Archive for the ‘Fort Greene’ Category

Stained glass window in the Williamsburg Bank Tower

Blue and Gold Mosaic roof in the Williamsburg Bank Building

Lion statues Wiliamsburg Bank Building

Flag Mosaic in Walliamsburg Bank Building

Lions Statues holding lockbox in Williamsburg Bank Building

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Black and white bank lobby

For some time now the Williamsburg Savings Bank has been shuttered for renovation.

I’d heard that the whole building, from the iconic clock tower (biggest in the world apparently) on down to the old bank lobby, was to be turned into condos and living spaces for the rich. I’d look out on that iconic tower, visible from pretty much anywhere in downtown Brooklyn, with some sadness, thinking it would be one more New York space which I’d only have access to from a distance. This summer, I looked over Nathan Kensinger’s photo essay of the still-being-renovated building and wondered if the public would ever have access to these spaces.

But thanks to a Brit in Brooklyn posting the week before, I found it that the newly renovated bank lobby is the winter home of the Brooklyn Flea Market.

Stained glass windows

And my, what a lobby . . .

I used to bank here, coming in to change money or even use the ATM, just for the chance to gaze up at the exquisite mosaic ceilings, or be served at the old-time metal teller grates. You felt like you’d stepped back in time – and indeed the bank, if not the building, had the feeling of being marooned in time since the Hanson Place of that pre-Atlantic Terminal era had a desolate, edge of the world feeling, a last repository of the near-abandonment which had once engulfed downtown Brooklyn. The destruction of the old Atlantic Station in the late 80’s, I’m sure, played a part, but apparently the bank tower, built in 1929 has been an analomy since its inception in 1929, when it was assumed that many like buildings would go up aside it. Alas, the Great Depression then central Brooklyn’s post-war decline put paid to that.

Chandelier and ceiling

I’ve read (I can’t find the freakin’ links now) that the hall is marketed as a venue for luxury acts, so I’m a little unclear what its long-term function will be. Apparently, the spaces behind the teller grates are to be reented out for retail, though there are no takers yet. Cultural ‘industries’ like Bomb magazine have rented out office space in the upper floors, and BAM has some kind of presence. Let’s hope this magnificent and historic lobby remains a public venue for years to come.

Teller windows Creative use of old teller windows

last stop

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Granite Wall inside Atlantic Terminal

Underwhelming . . .

This seems to be the consensus among the people I know in Brooklyn (and much of the Brooklyn blogosphere), and I have to concur. Especially after 8 years and $108 million ( 2 and half years late and $16 million over budget). The soaring windows are a nice touch, as is the limestone thing at the top of the stairs, but atmosphere, grandeur, the public space that should be a part of any train stations, are sorely lacking. This is the gateway to Brooklyn and the soon-to-be-constructed Atlantic Yards?

I admit that I was excited, almost despite myself, to see an actual train station finally re-opening where the original Atlantic Station was torn down in 1988. For years after I first moved here in 93, this was a pit in the ground, with a little tin shack to mark the station entrance. You’d descend a filthy stairwell into bedlam – crashing trains, harried crowds rushing though tunnels where the crumbling, mildew-stained concrete walls, blaring announcements and, eventually, a continual backdrop of jackhammers and construction hoardings. It went on for so long I began to think of the noise and unpleasantness as the station’s natural state, and would only go down if I absolutely had to.

So the new station is an improvement on all that. Still – eight years for a few steps, a glass front, some limestone, and three arches leading into a shopping mall?

Inside the station

Because the station, if you can call it that, is part of Atlantic Terminal, a dark and deeply unlovely mall whose chief aesthetic achievement is that it is marginally more atmospheric than the Atlantic Centre behind it, a mall which strives to have no atmosphere at all. When I tried to take a photograph inside Atlantic Terminal, a harried, nervous looking security guard came out and said: “no pictures – they can put you in prison for that,” though I don’t know what ‘they’ are worried about, since, well, it’s a mall. Outside, on Flatbush, is some of the worst traffic in Brooklyn and, traversing the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic, where heavy traffic barrels down six lanes off the Manhattan Bridge then veers north, south and east into Brooklyn, is a deeply unpleasant and even dangerous experience. The Atlantic Yards, and the basketball arena, will only make the traffic, and the notion of being anywhere near that traffic, much, much worse.

