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Comment on this post by Sunday, December 8, for a chance to win this vintage copy of You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Own a Brownstone by Joy and Paul Wilkes.
A FRIEND recently gifted me with this relic, published in 1973 by Quadrangle/New York Times Co. According to the jacket copy, the book “puts to rest the myth that only the rich or super-rich can buy and renovate a city house.”
Today, of course, that myth is the sad truth, but 40 years ago, a person could indeed pick up one of many unrenovated houses going begging in Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods for a mere $30,000 or $50,000, with just a few thousand down.
That’s what the authors of this how-to did: they bought a house in 1970 (488 Second Street in Park Slope) with a pair of friends , renovated the lower duplex for themselves, by themselves, and survived to tell the tale.
Having read the book and re-lived those heady days of rubble and plaster dust, I’ve decided to pass the book along. To be entered in a random drawing to win it (which I will carry out using random.org), just comment on this post by Sunday December 8. Say anything: tell us if you are kicking yourself for not having bought a brownstone or three in the 1970s, or if you’re too young to have had the opportunity to blow, or just say “count me in.”
The book is well-written — one of its authors, Paul Wilkes, is a professional journalist who went on to write many books about spirituality, and the other is Joy Carol Haupt, an inspirational speaker; the two of them were co-founders of CHIPS, Christian Help in Park Slope, a soup kitchen and shelter on Fourth Avenue that’s still going strong. (They divorced shortly after completing their renovation and publishing the book.) It’s illustrated with black-and-white photos of their renovation and a few others, all displaying hallmarks of the era like exposed brick and tin ceilings. Their co-homeowners and upstairs neighbors were Lou and Jane Gropp; Lou went on to become editor-in-chief of Elle Decor and House Beautiful, and here you can see where it all began.
Some parts of the book are laughably outdated, but much still rings true and even helpful, in sections like Assessing what you can do, Step by step planning for a renovation, and Hints for living in a house under renovation. There are descriptions of architecture and wince-inducing house prices in brownstone neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and some references to other U.S. cities as well. Even today, the litany of a brownstone’s negative attributes sounds all too familiar: too many walls, not enough closets, a bathroom “so narrow you had to slip into it sideways,” water-stained floors, cracking and falling plaster, ancient appliances, ‘modernized’ mantels, and acoustical tile ceilings. All that can often still be found, for a handsome price.
The book brings back the earliest stages of gentrification, when the Dime and the Williamsburgh refused to lend money in the brownstone neighborhoods. And there’s a revealing reprint of an 1971 article by Paul Goldberger for the Wall Street Journal which describes Park Slope as a “dense inner-city neighborhood where raucous black and Puerto Rican children play in the streets, where several drug-rehabilitation centers treat area addicts” and where the “neighborhood’s main commercial stretch, Seventh Avenue, had become a sleazy stretch of failing shops and a promenade for prostitutes.” Meanwhile, the 3,000 or so “affluent young families” who had moved into the area by the early ’70s were busy “slaving away every night and weekend,” restoring gaslight chandeliers, stained glass windows and marble mantels, and holding block parties, even as they stepped over drunks in the gutters.
Comment for a chance to win the book…then read it and weep!
SUNDAY AFTERNOONS are made for places like the Sycamore Bar and Flowershop in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, a section of detached Victorians that comes as a welcome relief from the relentless trendiness of the closer-in-to-Manhattan neighborhoods.
The Sycamore is kind of like an old-time speakeasy, hidden behind a storefront flower shop. The bar is dark and atmospheric, with 70 kinds of bourbon, below, and a pleasant garden behind, where raw oysters were being shucked yesterday by the traveling Brooklyn Oyster Party.
My sister and I found our way there (Q train to Cortelyou Road), sampled the bourbon, then headed across the street to Mimi’s Hummus for warm hummus with whole chick peas, Jerusalem-style; beet and cauliflower salads; and chocolate balls rolled in coconut, called Punchim.
We ended up at Mayfield in Crown Heights and ordered fried oysters at the bar, served with smoked salmon and horseradish sauce, washed down with a crisp white Rioja.
This could become a habit.
Right: One-of-a-kind $15 bouquets of roses, ranunculus and assorted greens by Stems, the flower shop that shares space with the Sycamore Bar.
Photos: Stacie Sinder
SEEMS TO ME THE FALL COLORS — peaking late after an unseasonably warm October — are more brilliant than usual this year. Here in Brownstone Brooklyn, there’s no sense one needs to go up to Vermont or the Hudson Valley to be fully satisfied on that score. Above, Underhill Avenue in Prospect Heights. Below, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — my favorite urban refuge –in its autumnal glory.
