs and brewers. The effect is a form of gentrification composed of a new sort, built not on moving from neighborhood to neighborhood but from world city to world city. Brooklyn is not, strictly speaking, a world city. But it is part of one; an increasingly popular part.

This is the story of how Tørst came to Greenpoint.


Patron entering Tørst at night. Photo by Alexandra Glorioso.

Patron entering Tørst at night. Photo by Alexandra Glorioso.

The Lay of the Land:

By 2030, 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, according to a recent report entitled “How to Make a Great City” by the global consulting company, McKinsey. Today, New York’s population is at an all–time high of 8.4 million. City officials are beginning to plan for another million people to move to the city by 2035, said Deputy Mayor Robert K. Steel at a 2011 zoning conference. Since 2002, the first year of Bloomberg administration, there have been 122 rezonings in New York – altering the use of 37 percent of the city’s land. The neighborhood Tørst sits in was rezoned in 2009 in reaction to the massive residential development that occurred on the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfronts. The goal of rezoning Tørst’s street, Manhattan Avenue, and the surrounding neighborhood was to maintain its former industrial and working-class character. As you will see below, this rezoning effort was futile in preventing the character of Greenpoint from changing.

There have only been two other massive zoning initiatives in the city’s history: in 1916 when New York was industrializing and again in 1961 when the city was completing the final stages of the decades-long development plan of  the most powerful builder and planner in its history, Robert Moses. In both instances, New York was being prepped for infrastructural changes –first the subway, then the highway. Today New York is being prepared again, only this time, it is for the global exchange of people and ideas.

Greenpoint: A Changing Neighborhood

Beginning in the 1980s Greenpoint experienced a kind of Polish renaissance, wrote Filip Strabrowski in his 2011 doctoral thesis entitled “Housing Polish in Greenpoint: Property and Power in a Gentrifying Brooklyn Neighborhood.” This renaissance was directly linked to the Solidarity movement in Poland where the “entire country was engulfed in strikes and demonstrations against the communist regime.” Immigrants came to Greenpoint because they had historical ties in the neighborhood, but also “for more practical reasons, such as opportunities it offered in finding housing and employment.” In the 1980s and 1990s, while walking down the street, you were more likely to hear Polish than English.

A series of events led to a decline in immigration from Poland to Greenpoint between the 1990s and today, said Strabrowski. They include the dropping of Poland from the list of countries eligible to participate in the US Diversity Visa Program, recent labor opportunities in Poland that in some cases have even attracted previous immigrants back home, and new labor opportunities in Western Europe after Poland joined the EU in 2004. In 2004, the United States was the second most visited country by the Polish. By 2009, it was the fifth. Poland became eligible for the diversity visa again in 2013. This visa program “makes available each year by random selection 50,000 permanent residence visas to persons from countries that have low rates of immigration to the United States,” according to the US Embassy website.

Tørst is located on 615 Manhattan Ave. and sits on a changing block between Nassau and Driggs. Across the street is a restaurant with a “TACO” sign that hangs precariously. “I’m not sure what’s going on over there but I bet whatever it is, it will be awesome,” said Daniel Burns, one of Tørst’s four owners. “It was a shitty taco shop that no one ever went into. Now, I bet it is going to be some great coffee shop. This neighborhood is always changing.”

Next to the new coffee shop Burns mentioned sits Forum Travel Agency. On Forum’s walls hang three framed “Visit Poland” posters. They sit on top of one another in a vertical row behind a Polish travel agent often speaking Polish into a black landline telephone. Forum’s owner, Pawel Gasior, has been here for 25 years. He sighed when he spoke about the Polish neighbors who have left Greenpoint. They see one another only at monthly gatherings. Perhaps, he said, five Polish businesses remain on his block. Gasior himself is making changes for his travel agency.

New Champs coffee shop under the sign of the former Taco shop next to Forum Travel Agency on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint. Photo by Alexandra Glorioso.

New Champs coffee shop under the sign of the former Taco shop next to Forum Travel Agency on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint. Photo by Alexandra Glorioso.

“Not many people are booking trips through agencies since the Internet,” he said. “Now we’re starting a law office, tax office, and real estate business. It’s definitely going to be different.” At one point, Gasior’s kind of business was one of the most popular in the neighborhood. These places acted as a “one-stop shop” for immigrants looking to “book travel tickets, send/receive parcels to/from Poland, find housing and employment, and obtain translation and notary services,” Strabrowski wrote. These businesses increased from two in 1975 to 19 in 2000, “reflecting the growth of Greenpoint as a Polish immigrant enclave during this period.”

