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BROOKLYN IS VAST — a mighty city in its own right until 1898, when it was consolidated into New York City and forever after out-dazzled by its skinny neighbor across the river. Considered on its own, the borough of Brooklyn is the fourth most populous city in the U.S. (and, I hear, the third most expensive after San Francisco and Manhattan). It sprawls seven miles from the Brooklyn Bridge to Sheepshead Bay, a patchwork of amorphous neighborhoods whose names and borders shift with changing demographics.
Old industrial building on Bergen St, developed as offices for creative types
Corner of Bergen and Franklin
And boy, are they changing, nowhere faster than in Crown Heights. I only stuck my toe in the waters of Crown Heights the other day, almost for the first time, when a friend and I set out to take a walk and ended up cruising Franklin Avenue, an artery exploding with restaurants, cheese shops, bakeries, wine bars, and vintage clothing stores on the northern side of Eastern Parkway, and nothing but laundromats and bodegas south of it. The Line of Yuppification, as a friend used to say, is stark.
Little Zelda, an appealing coffee shop
Rosebud Vintage, one of several
Wedge, a fancy cheese shop
We discovered an elevated subway line we never knew existed (the S train, a shuttle that runs only three or four stops between major lines), scoped out some beautiful industrial buildings, popped in and out of various shops, and ended up at cozy Cent’Anni in time for happy hour (5-7PM Monday-Friday, $4 wine and $2 crostini). Happy were we.
Below: the attractive Fez, now closed, soon to re-open
Comment on this post by Sunday, December 8, for a chance to win this vintage copy of You Don’t Have to Be Rich to Own a Brownstone by Joy and Paul Wilkes.
A FRIEND recently gifted me with this relic, published in 1973 by Quadrangle/New York Times Co. According to the jacket copy, the book “puts to rest the myth that only the rich or super-rich can buy and renovate a city house.”
Today, of course, that myth is the sad truth, but 40 years ago, a person could indeed pick up one of many unrenovated houses going begging in Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods for a mere $30,000 or $50,000, with just a few thousand down.
That’s what the authors of this how-to did: they bought a house in 1970 (488 Second Street in Park Slope) with a pair of friends , renovated the lower duplex for themselves, by themselves, and survived to tell the tale.
Having read the book and re-lived those heady days of rubble and plaster dust, I’ve decided to pass the book along. To be entered in a random drawing to win it (which I will carry out using random.org), just comment on this post by Sunday December 8. Say anything: tell us if you are kicking yourself for not having bought a brownstone or three in the 1970s, or if you’re too young to have had the opportunity to blow, or just say “count me in.”
The book is well-written — one of its authors, Paul Wilkes, is a professional journalist who went on to write many books about spirituality, and the other is Joy Carol Haupt, an inspirational speaker; the two of them were co-founders of CHIPS, Christian Help in Park Slope, a soup kitchen and shelter on Fourth Avenue that’s still going strong. (They divorced shortly after completing their renovation and publishing the book.) It’s illustrated with black-and-white photos of their renovation and a few others, all displaying hallmarks of the era like exposed brick and tin ceilings. Their co-homeowners and upstairs neighbors were Lou and Jane Gropp; Lou went on to become editor-in-chief of Elle Decor and House Beautiful, and here you can see where it all began.
Some parts of the book are laughably outdated, but much still rings true and even helpful, in sections like Assessing what you can do, Step by step planning for a renovation, and Hints for living in a house under renovation. There are descriptions of architecture and wince-inducing house prices in brownstone neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and some references to other U.S. cities as well. Even today, the litany of a brownstone’s negative attributes sounds all too familiar: too many walls, not enough closets, a bathroom “so narrow you had to slip into it sideways,” water-stained floors, cracking and falling plaster, ancient appliances, ‘modernized’ mantels, and acoustical tile ceilings. All that can often still be found, for a handsome price.
The book brings back the earliest stages of gentrification, when the Dime and the Williamsburgh refused to lend money in the brownstone neighborhoods. And there’s a revealing reprint of an 1971 article by Paul Goldberger for the Wall Street Journal which describes Park Slope as a “dense inner-city neighborhood where raucous black and Puerto Rican children play in the streets, where several drug-rehabilitation centers treat area addicts” and where the “neighborhood’s main commercial stretch, Seventh Avenue, had become a sleazy stretch of failing shops and a promenade for prostitutes.” Meanwhile, the 3,000 or so “affluent young families” who had moved into the area by the early ’70s were busy “slaving away every night and weekend,” restoring gaslight chandeliers, stained glass windows and marble mantels, and holding block parties, even as they stepped over drunks in the gutters.
Comment for a chance to win the book…then read it and weep!
SUNDAY 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.
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
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.
NEW YORK HAS BEEN CHANGING FAST, in large part due to the soon-to-end 12-year reign of the not-entirely-beloved but undeniably greenery-conscious Mayor Bloomberg. Under his tenure, 750,000 trees have been planted and there have been innumerable improvements to the city’s public spaces, especially along the long-neglected waterfront. So the appearance this month of the 288-page Guide to New York City Urban Landscapes by Robin Lynn and Francis Morrone (W.W. Norton) is well-timed.
The book highlights 38 masterpieces of old and new landscape architecture, including such venerable favorites as Greenwood Cemetery, Washington Square Park, Union Square Park, the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, and so on. There are midtown plazas and atriums, and newer sites that have quickly become high-profile tourist draws, like the High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park. But what pleases me most is the book’s inclusion of many unusual suspects.
Concrete Plant Park, the Bronx
For instance: Brooklyn’s leafy Eastern and Ocean Parkways, two of the most attractive and civilized boulevards in New York City (or anywhere), which rarely get their due. There are detailed descriptions of such obscure sites as the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint, along a formerly waste-strewn industrial waterway; Erie Basin Park in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where IKEA built a 7-acre waterfront access facility on the site of a historic dry dock, and did it so well the critics were silenced; as well as new parks and sites in all five boroughs and on Roosevelt, Governor’s and Randall’s Islands.
Paley Park, Manhattan
I found the photography disappointing, a lost opportunity to romance some strikingly beautiful places. Edward A Toran’s photos are mostly overalls, lacking in intimacy, and often shot with harsh shadows or in dappled light. But the writing, including a stirring, nostalgic foreword by Pete Hamill and a reprint of a very funny 1914 New York Times article by critic James Huneker about Manhattan’s parks, which he called our “lungs,” help make up for it.
Columbus Circle, Manhattan
Quirky suggestions for eating and drinking near the featured landscapes include the Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden in Astoria, Queens (NYC’s last remaining outdoor beer garden) and the café at Fairway in Red Hook, whose dramatic harbor view is surely unique among supermarkets.
Going forward, a blog will keep the book’s info up-to-date.
Bryant Park, Manhattan