A Brooklyn neighborhood guide for NYC Marathon spectators – 2019 edition

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Old Brooklyn, new Brooklyn – you’ll find both along the marathon course

For five years now, I’ve compiled a spectators’ guide to the Greatest Race in the World, sometimes known as the NYC Marathon. The Brooklyn (and to a lesser extent Queens) sections of the course are now well-trodden terrain for this blog, and I’ve even ventured up to East Harlem and the Bronx. This year, I’m taking a slightly different approach. Instead of aiming for comprehensiveness, I’m focusing on a handful of specific neighborhoods; instead of limiting my comments to the marathon course, I’m offering a broader tour, including a bit of history and other things to do in the area, assuming you can tear yourself away from the race.

If you prefer a more comprehensive approach, you’ll find mile-by-mile suggestions, as well as viewing tips and advice on race day logistics, in my posts from 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2015. While I don’t claim to have revisited and re-reviewed all of my past recommendations, I’ve tried to at least note closings. (And if you’re interested in knowing how I’ve personally spent Marathon Sunday since my retirement from marathon running, you can read my reports from last year and 2017 here and here.)

So, where should you watch the marathon in Brooklyn this year? (Because it goes without saying that you’ll be watching it in Brooklyn, right? We are the longest and best part of the course.) Read on for my top picks.

Sunset Park

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The phallic steeple of St. Michael’s church is a Marathon landmark

Where it is. Fourth Avenue between (roughly) 64th St and 34th St, from the race’s 4 mile mark to 5.5 miles. To get there, take either the R (which runs below the Fourth Av portion of the course and stops every half mile or so) or, for a faster ride, the D/N to 36th St or the N to 59th St.

Why you should watch here. The race is still in its early stages, so the runners are fresh, exuding excitement and reveling in your cheers. While there’s always a good showing of spectators along this stretch, it’s not crowded – you’ll have no problem snagging a front-row spot.  Because it’s early in the race, you can watch and cheer the masses and still catch the top finishers on television . . . or hop on the subway and head to another viewing spot . . . or enjoy a hearty meal . . . or, conceivably, all those things. And speaking of food – this neighborhood has the best eating of anywhere along the course.

One disadvantage of staking out a spot here (or anyplace along Fourth Avenue): it’s an ugly thoroughfare, and it’s W-I-I-I-I-D-E. Runners will be on both sides of the center barrier – those from the Blue and Green starts to the east, Orange to the west – and seeing a runner on the other side (much less getting their attention) is well nigh impossible.

The neighborhood. Even as gentrification reshapes the city, Sunset Park retains its working-class immigrant character. Fourth and Fifth Avenues are overwhelmingly Latino – historically Puerto Rican, now largely Mexican, but with representation from across Central and South America and the Caribbean. Eighth Avenue is the commercial center of the city’s largest Chinatown, packed with restaurants and markets and bubble tea shops and food carts and stores selling anything you could possibly need (and guys who can repair just about anything, too). Sandwiched between those two commercial districts, stretching from Fifth to Seventh avenues and from 41st to 44th streets, is the park that gives the neighborhood its name. You won’t find lush landscaping here, or woods, or a pond, or a castle or villa, or hundreds of tourists with selfie sticks. What you will find are neighborhood residents playing basketball, soccer or racquetball . . . working out on outdoor fitness equipment . . . exercising to music (a Chinese arrangement of Beethoven’s Ninth is popular) . . . taking dance lessons . . . or just relaxing.

What you will also find are killer views of Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront and harbor, with the Statue of Liberty in the distance, like a promise, and the Manhattan skyline a hazy, glittery mirage.

