Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn’

A guy at my Manhattan watering hole, a theatre director and Soho resident since the 70’s, claims this is the most interesting time to be in New York sicne, well, the 70’s. “Everyone’s moving out of the city, no one knows what’s going to happen . . . ”

I don’t see the 70’s, or what I know of the 70’s in New York, just yet. If anything Manhattan and central Brooklyn feel like more of the same – more gentrified, less life around the edges, more of a homogenization I’ve never seen in New York before. Wall Street still pays out the big bonuses, and another bar regular who runs a high end catering business says business is up, that his Wall street clients are back splashing out for the big events.

Yet everyone I know is broke. Not desperate, not yet, but I wonder where they’ll be if this continues for a year.  In my corner of central Brooklyn new cafes, increasingly upscale, are opening up and middle class white folks with babies are moving in even as the great condo binge edges threatening to transform the neighborhood crawls to a stop – some days a half dozen workers show up to work on a fifty unit building, and a 20 unit building completed last year sits empty, threatened with foreclosure, on the chopping block for a million and a half – for the whole building. Yet despite the recession, and the increasing gentrification, the still mostly working/ lower-middle class black folk in my neighborhood, by and large have retained the optimism they picked up after Obama was elected. Though I wonder too how much longer that will continue if things continue . . . .

A friend with relatives down on Wall street said the feeling is that the street will not return to anything like its pre-Crash level anytime soon. In the Atlantic, Richard Florida (the Creative Class guy), writes that New York will have to re-define itself beyond Wall street once again.

Regardless, I don’t think I’ve ever had a harder time reading New York. I’ve never seen the city so withdrawn, so homogenized – so like everywhere else.  Nathan Kensinger, in his excellent post, The Bloomberg Era Pt. 1, maps out a scale of development that  rivals the changes brought about by Robert Moses. I was away for most of the development period, returning for a few months at a time and often with a year or so in-between, and so experienced these changes almost second-hand. Beyond the deflation that came with Bush’s re-election, I did notice a change setting in in late 2006 – people I knew here began to withdraw into smaller and smaller circles, my favorite bars in Brooklyn and Manhattan became more homogenized, and that wonderful New York quality of random contact and possibility began to go on the retreat. And many people I knew started leaving the city, a process which is still going on now.

Yet that cycle is over, and another is about to begin. If New York feels sometimes like just another city now, I’m sure that in one year, two, it will be something else entirely.

Guy down on Wall street last summer:

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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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Riding the G train, the cross-Brooklyn local, on a Saturday afternoon . . .

A big guy was sitting by the door with a little kid. The kid was maybe five or six, of indeterminate sex, except for a set of pink rubber boots. Probably a girl. The guy had a big head and thick, almost coke-bottle glasses with thick rims. He looked almost exactly like a friend of mine, a painter who lives off the G in Williamsburg, except that his neck and wrists and even his hands were covered in tattoos, fiery metalhead tattoos, with letters tattooed across the knuckles of each hand, which at first I thought read GODS W111. Yet he looked far too mild-mannered to be a hardcore metalhead and from the way he sat with the little girl he appeared to be her father.

Tehy had a book, a trade paperback with a black cover and big yellow letters on the front. The little girl spelled out the title: “O, W, O . . .”

“That’s an ‘I’,” the guy corrected her a little sternly. Then: “Do you want to read it?”

“No!” The little girl giggled. “Its boring!”

“Boring! Maybe if I read it to you . . . ”

“Okay!” The little girl wriggled close to him, starting in the middle of the book, and reading over her shoulder so she could see the page. He read in a soft, flat voice and I could barely hear him over the clattering of the train. “The theoretical . . . backlash of the administrative mindset . . . multiplicity of identities . . . ”

From what little I heard it sounded like a combination of Derrida, a political pamphlet, and an office memo. He read slowly, deliberately, turning the page while the little girl squirmed in her seat, laughing at first then looking confused then laughing again and I couldn’t tell if the guy was being ironic and this was a recurring game with them, or if he was serious and she was laughing at him because he did that kind of thing all the time . . .

When I got off the train, I realized his knuckles read ‘God’s Will’. When I got home I googled the phrase, wondering if it was a band. But no band came out and I wondered if he hadn’t been some sort of Christian metalhead, like those Christian hardcore kids I’d read about somewhere, out thrashing for Jesus . . .

Christ-core band Norma Jean

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Bed-Stuy, or this corner of Bed-Stuy is being flooded with condos.

Two four story, close to hundred unit condos on Greene between Franklin and Classon.

Two condos on Greene Ave

Another 20 units (give or take) on 270 Greene (at Classon).

Condo on Greene and Classon

What looks like another four story, possibly close to a hundred unit building going up on Clifton Place between Franklin and Classon . . .

Condo clifton place

Another 20 unit place overlooking Beford and Greene . . . .

Condos on Bedford

Another 100 or so units down Bedford, off Dekalb, off Myrtle . . . .