NEW YORK HAS BEEN CHANGING FAST, in large part due to the soon-to-end 12-year reign of the not-entirely-beloved but undeniably greenery-conscious Mayor Bloomberg. Under his tenure, 750,000 trees have been planted and there have been innumerable improvements to the city’s public spaces, especially along the long-neglected waterfront. So the appearance this month of the 288-page Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes by Robin Lynn and Francis Morrone (W.W. Norton) is well-timed.
The book highlights 38 masterpieces of old and new landscape architecture, including such venerable favorites as Greenwood Cemetery, Washington Square Park, Union Square Park, the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, and so on. There are midtown plazas and atriums, and newer sites that have quickly become high-profile tourist draws, like the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park. But what pleases me most is the book’s inclusion of many unusual suspects.
Concrete Plant Park, the Bronx
For instance: Brooklyn’s leafy Eastern and Ocean Parkways, two of the most attractive and civilized boulevards in New York City (or anywhere), which rarely get their due. There are detailed descriptions of such obscure sites as the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint, along a formerly waste-strewn industrial waterway; Erie Basin Park in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where IKEA built a 7-acre waterfront access facility on the site of a historic dry dock, and did it so well the critics were silenced; as well as new parks and sites in all five boroughs and on Roosevelt, Governor’s and Randall’s Islands.
Paley Park, Manhattan
I found the photography disappointing, a lost opportunity to romance some strikingly beautiful places. Edward A Toran’s photos are mostly overalls, lacking in intimacy, and often shot with harsh shadows or in dappled light. But the writing, including a stirring, nostalgic foreword by Pete Hamill and a reprint of a very funny 1914 New York Times article by critic James Huneker about Manhattan’s parks, which he called our “lungs,” help make up for it.
Columbus Circle, Manhattan
Quirky suggestions for eating and drinking near the featured landscapes include the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens (NYC’s last remaining outdoor beer garden) and the café at Fairway in Red Hook, whose dramatic harbor view is surely unique among supermarkets.
Going forward, a blog will keep the book’s info up-to-date.
Bryant Park, Manhattan
I LEARNED MANY NEW THINGS on Classic Harbor Line‘s architecture-focused “Around Manhattan Now” cruise last Friday, and was reminded of others I once knew but had forgotten. For example: the Statue of Liberty never gets old.
She just doesn’t. Every time you see her, no matter how frequently, your heart leaps a little. Especially from the deck of a mahogany-trimmed 1920s-style yacht, with a mimosa in hand.
A seafarer I am not, but the trip was smooth, exhilarating, and overall a class act. It didn’t hurt that the day was perfection, the skyline crowned blue with cartoon clouds. We embarked on the luxury yacht Manhattan at Chelsea Piers on West 22nd Street, and for the next three hours, American Institute of Architects docent Arthur Platt provided non-stop narration, emphasizing what’s new — and there is plenty — on the waterfronts of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, New Jersey, Governor’s and Roosevelt Islands.
The Manhattan is one of five boats, all replicas of vintage vessels, including two schooners — the Adirondack, above, and the America – and two smaller, more intimate motorized yachts, the Beacon and the Kingston. There’s a full slate of cruises, some narrated, some not — including a specialized infrastructure tour just for bridge nerds- – 7 swing bridges! 3 lift bridges! 4 arch bridges! — and the boats are available for private charters as well. Lest you think I’m shilling for Classic Harbor Lines because my daughter works for them as a crew member on several of their vessels, know that my enthusiasm is shared by many others.
I began in the cabin of the Manhattan, lured indoors by the plush atmosphere and air conditioning, and took my first photo through a window, below, of the Empire State Building, Jean Nouvel’s modernistic 100 Eleventh Avenue, and the mesh screen of the Chelsea Piers golf driving range, as we pulled away from the dock. Then I ran out to the deck and stayed there for the remainder of the cruise, trying to follow the rapid-fire narration as Arthur pointed out buildings of interest on all shores. The boat moved fast, and it was hard to take in all the images and information as we steamed along (though we did linger pleasantly for a while at Liberty Island, and again in the Harlem River, waiting for the Spuyten Duyvil Bridge to open and allow us back into the Hudson).
Soon we were out in mid-river, above, gazing back upon the city, and being struck once more by its monumentality.
The Chelsea High Line — a mile-long public garden planted atop a once-derelict stretch of elevated railway — and the related explosion of new construction around it, streamed past on the West Side, above.
Above, Richard Meier’s Perry Street towers were among the first modern buildings in the West Village, and remain among the few.
Cruising past SoHo, Arthur treated us to the unsavory details of Donald Trump’s machinations to get the city to allow him to build an out-of-scale glass tower on Spring Street, above, claiming it would be a hotel, then selling the “suites” as apartments.
Goodbye to Midtown, above, as we headed south on the Hudson…
Hello to Downtown, above – Battery Park City, the curved facade of 200 West Street (Goldman Sacks) by Pei Cobb Freed Adamson, and the new Freedom Tower (now apparently called World Trade Center), helping make up for the loss of the Twin Towers and making lower Manhattan look almost normal again.