The Atlantic Terminal is owned by Bruce Ratner, the same dude behind the aforementioned Atlantic Yards development, which promises to bring a section of mid-town Manhattan to central Brooklyn, and pretty much over-run the two neighborhoods I’ve lived longest in New York, Fort Greene and downtown Brooklyn. From the time I lived around the corner, up behind what was the Daily News Plant, the area has been a pit, so some kind of development is welcome. But if the Atlantic Terminal is anything to go by, Brooklyn is in a lot of trouble.

Station circa WWII Atlantic Station circa WW2 (from aart.aarchives.com).

And the original Atlantic Station? It had an open concourse, benches, and big glass panels on the roof which must have let in the same slightly milky light you find animating the beautiful Victorian stations in England. Like so much fine architecture – the original Penn Station is most notorious example – it was allowed to decay, then someone thought they could make money by developing the site and station was declared beyond repair and torn down. Before construction could get started, the last recession kicked in, the developers ran out of money and left the pit I discovered and wondered about five years later. Thus, thus, has been the way in so many of our cities . ..

You can see photographs of the original station at arrts-arrchives.com (thanks to Brooklyn Born for telling me about the site).

All that remains of the original station is this lonely adjunct, marooned on a traffic island across the street, serving I don’t know what function.

Atlantic Station adjunct

New York Times City Room has a positive if bland take

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As I wrote a couple of posts (and at least a month – I’ve been AWOL on this blog lately) ago, I was invited to observe/ participate a Brian Lehrer form at the WNYC sound studios a couple of weeks ago. The invitation came basically that morning and I went because I thought it might illuminate some things about Bed-Stuy, where I’ve been a part-time resident for six years, and my quest to understand the roots of gentrification. 

And it did. 

Some stats: 

– According to one participant on the panel, Ibrahim Abdul Matin, a community organizer with the Black Muslim community in Brooklyn, 50% of black men in New York are unemployed. What he probably means is, not officially employed. They are unemployed the way I’m unemployed, working off the radar, here and there. Nonetheless, that’s huge number of people not integrated into the official economy. 

   He pointed out that the underground economy is not as strong in New York as it once was:

“As someone who grew up watching the crack era and seeing it all evolve, there was a time in New York where things were not that great, but you could join the underground economy and make a lot of money. You can’t do that any more. People aren’t making big money hustling.”

   Obviously, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But it does point to one reason why crime rates remain relatively low, despite the job losses, the unemployment. Folks in the inner city don’t want to do crack. 

– According to Pam Green, a____, the sub-prime mortgage hit Bed-Stuy hard. People lost their homes, left the neighborhood. Conversely, this has hastened rather than slowed down gentrification. She claimed there has been a 255% increase in white people moving into Bed-Stuy in the last year. “This change is too fast – you see the architecture changing, symmetry of housing changing, big condos going up . . .” 

– Ironically, those very factors that make Bed-Stuy a more liveable place for it’s residents than it was  a few years ago – stronger sense of community, a massive drop in crime rate, obvious drug use – has made it more vulnerable to gentrification. Crime rates are actually higher in neighboring Fort Greene and Park Slope, where more people have more money. Long-term residents have worked hard to make Bed-Stuy more safe, so now it’s more safe for the condo developers, and the people who want to live in those condos as well. 

– Which leads to: Rental prices in central Brooklyn have tripled in the last few years. Where the average price for a one-bedroom was five hundred, not it’s fifteen hundred. As storeowner Atim Annette Okim (calabra imports) pointed out, who can afford $1500 a month making $7.50 an hour, which is what so many low-skilled jobs pay?

   So gentrification marches on, even in the recession . . .

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Back to the old sod . . . 