Condos on Dekalb

And smaller units dispersed around a ten block radius everywhere else.

This section of Bed-Stuy is on a corridor between gentrified Fort Greene and Clinton Hill and trendy hipster capital Williamsburg – and thus desirable real estate. Now – ten years ago, this was still a desolation zone. Not quite the war zone it had been in the mid-90’s, when crackheads and hookers lined the street that gentrification forgot, but bad enough. At night you’d hear fights on the street, periodic gunfire, and, sometimes in the mornings, crackheads standing on the sidewalk coming down off a binge, radiating menace.

Community activism, declining drug use, heavier police presence, and the inevitable sweep of gentrification changed all that. The local council needed development so they didn’t impose the same height restrictions as neighboring Clinton Hill, with the result that the Condos have marched in. En masse.

Almost all the lots these condos are being built on were vacant, or occupied by abandoned factories, so at least there hasn’t been any destruction of indigenous architecture. Many  of the lots are owned by Hasidic Jews, who have moved up block by block up Bedford from Williamsburg, right to Myrtle. The Hasidim have huge families, and their particular (and oft peculiar) brand of Judaism forbids higher education, so many go into real estate speculation and construction. Possibly, the owners of these properties have held them for decades.

The question, as EV Grieve asked about development in the Bowery is, who are these being built for? What happens if they remain empty? Will they be converted into affordable housing, or will the owners hold out for the inevitable yuppie condo buyer? At 270 Greene, a 2 bdrm ‘loft’ will cost you as much as $635,000, what an entire brownstone would cost you just a few years ago.

You can see businesses on the main streets starting to rev up. On Franklin, the New Millenium has removed the hard plastic barrier in front of the condo, installed an LCD banner, and now advertises organic food. A new restaurant is opening up on Bedford, by Lafayette. On Franklin, a Fench pizza place has opened up near Bistro Lafayette. Perhaps they’ll even have to put a few more cars on the G train.

Time will tell . . . .at least nothing has come up like this I’m sure unintentionally hilarious ad (courtesy of Jeremiah Moss) for high-end (and evidently very white) condos in Harlem.

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Big Blue House

I tok this picture while walking down 9th street in Brooklyn where it slopes from 5th Ave down to the Gowanus Canal. This stretch of the lower Slope has fascinated me recently, since it remains quasi-industrial, with a half-dozen cheap and primarily blue-collar bars, just around the corner from the flashy restaurants and hipster bars along 5th Ave. The street is an outpost of industrial, pre-gentrification Brooklyn, a reminder of the blue-collar sensibility which lingers in Park Slope in the form of cheap diners, bars like the Carriage House and Farrells, the sweep of this blocky, utilitarian street down to the elevated railway lines of Smith-9th Station, and the factory and warehouse buildings along the Gowanus Canal.

And there, next to a bunker-like post office, is the Big Blue House.

I’d walked by the house countless times before, but this time it was cast in yellow light from one of those spectacular New York sunsets and I had to take a couple of shots. As I was putting my camera away, a middle-aged woman standing by her porch said: “If I had a dollar for every time someone takes a picture of that house, I’d be a millionaire.”

I laughed and we started talking. She said she was always out on her stoop, that she’d been in the area for decades, that she was ‘the mayor of 9th Street’. She thought the changes over the last few years were pretty good: “Brooklyn’s coming back – for so long it was a place no one wanted to come to, but look at Park Slope now . . .”

She said the Blue House used to be an ink factory, that tunnels had once run from the basement right up to Prospect Park because the house had been used as a conduit for runaway slaves. Now, it was a music academy, Slope Music.

When I got home, I googled the Big Blue House, and found a post on Gowanus Lounge (Blue Jewel Revealed), and thebigbluehouse, run by Jake Rockowitz, a web designer who grew up in the house. At one time the site had a photo tour of the interior of the house, but now it seems to have been stripped down to a Portfolio site. Mr. Rockowitz  writes:

“… The big blue house is a central theme to my artwork. Sitting in front of a computer in the basement of this big blue house is where I learned how to build websites so it seem fitting to call my company, which I incorporated in 2000, ‘The Big Blue House Production’.”

And from website for Slope Music (where you can still see pictures of the house’s interior, like the one below):

“The building inspires a sense of history because it was built in 1850, before the brownstones, before Prospect Park, before the Brooklyn Bridge. The house is awash in music because its owners, Vita and Charles Sibirsky, who moved there is 1981, started a music school called Slope Music. Since those days Slope Music has grown to include a staff of a dozen teachers, each one bringing their owns special gifts to the art of teaching music and making each student’s learning experience a personal adventure.

“…Vita’s studio is the cupola at the top of the building. When the afternoon light filters through the 13 windows, one feels like they are momentarily suspended above the building. Vita tries to create a warm, welcoming space for the students. The unusual setting encourages people to relax and be open to learning. The unique space makes every lesson special.

“People need more good music in their lives. They need to make it and to learn to listen. This improves them in every way, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Music relieves the stress people feel in these times,” Charles says.”

