By Lela Nargi
Kate Schmitz still remembers the first time she set eyes on the now uber-hip but family-centric outpost of Williamsburg. “It was 1986 and I never even thought about Brooklyn,” says the native of the Upper West Side, echoing a sentiment once common among Manhattanites, before an exodus to Brooklyn became de rigeur. “Except my friend had my cat, and I came to pick it up. I got off the subway at Bedford Avenue, and it was sunset—just the most gorgeous sunset. I thought, I can’t believe this exists.” She moved to the area six months later, and set about settling in. She’s been there ever since.
Read on to find out what’s kept Schmitz in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area for almost 30 years; why she thought it was the perfect spot for her popular kid’s clothing consignment & new-toy shop, Flying Squirrel, and now, for bringing up her son Harry, age 8, in the apartment they share across the street from the centerpiece of the two neighborhoods, McCarren Park.
What were Williamsburg and Greenpoint like when you first moved here?
Kate: The streets were really wide and completely industrial. I was going to Parsons for fine art, and I’d see other pioneers—lots of other painters—walking around. The Domino Sugar factory was still operating and there were giant ships going there on the East River all day long, and I’d sit on my fire escape and watch them. But it was frightening! There were vacant lots everywhere and there were always fires—the whole neighborhood just seemed to be burning.
Obviously, it changed enough for you to open up Flying Squirrel. How did that come about?
Kate: My friend Judith had just had twins. She went to throw away her two Exersaucers and said, "This is insane, I never even used them and they’re in perfect condition. I’m going to open a second-hand store for kids.” She called me up and said, "I will only do this if you do this with me." [Kate currently runs the store solo].
My only connection to children was that I collected children’s books. I said, "Great, we’ll just get a space and we’ll make it look really cool, and we’ll be as rich as Carrie Peterson," because I’d just found out she’d made a million dollars from her adult’s second hand clothing store on Bedford Avenue, Beacon’s Closet. It turns out, children’s second hand doesn’t make money.
But you’ve been in business for 11 years, now. What’s working?
Kate: Flying Squirrel is part of the community. All these kids and families come in here; all I know are kids and parents. When we opened, I didn’t even like kids. I was a punk rocker and I was just like, "Get the kids out of here!" I thought they were loud and dirty.
Do you still hate children?
Kate: When Harry was born, I said, "Do not put that on me!” But they put him on my chest, and I was reborn into a mother. I loved him from the depth of my soul; my heart grew three sizes that day—it was just like How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Now I love every single child. I cry in here every day, because people come in here pregnant, and they come in here with three-day-old babies, and I feel so privileged that I get to see them.
What's this neighborhood like for children—for Harry?
Kate: There’s still a real feeling of space and it seems like the perfect place to bring up children, because you have every single one of the benefits of the city— all the culture in Manhattan is a subway ride away, not to mention the fact that there is a lot of culture now growing in Brooklyn.
What are some of your favorite things about it?
Kate: We love McCarren Park! Every morning to take Harry to school at Williamsburg Northside, we walk across the park. The other day we were deeply in conversation when I noticed that sitting on the ground about 10 feet away from us was a giant red tail hawk—amazing!
I also run on the track there. And Harry met one of his best friends at the skateboard park.
Harry: My friend Shogo! I met a good friend at a lousy skatepark. I do tricks on the 1/4 pipe there: Rock to Fakie, Boardslide, and Rail Grind on a Coping. I have a Santa Cruz skateboard.
Kate: The skatepark is in the same section as the pool—there was an Olympic size pool that was a very big deal in the ‘40s and ‘50s, that fell into ruin. They took that huge derelict space and turned it back into a functional swimming pool, and in the winter they turn it into an ice rink. It’s a real sign of the way the neighborhood was, and the way it is now.
We walk home from school across the park, too. One day Harry saw these kids playing soccer and he ran up and started playing with them and I talked to their mother. She was the coach of their team, and Harry ended up joining this amazing soccer team that I never would have found out about because it’s all Spanish-speaking and I don’t speak Spanish.
What’s a typical mother-son day like for you guys?
Kate: We spend a lot of time walking around the neighborhood; we have a whole route. After school on Monday we go to Harry’s piano lesson at the Williamsburg Music Studio. Afterwards, we go to the river at North 3rd Street and we sneak in through a hole in the fence to get to the little beach at a collapsed pier there. Harry has two friends who also go there and they leave little surprises for each other in an area they call their treasure chest—mostly things that wash ashore.
Harry: The best thing I found there was a green Buddha with a broken leg. The best thing my friends left me was a football.
Kate: Afterwards, we walk to the new fancy grocery store called Harvest and we buy something for dinner. Sometimes we eat tacos at Dos Toros. Chai is Harry’s favorite restaurant and we also eat at Amarin Café at least once a week. Everyone there knows our name. I always have tofu with string beans.
Harry: I like chicken pad thai with no bean sprouts.
Kate: On weekends, Harry has Little League on Saturday and basketball on Sunday. Nobody knows about Greenpoint Little League. It’s way on the outskirts of Williamsburg, three baseball parks and a little concession stand right in the middle of the last industrial area around. Last summer, I saw the best rainbows I ever saw in my life there. The parents were sitting with their mouths open, looking at these huge double rainbows, because all you can see out there is sky.
Photographs by Roy Beeson