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The neighborhood’s eponymous park (photo credit: Eric Brooks)

In the windows of businesses along the avenues, posters advertise community meetings to fight gentrification and advise residents of their rights should ICE come knocking. Sunset Park has a long history of working-class activism, going back (at least) to the Finnish immigrants who made their way to Brooklyn at the turn of the last century. Drawn to jobs on the Brooklyn waterfront, the Finns brought with them a tradition of labor militancy as well as a radical vision of economic democracy. Rent strikes are all well and good, but why not get rid of landlords altogether? And so the city’s first housing cooperatives were born (no, coops were not always the bougie institutions they are today). You can still see the original two, Alku and Alku Toinen, by wandering up 43rd St to the other side of Eighth Av. The avenue itself was once home to an array of cooperative enterprises, from grocery stores to mechanics to a billiard parlor. Today, as mentioned above, it’s the heart of Sunset Park Chinatown.

Closer to the marathon course, Fifth Av is lined with bakeries, markets, restaurants (tacos! cuchifritos! pupusas! pollos a la brasa! empanadas!) and lively with street vendors (tamales! atoles! chicharrones de harina!). On a Sunday, it will be crowded with families. It’s worth the short detour away from the course just to get the flavor of the neighborhood.

But even though Fifth Av is unquestionably more pedestrian friendly and boasts a higher density of restaurants, my personal favorites all happen to be directly on the marathon route. I’ll single out three here – two old favorites and a newcomer:

Over the past year, Tacos El Bronco (4324 Fourth Av) has become our go-to place for homey Poblano cooking, served up in huge portions that we still manage, embarrassingly, to polish off because they’re so very tasty. As good as the tacos, consomé de chivo, and other regular menu items are (and they’re very good indeed), what keeps us coming back are the weekend specials. These might include pork ribs with verdolagas (purslane) in a green sauce; or beef ribs with nopales in a smokey morita chile or slightly grainy guaxmole sauce; or mixiotes de pollo (chicken steeped in an adobo heady with orange and avocado leaf, cooked inside a banana leaf – oh my god) . . . each time we think we must surely have exhausted all possible permutations of protein, sauce and vegetable, we find something new on the menu. While there’ve been a few misses (like a one-dimensional pasilla chile sauce) and a few things I’m convinced you have to grow up eating to enjoy (like the grayish tortitas de camarón made from dried shrimp), I expect our near-weekly visits to continue into the indefinite future.

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Panaderia Don Paco Lopez goes all out for Dia de los Muertos

I’m afraid my obsession with Tacos El Bronco has led me to slight Panadería Don Paco López (4703 Fourth Av), but I’m committed to fixing that. When I stopped by there a week or two ago, their huaraches were, if anything, even better than I remembered (and I remembered them very fondly). The folks here don’t treat huaraches as their entry in a competition to see how much glopped-on weight an oblong of griddled masa will hold; no, they treat them with respect. The bean-filled masa is tender and delicate, lightly charred in places, painted with sauce (green, red or mixed), dusted with crumbled cheese, and, if you want (yes, please), topped with shreds of barbacoa de chivo. 

I suppose you could opt for a different meat on top, but why would you?

In addition to the great food, the proprietors have a strong social and environmental conscience (straws only on request, please forgo the plastic bag, a donation jar for a free breakfast program) and are just plain nice people. Plus, the bakery side of the establishment has a beautifully elaborate ofrenda for the Day of the Dead. Best of all – if your goal is to eat your way along the marathon course, a stop here won’t put you on the sidelines for the rest of the afternoon.

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Imagine watching the marathon through those big glass windows, while sipping excellent coffee

The newcomer to the scene is Yafa (4415 Fourth Av), which shares a name (and a family relationship) with the bodega on the corner. This Yafa features excellent coffee, a variety of non-coffee drinks (like karak tea, frothy and milky and spicy, or the punningly-named “habib tea” – habibti being Arabic for “my beloved” – and “yemenade”) and an eclectic menu. Do you want the Yemeni breakfast, with eggs, ful, and flaky Yemeni flatbread? Shakshuka? Avocado toast with zaatar? Or perhaps a breakfast samboosa? One thing you definitely want – assuming I haven’t eaten it all – is the Yemeni honeycomb cake, a yeasty, lightly sweet bread that’s topped with sesame seeds (and, if they’re handy, nigella seeds) and cardamom-infused honey.

