Posts Tagged ‘Fort Greene’

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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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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Home in Brooklyn

Painting by G. Shawn Cuddy

Back in Fort Greene . . .
I lived one street behind where I’m working now for six, seven years, in my girlfriend’s attic apartment.  The landlady was a crazy Jewish woman who had owned the building since the 70’s. Her even crazier Hatian witch doctor ex-husband lived in the basement . In the attic apartment, the landlady had painted and recarpeted the front three rooms, but left the back space completely untouched – she told us she wanted to keep it as storage space, but since the only access was through our living room, this was impossible – she was just too cheap to redo the whole flat. The last tenant, a gay black man who had worked on Wall street and died of AIDS, liked brown – brown walls, brown and gold wallpaper, brown moulding, with neon lamps embedded in the ceiling and strings of Christmas lights around the posts. The walk in closet was stacked with his stuff – an iron bathtub, an old TV, magazines and many gay porno vids. Seems he had a thing for Puerto Ricans.

   Over the next couple of years, we cleared everything out and reclaimed the attic space, stripping off the wallpaper and throwing out all the junk. My girlfriend had grown up in the Caribean, so she chose bright colours – oranges, yellows, blues and coral pink – to compliment her collection of Caribean art and antique furniture. She was also into feng shui, so she balanced the place with miniature shrines and water fountains, and placed the furniture just so. I provided the labour and a fish tank but the Brooklyn tap water kept killing the fish so, during one of our many break-ups when I went back to Montreal, she called a local school and when I came back down a couple of kids came with their teacher to take the tank the remaining fish, marveling at the catfish which had managed not just to survive but grow until it was a third the length of the tank.

    It was the most marvelous apartment I’ve ever lived in. If I’d been away for a month or two – and in the latter part of our relationship I began spending more and more time in Montreal – ascending the four flights up the dingy stairwell with the plaster dust creaking from the walls and the lights blown out on the landing then stepping up the last flight of stairs into her flat was like walking up into the sun and sometimes I’d become almost delirious with the sheer overwhelming beauty of the colours, the paintings – all the little touchstones of our life together.

    The building itself was always a little odd. The witch doctor had the garden in the back and rumour had it that he buried his sacrificial animals outside his door. Certainly, no one seemed to use it. Stinkweed trees, which can grow ten feet a year, covered the lot when we moved in and year by year they ascended upwards, stretching out so that they began to overshadow the neighbor’s yards as well, cutting off the light on the first floor, the second, the third. Finally, when they threatened to reach our attic windows, the landlady threw out her ex-husband and her son, who proved to be surprisingly normal, moved in and the trees were cut down.

   For Greene was still half-ghetto then. At night we often heard gunfire ringing out from the public housing building on Lafayette – and on the weekends Lafayette itself acted as a conduit for rougher elements to come in from Bed-Stuy. You’d walk out and feel the energy, the appraising glances, the violence and chaos of the ghetto. At the end of the street was a crackhouse and most days some big guy sat on the wide balcony with his minions, looking like some African dictator in his aviator shades and mufti cap.

   They never bothered us – they were businessmen after all – but their clients would sometimes wander the street, haggard, desperate, hysterical – begging dollar, quarter, nickel and one rainy Sunday afternoon, when I was out of town, my girlfriend got held up at gunpoint right on the street by some kid who melted away as fast as he’d appeared. Even the Korean delis were rumoured to sell crack and heroin from behind the counter.

   There was community. The old black guys on the corner, portrayed so well in Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ hung out at the end of the block in the daytime, watching who came and went, playing cards or just jawing. To my girlfriend, pretty and blonde, they were friendly enough but to me they were more circumspect and I could tell when I walked by that they were thinking “There’s that white guy who’s gonna say hi to us again.”

   This kind of weird apartheid ran through the whole neighborhood and was one of the most unsettling things about living there. Black people, though rarely hostile, seemed to see right through you and I never quite got used to that feeling of living in a community but having no place in it. The distance sometimes went to absurd lengths. Once, during the Monica Lewinsky battle when it looked like Clinton – who had by then become a hero to black America (‘the first black president’) – might be impeached,  I walked into a bodega where some black guys were talking about it. “Yo man, why don’t they leave Bill alone!” One guy said then all three or four of them took me in as one, as if thinking, “there’s a white guy – he probably doesn’t like Bill!”

   There were hardly any stores except for the Korean delis, which charged double what a grocery store in Manhattan would for produce, and except for a café on Fulton, where some would-be poet in dreads would spend most of his time talking into his cell phone, the only place to go out was the Alibi, a good dive bar on DeKalb that brought in locals and students from nearby Pratt University. There was Frank’s, a lounge place on Fulton where the red plush seats and mirrors made it look like something out of Superfly, but again while the black clientele wasn’t unfriendly exactly and they had a great jukebox of 60’s and 70’s soul and Motown classics, you never lost the feeling of being an intruder.

