If you made it to our recent Love Grows in Brooklyn market, you may have spotted a tall, friendly artist handing out maps like hot cakes. Sure, cartography is nifty and many a Brooklynite fancy themselves lovers of antiques, but this map was more personal to these buyers — some may have been able to even find their homes on it.
Alex Russell was selling his dynamic and delightful map of Greenpoint, the neighborhood’s first official pictorial as inducted by the New York Public Library. Affable and neighborly, Alex has been a Greenpointer for over a decade, carefully observing the ebbs and flows of the neighborhood from his home/studio above Moonlight Mile on Franklin Street. Those years here helped him craft this unique feat, but his time has been marked by more than just art: he took over The Brooklyn Label and, here, explains the many hands who have helped that business evolve. But after years in and out of the food business, he is now turning his attention to another map: he is now commissioned to create the The Great Map of Williamsburg. Learn more about Alex and his work here, and find out how to get your hands on one of his maps!
Greenpointers: Okay, you made the first pictorial of Greenpoint. That’s awesome! Let’s let you show off to begin: how did this come together, and how did you decide what elements to include?
Alex Russell: When I made the decision to move from Los Angeles to Brooklyn 10 years ago, my first choice was actually Williamsburg. I searched hard for an affordable apartment, but couldn’t find anything in my “starving artist price range.” That’s when someone told me to look just north of Williamsburg in an area called “Greenpoint.” I’ll never forget emerging out of the subway. It was February after a huge snow storm. I wandered through the streets and giant snow drifts. It seemed so desolate and industrial; I fell in love with it immediately. There was art and murals in every nook. I had stumbled into an old, forgotten, Polish, hidden secret. I secured the first apartment I toured, which would remain my home for the next decade. I snagged a server job at a “Mexican Street Food” restaurant called “Papacito’s” (now Esme). And I began my life trying to make it in New York City as an artist. It’s had its ups and downs, its triumphs and failures, but in between every gig I always allow myself time to explore new projects and new mediums in order to expand my skill set. The Great Map of Greenpoint started out as one of those projects.
When I began to create it, I sort of had in mind those tourist posters you find in bars and restaurants in tourist towns. You know the ones: super animated, cartoony, and colorful. I wanted to make one of those, but with the flavors I encountered in Greenpoint. I was spending a lot of time at places like St Vitus, Lulu’s, and Safehouse. The tattoo culture and art were strong. As I filled in the map with my local haunts, it felt akin to another one of my passions: scrapbooking. I’ve always enjoyed creating different kinds of time capsules. This was like that. And there was just something pleasing about the layout of the neighborhood. I liked how removed Greenpoint felt from the rest of the city, even though it’s so close it has (arguably) the best view of the Manhattan skyline. I liked that it was surrounded by water on three sides, like a castle with its moat, and McCarren Park capping it off at the bottom. I liked that the streets went in alphabetical order. But, like a lot of my projects, the map fell by the wayside.
In 2017, I opened my first restaurant, Brooklyn Label. Only one block from my apartment and one of my favorite brunch spots under the same name when I first moved in. It was the cornerstone of one of the oldest and most historic buildings in Greenpoint, “The Astral.” It was a dream. But to make a long story short, Brooklyn Label wasn’t for me and I left it to my partner in 2019. At the same time, my wife was going through some of our old things and found the map. She encouraged me to pick it back up and this time, finish it. That’s when I started reaching out to fellow business owners around town and getting everyone excited for the map. As far as I knew from my research, no one had done a map of Greenpoint since the 1980s, which you can find hanging in a few businesses. I wanted to make a map that you could find hanging everywhere, highlighting all of the places that were so special to me. Once I was finished and the map was released, Ian Fowler reached out from the New York Public Library’s Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, saying they would love to induct my map as the first map pictorial of Greenpoint in their archives. They would later partner with me on my next map, The Great Map of Williamsburg.
I love Brooklyn Label. If memory serves the restaurant was there for a number of years; did you buy it from the old owner or refashion it somehow? What was that experience like?
