Brooklyn Bar Crawl

IMG_2890.JPGSUNDAY 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.IMG_2884.JPG

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

Leaf Peeping in Brooklyn


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.








Investing in Philly? Consider Kensington


FROM TIME TO TIME, people ask me where to invest in Philadelphia real estate. (Sometimes they ask me where to invest in Brooklyn, and I say: “Philadelphia!”)

IMG_2603But within Philly, I say Kensington, particularly the southern section sometimes known as South Kensington, Old Kensington, or even Olde Kensington, a neighborhood just above played-out Northern Liberties (that was the place to invest 10 years ago) and west of hipper-than-ever Fishtown, recent darling of New York Times reporters. I own a two-unit building in South Kensington — two back-to-back trinity houses, left, built in the 1840s as housing for workers in the area’s massive carpet and textile mills. (My house is the one on the right in the photo, with the peeling cornice; there’s a three-story unit in front and another in the rear, reachable via the alley between my building and the one next door.)

Many of the weavers and textile workers immigrated from England in the mid-19th century, when the area was known as “Little England.” When I bought the house in 2007 for $137,000, the surrounding blocks were really dilapidated — some of the houses, like the ones in the group below, were literally sagging. They’ve since been renovated, and their rooflines are more or less parallel to the horizon.


There were — and still are — vacant lots and hulking mill buildings all over the nabe, like the two below, both within a block of my building. It all looked ripe for adaptive reuse, especially large-scale residential conversion, but not much was happening.


The building above, on 2nd Street and Cecil B. Moore, still looks undeveloped.


At Palethorp and Cecil B. Moore, above, this old industrial building appears inhabited.

That was only six years ago, and now it’s happening in a big, big way. Around the corner from my building, Oxford Mills, below, is well on its way to becoming 141 rental lofts, with an innovative program of reduced rents for public-school teachers, and amenities such as gym, lounge, etc.; and a mixed-use mega-development called Soko Lofts is on its way. There are many other projects of the same ilk: you can find posts about some of the activity here on Curbed Philly.


Across the street from my little building, where once was a vacant lot, a new residential building, below, is going up. It’s of a type often seen in Philadelphia but never in New York. It’s too low-density, I suppose — only four stories high, with box windows and terraces and modernistic use of color. I don’t love the look — these buildings seem insubstantial to me, used to brick and brownstone as I am — but I do find it exciting that the neighborhood is roaring with development.


That’s the 1840s St. Michael’s church in the background, above, the view of which, along with some sunlight, we are sadly about to lose.


The building above, on Second Street, is typical of new Philly architectural design.

South Kensington’s main artery is Frankford Avenue, shared with Fishtown and  quickly becoming lined with bars and restaurants, including a couple of high-profile ones owned by celebrity restauranteur Steve Starr (Fette Sau, an upscale BBQ place, and Frankford Hall, a beer garden) and the new Philadelphia-based La Colombe coffee roasting complex, distillery and cafe.  Each time I visit, there’s more.

It’s spreading, it’s growing, it’s crazy affordable compared to New York City. And it’s a short bike ride to Center City, whose skyline is visible from most parts of the neighborhood.


Priced out of Bushwick, Brooklynites? Think Kensington.

Mount Vernon vs. Monticello


BACK-TO-BACK VISITS last month to Mount Vernon and Monticello upended my preconceived notions. Based on what I’d heard from friends before the trip — “Mount Vernon? Yeah, sure. But I loooovved Monticello!” — I expected the highlight to be Jefferson’s quirky abode in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As it happened, I found Washington’s Mount Vernon, below, no less beautiful or fascinating. Though they’re both 10’s as travel destinations (and it’s shocking that I’d never been to Monticello at all, and to Mount  Vernon only as a child), the surprise was that I looooooovvvved Mount Vernon.


Neither is a McMansion by today’s standards, having relatively few small bedrooms (Mount Vernon six and Monticello eight) — and no bathrooms! Even in square footage terms, they are pretty intimate — definitely homes, not official buildings. At Mount Vernon, the famous two-story dining room was being renovated, so we were denied the sight, though I found the four or five ground-floor rooms that were open to view, one with kelly green walls and one with Prussian blue, highly satisfying (interior photography is not permitted, regrettably). The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which has owned the house since 1858, has acquired many of the original furnishings in Washington’s tastefully restrained style.


The view of the Potomac, above, and formal, English-style vegetable and flower gardens, are spectacular, and the dozen original outbuildings, each set up to illustrate the workings of the estate — carriage houses, smoke houses, ice houses, etc. — very well-done.

The house itself, of wood covered with a stucco-like material to give it the appearance of stonework, and in the style of 18th century English country houses, began as a four-room cottage built by Washington’s father. He inherited it from his half-brother in 1761 and expanded his acreage to 8,000, as well as building the house up and out, with a columned portico, below, that runs the width of the house in back, on the river side, and curving colonnades in front that welcomed visitors as their carriages came up the long drive.



