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LEAVE BROOKLYN FOR A LITTLE WHILE, you come back and find new things happening left and right. Reacquainting myself with my neighborhood after some months spent mostly out on the East End of Long Island, I’m aware of a definite and positive buzz.
Railroad tracks running along Atlantic Avenue near the newly opened Barclay’s Center. The building on the left is one of many vintage warehouses being developed as office space
Some of it has to do with the newly opened Barclay’s Center, below, long dreaded and much reviled in advance. My surprising assessment, now that it’s here: not bad. I was never enthused about the idea of a basketball arena at the intersection of Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, and Prospect Heights, fearing that with Bruce Ratner as developer, it would turn out something like the bland horror that is Madison Square Garden — especially when Frank Gehry dropped out as architect. But neither was I unutterably opposed to the project, since the area was already blighted, made up mostly of railroad yards that added nothing to the surrounding district, and it threatened to remain like that forever if planned projects kept failing to launch.
The surprising thing is that I don’t mind the architecture, by the Manhattan-based firm SHoP. It’s a rusty hulk, not necessarily in a bad way. It’s interestingly articulated and pleasing at night, when light shines through slots in the steel cladding. There’s a swooping marquee with a keyhole open to the sky that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and a new subway entrance with a sedum-planted roof. I find it less objectionable than expected at worst, exciting at best.
A new mural has appeared since I last looked on the side of the Mark Morris dance studio, part of the BAM Cultural District
Traffic is whizzing along Flatbush Avenue like never before, thanks to new lanes and personnel. There are complaints by neighbors, to be sure, about arena patrons peeing in the bushes of surrounding brownstone blocks. If urine is the worst problem, I’d say it’s been worth it for the economic engine this thing is likely to be. Vacant storefronts on the avenue are fewer. The Fulton Street corridor in Fort Greene is packed with newish restaurants and shops of a decidedly gentrified nature. Fulton Street! If I could tell you how inconceivable it was in 1979, when we bought an 1830s row house nearby for $36,000, that the neighborhood would ever be — not only desirable, but the essence of hip. We stepped over bums (that’s what we used to call them) on our stoop daily, couldn’t get Manhattan friends to visit, and traveled by bus to shop in Brooklyn Heights. Of course that was 33 years ago; but that’s how long it can take for a neighborhood to turn fully around.
It’s turned. The other night, my sister and I met at No. 7, a bar/restaurant that comes by its retro feel honestly; it’s part of a great row of old wooden storefronts where Greene Avenue meets Fulton. After a fancy gin cocktail — muddled blueberries and elderflower liquer, don’t ya know — we repaired to the cozy Cafe Lafayette around the corner, where I had a very satisfying couscous dish for a few dollars. Then we hied over to the newest performance space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (above, the main Opera House), the BAM Fisher, below, a 1928 building refurbished and expanded to accommodate more of BAM’s uncompromisingly avant garde productions. We saw ‘Elsewhere,’ part of the New Wave Festival, billed as a cello opera. All I knew going in was that it was about women, and the tickets were $20. It was both exhilarating and disturbing, a combination of movement, sound, spoken word, projections, performance art, and bizarre imagery. The good news: it was only 70 minutes long and we left laughing.
The high-rise development of lower Flatbush Avenue, near the Manhattan Bridge, is creeping northward. A sliver of skyscraper at #29 Flatbush, below, is still crane-topped but already very tall.
Soon the 1929 Williamsburgh Savings Bank, below, for decades the tallest building in Brooklyn at 29 stories, will be eclipsed by many others. So it goes. As long as the architecture of the brownstone neighborhoods is protected (and for the most part, it is), I’m generally in favor of what seems like real progress. Where the Barclay’s Center is concerned, I may never go to a Nets or Islanders game, and I’m not one for huge arena concerts, but so far, I’m a fan.
I’M JUST AS PROUD as can be. I’m all puffed up with pride right now. It’s not that one of my kids has done something extraordinary, or even myself. No, it’s the ash tree in the backyard of my building in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.
I always knew it one of the biggest trees in the nabe. That tree is 150 feet tall, I’ll wager. A real monster. (You can see its trunk in the photo above.) I remember seeing it from above, high above — from the observation deck on the 29th floor of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building when the tower was sporadically open to the public in the early 1980s and my daughter and I used to go up there to eat lunch and view the bank’s big clock in close-up. I’d look down on my house, a block away, and see nothing but a green cloud of foliage emerging from the rectangle of the backyard, bigger by far than any other green cloud for blocks around.
What I didn’t know is that my ash is so very fine — practically worthy of landmarking. I found this out in the aftermath of Irene, when my tenant on the top floor sent me some photos. The ash — perhaps it too should be given a proper name — had shed a few large branches in the storm. Again. It has a habit of doing that. We’ve had it taken care of from time to time, and it always costs a bundle.
By utter coincidence, one of the leading arborists in Brooklyn, William Logan of Urban Arborists, happens to live adjacent to that backyard, and he knows the tree well. So I called him on Monday and he came to take a look. There was a 30-foot- long, Y-shaped branch straddling the brick wall of the building next door; another had landed on the roof deck of a neighboring building on State Street — a building that happens to be right next door to the house where Bill has lived for more than 20 years. He could practically reach over and dispatch that branch, which is why I called him and not the tree service in Staten Island, which tends to be less pricey.
Bill came to take a look, and a few hours later, emailed an estimate with this note:
Dear Cara, It was good to see you again and to look at the big ash. I am glad that it did not suffer too serious damage. It is a very fine ash, one of the best I know of in Brooklyn.
Well. Can you see why I am so very proud? And pleased. My property’s value has probably just shot up like the Dow every other day.
Then he went on…
We will repair the storm damage and inspect the tree to make sure that no other branches have been cracked or otherwise compromised. We will also remove any significant dead branches over the neighbors’ property.
Here is the proposal:
To prune as described above one approx 40” diameter ash to repair storm damage, examine branches and remove major deadwood $895.00
Ugh. I hadn’t asked Bill to examine the rest of the tree or take any prophylactic measures against further breakage. But ya know, it’s a very fine ash — one of the best in Brooklyn, I hear. It needs special care. It’s probably quite old. Venerable, even.
That ash is worth any price. Yes, indeed. That’s my very fine ash.
Brooklyn-based artist Robert Goldstrom has painted one building, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, 108 times and counting — in every season, weather, time of day, and from every possible angle. Goldstrom never intended to paint one subject so obsessively, but since starting the series in 2002, he has found the 37-story Art Deco clock tower endlessly inspiring.
“As the sky and weather change, the building changes,” says Goldstrom, who lives in Clinton Hill. “It can be warm or silvery or fogged-in, with glowing orange hands, or steam coming out the top. It can be front-lit or back-lit. Shadows pass across it. Depending where you are standing, it can be a sliver or a massive hulk. It has such emotional presence.”
Goldstrom (who also paints fish, people, and other Brooklyn scenes) came to Brooklyn from his native Detroit in 1979 after studying art and English at the University of Michigan. He is represented by Brooklyn’s Underbridge Pictures and Carrie Haddad in Hudson, N.Y.
You can see a few of his ‘Bank paintings’ each weekend at the Winter Pop-Up Antiques Market in DUMBO, where his partner, David Sokosh, a restorer of antique clocks, displays them alongside his own wares.
“Brooklyn has wonderful light,” Goldstrom says. But it’s not just the quality of the light. “It’s what the light hits.”