“I’m not sure I’ll be of any help,” said Jane, a sculptor who lives in Williamsburg. “I’ve only taken the bus once, and it wasn’t even an arty ride. I ride my bike most places.”
It was a simple enough proposition. The B61 bus line connects all the major art enclaves of Brooklyn. It starts at the farthest reach of Red Hook, a neighborhood in the early- to mid-stages of gentrification; runs up through Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, near Gowanus, all of which have a healthy share of artists and galleries; dips through DUMBO, which, like SoHo before it, is already in the late-gentrification transition from galleries to boutiques; shoots straight down Bedford, the main drag of Williamsburg, a stone’s throw from literally dozens of art galleries; and ends at Long Island City, where a number of museums, from P.S. 1 to, until recently, MoMA QNS, make their home. So was the B61 therefore the unofficial bus of the Brooklyn art world?
I thought it could be, but I was striking out left and right. Every Williamsburg artist I talked to, it seemed, if they didn’t own a car, expressly preferred riding a bicycle to get around the borough. “I just don’t think there’s any reason why anyone would need to go to all those neighborhoods,” said Molly, another sculptor whose studio happens to be right next to Jane’s. “The only person I could think of who’d need to do that would be an intrepid art collector. But then,” she said, “they’d probably have a car.” Molly commuted for years from Carroll Gardens to her Williamsburg studio–but she, like her hypothetical collector, preferred to drive.
“What, they don’t ever go to see shows at P.S. 1?” said Matvei, a small art book publisher who lives out in Red Hook. “Sure, you could take the G,” he said, “but the bus is faster.” He, like everyone who lives in that neighborhood, is entirely reliant on the B61, and was skeptical of the Williamsburg cycling aficionados I’d been telling him about. “It’s much more of a hipster bus than even eight months ago,” said Anna, Matvei’s partner at the press. She said that as Red Hook is changing, the ridership on their end of the B61 is changing drastically as well. “It lasted a long time as a place for eccentrics. But now it’s Smith Street, all over again,” she said, referring to the recent changes on the main commercial strip in Cobble Hill. “There’s a lot more babies and dogs. It’s the same white couples in their thirties, having the same conversations in the same backyards.” Is the B61 the art bus, though? I asked Matvei. The hipster bus? “I don’t think there’s any other buses that connect all these neighborhoods,” he said. “So I guess it is–by default.”
If they’re riding their bicycles everywhere, when do the artists get on the bus, if they ever do? I was curious to hear Jane’s one-time bus riding story. “It’s all quite dull, really,” she said. “I was off to visit a friend in the back of beyond, beyond Clinton Hill somewhere, and wanted to waste as much time as possible. So the bus was the answer. For hours I stared with half-focus out the window. And that was my Sunday, gone.” She added that she had also once dated a man who lived on the route of the B61. “So perhaps it’s that kind of bus,” she said. “The hook-up bus of distraction.”
A few years ago, a friend of mine, a writer who lives in Carroll Gardens, told me that he’d heard the G train was the new F. So was it possible that the B61 could ever be the new G? Not likely, said a photographer I know who lives in the East Village. “The bus isn’t cool,” she said. “It can’t ever be cool.” I came to the realization, then, that in any neighborhood in this city, and among all the different kinds of people who lives here, there exists an unbending hierarchy of transportation options, which might roughly play out like this: limo, car, car service, taxi, subway, bicycle, walking, and finally–at the bitter end of necessity–the bus.
So who does ride the B61? I asked that question of Andre, a dreadlocked and goateed bus driver who favors racing gloves and dark glasses when he’s working. “Yuppies on one end, Polish on the other, African-American in the middle,” he said. Yuppies meaning down in Red Hook? Where the neighborhood is gentrifying? “Well, not exactly yuppies,” he qualified. “They’re not that conservative–but these young types, you know, buying lofts, that sort of thing.” And where are they all going? “The yuppies all get off at downtown, the African-Americans are all off the bus by Classon Avenue, you get the Hasidim for a little bit, and then all down Bedford Avenue you get these SoHo types from there until–well, I guess, until here.” We were at the northern terminus of the line, at Long Island City, where Andre finally had a chance to chat, although he was distracted by an older Polish woman who was yelling at him about her confusion as to where the line stopped, and where it started. I asked him if I could quote him on that. “I didn’t say anything bad, did I?” he said. I assured him he hadn’t. I thanked Andre, shook his racing-gloved hand, got off the bus, and took the G train home.