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IT BEGAN when my daughter moved into a Prospect Heights brownstone with a struggling pine tree in a barrel out front. Each time I visited, I eyed the dead branches, wishing I could take a pruner to the thing and tidy it up. One day, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I told her, “I’m going to prune that pine. If your landlord says anything, tell him your mother is an itinerant urban gardener who goes around pruning people’s shrubs unbidden.”
While my East Hampton house is rented out, I’ve been getting my gardening jollies catching up on maintenance in the yards of my buildings in Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill. I ride around with a wooden box of garden tools in the back of my car — a hand rake, lopper, pruner, shovel, gloves, trash bags. When the urge to garden strikes, I’m ready. But I can see how this could get out of hand. Last week, I was walking along a Park Slope sidewalk and saw a lovely Japanese maple in a cobalt pot in someone’s front yard. It was full of weeds. My fingers itched to reach over the iron fence and pull them out, but I restrained myself. One recent morning, in Philadelphia to visit my son, I went out in my pajamas at 7AM and pulled 2-foot-tall weeds out of cracks in the sidewalk in front of his building … and the building next door.
Soon, I’ll have my half-acre to play with. In the meantime, I stealth-garden on other people’s property and enjoy what they’re doing with their window boxes, tree pits and containers. They’re doing a lot; it’s an encouraging sign of the times.
Below: March of the pots, a trend I’ve spotted this year for the first time. This is good news. In decades past, they might well have been stolen.
Above: Window box explosion in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood. Below: Ivy and seasonal containers decorate a carriage house in Old Kensington.
Below: Orange cosmos and white gaura have burst through the iron fence around this apartment building in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, seeding themselves in cracks in the sidewalk.
Below: A proudly tended Brooklyn tree pit with petunias and variegated hosta.
LEAVE BROOKLYN FOR A LITTLE WHILE, you come back and find new things happening left and right. Reacquainting myself with my neighborhood after some months spent mostly out on the East End of Long Island, I’m aware of a definite and positive buzz.
Railroad tracks running along Atlantic Avenue near the newly opened Barclay’s Center. The building on the left is one of many vintage warehouses being developed as office space
Some of it has to do with the newly opened Barclay’s Center, below, long dreaded and much reviled in advance. My surprising assessment, now that it’s here: not bad. I was never enthused about the idea of a basketball arena at the intersection of Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, and Prospect Heights, fearing that with Bruce Ratner as developer, it would turn out something like the bland horror that is Madison Square Garden — especially when Frank Gehry dropped out as architect. But neither was I unutterably opposed to the project, since the area was already blighted, made up mostly of railroad yards that added nothing to the surrounding district, and it threatened to remain like that forever if planned projects kept failing to launch.
The surprising thing is that I don’t mind the architecture, by the Manhattan-based firm SHoP. It’s a rusty hulk, not necessarily in a bad way. It’s interestingly articulated and pleasing at night, when light shines through slots in the steel cladding. There’s a swooping marquee with a keyhole open to the sky that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and a new subway entrance with a sedum-planted roof. I find it less objectionable than expected at worst, exciting at best.
A new mural has appeared since I last looked on the side of the Mark Morris dance studio, part of the BAM Cultural District
Traffic is whizzing along Flatbush Avenue like never before, thanks to new lanes and personnel. There are complaints by neighbors, to be sure, about arena patrons peeing in the bushes of surrounding brownstone blocks. If urine is the worst problem, I’d say it’s been worth it for the economic engine this thing is likely to be. Vacant storefronts on the avenue are fewer. The Fulton Street corridor in Fort Greene is packed with newish restaurants and shops of a decidedly gentrified nature. Fulton Street! If I could tell you how inconceivable it was in 1979, when we bought an 1830s row house nearby for $36,000, that the neighborhood would ever be — not only desirable, but the essence of hip. We stepped over bums (that’s what we used to call them) on our stoop daily, couldn’t get Manhattan friends to visit, and traveled by bus to shop in Brooklyn Heights. Of course that was 33 years ago; but that’s how long it can take for a neighborhood to turn fully around.
