Greenpoint is known as a Polish immigrant neighborhood.
But if you walk north on Manhattan Avenue, past three blocks of shuttered storefronts, the Polish meat markets are being replaced by bodegas and Mexican restaurants.
If you go one block farther, you will see factories and giant brick industrial buildings.
Here in this unlikely location, at the northernmost tip of Greenpoint, and nestled between Box and Ash Streets sits the aptly named Ashbox Café, an upscale coffee shop.
The owner, Yoko Kubo, 47, is a Japanese immigrant, who serves factory workers and local artists green teas, edamame, homemade tofu and Japanese fluffy bread. She is part of an increasingly diverse neighborhood that includes Poles, Latinos, loft-dwelling artists – and a handful of Japanese.
Kubo is a minority immigrant in a sea of others, yet she somehow feels at home here – even more so after a recent personal tragedy.
“The reason why I like living here is that the people are very friendly,” Kubo said from behind the counter one recent Tuesday afternoon.
When Kubo first immigrated with her husband, Yu, to the United States from Tokyo, Japan 13 years ago, they moved to Manhattan — a place where she never really felt comfortable.
“Tokyo is just like Manhattan. It’s so crowded. Too many people,” she said.
A Neighborhood Staple
Kubo got the opportunity to leave her job as manager of a fancy Japanese restaurant in Midtown in early 2008 when she and her husband took over management of the Ashbox Café, the northernmost coffee shop in Brooklyn. The two had been living in Greenpoint for 11 years by this point, and the café had been a staple of the neighborhood for five years, with two previous owners.
For Kubo, it was the perfect fit – she had run a coffee shop back in Tokyo and was an expert in teas. She infused the western coffee shop with a “Japanese taste” so that there would be “more than just sandwiches,” she said.
“There’s a similarity to some of the small shops [in Japan],” said Gregor Asch, a.k.a. DJ Olive the Audio Janitor, who has lived in Greenpoint for 19 of his 40 years. “The people who own the shop also do the cooking and are very attentive to the detail of what’s going in the food.”
Although Kubo is one of only a small number Japanese in the area, she says that she feels a greater sense of community in Greenpoint than what she ever experienced in Japan.
“It’s not so close in neighborhoods in Japan. So I feel more comfortable to live here, because of the people,” Kubo said.
The community atmosphere she strives to create for her customers — many of whom come to the shop three times a day — is similar.
‘A Warm Feeling’
“I’m always looking for places where I can sit with my laptop and work, and it’s a really, really peaceful environment here,” said Anya Rozenblat, 31, a photographer originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, who has lived in Greenpoint for three years.
Kubo’s husband passed away in March at age 67. He had been sick on and off for the past two years and the community supported the couple.
When Kubo was still working in Manhattan, “I gave the keys for my to apartment to my friends,” she said. That way if her ailing husband had an emergency, their Brooklyn friends could get to him faster.
After her husband died, Kubo closed the store for ten days. She returned to find her doorstep covered in prayer candles and flowers.
“I had a warm feeling for neighborhood and customers at Ashbox,” Kubo said.