I marveled at how good Jersey City, above, is looking these days…
and wondered when Ellis Island, that great Victorian pile, and its immigration museum will reopen (it’s been closed since Sandy).
We sidled along Governor’s Island, but the piles of rubble along the waterfront were not picturesque enough for my camera (they are demolishing old Coast Guard barracks, and there are great plans for new landscaping in the works). We rounded Battery Park and entered the East River, below…
appreciating the distinctive yellow William Beaver building by Tsao & McKown, above, like a splash of sunlight in the canyons of the Financial District.
I felt sad seeing the hulk of South Street Seaport, abandoned since Sandy. Supposedly it’s to be replaced with something altogether different and hopefully more successful, but that all seems uncertain and wasn’t it only about thirty years old anyway?
Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street, with its innovative wavy facade, above, out-marvels the once-marvelous, century-old Woolworth Building, briefly the tallest in the world.
Above, another ageless icon that needs no naming…
and a close-up of Jane’s Carousel at Brooklyn Bridge Park, a restored vintage merry-go-round in its ultra-modern Jean Nouvel housing.
In short order, we’re passing under the Manhattan Bridge, above, and alongside the revitalized-at-lightning speed DUMBO neighborhood…
then looking back toward those two bridges, near-age siblings (1883 and 1903, respectively), as we steamed north.
Here comes the Williamsburg Bridge, above…
hard by the now-closed Domino Sugar factory, soon to be converted to glitzy residential units by SHoP Architects.
I’m skipping (for blog purposes) the dull visuals of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village on the East Side of Manhattan. Above, the ever-inspiring Chrysler Building and the 1950s UN Headquarters, sparkling and stunning after its recent refurbishment.
We pass under another of New York’s monumental bridgeworks — the Queensboro/59th Street Bridge, in whose shadow I spent my early childhood (though you can’t see my old Long Island City neighborhood from here because of subsequent massive building on Roosevelt Island, below).
Happily, the Pepsi sign is landmarked…
Plenty of new apartments to go around on Roosevelt Island, above, it would seem. There’s also the husk of a Victorian hospital, below, which I explored with two college friends in the late 1960s, finding unspeakable things in jars. Why it has not been demolished, I can’t tell you. [NOTE: These photos are a little out of order]
We’re now in the upper East River, heading toward the Bronx. Below, part of the Upper East Side of Manhattan…
and the Triborough Bridge, below, evocatively named for its construction linking the Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan (but recently and pointlessly renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, which pisses me off).
Now we’re in the narrower Harlem River, below, between upper Manhattan and the Bronx, passing such landmarks as Yankee Stadium and the Tuckitaway Storage company, which Arthur mentions (twice) as an example of how businesses and people were forced out of Manhattan and into the Bronx when parts of the former were reassigned to the later — and how they resented it.
The turret, below, belongs to the Third Avenue rotation bridge, one of 13 (!) bridges linking Manhattan and the Bronx. I love the old curlicued cast iron light post, and the fact that it remains.
Below, the Peter J. Sharp Boathouse by Robert A.M. Stern…
And the embankment, below, where Columbia University graduates should feel a swell of pride.
Above, a surprisingly natural marshy cove in the Inwood section of upper Manhattan, with a recently installed floating art piece made of discarded umbrellas…
and Washington Bridge, another of the of 13 mostly walkable bridges across the Harlem River.
Finally we reach the Spuyten Duyvil (“spouting devil” in Dutch, as this is where the waters of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers meet, their different tides and compositions creating a treacherous whirlpool). The captain of the Manhattan called for the bridge to be manually opened for us, giving us time to catch our breaths before…
entering the wide waters of the Hudson River.
The change of direction got people up into the bow with their cameras as the George Washington Bridge approached…
its little red lighthouse of children’s book fame still standing proud, saved when threatened with demolition in the 1930s by its children’s book fame.
We cruised past Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Church, and the classic, elegant apartment buildings of the old Upper West Side, above…
which transitioned rapidly to the glassy towers of the new West Side, south of 72nd Street.
Above, a place I’d like to go for lunch one summer day, whose name I didn’t catch…
and the fabulous, shiplike Starrett-Lehigh Building on West 26th Street, an Art Deco monument that now houses Martha Stewart Omnimedia and other design-oriented companies.
Shortly thereafter, we disembarked at Chelsea Piers, exhausted from the sun and the wind and just being out on the water. Though I hadn’t actually done anything but run from one side of the boat to the other, snapping unsteady pictures of just a few of the 156 sites on the map we were given, I slept very well that night.
Since then, I’ve realized anew that New York is more than merely a city. It’s a civilization.