Downtown Brooklyn: Then and Now


I ALWAYS LOVED those hokey “Then & Now” books you could buy at souvenir kiosks in Rome, showing what the Forum and Colosseum looked like in their 1st century heyday, with acetate pages superimposed to show how they look today.

The photo above, courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society, was taken at the intersection of Fourth and Flatbush Avenues in the late 1920s. Despite the traffic chaos, you can make out the bottom of the then-new Williamsburg Savings Bank tower behind the elevated train tracks and the row of commercial buildings at left, which are still there — see below if you don’t believe me — but who knows for how long.


Recently, a new branch of TD Bank opened on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill. It’s decorated with murals depicting early 20th c. neighborhood scenes. They were even giving away placemat-sized posters of the same images, which I was happy to take.

I then went and stood at each vantage point to see what remained — probably less than remains in Rome after two millennia. You can make out a few of the same buildings, but the charm has all been lost to the relentless march of commerce.


Above, looking west on Atlantic Avenue from Court Street, c. 1930. Below, same view today. The street light remains (or a replica), and quite a few of the row houses. I’m sure developers are itching to get their hands on all that open sky.


Below, a c.1922 image (note horse cart and earlier cars), northwest corner of State and Court Streets.


Two decades ago, the monstrosity below, in the form of a multiplex cinema and mega-bookstore was visited upon us. Thanks to historic district protection, the row houses on State Street, barely visible behind the trees, remain.


Below, my fave, the northeast and southeast corners of State and Court, looking up toward the Williamsburg Savings Bank clock tower, c. 1929, when the tower had just been built.


I moved to the area in 1979, and that corner looks very familiar. It’s only in the last decade or so that the undistinguished brick boxes, below, that replaced the vintage buildings came to be. You can just about see the clock tower down at the end of the block.


As Brian Wilson sang, I just wasn’t made for these times. If Mr. Peabody’s wayback machine comes along to take me back 80 or so years, I’m on it.

Fall Garden Assessment: All Credit Due to Nature


REALLY, I CLAIM VERY LITTLE CREDIT for my half-acre garden on the East End of Long Island. I may feel like I’m working hard, schlepping compost from the dump and seaweed from the beach and dragging hoses around by the hour when my prayers for rain go unanswered. But when I look at photos from even a year ago, I realize that the plants are pretty much doing it by themselves.

This year, I can’t say I’ve “put my garden to bed” for the winter. I decamped for the city a few days ago, when it got cold, and closed up the house for the season. I shut the fireplace flue, emptied the fridge, stripped the beds, the whole routine. But the garden, I just sort of left.

No point raking now. The dozens of trees — oak, hickory, maple — haven’t yet shed the bulk of their leaves. As for applying that protective winter layer of mulch, “they say” you need to wait until the ground freezes. (Why? That they never say.) Anyway, I didn’t do it.

In the past few weeks, I have added plants, of course: the fab pink muhly grass (top), glistening in the morning sun. Some Montauk daisies (gotta have those for local color; Montauk is 12 miles away). Several shrubs and some perennials from a wonderful wholesale nursery a friend in the business took me to. A couple more shrubs from a local couple who have a nursery of sorts in their suburban backyard. And a few dozen exotic lilies, mail-ordered from Van Engelen, the bulb company, which seem to do very well in my sandy soil.

So I dug and planted and watered in October, and only afterwards was astonished to look, for comparison’s sake, at photos from last October, and see how things filled in of their own accord, when I was hardly paying attention.


Two views of same area. Top, a thriving stand of Solomon’s seal in the foreground. Bottom, left to right: mystery shrub purchased from local couple (“like an azalea”); viburnum from last year showing fall color; new hydrangea ‘Ruby Slippers’; $5 white hydrangea from local couple that blooms for months and months


View of same area, above, with fewer and smaller shrubs, about a year ago.


Purple berries on new beautybush (callicarpa ‘Issai’), and a beauty it is.


Beds near deck filled out, especially considering what they looked like a year ago, below


Above, left to right in a corner of the deck: dusty miller that began as annuals bought for containers two years ago but have persisted in the ground and formed a large stand; new agastache ‘Kudos Mandarin,’ love the coral color; Montauk daisies in bloom


Above, how I left things along the front walk. Impressive compared to last fall’s view of the same area from a different angle, below


Two views of my raised beds, below, which are kind of experimental holding pens for things I don’t quite know what to do with. They were butterfly magnets this past summer.

The catmint has gone wild. There’s some purple agastache, two Miss Kim lilacs, a potentilla, a physocarpus, a blueberry plant, and some orange cosmos that self-seeded from last year.


I cleaned up the raised beds about a month ago, cutting back verbena bonariensis  and phlox that had gotten mildewed and out of control, and shearing some other country perennials like obedient plant and coneflower, which I expect to return robustly next summer.

I need to add more soil to these beds. These things are growing in just a few inches, but it’s as rich as it is scanty. I used these beds as my compost bins, dumping all my kitchen scraps in there, for the first couple of years I lived here. I’ve since been adding seaweed from the beach and leaf mold from my own copious piles of leaves…but I really need to lift everything, fill the beds to the top and replant. Next spring for that.

Below, where I savor my garden accomplishments — or rather, nature’s — of an autumn evening.


Schenectady’s Stockade District

img_3881I’VE BEEN TO TROY, N.Y. (and blogged about it here), and to Albany (likewise) and was impressed with both, but never to Schenectady, the third sister city in New York State’s Capital District.

But I’m not averse to covering a place I’ve never visited when photos come my way. These were taken by my wasband, Jeff Greenberg, who was in Schenectady recently for the first time and was wowed by the abundance of historic architecture, like the c. 1760 Dutch Colonial above.


Turns out that Schenectady’s Stockade Historic District is the oldest residential neighborhood in the country, where more than 40 pre-Revolutionary buildings survive, along with many from the 19th century in a wide range of styles.

Settled on the Mohawk River by Dutch fur-traders nearly 400 years ago, the area played an important role in Revolutionary war supply lines and became prosperous in the 1800s when the Erie Canal was built half a mile away.

Read more (much more) about its history on the Stockade Association’s website here, and listen to block-by-block narratives about the city’s historic architecture here.

Meanwhile, have a little taste of what Schenectady has to offer old-house aficionados, below.


Below, a Renaissance Revival style mansion with original woodwork, ironwork and tile intact. A similar house next door, which has been chopped up into 14 apartments, is on the market for $725K. Find the listing here.