All of this in an airy, spare-but-comfy space, decorated with photos and artifacts that celebrate the owners’ Yemeni heritage. It’s full of light from the big glass windows in front that, come marathon day, will offer a view out onto the race. While you watch, chat with Ali, the guy behind the counter (who may or may not be wearing his “Iraq-a-Fella Records” shirt). Have another piece of honeycomb cake. Chat with the other customers, and enjoy the Sunset Park community as well as the marathon.

Park Slope

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Think of the Fourth Av/9th St station as a giant “welcome to Park Slope” sign

Where it is. Fourth Avenue between roughly 15th Street and Flatbush, or between the 10K mark and just short of 8 miles. The neighborhood itself stretches east (and uphill – putting the slope in Park Slope), to Prospect Park (putting the park in Park Slope).  Although the neighborhood is served by multiple subway lines, the best option for marathon spectators is the F/G/R to Fourth Av/9th St, which allows you to cross over/under the course. (The other stations all confine you you to one side of the course or the other.)

Why you should watch here. Runners will be farther into the race than in Sunset Park, and while many are still giddy, they’re starting to feel the miles. There’s nothing like passing the 10K mark and thinking, “just 20 miles to go!” to drive home how very long the marathon distance is. The sidewalks will be crowded with local residents – many with kids in tow, Park Slope being notoriously family-friendly – but it’s fairly easy to sidle up to the tape barriers along the course, which will soon start to sag under the crowd’s boundary-testing enthusiasm. That particularly raucous (I mean, enthusiastic) group around 3rd Street, wearing red and white and waving a giant cat cut-out? That would be the Prospect Park Track Club, and it’s where you’ll find me for a good chunk of the morning.

If you’re interested in following runners along the course, easy access to the G train at 9th St is a boon; as the runners make their way through north Brooklyn and into Queens, the G train replaces the R as the line that corresponds most closely to the marathon route.

The disadvantage of watching the race in Park Slope? Fourth Av here is even uglier than it is back in Sunset Park, with massive high rise condo buildings – many with blank walls or vacant storefronts at street level – making an unwelcoming streetscape even less welcoming.

The neighborhood. Disclaimer: this is my ‘hood, which on the one hand means I’m intimately familiar with its nooks, crannies and quirks. On the other hand, familiarity does breed, if not contempt, then a blasé attitude that takes the neighborhood’s charms for granted and gently mocks its virtues . . . so I’m trying hard here to take a step or two back.

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Verdant brownstones

Park Slope is unarguably pretty. It’s one of Brooklyn’s quintessential brownstone neighborhoods, with leafy residential streets, renovated townhouses, lots of babies and toddlers (Park Slopers are a fertile bunch), doted-on dogs and “Hate has no home here” window signs.

To see the prettiness, though, you’ll need to head uphill from the marathon course. While the blocks between Fourth and Fifth avenues are perfectly lovely, the homes become grander once you pass Fifth, and grander still as you get closer to Prospect Park West (the equivalent of Ninth Av). Fifth Av itself is lined with kid-friendly shops, kid-friendly restaurants, kid-friendly cafes, bars (some of them kid-friendly as well), realtors’ offices and an overabundance of hair and nail salons (really, there’s no excuse for me to look as unkempt as I do).

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The Old Stone House

Surveying this happy, wholesome scene, it’s hard to believe that the land that would become Park Slope played a pivotal role in the American Revolution, but it did. In August of 1776, retreating Americans battled the advancing British in the area around today’s Washington Park (the marathon runs directly past the park’s western edge, between 3rd and 4th streets). The British aim was to decapitate the Continental Army, seize New York harbor, and strangle the revolution in its cradle. But although they won the Battle of Brooklyn, the British failed in their broader aim – thanks to the courage of the badly outnumbered revolutionaries, who held their ground long enough for George Washington and the rest of his troops to beat a retreat across the East River to Manhattan. As a nameless commentator would later remark, the Declaration of Independence may have been signed in ink in Philadelphia in July, but it was signed in blood in Brooklyn that August. Marathon spectators with an interest in history can fill the time between the waves of the race by checking out the small museum in the (reconstructed) Old Stone House, which sits in the middle of Washington Park, between the ball fields and the playground. A busy Sunday farmers market – a bit light on produce, to be honest, but full of farmstead cheese and charcuterie and locally-brewed spirits and artisanal baked goods, not to mention Korean pancakes and Southern breakfast biscuits – hugs the south side, and is worth a detour for both the scene and the samples.