Recession or not, Ratner Atlantic Yards project on hold or not, development continues apace. Downtown Brooklyn has not just one but several new condos/ office towers, including this one here, which must rate as one of the most hideous condo/ office towers I’ve seen in quite some time. Like a combination  roadside motel/ battleship . .. 

Condo/ office tower on flatbush ave.

Condo/ office tower on flatbush ave.

And in my old neighborhood, Fort Greene, another huge complex, which I’m sure will change the character of DeKalb for good, 80 DeKalb: 

80 Dekalb

80 Dekalb

Not to mention another tower going up around the corner from a deserted patch of Willoughby Street, courtesy of Land-Lease, the Aussie development company now in negotiation with London’s Southwark Council to ‘regenerate’ the Elephant and Castle in what will be the largest such scheme in all of Europe: 

Lend Lease Tower

Lend Lease Tower

Let’s face it. Downtown Brooklyn is a short subway/ bike/ car ride from lower Manhattan. People with families don’t want to live in Manhattan. Downtown Brooklyn, and the areas around downtown Brooklyn, are just going to get more and more expensive. The recession hasn’t slowed development any – even out in Bed-Stuy the condos are still going up. Two huge towers on Greene Ave, one ten or twelve stories high, the other four or five but covering half a city block. When these are filled, Bed-Stuy, or that corner of Bed-Stuy, will become a crowded place. 

The place to rent, I hear, is no longer Brooklyn, but parts of Manhattan like the Upper East Side, or even Chelsea . . .

But the recession has slowed development somewhat. The above-mentioned Atlantic Yards which, if it ever goes through, will make most of central Brooklyn unrecognizable. But also on Willoughby, around the corner from the Land Lease tower, is two blocks of total desolation.  Seems a development company called United American Land booted out the thirty merchants from Willoughy, Duffield and Bridge streets to build a $208 million dollar commercial and residential complex. But the recession kicked in, and the project is on hold. 

In the meantime, the company struck a deal with the Metrotech Business Improvement District and art-hoc an arts organization. to create Willoughby Windows, art installations in a dozen of the abandoned storefronts. From the Daily News: ‘Artwork Helps Brighten Gloomy Brooklyn street as construction stalls”

Storefront by Cycle

Storefront by Cycle



Wiiloughby Windows

Wiiloughby Windows



Kind of cool and everything, but but on the two afternoons I went down, one weekday, the other weekend, the street was pretty much empty. And anyway, what does this art really mean, when it’s sponsored by the very development company that is responsible for evicting the small businesspeople who kept the area alive? 

As always, artists and development/ gentrification are inextricably, inexplicably and inevitably linked . . .whether they want to be or not.


Close up - Cycle

Close up - Cycle

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The Brooklyn sunset seen from the roof of my girlfriend’s old place in Fort Greene.

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Obama In a window in Fort Greene

Obama In a window in Fort Greene


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Mannequins for Obama

Mannequins for Obama

For me, the inauguration was a bust . . .

Never having witnessed an American inauguration before,I’d expected it  to be a big celebration, akin almost to the election when thousands of people took to the streets in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and over here in Bed-Stuy people fired guns from the projects on Lafayette like it was New Year’s Eve.

But no, it was quiet, very quiet.

We had brunch and watched the inauguration on my friend’s big screen TV. As show, theatre, it was something else – no one does showbiz like the Americans. Obama’s speech, while workman like, set out his policy in clear terms. Big government, the end to the age of irresponsibility, a reaching out to the rest of the world, a shift to renewable technologies. Aretha was great, the crowds were great, the dude at the end was great (“so the yellow can be mellow, the red man can get ahead, man”) – and Obama was great, or almost great. Curiously, the British press gave Obama’s speech a better grade than the American, though perhaps that’s just relief . . .that W. is gone.

The  end of an era: watching the chopper carrying W whirring off into the Washington haze as we slowly wake up from the parallel universe that has been the last eight years.

Outside the window, we saw one person pass in the whole hour and a half.

