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!
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.
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.