The commentary was a bit perfunctory, with one docent in each room tasked with keeping the line of visitors moving along. In response to one question, a docent replied, “Google it.” Still, I learned a lot about hospitality and housekeeping in those days, and how it was accomplished with the help of 160 or so slaves who lived in rustic quarters some distance from the house.





We took the three-hour drive west to Charlottesville and Monticello partly along Route 20, the same route Jefferson and his friends James and Dolley Madison, who lived thirty miles away, took when they visited each other’s homes — a 9-hour journey in those days. It’s a two-lane road, unspoiled and scenic, unlike the big-box shopping horrors we encountered getting out of Northern Virginia, and came as a great relief.

IMG_2530The next two days were spent in the Charlottesville area, never out of sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We rolled into Charlottesville ready for a cocktail, and stumbled upon the C&O Restaurant, left, so named for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad whose trains run nearby. This little haven of hipness became our spot; we returned the next night for dinner.

Our accommodations at the High Meadows Vineyard Inn, below, a brightly painted Victorian  in nearby Scottsville, seemed at first to suffer from the B&B curse: an excess of knick-knacks and dried flower arrangements. But I quickly came to love our yellow, bay-windowed room with a claw-foot tub, the working vineyard outside the window, and Henry, the resident peacock.



Our Monticello tickets, for the “Behind the Scenes” tour ($42) that includes the upstairs bedrooms, were for 2:30PM, so we took the following morning to explore Charlottesville, especially its 6-block pedestrian shopping area, below, created from mostly Deco-era storefronts, with half a dozen independent bookstores, fashionable clothing and shoe boutiques, and local food shops.



We also took in Jefferson’s magnificent University of Virginia campus, below, where we got a IMG_2551foretaste of his infatuation with columns, pediments, domes, and other elements of classical Greek architecture. It was heartening to see students actually studying in the inspiring rotunda.



Monticello, below, a couple of miles up a wooded mountain studded with apple orchards and the c.1784 Michie Tavern (where we hoped to have lunch but found nothing remotely vegetarian), is extraordinarily well-organized, with a museum/shop/cafe complex below and a frequent shuttle bus up to the pinnacle.

IMG_2557My first sight of the house came as slight shock, though I’d seen images (notably on the nickel!)  I’d admired the classical architecture at UVA, but the oversized pediment and columns used on a home appeared pompous. I tried to remember that  Jefferson was the first to do it, and that Monticello is considered an outstanding architectural achievement — but initially the red-brick house looked to me like nothing so much as a bank.

Our good-natured docent, left, a John Updike lookalike, answered every question patiently and thoughtfully.



More beautiful from this angle…by the end of the day, the architecture grew on me.

Inside the front hall, the expected staircase is absent. Instead, there’s a square room surrounded by a balcony and hung with replica Native American artifacts representing those brought back by Lewis and Clark.  Jefferson kept such items in that reception room, where he greeted members of the public who traveled to see him; he was intent on educating them as they waited for their audience. The most elegant room is a semi-octagonal parlor with long French windows, one of the country’s first parquet floors, and about fifty portraits and copies of paintings by European masters hung floor to ceiling.

Jefferson didn’t believe in grand staircases, we were told, considering them a waste of space. The only way to the upstairs bedrooms is via two steep, narrow, winding rear staircases, like those of an Amsterdam canal house, which women carrying babies and perhaps candles, and slaves carrying firewood and perhaps babies and candles, were forced to use. Jefferson had his own mancave — a library, study, and bedroom — on the ground floor.

The house has a couple of doors to nowhere, windows at floor level, and other architectural quirks, including a hard-to-access dome room at the top of the house, below. It is beautiful and harmonious but was apparently almost never used, except for storage and by some Jeffersonian grandchildren as a hideout.


In short, I ended up admiring the uneducated Washington’s architectural skills more than the highly educated Jefferson’s. Monticello is a good place to ponder the irony of the man who wrote “All men are created equal” owning some 300+ slaves who lived in outbuildings and chambers beneath the house, a whole subterranean world of utility and organization which is also open to the public. I was moved by his personal struggles, though; Jefferson had some six ‘official’ children, only one of whom lived to reproduce. Many of his offspring, including some descended from Sally Hemmings, a slave in his employ, as well as Jefferson himself, are buried in an atmospheric cemetery partway down the mountain.

One of my favorite parts of the estate is the one-room mini-Monticello, below, where the young Jefferson and his wife lived for two years before the main house was built. With bed, dining area, and study desk, the civilized cottage looks like almost all a couple would need.



We ended the day with a 45-minute grounds tour, admiring the extensive vegetable gardens, below, restored to resemble how Jefferson laid them out. The perennial flower gardens around the front lawn were curiously bedraggled at end of the season, but also perhaps because the caretaking is in transition. The longtime gardener who supervised Monticello’s landscape for several decades recently retired, we were told, and is in the process of being replaced by someone new.



I returned to New York with a better understanding of both men’s multi-disciplinary genius and cultural sophistication, and a sense of how far we’ve come in a mere couple of centuries.