February in New York City packed a snowy wallop, but we hardy Big Apple types shoveled and sloshed our way through — one major snowstorm early in the month that dropped nearly two feet of the white stuff upon us, another the following week that was less big but still not small, and a few additional dustings and flurries.
I don’t mind being under house arrest in my Brooklyn apartment, which is just as hygge as could be, filled with books yet to be read and an inexhaustible streaming supply of music and movies.
hyg·ge/ HOO-guh A quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture).
I managed to get out for neighborhood rambles, ever mindful of the importance of ultraviolet rays to one’s mood, not to mention a respectable step count in lieu of the gym. I met friends for hot toddies at St. Julivert in Cobble Hill and Lavender Lake, on the shores of the Gowanus Canal, below, and cheered myself up with weekly tulips.
What’s gratifying is that it looks like many of our local restaurants, some of which have invested tens of thousands to build plywood-and-plexiglass structures where coated, hatted, scarved and masked diners huddle under heat lamps even in sub-freezing temps, are going to make it through. The city has announced that the makeshift dining cars will be allowed to stay into the foreseeable future, a distinct and dramatic change to the streetscape.
Toward the end of the month, the worst happened. A dear friend of forty years died unexpectedly, casting everything in sorrow. The world lost an extraordinary soul, loving and clever, an accomplished origami artist and baker whose creations in both areas were works of visual art. She and I were besties when our children were small, pushing strollers together through the streets of Brooklyn Heights. Our families celebrated Chanukah and Halloween together, and camped out at Hither Hills in the summer. We stayed in touch after her family moved away, spending hours on the phone back when you could only stray as far from the device as its curly cord would reach. Our conversations and correspondence were marked by our pleasure in communicating with each other, and her always witty, always honest take on things.
I dedicate this post to Ellen, who was a devoted reader of my blog. After my last post, in January, she emailed to thank me for the “beamish” (bright, cheerful, optimistic) entry, writing “Love seeing your perspective, hearing your voice — missing both Brooklyn and you!” The feeling is forever mutual, my friend <3
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.
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.
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)?
I scan the list with my heart in my throat, occasionally whispering “oh no!”, remembering places I’ve been and loved, meant to go back to, never did and now never will.
The list, of some of the hundreds of mom-and-pop-type businesses closed in New York City since this cursed pandemic began, is in New York Magazine’s annual “Reasons We Love New York” issue, out this week. The magazine, partnered now with Curbed, the behemoth real estate site, put the story’s title this year in the past tense. It’s “Reasons We’ve Loved New York,” a farewell to the many places that have closed permanently in 2020, listed in order of the year they opened, from oldest to most recent.
Some are truly historic, like the Paris Cafe in South Street seaport (how is it I never went there, or even heard of it, since it opened in 1873?) and Gem Spa (1921), where I used to buy egg creams and Bambù rolling papers as a college student in the late ’60s.
Also tragically lost is Monkey Bar (1936) on East 54th at the Hotel Elysée, below, a swanky spot with retro murals, where we memorably celebrated my aunt’s milestone birthday, my sibs and cousins and I all decked out spiffily, having gotten babysitters for our young children.
It grieves me that Jules Bistro (1993) on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, is no more. It was a semi-subterranean place for salad Niçoise and steak frites in the afternoon, live jazz later, with a sliver of sunny street view reflected in wraparound mirrors. Jules seemed decades older than it really was and possibly located in Paris. It was a go-to for meeting friends since my cousin Pamela introduced me to it, and I considered it a real treasure.
And so many more that spark heavy-duty nostalgia. Frank’s Cocktail Lounge on Dekalb Avenue in Fort Greene, Brooklyn (1972), dark even at noontime, where I went exactly once during a break from studies at Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture, and always meant to return. The Cupping Room in Soho (1977), below, with both a casual front counter, a sky-light, art-filled dining space and heavenly whipped eggs, is gone. Even Cranberry’s (1977) on Henry Street in north Brooklyn Heights, which could be counted on for a very good sandwich to bring down to the promenade. What will come in their places? Chains or independent businesses? Or will the spaces be vacant for years?
Was Chinatown bakery Lung Moon (1968) the place we used to get char su bao, sweet bean-filled rolls, warm from the oven, for small change? And how could Lucky Strike on Grand Street be gone? Another clone of old Paris, a less glitzy, more neighborhood-y version of Balthazar and Pastis, with the same owners, it was reliably there for 31 years, and I expected it to remain for decades more.
The demise of some tried and true Booklyn spots of more recent vintage also pains me. On Van Brunt Street in Red Hook, both The Good Fork (2006, Korean home cooking) and Fort Defiance (2009, cocktails in the afternoon), below, which survived Hurricane Sandy but couldn’t come back from this, have gone out. (Fort Defiance has been reinvented as a grocery store.) Goodbye, too, to Soda Bar (2002) on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, dark and atmospheric, with great neon signage. And my ever-reliable Building on Bond (2008), with its leafy corner location, outdoor tables even before they became a necessity, local beers on draft and terrific Cobb salad.
Odessa, the Ukrainian diner on Avenue A, was not one of “my” places. I am partial to the still-extant (but for how long?) Veselka on Second Avenue (same idea — cabbage soup, pierogies), but a recent article by Christopher Bonanos perfectly describes how I would feel if Veselka were to suddenly disappear. Odessa, he writes, was a place that could be counted on to be open and accessible and cheap, easy in a city where easy don’t come easy. The kind of place you didn’t have to think about. No lines, no reservations, “It was just there,” Bonanos writes, “and then it wasn’t.”
Recently, I perused cartoonist Ben Katchor’s new book about now-defunct Jewish dairy restaurants, the kind that still existed all over the city when I was a young adult, the sort of places Isaac Bashevis Singer would go for lunch and story ideas. I remember eating at the Garden Cafeteria on the Lower East Side, Famous Dairy on West 72nd, the Art Deco Dubrow’s in the Garment District, and of course, Ratner’s on Delancey Street and on Second Avenue, and Rappoport’s, also on Second Avenue in the East Village.
As both a budding vegetarian and a Jew, I was familiar with the food, which was very like my grandmother’s concoctions of bow-tie noodles with kasha or cottage cheese; vegetarian chopped liver made of hard-boiled eggs, string beans, onions and walnuts; a simple bowl of slice banana with sour cream; steaming red borscht with bits of dill floating in it on a cold winter’s day. All these places disappeared one by one over the decades, as did the elderly Jews who used to sit on benches in the median strip of Broadway on the Upper West Side, chatting away in Yiddish.
One of my first stops when this is over will be to the East Village, to make sure B&H Dairy, above left, has survived. It’s a hole in the wall with only a narrow counter for seating, on which to perch on a round stool and order a bowl of mushroom barley soup, and one of the very last of its breed. Just a few days ago, a devastating fire on Second Avenue at 7th Street destroyed a very beautiful Gothic Revival church. I’m sorry about the church, but I’m glad the fire was across the street from B&H.
A city must mutate; it can’t remain the way it was forever. I understand that. But this sudden and rapid rending of the city’s fabric is unprecedented, even for New York City, and therefore frightening. Will all these atmospheric, memory-filled places be replaced, and by what? And when?