A couple weeks ago I saw Newkirk Plaza for the first time.
What can I say? What a place. I couldn't have dreamed it up if I tried. I was just biking down Foster Avenue in Ditmas Park and, Bam!, there it was, this utterly peculiar open air retail mall of largely independent businesses, perched above the Newkirk subway station. Instead of facing outward toward a street, the two lines of stores stare at each other over a trying-desperately-not-look-sad-and-shabby pedestrian mall. Because of the presence of the subway below, the whole thing has a tenuous feel to it, as if it were balancing on air.
Newkirk Plaza isn't new. That's apparent from clapping eyes on the shops, which look like they probably did a brisk business in egg creams and hula-hoops once upon a time. It was built in 1913, though some say 1908 (which would mean that this is its 100th birthday). So, in the world of open-air malls, it was a trailblazer. It has a weird ownership set-up. The Transit Authority owns the deck and station and the Department of Transportation owns the bridge. Plus, the buildings on the Plaza are possessed by private owners. This division of property may partly explain why the place looks like such a time capsule; what are the chances that all three parties ever agree on anything, improvement-wise?
Newkirk Plaza was not a nice place up until recently. It's nickname was "Newcrack Plaza." It was frequented by drug dealers, muggers, prostitutes and their friends. Things have improved considerably in the last few years. Many dollars were thrown at the area. Fancy ironwork fences replaced some concrete walls and new light fixtures were installed. And yet, the plaza still looks like a place your grandma might take you for a shopping spree, or somewhere your uncle goes for his monthly haircut. And for that, I love it. I loved it at first sight. Every entryway has a kind of dejected look about it, none more so than the corrugated metal wall that reads "kir Plaza." Your heart goes out to that poor de-lettered sign.
There are some sweet little businesses in this mall. You can tell by their quirky, worn facades that most are family owned. Almac Hardware, there since 1914. Minar Food Market, and Asian and American grocery with a pink elephant ride kids can enjoy outside. Lins Market, a tumbledown oddity that will pierce your ears, change your watch band, fax your documents, take your passport photo and sell you a hat, hosiery, "toy's" or "varieties." Alex's Medical Supplies, which has a great shoe-shaped sign and appears to sell orthopedic shoes. Leon's Fancy Cut, a barber. Lo Duca Pizza, which looks pretty old. (Don't these seem like Ben "Julius Knipl" Katchor names to you? Almac, Minar, Lins, Lo Duca. Actually, Newkirk Plaza itself seems like Katchortown.)
In fact, you can get almost anything you might need on Newkirk Plaza. That is, if your tastes aren't to hoity-toity. And for those who must have the comfort of a familiar chain, there's a Dunkin' Donuts.