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April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
– T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland
APRIL HAS BEEN CRUEL, an abrupt withdrawal from the stimulation and excitement of my monthlong trip to Europe in March. Though I was there but four weeks — and they flew — the trip had been in the planning all winter, so my head had been in Europe far longer. Now both mind and body are back in Brooklyn and I’m in recovery, chafing against the fact that I’m no longer hearing mellifluous Romance languages, hopping on and off trains with a sense of purpose, feeling intrepid and self-sufficient, exploring new streets and seeing new vistas, steeping myself in art and culture, walking a pair of sturdy boots into oblivion.
I came home to bills and taxes and issues I’d been happy to put out of my head completely for the duration of my trip. I’ve been feeling dull and grouchy, if only to myself, pissed off about being back in New York, but unwilling to kvetch out loud, for who would sympathize with someone who’d had those four weeks of freedom and delight? I couldn’t even write a blog post; what could I possibly say or show that would hold a candle to Verona or Naples? I went out to eat with friends at restaurants new to me, including Eugene and Company in Bed-Stuy and Chavella’s in Crown Heights, and though I liked them both and look forward to return visits, couldn’t even be bothered to lift my iPhone to take a photo of my food.
“Mixing memory and desire,” T.S. Eliot wrote — that’s what April has done for me, mixing the memory of being in Europe with the desire to return. Be here now? Ha. I’ve been wanting to be there. I drove out to my house in Springs to check on things and found both house and garden in perfect order, just as I left them last November, but didn’t feel the usual uplift.
It was only yesterday that I finally felt “dull roots stirring.” I met a friend for lunch in Bryant Park during a brief spell of perfect weather, and it happened as I emerged from the subway, caught a glimpse of the Park’s newly seeded lawn (thankfully rid of the skating rink and market stalls of winter) and the stately back of the Public Library, and the fountains, and the daffodils, and the carousel, and the happy people released from their offices basking in the novelty of an alfresco lunch, and even the green and blue glass skyscrapers which somehow on this day didn’t offend but wowed me with their shiny brilliance. I was a bit early, so I went inside the Library and wandered through their current, excellent exhibitions: one of vintage photographs and another of World War I graphics.
Coupled with my first visit of the season, this morning, to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, below, where the cherry orchard is late to bloom but the magnolias are going crazy, I’ve at last begun to think, hmmm… maybe New York can hold a candle, after all.
IT’S NOT NEWS THAT BROOKLYN’S FORT GREENE NEIGHBORHOOD has some of the most elegant brownstones in the borough. And that Fort Greene Park, designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, like Central and Prospect Parks, is no less a masterwork of 19th century landscape architecture.
But as is often the case in a complex place like Brooklyn, where stylistic layers have accumulated over the decades and where there’s just so much to look at as you barrel along, even a longtime resident like myself is constantly discovering new (to me) blocks and buildings.
Out for a walk last Sunday and wanting to try out the camera on my new iPhone 6, I strolled down Cumberland Street, which I knew had at least one very fine freestanding mansion, above, and found many more wood frame houses than I expected, and much else to keep my eyes busy.
Most of the houses in this post are on that one street, with the exception of the three old brownstones with intact parlor-floor storefronts and gabled roofs; those are on Greene Avenue. Thirty-five years ago, when we were a young couple and had recently bought a fixer-upper on the fringe of the fringe of Boerum Hill, we briefly knew another young couple who had bought one of those three buildings in even more derelict condition and were giving it a go. I wish I knew what became of them, but I don’t remember their names. Perhaps they still own it. Or perhaps they got quickly discouraged and moved away. Or perhaps they held on to it for decades, sold it and made a killing. Whether they’re there or not, the buildings remain. And that’s what’s so great about Brooklyn.
HAPPY NEW YEAR, devoted readers and anyone who may have landed accidentally on my humble six-year-old blog.
For my first post of 2015, here’s a small sampling of seasonally appropriate photos from the Brooklyn Historical Society’s online photo database. It’s a tremendous resource, and great fun to search when you’ve got a free evening or it’s too damn cold to go outside.
The images in this post are lantern slides, glass transparencies to be viewed through a projector (called a ‘magic lantern’) that casts the image on a wall. They were all taken by Adrian Vanderveer Martense (1852-1898), a lawyer by profession and an amateur photographer. Martense documented houses, streets, and his friends and neighbors in Flatbush, as well as momentous events like the legendary blizzard of March 1888 and the moving of the Hotel Brighton in Coney Island in April 1888. He was a member of the Brooklyn Academy of Photography and served as its first recording secretary when it was established in 1887 (it later became the Brooklyn Camera Club).
