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WHO WAS IT THAT SAID if you live long enough, you see everything? If you’ve lived in Brooklyn long enough (which I have — 35 years), you’ve seen the bleak no-person’s-land around the grievously polluted Gowanus Canal become a coveted place to live. The Whole Foods rapidly rising at the intersection of Third Avenue and Third Street is incontrovertible proof of the neighborhood’s arrival, along with a slew of new restaurants (Runner and Stone, Little Neck, The Pines, Fletcher’s Barbeque), catering to occupants of the new mid-rise buildings that have gone up along Fourth Avenue in the few years since NYC allowed residential construction up to 12 stories along that commercial corridor.
<– My oracle
Gowanus is still not a beautiful neighborhood — it has more car washes than trees — but it does have good skies, I’ll give it that. I was there yesterday to pick up a couple of things at Lowe’s, as well as needing to while away a mid-winter afternoon. To make it more interesting, I walked into Build It Green NYC, below, a year-old non-profit architectural salvage warehouse on Ninth Street. It’s the second in the city; the original, in Astoria, Queens, gets bulk construction materials coming off the Triborough Bridge, I was told (I’ll never call it the RFK Bridge, nor will I call the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel), but the Gowanus branch has an impressive stock of vintage sinks and woodwork and lighting fixtures. Worth checking out.
Then, as the day faded away, I stopped into Four and Twenty Blackbirds, one of the first signs of the Gowanus revival when it opened several years ago, for a cup of coffee and a piece of salted caramel apple pie. I needed to reassure myself that Brooklyn wasn’t turning into Manhattan, and this tin-walled, neighborhood-y spot, where people hunched over laptops and children did homework at communal tables, was just the thing to relieve my isolation and help pass the time until I received the email I was waiting for: confirmation, finally, of a closing date for the house I’ve been in the process of buying for …well, it’s nearly two years since I made my first inquiry to the owner. March 27 is the day; not as soon as I would like, but soon enough.
When I got home, I reached into my velvet bag of Viking Rune stones, seeking the meaning of this further delay, and counsel on how to spend spend the next few weeks of waiting on top of waiting. As always, the oracle was spot on. I drew Thurisaz (“Gateway”), Reversed, top, and read the interpretation in the accompanying book. It’s a Rune of “non-action,” as it happens, indicating further “work to be done both inside and outside yourself.”
“This Rune strengthens your ability to wait,” the book says. “The Gateway is not to be approached and passed through without contemplation. You will have reason to halt, to reconsider the old, to integrate the new. Take advantage of these halts.” (I feel I was doing just that with the pie.) “Be still, collect yourself, and wait on the Will of Heaven.”
SANDY, YOU BITCH. As one radio host put it, Sandy is a terrible name for a hurricane; it sounds like a girl you dated in high school. This massive hybrid “superstorm” needed a much more formidable name. Medea, maybe, or Zarathustra.
It was strange. Here in NYC, there wasn’t much rain at all. High winds pushed waters from the East and Hudson Rivers up onto the land, an unprecedented and very frightening event. The north Brooklyn neighborhoods hardest hit were Red Hook, Gowanus and DUMBO. I didn’t see the damage myself. I’ve been here high and dry, in my Prospect Heights apartment; when Mayor Bloomberg says to stay inside, I stay inside. It was only on seeing the shocking photos and videos, and hearing stories, that I began to grasp the extent of the destruction.
I’d come into Brooklyn from my Long Island cottage for a jury duty summons on Monday, now cancelled until further notice. Lucky I did, because my community in Springs was power-less for three days. Waiting out the storm here, snug in my brownstone pied-a-terre, I dodged the Sandy bullet completely. Prepared for the worst with food for three weeks, buckets of water, enough candles to fully observe every Jewish holiday between now and the year 6000, Sandy blew through Monday night while I slept. My lights didn’t even flicker.
When I ventured out, tentatively, on Tuesday afternoon, it was to meet a friend in one of the few open cafes. By today, Thursday, any venturing is still, of necessity, on foot. Public transportation is just resuming on a very limited basis. The shuttle buses the city has organized to replace the flooded subway lines between Brooklyn and Manhattan have their own long queues, above. Roads are gridlocked, and there are long lines for gas as well. For me, with my flexible lifestyle, these are only the merest inconveniences.
Yet for many, life has stopped. It’s apocalyptic in some places; you’ve seen it on the news. People are stuck in Manhattan high-rises, running low on food supplies. They’re rescuing people in rubber boats from Hoboken row houses. Overheard today at the gym: “…under two feet of water…” “..lost both cars and a motorcycle…” “…had just retired to the Jersey shore…” Meanwhile, my upstairs neighbor just told me, sheepishly, she had fresh-made mozzarella for lunch, from a fancy, well-stocked deli in Cobble Hill.
Today, I go about my quiet business with an enhanced attitude of gratitude.
CHOOSING EXTERIOR PAINT COLORS is even more nerve-wracking than choosing interior paint colors. After all, everyone will see them. And you have to consider context. You don’t (I don’t anyway) want it to clash with the house next door.
I’m doing some spiffing up at my 3-family rental property in Boerum Hill this month. It’s an 1830s Greek Revival with, remarkably — considering all the trials the building has been through in terms of ownership, receivership, and changing neighborhood over almost two centuries — a nice original doorway, left, with fluted pilasters and egg-and-dart molding.
In addition to a new wood vestibule door, below, which replaced a salvaged French door that never closed properly and had cracked panes of glass (and therefore did nothing to exclude noise and dirt), I’m debating colors for a partial re-painting of the building’s facade.
The block is not landmarked, so I could do chartreuse and hot pink if I wanted, but I’ve decided to stick with the same general scheme as before. When we bought the house in 1979, it was dark red. We changed it to the present gray with white trim — probably a bad idea in any urban environment. I’d love to repaint the entire facade, but that will have to wait. Right now I’m just doing the ground level, from the cornice down, and I’ve chosen a medium gray (Benjamin Moore Platinum Gray) for the concrete section, pale gray (Ben Moore Cliffside Gray) for the wood door surround, and dark gray-blue (Ben Moore Hamilton Blue) for the door itself. Classic, conservative, safe. Very safe, as the paint company pairs the three colors on one of their “Color Preview” chips. Why mess?
As long as we’re discussing the ground floor of this building, I have to admit to making a pretty dreadful design mistake there when I was young and ignorant. The building, when we bought it, had a bodega in the ground floor with an ugly aluminum storefront. The c. 1940 NYC tax photo shows a store with an old wood storefront, but that was long gone. Wanting to convert the ground floor store to an apartment, we decided against restoring the old wood storefront (probably for money reasons, but also practical ones — it seemed less secure than concrete). We built a new solid wall with these odd windows, which look much better from inside than out.
If I had it to do all over again, I would restore the storefront, as I’ve occasionally seen done. It can still be used as an apartment. There’s one I know of in Carroll Gardens, on Hicks Street and Union, and another that springs to mind on Court between Kane and DeGraw.
Meanwhile, I wouldn’t mind doing some planting in large tubs or containers below those awkward windows. The building next door (to the right in the photo), which has an unusual-for-Brooklyn cast-iron decorative front, has an old clawfoot tub in front with evergreens that persist year after year, despite passersby chucking trash in there and spotty watering.