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A SWITCH has been thrown somewhere — “Garden ON” — and spring is busting out all over. Everyone with a Facebook page has been deliriously posting pictures of daffodils and magnolia blossoms, but indulge me a few, if you will. These, taken about 10 days ago at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, already seem a moment that has passed. Things are farther along now. To me (not being a bee), that’s the chief meaning and purpose of flowers: a reminder of how beautiful, and heartbreakingly ephemeral, it all is. And by “it,” I mean life.
On a lighter note, how funny is this sign, spotted in front of a Flatbush Avenue dive bar? “Spring is the time of plans and projects,” a quote from none other than Tolstoy, with whom I heartily concur — and also $4 drafts!
An odd thing happened with the onset of April, which always feels like real New Year’s to me. Two days ago, I signed a contract of sale on my cottage in East Hampton, the renovation and landscaping of which has been a recurring subject on this five-year-old blog. It was an emotional roller coaster to the end, with yet another near-deal falling through and a decisive buyer stepping up just last week. We’ll close on or before May 15. That is a great relief, of course — the house was officially on the market only six months, but it had begun to feel like forever.
But that’s not the odd thing. The odd thing is, now that the real-estate paralysis has lifted, I feel like blogging again. I have a backlog of drafts and posts to write. Fair warning! Meanwhile, consider the flowers.
A TRIP TO THE NEW CROWN HEIGHTS STORE, Reclaimed Home, could just save you a longer trip upstate. The architectural salvage and secondhand furniture on offer here are reminiscent of what you might find while foraging at the Stormville flea market in Putnam County, or in a Catskills antique store.
The spacious shop, which opened last weekend at 945 Carroll Street, in a former tattoo parlor a block from the 1000 Washington Avenue entrance to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, is a joint project of two longtime friends, top — Phyllis Bobb, a veteran flea market vendor who formerly owned a Victorian house in Beacon, N.Y. (its renovation is fully documented on her 7-year-old blog), and fine-arts painter Emilia DeVitis.
The repurposed pieces in the store, however — a decorative 19th century radiator grille used as the top of a side table, for instance, or a 1920s ‘waterfall’ dresser on wooden wheels, given new pizzazz with a painted red chevron design, are unique in all the world. Prices are accessible, and the info on the price tags exhaustive and painfully honest — a cast-iron chandelier is marked “Not vintage,” a piece in mid-paint job “Not finished yet.”
Check out the website, which displays many of the pieces for sale in the shop, with detailed descriptions and prices, or better yet, go to the store. It’s open five days (Wednesday-Friday 9-5; Saturday and Sunday 10-6, Monday and Tuesday by appointment).
BROOKLYN IS VAST — a mighty city in its own right until 1898, when it was consolidated into New York City and forever after out-dazzled by its skinny neighbor across the river. Considered on its own, the borough of Brooklyn is the fourth most populous city in the U.S. (and, I hear, the third most expensive after San Francisco and Manhattan). It sprawls seven miles from the Brooklyn Bridge to Sheepshead Bay, a patchwork of amorphous neighborhoods whose names and borders shift with changing demographics.
Old industrial building on Bergen St, developed as offices for creative types
Corner of Bergen and Franklin
And boy, are they changing, nowhere faster than in Crown Heights. I only stuck my toe in the waters of Crown Heights the other day, almost for the first time, when a friend and I set out to take a walk and ended up cruising Franklin Avenue, an artery exploding with restaurants, cheese shops, bakeries, wine bars, and vintage clothing stores on the northern side of Eastern Parkway, and nothing but laundromats and bodegas south of it. The Line of Yuppification, as a friend used to say, is stark.
Little Zelda, an appealing coffee shop
Rosebud Vintage, one of several
Wedge, a fancy cheese shop
We discovered an elevated subway line we never knew existed (the S train, a shuttle that runs only three or four stops between major lines), scoped out some beautiful industrial buildings, popped in and out of various shops, and ended up at cozy Cent’Anni in time for happy hour (5-7PM Monday-Friday, $4 wine and $2 crostini). Happy were we.
Below: the attractive Fez, now closed, soon to re-open
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