Park Slope’s residential development took off in the 1880s, following the opening of the Gowanus Canal (late 1860s) and the Brooklyn Bridge (1883), and continued into the 1920s. Its streets of handsome brick and brownstone town homes and elegant apartment buildings were designed by and for the wealthy. But years of depression followed by years of war followed by decades of white flight and redlining led many of those buildings to be subdivided into rooming houses and smaller apartments, or to fall into disrepair. That wasn’t all bad – it meant, for example, that thousands of the Puerto Rican families who immigrated to New York City in the 1950s could find and fix up some pretty nice places.

The neighborhood’s subsequent re-gentrification followed a familiar pattern: first the lesbian couples (earning it the nickname “Dyke Slope”), then the public interest lawyers and writers and others with more education than money, then higher-priced lawyers and more famous writers, followed by people with mysterious careers in “finance” and “technology.”

What all this means is that there are layers to the neighborhood. That’s true throughout Brooklyn and New York City, but it’s especially noticeable in Park Slope: a New Age wellness spa shares a block with an old school hardware store; a Puerto Rican botánica looks out on a lesbian bar; you can chase that greasy $3 pizza slice with a $6 cup of artisan gelato or, if you prefer, a turmeric latte.

To immerse yourself in the neighborhood as it is today, consider checking out the annual Marathon Fun Day chili cook off at PS 118, the Maurice Sendak Community School, at Fourth Av and 7th St.  You can hang out with the PTA (thank god I no longer have to deal with PTA politics!), sample and vote on scads of chilis concocted by passionate amateur chefs, and more – including plenty of poster board and markers if you find yourself wanting to emulate all the clever signs you’ll see along the course. All it takes is a small donation ($8 last year, not including the bake sale items you’ll surely want to buy).

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You’ll find some of the best bagels in NYC right along the marathon course

For other sustenance on Marathon Sunday, Shelsky’s Brooklyn Bagels (453 Fourth Av) opened for business shortly after last year’s race, and has been turning out what are currently my favorite bagels (I like the whisper of salt on the sesame). These are bagels as god intended, small and gnarly and toothsome. The bialys are mighty fine as well, as are the (pricey) sandwiches. And just to keep things ecumenical, you can also pick up a loaf of peppery, cheese and prosciutto-laced lard bread, direct from Mazzola Bakery in Carroll Gardens.

Up on Fifth Av, Du Jour Bakery (365 Fifth Av) offers artful and delicious brunch fare and is always pushing the doughnut envelope (think Meyer lemon curd filling, or pumpkin-filled and meringue-topped, or a French toast doughnut that comes with a syringe of maple syrup). And I’m not even going to tell you about its kouign aman, because those are for me, ‘kay?

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Bike jam at the cafe

You could also stop by Cafe Martin (355 Fifth Av) to sip a cappuccino, read the paper and listen to music (or to other patrons’ conversations, because people come here to talk, not to hunch over their laptops). Martin handed the place off to a new owner a couple of years ago, which means the service is much less dour and sardonic than it used to be, but his photos (both of him and by him) continue to grace the walls, and I always hope that one of the bikes propped outside will turn out to be his. (It definitely won’t be one with a child trailer.)

Fort Greene/Clinton Hill

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Fort Greene welcomes you with color and style

Where it is. Lafayette Av after runners zig onto Flatbush and then zag around the Brooklyn Academy of Music, starting just past the 8 mile mark and continuing for a mile to the 9 mile mark at Lafayette and Classon. The best way to get there by subway is the C to Lafayette or the G to Fulton. Taking the G to Clinton-Washington will put you a bit farther along the course.

