Filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski has made a short documentary about Caffe Capri, a longtime Italian coffee shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that is quickly being surrounded by trendy newcomers and chains. Watch the wonderful little film, and read my Q&A with the director.
Q: Why do you think places like Caffe Capri are important to a neighborhood?
A: I think they're important because they're links to the past. The owners of Caffe Capri had so many great stories about former customers who used to come in, who lived and worked in the neighborhood. I think places where people gather, in particular, can be great records of all the different generations of customers who have come and gone. I think it's important to have unique places in a neighborhood--that are owned by people who live in that neighborhood. Let's face it, most neighborhoods these days are overrun with franchises that kind of blur together. A nice personal establishment like Caffe Capri gives a neighborhood color and character that I think ultimately brightens the community. Plus, every neighborhood should have a place that makes a really killer iced coffee.
Q: How does Caffe Capri compare to the newcomer coffee shops in Williamsburg?
A: Personally, I think the iced coffee is better at Caffe Capri. I also prefer the mellow atmosphere and the curated music-scape there. I don't normally go for Sinatra, but at Caffe Capri it's so appropriate and so clearly music that the owners, Joe and Sarah, enjoy, you can't help but dig it. They don't have wi-fi and that's kind of nice, too. It forces me to really stay off my computer when I go there. I write by hand when I'm there, or if I do bring my laptop to do some writing, it's nice being free of the Internet. All that being said, the newcomer shops definitely have their place. If Caffe Capri is closed, I'll go to Blue Bottle. They make a mean New Orleans (a lightly sweet iced coffee). I think that the newcomers' coffee shops do have a uniformity to them that's sometimes a little troubling. They're shiny, austere, and the music is usually very hip, which is fine but feels like it's not lovingly chosen. The newcomers need to put some love in their decor!
Q: You grew up on the Lower East Side, and you've seen a lot of major changes there and in Williamsburg in recent years. How would you characterize those changes?
A: Short answer: troubling. Longer answer: I think that all neighborhoods change and if they've got something good about them, there's usually an influx of people, so you're kind of forced to make room for new people. I was definitely one of those new people who moved to Williamsburg in the late '90s. So there's going to be development and there's going to be changes. I think the hope is that whatever decisions get made, maintaining and enriching the community as a whole is the priority. But the troubling part is that development in the burg and on the LES is so accelerated--it just results in giant glass condos and big hotels and big buildings kind of plunking down and trying to sell as many cookie-cutter luxury apartments--that many people who've lived in these communities all their lives can't afford it. I think Williamsburg has changed faster than the LES. But the LES is definitely on its way now.
Q: What other old Williamsburg places are you hoping will survive?
A: The Garden Grill diner on Graham Ave. has always been good to me and feels like a relic now in the neighborhood. The pizza places on Graham Ave. (Tony's and Carmine's) have to stay. Every neighborhood needs solid pizza. Same goes for Sal's on Lorimer. Incidentally, they make a great espresso, too. I also kind of approve of places like Union Pool, a bar that took over an old space and repurposed it, but kind of did it with real affection I think. I'm more worried about the Lower East Side. Gertel's Bakery, Guss' Pickles, the fabric stores and wholesalers--they're all gone. I like the new art galleries that are showing up there and Doughnut Plant, and I'm glad Kossar's bialys and Russ & Daughters is still in effect. But I'm scared they'll just disappear any minute. Defend the LES!