Up at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the inauguration had been broadcast in the theatres so we decided to walk up, see if anyone was around. Bed-Stuy was totally dead, even more dead than usual on a weekday afternoon. CJ speculated that all the people who’d really wanted to be involved had gone up to Washington “Maybe that’s why there was so much parking space available this weekend,” but I figured up in gentrified and politically active Fort Greene, there would be some visible celebration. But Fort Greene was dead too – the BAM event shut down so completely we wondered if anyone had even showed up.

We went to Union Square. No one around. Had lunch, CJ went to school. I went to Harlem.

Got there around five. 125th street was busy, but no more so than on any after-work five o’clock day. I hadn’t been to 125th in a few years and was amazed by the changes. I guess it started when Clinton moved his offices up to Harlem and made 125th respectable again. Big chain shops, Starbuck’s. A curiousity like the TDBank, ie Canada’s Toronto Dominion – since Canada’s banks, inherently more risk avers, survived the crisis better than their US counterparts, were they now starting to take advantage of the stricken US banking system to swoop south? Is this the stop of Canadian banking imperialism?

Most visible signs of Obama support: mannequins in the store windows and street vendors with Obama t-shirts. Obama family Barack, Michelle and the two kids in Star Wars garb holding light sabers, Obama and McCain in a boxing ring in boxer shorts and gloves and Obama standing over a prostrate McCain over the logo: ‘Obama: Knockout, McCain: Zero”.

A lot of white people getting off the subway, travelling down the street, but still aware of black faces checking me out, curious, not entirely dropping that defensiveness that always greets a white person going into a black neighborhood. A lot of very poor people here too – a drug ravaged woman standing on the corner in the cold, a man in a wheelchair, limbs disfigured by some sort of wasting disease – working class NY faces, tough, hard, guarded. A general energy, but Harlem’s always had energy . . .

t-shirts in harlem

t-shirts in harlem

Back into the train. People seem mostly shut down, as New Yorkers always do when it’s cold. At my favorite bar downtown, a little more full than usual, but not much. General elation, since this is still a largely liberal bar. Friend of mine gave Obama’s speech ‘A solid B+” which about got it I think. One of the black girls who works there looked up at Obama’s image on the TV screen with a kind of reverence . . .

Then, back on the train into Bed-Stuy. Looking at all the black faces on the train, staring ahead, still shut down. Faces I’ve seen on the train since I first moved here in 1991, that have seemed to become more, not less, closed off with the years. I wondered how THEY felt, these mostly working class people from inner Brooklyn, the neighborhoods along the A line that not so recently were scarred by drugs, gangs, constant violence. How did they see Obama? Did they think he was going to change their lives, or had they given up?

At Nostrand Ave, I got off behind four German girls and walked behind them down the street, listening to their German voices skirt around the edges of the Bed-Stuy night. They were blonde and tall, and hardly looked around them as they talked so I guess they were staying in the neighborhood in some capacity. That curious look of Nostrand/ Fulton with the iron walkway over the street, the lights, the brick buildings along Fulton – a 1950’s New York that stopped dead and just decayed. Black eyes along the street meeting mine, checking me out, checking out the Germans – so unlike before when they seemed to just look right through you. Not friendly exactly, but curious, as if they finally had the confidence to study white people in their neighborhood, to try and understand them . . .

Back in front of the TV. Beyonce singing to the Obama’s as they made a slow shuffle on the stage. Obama dancing 80’s style – a self-admitted bad dancer, he dances more like some suburban white geek than a black dude which is surprising given his natural grace – with his fists up in front of him – that self-commenting ironic dancing that was big in the 80’s.

And outside, hardly anyone on the street, a woman yelling at the crackhouse across the street, yelling one name repeatedly for ten minutes. Then silence.

Shop Window in Prospect Heights

Shop Window in Prospect Heights

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Staying just down from the Brooklyn Museum and up from the proposed development around the Atlantic Yards. For those of you not in the know, the Atlantic Yards is an attempt to bring a section of Manhattan to downtown Brooklyn, running through the heart of my old Brooklyn neighborhoods, Downtown (or lower Prospect Heights in the current real estate vernacular) and Fort Greene. Included would be some dozen or so hi-rises, supposedly mixed commercial, low and medium income, and ‘luxury’ condominiums and a basketball stadium for the brought-back-to-Brooklyn Brooklyn Nets, designed by Frank Gehry.