Why you should watch here. There’s no doubt in my mind: this is the prettiest part of the marathon route. Most of the race is run on wide avenues that are generally commercial, and sometimes outright dreary. Lafayette, in contrast, cuts through a residential neighborhood of big, beautiful trees and big, beautiful homes. The blocks between Portland and Vanderbilt, in particular, have an intimacy that other parts of the course lack (with the possible exception of a few blocks in Harlem, around Marcus Garvey Park, when, in all honesty, many runners are too zonked-out and bleary-eyed to notice their surroundings). It’s not just beautiful, but also festive and neighborly, like a giant block party. Even when I was insanely competitive, I never passed through Fort Greene without slapping at least a few kids’ hands.

What’s more, after leaving wide, divided Fourth Av, the runners from all three starts – blue, green and orange – are  together for the first time in the race, and the fact that Lafayette is a relatively narrow street seems to funnel the excitement of both the runners and the crowd. As a spectator, there’s no other section of the course where you’ll feel as close to the race as you do here. You’ll be able to see the sweat on the runners’ faces, their smiles or grimaces, those stupid fucking earbuds they’re wearing . . . and they’ll be able to see you.

Although I haven’t experienced it myself, an acquaintance who regularly watches the race here tells me there’s a neighborhood tradition of sticking around until the very last runner in the very last wave passes by. How cool is that?

The disadvantage of watching here relates to the advantages: narrow residential street, narrow residential sidewalks, BIG residential crowd. Oh, and those big trees that give the neighborhood so much character? They heave up sections of the pavement and make the narrow sidewalks even narrower. So expect crowds, and don’t expect to be able to saunter up in the thick of the race and be able to claim a front-row spot.

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Leafy, lovely Fort Greene

The neighborhood. Fort Greene and Clinton Hill developed as wealthy residential enclaves in the mid-1800s, when Park Slope was still the sticks. You can see that in the occasional clapboard buildings mixed in among Fort Greene’s brownstones, and in the robber baron mansions, complete with carriage houses, of Clinton Hill. Think of it this way: Park Slope was built for the well-paid lieutenants and retainers of Clinton Hill’s tycoons. If you’re into mansion-gawking, a detour off the marathon course along Clinton Avenue north of Dekalb will give you plenty to gawk at.

While you’re there, you might also want to take in the campus of the Pratt Institute (named after the oil baron Charles Pratt, who lived on Clinton in what is now the Founder’s Hall of St. Joseph’s College). Pratt’s sculpture park, open to the public, offers the possibility of a culture break from all that sweaty running.

Fort Greene’s housing stock is a bit more modest than Clinton Hill’s, but only a bit – and when the rich abandoned the borough, its classic brownstones held up better than the impractically large mansions of Clinton Hill. For much of the 20th century, Fort Greene was a neighborhood of African-American professionals, including many artists and musicians (it’s where film director Spike Lee grew up, and where his production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, is located, just off the course on Elliott Place).

It would be a shame to be in Fort Greene and not visit its namesake park (actually, both the neighborhood and the park are named after a revolutionary-era fort). Fort Greene Park, a block north of the marathon course, was designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, in their spare time between completing Central Park and beginning their true masterpiece, which is of course Prospect Park. Unlike those other two, Fort Greene Park is small enough to duck into and out of without missing too much of the race. Beautifully laid out and planted, it’s a true oasis. At its center, a giant column (fun fact: when it was erected in 1908, it was the tallest Doric column in the world) commemorates the prison ship martyrs – the American revolutionaries captured by the British and interned in floating concentration camps in nearby Wallabout Bay.

Fort Greene and Clinton Hill aren’t my regular stomping (or running) ground, and so I don’t have cherished personal favorite spots to share the way I do in Sunset Park and Park Slope; if you need recommendations, I invite you to peruse past years’ more comprehensive rundowns. I can tell you that the fried chicken at Peaches HotHouse (87 S. Elliott Place) is very good, if you’re in the mood for fried chicken . . . though I’d probably head down to Franklin Av, in Bed-Stuy, for one of the excessively (but deliciously) rich, brioche-like doughnuts at Dough (448 Lafayette Av).

Or you could always do both.

