NEW YORK — Stroll among the warehouses in the Gowanus neighborhood and you’ll find gritty industrial parts of Brooklyn giving way to hipster chic. A coffee shop decorated with taxidermied animals. Men who favor fashionably chunky glasses, women who wear high-waisted jeans. A local hot spot that serves salted honey pie along with “wild foraged edibles.”
And judging from conversations with store owners, pubgoers, and signs in the windows, the boss of this cool realm, at least for the next week or so, is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
The Democratic presidential candidate, who was born in Brooklyn, opened a New York office in this eclectic neighborhood late last month, laying the groundwork for a campaign to take on Hillary Clinton in her adopted home state.
In a race that continually tests Clinton’s aura of inevitability and reveals her vulnerabilities as a candidate, the state’s former US senator has to win the April 19 primary in New York to avoid a walloping psychological blow.
Sanders’ move — opening an office just a healthy walk from Clinton’s national headquarters in an office high-rise in Brooklyn Heights — made the borough the symbolic center of a contest that underscores the competing forces in their tense rivalry.
Battle lines are drawn through neighborhoods brimming with traditional party loyalists backing Clinton and younger Sanders supporters clamoring for revolutionary change.
The fact that both candidates decided to plant their offices here highlights how neatly Brooklyn works as a microcosm of the Democratic electorate and reveals the difficulty that the eventual nominee will have uniting the factions.
There’s little evidence that Sanders is making large inroads with the blacks, Hispanics, or business leaders who have flocked to various Brooklyn neighborhoods in the five decades since he left.
But equally, the young idealists who fill the edgier parts of this borough and are injecting new energy into the Democratic Party aren’t particularly eager to embrace Clinton, who doesn’t seem to them to be in vanguard of much of anything.
Before New Yorkers vote, there will be primary contests in Wisconsin and Wyoming. Sanders is favored to prevail in both, and if he does, he’d go into New York after seven straight victories. But since he’s taking mostly small states, he has not yet significantly cracked Clinton’s formidable delegate lead.
That could change if he wins big in populous New York and can claim greater momentum heading into the final 15 states of the primary season.
Naturally, both candidates play up their ties to the state, whether through Sanders’ unmistakable Brooklyn accent or Clinton’s eight years representing the state in the Senate.
“New Yorkers took a chance on me, and I will never forget that,” Clinton said Wednesday afternoon at the Apollo Theater in Manhattan.
The next day, filmmaker Spike Lee introduced Sanders at an outdoor rally in the South Bronx saying: “My guy! Bernie from Brooklyn!”
Sanders talked about being raised in an apartment in the borough’s Midwood neighborhood. His father, then a recent Polish immigrant and salesman, figures strongly in the brief telling of Sanders’ life story.
“I learned a little bit about what it means to grow up in a family that has no money, and I also learned a little bit about the immigrant experience — those lessons I will never forget,” Sanders said.
Of the two headquarters, Clinton’s campaign offices are physically closest to Sanders’ favorite target, Wall Street, separated by a short subway ride under the East River. One Pierrepont Plaza, where Clinton’s team occupies two floors, has also been a home to the back-office bank workers of Morgan Stanley. St. Ann’s School, just across from Clinton’s headquarters, charges $36,080 for preschool.
The Clinton-occupied high-rise has 24-hour security in the polished lobby, which means meandering into the campaign headquarters without an appointment isn’t an option. Those who get in will see cubicles with an open floor plan and — for some — a commanding view of the borough.
Clinton’s team picked Brooklyn Heights because of its central location and proximity to public transit — it’s near 12 subway lines and 12 bus routes. It is also, as it happens, a destination neighborhood for New Yorkers with money.
“You have half of Wall Street that lives here,” explained Bruce Andreozzi, 72, a longtime resident who brushed his aging chocolate Labrador on the promenade overlooking the river on a sunny afternoon. “This place is so upscale.”
The neighborhood is home to judges, living close to a cluster of courthouses here including the Kings County Supreme Court and the New York City Housing Court. Top lawyers inhabit the neighborhood for the same reason.
In other words, it’s home to a handsome chunk of the New York establishment. But like Clinton’s campaign at its best, the neighborhood opens its arms to a broad swath of people beyond its well-to-do core.
At least that’s how it feels to Tarsha Rose, who lives in the nearby Fort Greene housing projects but prefers to wander through Brooklyn Heights while her 7-year-old son is at school.
“I like to look at the apartments. They’re big, and I know they cost,” Rose, 41, said, sitting on a sun-dappled bench near the water.
She’s going to vote for Clinton but not for a specific policy reason — mostly because she seems strong. “There is so much to say about her, good things,” Rose said.
Sanders’ Brooklyn office is blocks from the water, too, but nobody goes to sun themselves along the nearby Gowanus Canal. You can smell the water, and not in a charming way, when the wind blows from the west.
At a nearby restaurant, a Sanders campaign staffer recalled that a dolphin swam up the fetid canal a few years back. The animal died.
What Gowanus lacks in marine life, it overcompensates for with young people. Artists. Musicians. Glass-blowers. Like Sanders’ political career, the neighborhood has been on the fringe for a long time. Suddenly people want to be a part of it.
They celebrated at a block party when Sanders’ camp officially opened in the converted one-story warehouse. People who poke their heads into the office see natural light flooding in through skylights. Bikes rest against the walls. Exposed beams cut across vaulted ceilings.
Staffers lunch at a nearby Whole Foods, which is specially outfitted with solar panels, wind turbines, and a bike repair stand.
Current polls predict a Clinton victory in this state, with the former New York senator besting Sanders 54 percent to 42 percent in the latest Quinnipiac survey. White voters split nearly evenly between the two candidates, mimicking many other big states, according to the poll. And African-American voters back Clinton overwhelmingly, providing her a healthy cushion.
But everyone knows that in 2016, polls have often been wrong. “We’re kind of used to people telling us what we can’t do,” said Robert Becker, Sanders’ deputy national field director. He predicted that Sanders would “do well” in the state without defining what “do well” would be exactly.
The plan involves Sanders talking about a host of local issues including his opposition to fracking and his concerns about an aging nuclear reactor at the Indian Point Energy Center, Becker said.
But the hipsters are also injecting some ideas of their own. On Monday, a group of New Yorkers plan a party billed as “call to action” for “artists, activists, creators, and storytellers.”
Guests are encouraged to show up in Bernie Sanders costumes.
Clinton is taking a more traditional route; one of her fund-raising events offered comedian and top Donald Trump antagonist Rosie O’Donnell. Clinton is also touring the state highlighting her successes here as a senator, including partnerships she forged with large corporations to bolster the economies in rural parts of the state.
Or, as Clinton pollster Joel Benenson put it: “He’s going to campaign like a Brooklynite, and she’s going to campaign like a senator who represented this state for eight years and has lived here for 16.”
It is a recipe for more fighting, something the two have taken to with increasing ferocity.
The latest spat between them is over when to hold the next Democratic debate, which both camps agree should take place in New York. On Saturday, Brian Fallon, Clinton’s spokesman, blasted Sanders’ campaign for rejecting three dates.
“The Sanders campaign needs to stop using the New York primary as a playground for political games and negative attacks,” he said.
Sanders’ spokesman, Michael Briggs, countered within minutes that one proposed date is “ludicrous” because it coincides with the college basketball finals, “with Syracuse in the tournament no less.”