Gasior’s friend and fellow Polish immigrant, Malgorzata Zarska, owns Omega Realty down the street at 651 Manhattan Avenue. She goes by Margaret, except with her older Polish customers who call her Gosha. She’s been working in real estate for the past nine years, having come to Greenpoint from Poland in 1989. She described the changing real estate prices in Williamsburg and Greenpoint in the last 10 years.

Williamsburg’s prices skyrocketed with the waterfront development in 2007, then Greenpoint followed, she said. A three-family house in 1992 would be divided into three condos, each selling for $200,000. Today, she said, those condos would sell for $1.6 million.

Zarska says that most of the land in Greenpoint is still owned by the Polish people, but that that number is decreasing. She said hardly any of the new renters are Polish. “I used to live in Williamsburg and Greenpoint from 1989  to 2002, but like all Polish people, I got priced out to Queens,” she said.

The value of the building where Tørst sits increased by $765,000 from 1998 to 2006, according to property sales records on the new private records website, Property Value Lookup. However, the value for the 1998 deed is not available on ACRIS, New York’s property search engine through the Department of Finance, and so this value increase cannot be confirmed. However, census data does confirm that the most common value for Greenpoint houses has greatly risen in the last decade – from about $200,000 to $600,000. Zillow Real Estate, a well-established research site, estimates the value of Tørst’s property as now over $1.2 million.

Ten years ago, investors started buying land in Williamsburg and then in Greenpoint. Five years ago, Zarska said, people were buying property in order to have families. The renters followed a similar pattern. Ten years ago young people moved from Manhattan to Williamsburg. Four years ago, she said, Williamsburg became too crowded and people started asking about Greenpoint. Three years ago, she added, renters were making no distinctions between Williamsburg and Greenpoint. She’s noticed an influx of Western European renters.

In a paper three demographers wrote together entitled “Mapping a Changing Brooklyn, Mapping a Changing World: Gentrification and Immigration, 2000-2008,” Lorna Mason, Ed Morlock and Christina Pisano wrote that as a result of the young, American hipster influx into the area, Greenpoint has less of a foreign born population overall since 2000. Census data confirms this notion. In 2000, this population was 43 percent of the total population, which was 7 percent higher than this population overall in the city. Today, Greenpoint’s foreign born population is 31 percent of the total population, which is 7.2 percent lower than this population overall in the city.

However, this data also shows a new trend in European immigration to Greenpoint. Whereas this neighborhood used to be mostly Eastern European, trends from 2000 to 2011 show that immigrants from Eastern Europe are largely decreasing in numbers whereas immigrants from Western Europe are steadily increasing. The top five European countries with people who immigrated to Greenpoint between 2006 and 2011 were Poland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and France. Every one of these countries is currently among the world’s 50 richest, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, except for Poland.

Greenpoint’s wealth statistics reflect these immigration shifts. Its median income, according to census and American Community survey data, increased from $27,205 in 2000 to $51,414 in 2011. Today, 27 percent of foreign-born locals make over $50,000 per year and 13 percent make over $75,000 per year – $20,000 more than New York median income. These foreign-born locals might be living in some of the 1,589 new condos that, according to Strabrowski, helped make Greenpoint and Williamsburg into Brooklyn neighborhoods with the “steepest average home prices” between 2007 and 2008.

World immigration patterns to Greenpoint from 2000 to 2011. Map created by Alexandra Glorioso. Original data source: Census 2000 and American Community Survey 2011. Note: Unreported countries not included in data set.

World immigration patterns to Greenpoint from 2000 to 2011. Map created by Alexandra Glorioso. Original data source: Census 2000 and American Community Survey 2011. Note: Unreported countries not included in data set.

Eurasian immigration patterns to Greenpoint from 2000 to 2011. Map created by Alexandra Glorioso. Original data source: Census 2000 and American Community Survey 2011. Note: Unreported countries not included in data set.

Eurasian immigration patterns to Greenpoint from 2000 to 2011. Map created by Alexandra Glorioso. Original data source: Census 2000 and American Community Survey 2011. Note: Unreported countries not included in data set.

