Remains of the Day: Fort Greene Ramble

Getting on for 4PM yesterday, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to get out of my apartment. The sun had been teasing in and out all day. It would suffuse the front windows of my ground-level brownstone apartment with sudden, glorious light and I would make a move toward the door. Then, just as suddenly, all would go dark and gloomy, my motivation would flag, and I’d collapse on the couch again with my phone. This cycle repeated itself about five times.

But in the last hour of daylight, I rallied. With formal exercise options limited to the occasional Zoom class and some desultory stretching, the mainstay of my regime, such as it is, is walking the streets. Fortunately, I live in Brooklyn, New York City’s most architecturally rewarding borough, so it’s never dull.

I headed out of my own neighborhood of Prospect Heights and into Fort Greene, toward the grand park designed in the 1860s by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also envisioned Manhattan’s Central Park. Fort Greene Park, top, is a 30-acre square full of majestic old trees, surrounded by blocks of brownstones and rising to a central mound that is one of the highest points in Brooklyn. The hill is topped by a towering Doric column commemorating the 12,000 who died on a British prison ship in New York Harbor during the Revolution, itself surrounded by a fine stone plaza that makes an obvious destination.

I walked along Cumberland Street, above, where rare wood frame houses with front porches, dating to the mid-19th century, are unusually numerous, and back along South Oxford, another street with much to admire, including the cheerful yellow buildings below.

I was glad to observe a couple of my favorite parkside bar/restaurants, Cafe Paulette and Walter’s, below, on corners right opposite the park, apparently thriving and filled with semi-outdoor diners on this relatively mild mid-winter Saturday.

Brooklyn was in the midst of rapid transformation from low-rise to hi- when the pandemic hit. As much as I would prefer it to remain just as it looked 150 years ago, no one sought my opinion. Some construction projects seem to have stalled out; others seem to be proceeding apace.

Although still ludicrously out of scale with the surrounding four-story row houses, I find some of the new residential towers bearable — the masonry ones that recall the stocky, substantial buildings of the Art Deco era. The really tall glass towers going up along Atlantic Avenue offend me. They don’t belong here. They are ugly to my eye and likely to age poorly, but, again, I wasn’t asked.

My final reward for rousing myself to action was a vibrant sliver of sunset as I headed back to my sofa. The late-day light glinting off the western facades of the gargantuan new buildings made me think, so be it. The world moves on.

Back to My Roots: Cheap Old Houses

If you are an old-house aficionado, you may already know about the candy store of vintage American architecture that is CIRCA. and the constellation of old-house websites and Instagram pages that surround it, bursting with eyebrow Colonials, Victorian gingerbreads, American Foursquares, Italianate jewel boxes, historic churches and more.

These covetable buildings are all for sale. Elizabeth Finkelstein, who has a Masters from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in historic preservation and writes a column for Country Living magazine, along with her husband Ethan, a digital designmeister, founded the sites to share their love of old houses while indulging their obsession with searching listings far and wide. They are not real estate brokers; the user-friendly sites link to the official listings.

The Finkelsteins call their enterprise “a curated online marketplace.” From dire fixer- uppers for $1,000 to properties with National Historic Landmark status, from humble one-room cabins to a San Francisco Beaux Arts masterpiece for $10 million, it’s a rabbit hole you’ll enjoy falling into.

What intrigues me most, bottom feeder that I am, is the sister site Cheap Old Houses, which focuses on listings under $100,000. The catch? Maybe that they’re mostly in far-off (from NYC, at any rate) and possibly far-right places like Ames, Iowa, and Vicksburg, Mississippi. There are intrepid folks, documented in a 2019 story in New York magazine, who will buy an old house sight unseen for a pittance, then move across country to sleep on an air mattress in an unfamiliar place to renovate on a shoestring. That’s not me anymore. But as eye candy and fantasy fodder for an armchair renovator, these sites are pure delight.

Top to bottom: Lexington, MO, sold for $60,000; Towanda, IL, $150,000; Bristol, CT, $175,000; Bergton, VA, $70,000

You can check out CIRCA and CIRCA-adjacent websites and follow them on Instagram for free, or get three weekly newsletters for $12/ month, including a “secret” Instagram feed plus Cheap(ish) Old Houses, Cheap Old Farmhouses and Cheap Old Houses Abroad, which promise a total of 2,000 additional listings.

CIRCA has been around as a website since 2013, Cheap Old Houses as an Instagram feed since 2016 (now with 1.4 million folowers!) “We started @cheapoldhouses because we were enchanted with the untapped beauty that is hidden in so many pockets of this country,” reads Cheap Old Houses’ About page. “These homes tell the stories of the everyday people who lived here, worked here, and made America what it is… They are not the fancy landmarks—they are our true history.”

I commend them for doing their part to help save it.

Covid Times in Brooklyn

Somehow, the days are both too long and too short. Time stretches ahead, the calendar blank. Yet you go out for a walk and before you know it, the sky is dark.

I came back to Brooklyn from the East End of Long Island in early November. I cruised into my neighborhood on a Saturday night when the mood was briefly celebratory, following the announcement of the election results, when the pandemic didn’t seem as dire as now.

I’m being strict and cautious, mostly solitary, seeing friends only outdoors. I go to the supermarket and drug store, infrequently. I do laundry when I run out of sweatpants and pajamas. My only nod to fashion is trying to match my mask to my outfit. I’ve been to Manhattan once in two months.

Do I sound like I’m complaining? I’m not complaining. I’m healthy, and so are my nearest and dearest, though I see them mostly on Zoom. I live in comfort. I’m enjoying my apartment in new ways. Paying more attention to my houseplants. Using my landlords’ backyard compost bin. Taking baths. Winnowing my bookshelves. Setting up a TV, finally.

And taking advantage of three great nearby parks — Prospect Park, Fort Greene Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park. As are others. I learned on a recent walk around “hidden” Prospect Park with Turnstile Tours that it saw twice as many visitors in 2020 as the year before.

It’s been relatively mild so far this winter, with only one significant snow that didn’t last long. The outdoor dining scene seems surprisingly robust, sidewalk tables occupied by diners hardier than I.

I cook at home instead: farro with mushrooms, white bean stew with fennel and radiccio, marinated greens, omelets, soups that go into the freezer labeled “Weird Minestrone,” “Root Veg Soup (needs salt).”

And I walk a lot, aiming for those elusive 10,000 steps, and take pictures.

And once in a while, I feel a blog post coming on. Not as many of you read this sporadic effort as used to, but if you are still on my list, please let me hear from you in the comments. Where are you and how are you doing? Is there anything in particular you’d like to hear about (not politics) when this mysterious blogging urge comes upon me? Are we still interested in old houses, interiors, historic preservation, gardens, travel (with an eye to the future)?

Happy new year, friends.