It’s turned. The other night, my sister and I met at No. 7, a bar/restaurant that comes by its retro feel honestly; it’s part of a great row of old wooden storefronts where Greene Avenue meets Fulton. After a fancy gin cocktail — muddled blueberries and elderflower liquer, don’t ya know — we repaired to the cozy Cafe Lafayette around the corner, where I had a very satisfying couscous dish for a few dollars. Then we hied over to the newest performance space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (above, the main Opera House), the BAM Fisher, below, a 1928 building refurbished and expanded to accommodate more of BAM’s uncompromisingly avant garde productions. We saw ‘Elsewhere,’ part of the New Wave Festival, billed as a cello opera. All I knew going in was that it was about women, and the tickets were $20. It was both exhilarating and disturbing, a combination of movement, sound, spoken word, projections, performance art, and bizarre imagery. The good news: it was only 70 minutes long and we left laughing.
The high-rise development of lower Flatbush Avenue, near the Manhattan Bridge, is creeping northward. A sliver of skyscraper at #29 Flatbush, below, is still crane-topped but already very tall.
Soon the 1929 Williamsburgh Savings Bank, below, for decades the tallest building in Brooklyn at 29 stories, will be eclipsed by many others. So it goes. As long as the architecture of the brownstone neighborhoods is protected (and for the most part, it is), I’m generally in favor of what seems like real progress. Where the Barclay’s Center is concerned, I may never go to a Nets or Islanders game, and I’m not one for huge arena concerts, but so far, I’m a fan.
THAT’S SOME SUPER-MODERN townhouse among the brownstones, above, but to my surprise, the often snarky commenters on Brownstoner seem to like it. Most of them anyway. I was afraid the architects, Ben and Christine Hansen, might be raked over the coals.
You’re looking at the rear view, by the way — there’s a kitchen in that zinc-clad cantilevered extension. Go here to read the whole thing.
FOR THE RECORD, I’m still here. Bouncing back and forth between East Hampton and Brooklyn, and heading for a record low number of casaCARA posts this month. Reasons why:
- Work. I’m starting a second weekly column on Brownstoner.com, the behemoth Brooklyn real estate website — a garden series called The Outsider, and it will debut on Sunday, April 22 (the first time the 7-year-old site has had any weekend content, I believe). Between that and The Insider, my Thursday interior design/reno column for Brownstoner, I’ve been following up leads, uploading photos, doing phone interviews, and trying to keep designers and projects straight in my mind.
- Celebrations. My birthday was in Brooklyn this year, on a Sunday with the Prospect Heights garden, below, in full bloom. Then there was Passover with back-to-back seders, a couple of dinners out to catch up with old friends, and a bit of big-city shopping and cultural activity (Dr. John at BAM and Death of a Salesman — first time in years I haven’t been disappointed in a Broadway play).
- Bummers. The deal I was hoping to make this spring, on a 1962 modernist house in East Hampton, below, seems to be dead in the water (near the water, rather: Gardiner’s Bay). The owner, still ambivalent about selling, strung me along yet again and told me I should look for another house. Which I have been, though interesting properties out here are few and far between; I’m more conscious of bad architecture, bottom, than good. I threw the Viking runes and they counseled patience, always good advice for a rash Aries like me. I figure if I’m meant to have that place eventually, I will. If not, well, maybe I’ll end up with something that suits me even better.
- Renovation. Prepped the basement in my Boerum Hill building for a new concrete floor and masonry repair this week, which entailed going through years worth of stored tools and other items to see if there was anything worth salvaging. It was hard, dusty work. The house is very old, c.1830, and has had its original dirt floor since we bought it 33 years ago. This job is long overdue.
- Gardening. Meanwhile, I’m proceeding in Springs (East Hampton, N.Y.), below, as if I’m not going anywhere. Planted two dogwoods (a kousa and a Florida) and three red-twig dogwood shrubs. Today I’m putting in a small red Japanese maple and some lilac bushes given me by a friend. It is beautiful here, and I do love it.
- New prospects. I’m turning my attention to three-family houses in Brooklyn for rental/investment (Bed-Stuy is in my price range, and I’m planning to explore Bushwick). My real-estate soul is restless!
Too bad to be believed: typical Hamptons “architecture,” above. Yard sale wasn’t bad, though.