Top: Adrian Martense, center, with pinhole camera, along with two other men and a boy on a tricycle, c.1880
Martense was descended from Dutch settlers who came to Brooklyn in the 17th century. His family’s land is now part of Greenwood Cemetery. Some of the photos in this post show a rural side of 19th century Brooklyn; others were taken downtown and show buildings that still exist. Most of these were taken on March 15, 1888, when Martense evidently set out to record the aftermath of the great blizzard in several different neighborhoods. And aren’t we glad he did?
Men standing at side of stage sleigh after blizzard
Men clearing snow from Flatbush Avenue train tracks after the blizzard
Children climbing into the back of a horse-drawn sleigh at Flatbush Avenue and Clarkson Avenue following the 1888 blizzard
Man standing in front of City Hall (now Borough Hall) and elevated train tracks after the blizzard
Man in front of coal and wood shop, as other men work to clear snow from the streets at Flatbush Avenue and Bergen Street
Horse-drawn carriage stopped in front of 7 Sutherland Sisters, on Clinton Avenue near the corner of Fulton Street, after the blizzard
People walking between piles of cleared snow at Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, following the blizzard
Horse-drawn carriage in snow-covered street, c.1890
Street car and horse-drawn carriage at Adams Street and Willoughby Street under the elevated train, with men standing on the sidewalk
This is just a tiny sample of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Martense collection; you can see them all right here.
IN A MOVE THAT COMES AS A GREAT RELIEF to those who care about New York City’s historic architecture, the Landmarks Preservation Commission has reversed its recent decision to drop nearly 100 properties from its calendar, where many had languished for five years or more. It’s an administrative maneuver that doesn’t necessarily save anything, but at least insures that these properties — all of which were in the initial stages of being designated as landmarks, with research, public hearings, and a vote to follow — will remain under the oversight of the LPC and can’t be willy-nilly altered or, God forbid, demolished.
Top: c.1880 Second Empire cottage, Snug Harbor, Staten Island
Mid-19th c. Ploughman’s Bush Building, North Bronx
Local preservation groups, including including Landmark West and the Historic Districts Council, went ballistic when the decision to remove the properties from LPC oversight was announced just after Thanksgiving. The outcry succeeded in getting the LPC to keep these 100 or so properties on the calendar.
St. Barbara’s Church, 1910, Spanish Baroque, Bushwick, Brooklyn
For me, the eye-opener was an email from the New York Landmarks Conservancy, showing a number of fine and important buildings throughout the five boroughs that I had no idea were quite unprotected. The images in this post come from that email.
Curtis House, c. 1850 Romantic Revival cottage, Staten Island
Better-known and much-beloved sites that remain in this netherworld — for the reversal of the ‘de-calendaring’ was merely a postponement — include Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery and the neon Pepsi sign in Long Island City.
Left to right, above: 2 Oliver Street, 1821 Federal style townhouse, Chinatown; 138 Second Avenue,1832 Federal style rowhouse, East Village; 57 Sullivan Street, 1816 Federal style townhouse, SoHo
WILLIAMSBURG IS A NEIGHBORHOOD I’ve never known well, even after 37 years in Brooklyn.
I know it slightly better now, after a few hours spent wandering its streets with a friend who moved there recently and scoped out some intriguing shops and cafes. I hope such little pockets of funk and charm survive the onslaught of new residential development and shopping that threatens to make the area indistinguishable from any other city.
Wander along with us, won’t you?
Above: fading signage. Below: graffiti and garbage they haven’t cleaned up yet
Above: “The new Williamsburg,” building lobby on N. 5th St.
Lunch at House of Small Wonder,below, could not have been cozier on a bitterly cold and windy day.
Possibility for another day, below: Bakeri on Wythe Avenue, which has a pleasant garden.
Ditto the garden next to the stainless steel diner, above, now a Mexican restaurant. File that one away for springtime.
Heavenly sight and scent for those weary of winter already: flowers at Sprout Home, below.
Grand building on Grand Street, above, so far put to no purpose.
Below, the six-month-old Sharktooth, repository of vintage textiles, from antique rag and Caucasian carpets to quilts and bedspreads dyed navy and black.
Is it happy hour already? Let’s pop in to Miss Favela, a Brazilian ‘botequim’ (watering hole), practically under the Williamsburg Bridge. It’s owned by the same people who own the popular Felix on West Broadway, said Pablo, our chatty bartender, below, as he muddled lime and sugar for our capirinhas. The place hops (or rather, sambas) on weekends, but we had it to ourselves this Wednesday afternoon.
Nice finally getting to know you, Williamsburg.