Mariola Zaremba, who recently opened Awakening Café on Manhattan Avenue, capitalized on that new clientele. Zaremba came to the United States 22 years ago after winning a green card in a lottery system. In addition to the café, she owns an alternative healing center and yoga studio next door.

“Today, in Greenpoint, if you aren’t running a bar that serves hipsters,” she said, “you have to do something really unique.”

615 Manhattan Avenue: A Recent History

In 1993, two sisters, Margaret and Eva Tokarski opened a Polish bakery they named Chocolate La Tiere. When their lease began, they paid $2,000 a month in rent. By 2004, they could no longer afford the rent, which stood at $5,000. They were followed by two different Polish restaurants: Mak Polish Restaurant and Golden Café. By 2011, both restaurants had failed. “They attempted to open Polish restaurants but most Polish people already had the restaurants they went to,” said Mariola Zaremba.

The space was vacant when the Tørst partners began looking for a location to open their bar and restaurant. “We were hedging our bets that this market was emerging,” said Ashley Van Valkenburgh, one of the owners. She added that she and her partners were counting on the business boom in Williamsburg to spread into Greenpoint. “We wanted to be in the right place at the right time.”

Van Valkenburgh is married to a beer importer, Brian Ewing. Three years ago they were in Denmark sampling beers at a bar whose beer they import. There they met a beer distributor, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, who was famous in Europe for his own brew, Evil Twin. Ewing and Jarnit-Bjergso agreed to have Ewing’s company, 12 Percent Imports, import his beer to the United States. The first order sold out in a single day. Jarnit-Bjergso moved to New York.

Last May Jarnit-Bjergso was at a beer tasting in Brooklyn where he met Daniel Burns, a chef.

When I met Burns, he laid out the international connections between him and Jarnit-Bjergso and how it is to work in the international chef scene today.

“Jeppe and I met and just immediately hit it off. It turned out that we knew all of the same people from Noma,” said Burns. Noma is a restaurant in Denmark that was rated the best restaurant in the world three years in a row by the reputable magazine, The World’s 50 Best. “It was the right time in our careers and so we decided to open a bar/restaurant together.” Jarnit-Bjergsø is not a co-owner because he is also a beer distributor and owning a stake in the company would be a conflict of interest. Instead, his wife, Maria, is a co-owner. Jarnit-Bjergsø distributes Evil Twin all over the world.

Burns, 39, grew up in Canada and after a few years of culinary training there, he decided to try his hand in Europe for the “international experience.” “Nordic dishes are really talked about today,” he said, citing Noma as the inspiration for Nordic cuisine around the world and ultimately for Tørst’s restaurant, Luksus.  “They have such a unique way of looking at food and create these vibrant and wild products.” Still, he added, “any time a chef gets a chance to work in New York, he takes it.”

“The international chef community is a pretty tight-knit group recently. One guy does something cool and shares it with the other guys and then they bring it back to their restaurants,” he said. “The trends spread pretty quickly.” He thinks the community became more “open minded” about collaborating about ten years ago because of a “generational thing.” “The right industry leaders came into power.”

Burns recently took part in North Festival where six New York chefs hosted six Nordic chefs to do a joint tasting menu at $240 a person. He hosted his friend, Matt Orlando, chef and owner of Amass Restaurant. Orlando is responsible for the introduction that landed Burns his job at Noma seven years ago.

Burns’s partners say that the beer world works in much the same way as the restaurant scene. “It’s an incestuous community,” said Alex Blank, “but in a good way. If you go on beeradvocate.com, you’ll see all of the top brewers working together and recommending each other.”

Tørst has an overall 99 percent or “world class” rating on ratebeer.com based on 47 reviews from people in various countries.

Burns said business has been good. “We were crazy busy in the beginning,” he said. “I think there was just so much hype. So many articles and so much support from the culinary and beer community. Now, we’re reaching a good, steady pace.”

Some of that hype helped drive four Danish tourists to Tørst on a recent Saturday afternoon. “Tørst has been all over Danish news,” said Karina Boserup, on of the four. “Denmark is a small country. When one of our people does something in such a big country like this, we are very proud.”

Later that afternoon, as Boserup and her friends left Tørst, they stepped out into a new Greenpoint. This new Greenpoint would be filled increasingly less with the old, tightly-knit people from Poland and more with the new, globally-open people like them.

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