Greenpoint

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Greenpoint Starbucks, trying hard to fit in

Where it is. Manhattan Av from Bedford Av to Greenpoint Av, where the runners make a right turn as they head for the approach to the Pulaski Bridge, the race’s halfway point, and on into Queens. To get there, take the G to either Nassau Av (just past the 12 mile mark) or Greenpoint Av.

Why you should watch here. At this point in the race, many of the runners really, really need you. The number of grimacing walkers starts to increase along Bedford Av, and by the time the race makes the turn from Bedford onto Manhattan, you’ll see many people fighting both their pain (blisters, cramps, bleeding nipples) and the knowledge that they’re not even halfway through the race. They deserve your support.

Others, who paced themselves better, will be flying by, making it look easy (even though it’s not). They deserve your admiration.

You, in turn, deserve to watch the race in a charming, slightly old-fashioned business district that’s lined with places to grab something warm to drink or a bite to eat. Besides, don’t you want to give the runners a big Brooklyn send-off as they head for those other boroughs?

The neighborhood. Greenpoint is historically working class and Polish. Today, it’s a sometimes charming, sometimes annoying, sometimes just plain weird mix of old Polish people, new Polish immigrants, new non-Polish immigrants, hipsters (some immigrant, some native-born), classic Main Street businesses, hipster businesses, chain businesses, old industrial buildings used for industry, old industrial buildings converted into condos, old frame houses, new glassy high rises – whew.

Manhattan Av, right on the marathon course, is Greenpoint’s main commercial street and retains a small town, Main Street feel. Although there aren’t as many Polish businesses along it as there were even a few years ago (yet another bakery closed recently), it still has a definite Polish flavor – literally, in the case of the Old Poland bakery (926 Manhattan Av), which is where I always stop for a poppy seed or jam-filled something.  From there, you can go full-tilt hipster at Odd Fox Coffee (984 Manhattan Av), two blocks down.  Both of these take you a bit past the point at which the runners turn onto Greenpoint Av. Directly on the course, Old Greenpoint and New Greenpoint meet at the Polka Dot Café (726 Manhattan Av), which is my perennial marathon-day-in-Greenpoint recommendation for Polish food in a warm and inviting environment.

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Residential Greenpoint, old style

From the marathon course (if you can tear yourself away), Greenpoint’s East River waterfront is a few blocks to the west. The residential streets like Java, India and Huron are lined with modest frame houses that are probably now jaw-droppingly expensive, but still, in their general appearance (small yards cluttered with children’s toys, Halloween decorations) call to mind an era when Brooklyn’s working families could live comfortably on their union wages. Or take a longer walk down commercial/industrial Meserole Av, and contemplate the historical, cultural and economic forces that led Pinquist Tool & Die (the name is still on the building at 57 Meserole) to become a luxe florist, featuring a special “arid room” for “the wondrous plants of the desert.”

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Seriously?!?

Whichever route you take, when you reach Franklin St, you’ll have reached hipster central, with mysteriously named businesses like Vittles (well, I guess that one’s not so mysterious – it’s a café), Musk Ox (a barber) and Tend (a garden center). At Brother Vellie’s, you can buy fur-trimmed stilettos while signs remind you that “WE R ALL IN THIS TOGETHER” and “Sacrifice Recieve blessings.”

Between Franklin and the East River, glass towers are going up in a frenzy of development to meet the city’s desperate need for luxury housing.

I mock, I hate, I despair . . . and yet: when I reach the end of Manhattan Av, where it dead ends at polluted Newtown Creek, and I gaze at the Manhattan skyline to one side and the Pulaski Bridge, which the runners will soon be crossing, to the other; at the imposing brick complex that once made rope for the U.S. Navy and now houses the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center; across the creek to the canoes improbably stacked there; behind me, at the striking, mysterious sculptures that I first noticed more than five years ago and are, incredibly, still there; then back, to the working barges on the waterway . . . I remember how great it is to be in Brooklyn

Especially on Marathon Sunday.

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I’m glad these are still there

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Onward, to the Pulaski Bridge!

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