Piano in room Piano on top floor of blue house (from Slope Music website).

According to the Gowanus posting, the house was built in 1855, when this area of Brooklyn must have been mostly rural, and predates the brownstones which now dominate the area.  The house was designed by Patrick Charles Keely, an Irish immigrant who designed some 500 Catholic Churches in the US. The posting makes no mention of underground tunnels or abolitionists, but it does mention the ink factory, which was housed in the big brick building behind the house – the big blue house was the factory office. The ink factory has now been turned into condos, but I was heartened to see that the Big Blue House has retained elegance, charm, and culture.

That’s the thing about areas like Park Slope: gentrification can never entirely erase history, nor the area’s natural beauty. I’ll be running a few more snapshots from Park Slope’s (and Brooklyn’s) surprising history in the weeks to come.

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Some Graffiti and wall murals from around Bed-Stuy:


Man with shopping cart

Man with Shopping Cart

This mural appeared a couple of weeks ago at the corner of Greene and Classon, on the wall of a store advertising ‘International News’ on it’s now very tattered awning. The store has been closed as long as I’ve been in the area – five years – but I think I’ve seen the man in the mural around the neighborhood, though not for awhile. A guy asleep on a chair usually inhabits this space but I haven’t seen him around for awhile either.


Mural For Nucy

Mural For Nucy

Corner of Greene and Macy. Along with the Holy Quaran picture on the right, the blocked off windowframe has votive candles.



Community Mural

Community Mural

Community Mural on Green, corner of Nostrand.


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Where indeed?

I haven’t updated this question since the winter because it’s been difficult to get a sense of where, in fact, New York is at.

Certainly, the optimism I felt in the winter after the Obama inauguration has dissipated. People talk about the recession continuing through next year, of hard times in 2010 when unemployment starts to run out. They talk about a jobless recovery, of the kind Japan went through for a decade or more. Liberal friends are pissed about the tortuous health care debate, the bonuses at Goldman Sachs.

I’ve often wondered how New York  – and America – would bear up under long term decline. As long as I’ve been coming here, New York has been about optimism, possibility, the future. Decline has curious effects. In pre-turbo-capitalist London, people were resigned, pessimistic, chronically depressed (they’re still chronically depressed, but that’s another story). In Montreal, the transition from an essentially prosperous city to one of the terminal decline, created all manner of inward-turning semi-psychosis, a ghetto mentality even if it was to all appearances still a middle-class city. My friends in New York have already become more withdrawn. People go out much less, and when they do go out, there is much less of that desire to meet new people, to create experiences and encounters, that made New York so captivating even a couple of years ago.

Yet prices haven’t gone down. In my Manhattan local, they’ve actually gone up. Once favorites like the Old Town have become so expensive, I can’t afford to go there for more than a beer, and then only haphazardly, since it’s largely full of the kind of people who can afford $8 beers (with tip).

Yet in Park Slope, Fort Greene, and much of Manhattan, the bars and restaurants are still full. In this corner of Bed-Stuy, the condos keep going up. The foundations have just been poured for a fifty unit building on Clifton Place, stacked behind two similar units on Greene, with more around the corner. Down Bedford, two or three condo units stand empty, windows still papered over. There has been talk of crime going up, but as far as I can see, it’s all relative. This neighborhood is nothing like it was even three years ago, when you felt the tension every time you stepped out the door, and you had various disreputables hanging around the bodega on Bedford every night.

It’s an odd recession alright. When the crash came last year, I thought gentrification would come to a halt. It hasn’t. It is a constant source of conversation – who are these people? How do they get their money?

Happy Face Warehouse in Red Hook

Happy Face Warehouse in Red Hook

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Found this scene the other day, walking down to a friend’s place in Bedford-Stuyvesant . . . 

Girl Jumping in and out of skipping Rope in Bed-stuy

Girl Jumping in and out of skipping Rope in Bed-stuy


This was for a special occasion – a block party in the local community garden (for you non-New Yorkers – a block party is the practice of closing off a street for a day, and local people hauling out BBQs, sound systems, sitting on their stoops and hanging around in the street,  having a good time. In extreme cases they bring in entertainment, but more usually it’s just one street. You see it in some white neighborhoods, but mostly it’s a black thing. Why don’t we do this in Canada?)

   I don’t recall seeing little girls skipping ropes in white neighborhoods for many years, either in New York or Canada or Britain, but it’s a common enough sight in black neighborhoods, where little girls hold the rope and chant while someone jumps in and out. I remember it happening as a kid, but I don’t see it now. One of the many traditions us white folk are losing or have lost, and a sense of community and togetherness that, for all their problems, remains in black communities. 

And hey, it wasn’t just for the kids: 

Woman Skipping Rope

Woman Skipping Rope

 how about you readers, do you see kids skipping rope in your neighborhoods? Do you remember seeing kids playing skipping rope games when you were a kid? Did you skip rope yourself?

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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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