Barclays Ain’t Bad

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.

Fall Planting to Thwart the Deer

GARDEN THERAPY. It works like nothing else. Fall is prime time for planting — cool weather, no chiggers — and I am at it again, doing my bit to beautify my little corner of the planet.

I check periodically on the house I’m in the process of buying, above, to make sure it’s still there. While I wait for it to become mine, my landscaping-on-a-budget efforts at my present cottage continue.

On Saturday I visited my friend Debre in Shelter Island and watched her dig up enormous clumps of a tenacious, fast-spreading broadleaf sedge she calls ‘tribbles,’ after the small rodents that multiplied like crazy in an old episode of Star Trek. She burned all the calories, while I stood there and gave her an occasional tool, bucket, or encouraging word. My job came later, when I further divided the huge clumps into about 50 smaller ones, and put them in at the foot of my back deck, above and below.

It was two afternoons of work, and well worth it. Since I haven’t fenced, I’m finally getting real about deer-resistant gardening. My focus now is exclusively on things they can’t or won’t eat, including ornamental grasses like tribble (so much easier to say than Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata,’ its real name).

That includes cimicifuga, above, whose very late-season blooms are most welcome.

And three new crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia ‘Acoma’), bought on sale at Lynch’s, a nursery in Southampton I visited for the first time recently and certainly not the last. It had several things I’d failed to find elsewhere, including spicebush (Lindera benzoin), below, which Rick Darke’s The American Woodland Garden calls “unpalatable to deer” and “routinely passed by.” Doesn’t look like much now, but I have hopes it will eventually look like the specimen in the book, six to ten feet tall and equally wide.

Then there’s the foot-tall Sunjoy Gold Beret, below, otherwise known as Berberis thunbergii ‘Talago,’ a $12 Home Depot special. This is a new offering from a grower called Proven Winners, clearly bred to wow with its fall color.

That’s what I’ve been up to these spectacular October days, along with cable news-watching, Scramble-playing, and walks down to the bay. Not at all a bad life.

Anything but Snail Mail(boxes)

THESE WHIMSICAL — OK, kitschy — mailboxes were photographed by my wasband (wubby?) in upstate New York.

I like to express my individuality indoors, but when it comes to something right out on the road for all passersby to see, I keep a low profile. My own mailbox is brown, to match the house, and that’s that. Though I suppose it would be convenient to say, “It’s the driveway with the rooster.”

If I were to do something creative, mailbox-wise, I think it would be funny to have one in the shape of a snail.

Photos: Jeff Greenberg

New Angles on an Old Cottage

SOMETIMES WHEN ONE IS IN A STUCK PLACE (definition of my life at the moment), the best one can do is try to get a different view from the same spot. I’m still waiting for a signed contract on the house I’ve been on the trail of for two years, and I don’t blame you if you think I’m chasing rainbows here, to quote Adele. Trust me, it’s happening. I’m 99% sure.

The white-flowering stuff is ‘chocolate eupatorium,’ bought at a stoop sale in Brooklyn. Love it for its very late-season bloom. Don’t love it so much for its invasive character (but that’s why it does so well)

Meanwhile, I’m out in the country at my current home with newfound enthusiasm for yard work, which comes with the cooler weather. It matters not that I may not be at this house much, or at all, in years to come. I’m still moving happily forward on my no-to-low-cost vision for this landscape. I’ve planted a couple of new boxwoods, mulched everything, Hollytone-d the acid lovers. The leaves have not yet begun to fall — they’ve barely begun to change color around here — but my rake is at the ready.

Recently I heard Dr. Esther Sternberg on NPR (Krista Tippet’s On Being) talking about ‘healing places’ and how just being in nature and seeing trees, water, sunsets is enough to release endorphins and make people happier. I knew it! I’m definitely happier in the country than in the city. It’s just that way. And now I find out there’s a scientific explanation.

A dead corner of the living room improved with an inexpensive screen from Chinatown

After a morning of tidying things up, I took some new photos of my present cottage — partly for myself and partly for Craigslist purposes. I’m still trying to rent, and that, too, hasn’t happened yet, though I wholeheartedly subscribe to what a wise friend said: that perhaps I’m not meant to have a renter yet and that’s why I haven’t found one.

Here, from the State of Limbo, are some new angles on a much-photographed subject.

Fishtown Jumping

Photo: Alexis Olsen

THERE’S NO SHORTAGE OF CORNER BARS in Fishtown, a historically working-class Philadelphia neighborhood that has been steadily mutating, these past few years, into a more upscale one (so what else is new?)

Some of those drinking establishments are decades-old dive bars. The recently renovated Fishtown Tavern, above, straddles the line between what was, offering $2 drafts to keep longtime locals coming in, and what is and will be, with ambitious bar food like warm dates stuffed with goat cheese and portabello mushroom sandwiches.

Fishtown (the name comes from its history as the shad fishing center of the Delaware) is characterized by:

  • tiny 19th century row houses

  • electric trollies

  • abandoned industrial buildings on a massive scale

  • new construction in a hyper-modern style (similar to that in the Northern Liberties area, a few blocks to the south and a little farther along the gentrification arc)

  • a growing population of ex-Brooklynites, including my son Max.

On Sunday afternoon, he and I took a walk, and soon I was getting a tour of the latest developments — especially the rapidly changing Frankford Avenue corridor, a diagonal artery of mostly industrial buildings and old storefronts being adapted as we speak for use as restaurants, music venues and, of course, bars. Here’s some of what moved me to take my iPhone out of my pocket as we walked along:

Loco Pez, a new taqueria (with amazing-looking salads and $1.75 tacos) in one of many buildings with rounded or oddly angled corners

Scrumptious detail on a corner building

Little Baby’s, a new ice cream store on Frankford Avenue offering unusual flavors like Earl Grey Sriracha, next door to the also-new Pizza Brain

One of many fish-themed gates by Robert Phillips, a metal artist whose workshop was in Fishtown. He died last month at age 50.

El Bar, so named for its location under the elevated railway that runs along Front Street. It may look at first glance like an old-school dive bar, but don’t be fooled. It’s hip.

The plants on the Juliet balcony are a hint that someone lives above these commercial garages on Frankford

Above, a high-end, limited-edition motorcycle shop is coming in next to a hair salon called Parlour

A fine converted carriage house

As-yet-unrealized potential in a building next to a music venue called Barbary

Restauranteur Steve Starr’s Frankford Hall, above, an indoor/outdoor beer garden that opened a couple of years ago, has been a major turning point in the development of Frankford Avenue. A Korean barbeque spot is coming in next door.