    White people did live in the neighborhood. You’d see the moving trucks, the kids being picked up for private school in the mornings. But aside from a few stalwarts who’d been there for years or were just the type not to let social divisions bother them, you didn’t see many white people on the street and this too created a sense of hidden dimensions, so that the wine dark windows in these glum, if elegant, brownstones, seemed to separate residents from the street.

  The area, like most of downtown Brooklyn including Park Slope, had been almost completely abandoned in the 60’s and 70’s. Though the brownstones, with their elegant mouldings, servant’s quarters and grand parlours, had been built for the bourgoisie, by the 30’s, anyone who could afford it moved further out, fleeing the pollution from the riverside factories and the grand interiors were refitted as rooming houses for migrant factory workers employed by the neighboring Brooklyn Navy Yard. By the 60’s, as the Navy Yard began closing section by section, the rooming houses were empty and feral dogs ran in packs through the streets. By the 70’s, the hookers began to reclaim Lafayette, lining it apparently for blocks, and it wasn’t until the artists, mostly black up and comers like Spike Lee, started colonizing the area in the 80’s, that Fort Greene began to become hip again.

   The last couple of years we were there, shops and services and bars began to fill the area, the refurbished Brooklyn Academy of Music re-opened, bringing in an art and theatre crowd as far afield as Manhattan. Moe’s opened up on Lafayette and quickly became our local. It was one the few bars I’ve been to in New York where whit e and black mixed freely and they had a great happy hour – 2 pints, four bucks. A market opened up on Saturdays by Fort Green Park and the park itself was cleaned up. This window lasted two, maybe three years then in the years after 9-11 Fort Greene was rapidly gentrified and now the yuppy class controls most of it, as they do most urban areas. 

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   I am working on South Portland with D, one block behind where I lived with Shawn for seven or eight years, in Fort Greene. Then, as now, it is a black neighborhood, but the rents have gone way up as the yuppy class take over. I think I first worked in this building eight years ago, just after I was injured. We started in the kitchen. A couple of years later it was the hall and the staircase then a couple of years ago we did the living room and now we’re working on the main room and bathroom on the second floor. 

   The couple who own the building – a four story brownstone on a street of elegant brownstones with great overhanging trees that jut out at an angle from the pavement like a row of arches – come from Austria originally. The daughter came while we were setting up the room. I hadn’t seen her since we were working in the kitchen. In her teens then, she was a shy, gawky kid who, after being dropped off from her private school (like so many white kids in this otherwise black neighborhood, she was bussed out to private school) would rush downstairs and watch TV.

   In her mid-20’s now, she is an outgoing, even aggressive young woman with bright blue eyes and a firm handshake – one of those bright NY kids who has seen and experienced many things just from having grown up in NYC, a white kid surrounded by what has been, for most her life, a black ghetto. She has moved back home, taking over the top two floors with two of her friends, including the spacious front room and little bathroom we are working on – empty after their tenant of eighteen years moved out.

   I don’t remember the tenant though I suppose I would have met her. Apparently she was beautiful, with raven black hair and nice clothes. A professional. She had some high-powered job organizing events at Madison Square Garden. D said she’d parade around for an hour or more when he was working in the hall wearing just a towel and there was always stacks of papers in front of her door and in the little hall in front of the bathroom, but otherwise she was well-spoken and efficient, like the high-powered NY professional she appeared to be.

   Yet she kept the door locked and, with one or two exceptions – a broken air-conditioner and some plumbing work – she wouldn’t let anyone in – she wouldn’t even let anyone else have a key –  and even when she did, she’d hem and haw about it for weeks. When the owner did make it in, he found papers, magazines and miscellaneous trash – a blanket shot with holes, a broken file-o-fax, binders –  stacked to the ceiling, covering the furniture, the floor – everything – with two narrow channels cut through the stacks to her bed and the air-conditioner. The bathroom was black with mould and strands of her raven black hair – even after she’d cleaned for five hours straight, the mould was so bad we couldn’t work without masks. After she’d moved out, the floor of her room was knee deep in papers, and the walls and windows were black with cobwebs and dust. 

   “Her friends came by,” the daughter said, “an architect,  and a physician or something. Professionals. They helped her haul away all this junk. You’d think someone would have noticed something . . .”

   We joked about some unlucky guy meeting her, thinking she was this beautiful together woman, then coming back to this nightmare – this filthy room so full of junk that you could barely move. “I don’t think many guys came back here,” the daughter said, “she told me she was bi. But I don’t think she was even that. You know she asked me once if she could bring a woman back and neck with her on the living room sofa. I was like ‘isn’t that what your room’s for?’”

   These wine dark windows, hiding the lives of those behind them. 


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