The original Brooklyn Label was created by Cody Utzman, who you may know from the show “Chopped.” At the same time, he created various other Brooklyn eateries, including Brooklyn Standard (now under new management, same name), Brooklyn Royal (no longer there), and Papacitos (now Esme). He ended up leaving Brooklyn to pursue more restaurant start-ups in Oregon, but his father-in-law, Lion, ran Brooklyn Label for many years with some success. It was always a great, warm, corner spot for coffee and brunch. After Lion passed away, it was bought by a young French outfit that renamed it The Brooklyn Label and attempted to offer more upscale dining. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful and were driven out in under a year. After being burned so badly, the landlord was very wary about choosing the next tenant, and the space sat unused for over a year. That is until my partner and I made an offer in June of 2017 and they bit. They liked that I was a young, eager entrepreneur living just next door and that my partner had over 25 years of experience owning and operating restaurants in New York City. In honor of Lion and what he built, we returned it to Brooklyn Label and set out to bring the space back to it’s glory days. It was one of the best and hardest experiences of my life. Everything that could have gone wrong, did. We worked ourselves like crazy: physically, mentally, and emotionally. I got married the weekend before we started renovations. Let’s just say, I hardly saw my wife for the next two years. Luckily, we’re still happily married. But I learned more about problem solving, dealing with people, and managing a business in those two years than in all four years of college. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, but I promise it will make you stronger.
I love the idea of the photobooth outside the restaurant. It’s creative and practical. How did that idea come to be?
I love that you asked me about this! The photobooth/wind shelter was everyone’s favorite, including mine. It was a truly fun and unique way of solving our heating problem, while simultaneously creating something that brought the neighborhood together. I loved the days I spent painting out in the cold, talking to fellow Greenpointers as they passed by and asked questions. Everyone wanted to see what the next one was going to be. Once it was finished, families and friends would all pack into the shed, pop their faces through the custom cut holes, and snap hilarious photos, which they would share with us and everyone else. It became a tradition for a lot of people. We even cut a hole low enough for people to put their dog’s heads through! Although most times it ended up being a person’s head after a few tasty cocktails.
As I said before, everything that could have gone wrong there, did. The building was constructed in 1885-1886 and seemed to have very few updates. All of the pipes in the basement broke during our first winter, the stove stopped working on many occasion, and most times the central heat never turned on. We were operating under a very tight budget, but patrons were, at times, leaving because they could see their own breath. We had to do something. The custom plastic and canvas wind sheds you see around are thousands of dollars. So we got a bunch of space heaters and decided to build our wind shed from wood; a project that, even with a shingled roof, cost us under $300. Once we were finished, it proved to be a bit of an eyesore, although it was a lot warmer inside. I had already been doing some mural work inside to spruce up the old space, so we thought doing some carnival-style cut outs and switching up the scene for every season would be a great way of pulling people inside to see what we were all about.
Do you have a studio here?
My apartment has always doubled as my studio, although a lot of my projects are on-site. When I moved here I can remember friends offering to share studio spaces in The Pencil Factory or 67 West and the rent was $200 each. I don’t think I even want to know what it is now. But unlike a lot of other people here, I like the change and I welcome it. Sure, I have moments of nostalgia for the days when I could find a parking spot anywhere/anytime. Or when every bar had a beer and a shot for $5. Or when there wasn’t an expected “wait time” for brunch. But with the influx of residents came major updates like the ferry service, and more options for restaurants and bars, and parks, and a new library, and warehouses being converted into cultural centers, and activities such as movies in the park and concerts. And, thank god, we’ll always have “Phil Collins Day.” I hope that Greenpoint will always be known as an artist community. I feel so honored to have such talented neighbors the likes of Paul Richard, Steve Wasterval, and Bruce Gagnier, to name a few.
What projects are you working on now that you’re excited about?
I’ve just completed The Great Map of Williamsburg, which comes back from the printers next week, and then inducted into The New York Public Library. This is a much bigger, more complex and detailed work than the Greenpoint map that will be featured all around Williamsburg; it’s scheduled to be wrapped on the two-story window space on the corner of Bedford and North 12th on the border of McCarren Park; it will be printed on the back of restaurant menus; and it will be shown at multiple galleries including The Canvas by Querencia. That said, I’ll always make time for a quick pet portrait here and there.
About Billy McEntee
Billy McEntee has been fortunate to work for arts non-profits in Boston, Denver, Berkeley, and now New York. His writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Vanity Fair, American Theatre, HowlRound, Observer, and others. He's usually getting wine at Dandelion or eating cookies at Archestratus.