If the Atlantic Yards  is still happening,  they haven’t gotten too far. Mostly the developers have  demolished a couple of warehouses in the surrounding area, and blown up half the bridge which connected Carlton street east of the LIRR tracks to Carlton west of the LIRR tracks. The LIRR trains still sit humming at the end of those tracks, servicing the butt-ugly Atlantic Station which connects to the even more butt-ugly Atlantic Centre big box mall behind it. The LIRR station is still sectioned off with ugly wooden hoardings, both inside and out, as it has been since I first arrived here fifteen years ago.

Bruce Ratner, the man behind the Atlantic Yards, is responsible for both station and mall, and this doesn’t bode well, since the mall has to be one of the worst shopping experiences this correspondent has ever been on. Big box mall come to downtown Brooklyn, hardly an public space. Posting on Ratner in the Brownstoner . . .


The Atlantic Yards has been a hole in the ground as long as I can remember, the train yards storage for the LIRR trains, Atlantic Avenue more like a highway than a city street, bordered by a disused warehouse, a colossal housing project, and what used to be the Daily News Plant. The only consolation walking home at night was the Daily News trucks parked in the bays, with all the drivers getting ready for the night shift. With the lights, the big trucks idling in the bays while the bales of newspapers were loaded in the back,  and the drivers hanging around smoking, it resembled a night-time port. I walked by so often some of the drivers came to recognize me – I lived right around the corner – and I used to chat with them. They were big white guys, mostly from Long Island or the outer burroughs, and they’d go to the little diner in the corner or, after their shift, for the morning run at Freddy’s Bar down on Pacific. A little crackhead used to circulate around the trucks. She was white with stringy brown hair and must have weighed all of eighty pounds. She cornered me once, away from the trucks at the bottom of the street. “Hey, you wanna a blowjob? Five bucks – I got my own condom too . . . ” showing me the condom in the palm of her hand. Too much.

When the Daily News shifted to the suburbs, the plant sat empty then was converted into condos. Nice enough looking building, but the street never really came alive.  Freddy’s found new life as a hipster bar, playing found video above the bar They stripped the paint off the fine old wood bar and let underground bands play in the back. We used to make the trek up from Fort Greene to hang out.

The whole reason the Atlantic Yards exists at all was because of another  redevelopment scheme thirty odd years ago that saw the powers that be tear down the old train station (a relic of that old station can be seen in the little white building in the traffic island across the street) and dig up the whole area, then leave it abandoned when they ran out of money, a hole in the heart of Brooklyn . . .



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I was sitting with B in the Prospect Park the other day. Mothers with SUV sized baby carriages, moving en masse up the pavement, the guy with the hands-free pacing back and forth nattering in business speak about deals made, deals yet to be made. A few joggers. The usual Park Slope side of the park scene.  

   We wondered if if the recession wouldn’t put an end to gentrification, speculating on it from both sides. The fact is, I think the suburbs have come to the city, in a reverse of white flight – the inner cities have been made safe so the suburbanites are re-colonizing them and giving cities a whole new identity. 

   And, recession or not, I don’t see it getting any better. The oil crisis might even make it worse – as driving becomes more and more expensive, city centre will become the place to be and all the poor people will have to go somewhere else. Maybe American cities will follow the European model (I hear cities like Philedelphia and Boston, not to mention Washington DC, already have), with cute city centres dominated by yuppies, and the poor in sprawling housing projects around the periphery. 

   In a way this is just returning to the old pattern – neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and even East New York were originally built for the bourgeousie – but the difference is in the homogenity. No more working class areas side by side with the rich, like what used to exist in Manhattan. Less and less middle class. Gentrification is, above all, a blitzkrieg of homogenization. 

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