At 11:00 pm Thursday night I was coming back from the Nostrand Ave A-C stop and I stumbled across this unexpected and gorgeous little scene at the Dean North Community Garden (Dean between Franklin and Bedford). The photos don't even remotely do it justice. One of the caretakers, Greg, was setting up for a Halloween party that's taking place there from 6-8 pm tomorrow, and he has the place completely decked out: little orange lights, skeletons in the trees, a few legitimately scary fake heads lying around, and a big bad jack-o-lantern that his son must have spent hours on. Throw in the still, crisp air and the quiet of the space (it's tucked between two rows of brownstones, away from the avenues, so it's almost noiseless by Brooklyn standards) and there was a genuine magic about the place. Kids and adults alike are welcome, as Greg promises that the adults will relax in the garden once the trick-or-treaters move on for sweeter pastures.
Community gardens are one of a handful of institutions that require little more than local investment and can do an incredible amount of good in a community. They can act as parks, community centers, theaters, art galleries, produce markets, health classes, science labs, summer camps, senior centers, convict re-integration programs, dog runs . . . the list never ends. They have incredible power to bring people together--their status as oases of green betwixt concrete makes them both novel and enticing, the shared experience of growing food and caring for beautiful plants bonds participants like rubber cement, and the setting itself requires everyone to check a certain measure of identity, and thus difference, at the door (how many people are farmers or even full-time gardners anymore?). It'd be hard to measure their impact specifically, but spend some time in one and you can feel it without a doubt.
For those of us struggling with our status as gentrifiers, gardens are great places to meet dynamic, committed people who care about their communities and want us to do the same. We might not be able to reverse the trends our presence amplifies, but we can choose to know our neighbors and work with them to improve the space we share. If that sounds like a lot of work, remember how this post began: come to an awesome Halloween party!
Fun, colorful, slightly subversive messages of community and empowerment? I love it. The first four are from a mural that seems intended (or at least permitted) next to a coffee shop on the north side Myrtle. The fifth looks a little more unasked-for and is across the street. I think of them as the guerrilla-artist answer to the Foundation for a Better Life.
Despite the semi-hurricane, Bedford-Stuyvesant was looking beautiful today in its autumn colors. The first shot is from Franklin Ave around Willoughby, with a balcony-built sukkah (the temporary huts erected for the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot) overlooking that easily-recognized natural symbol of fall, the fiery orange tree.
The others are from the Marcy Playground, at the south end of of the Marcy Houses on Myrtle and Marcy. Le Courbosier, Howard, and the other advocates of towers amidst greenery don't have many defenders these days (both because they failed to understand the value of neighborhood continuity in 'slums' and because big-city bosses saw projects as a containment mechanism for specific classes and races, and treated them accordingly), but their vision at least delivers the outwardly pleasing appearance when executed properly. Maybe that was their problem--they were looking and thinking from too far away. Take a satellite view of Brooklyn from Gmaps, and the projects are clearly visible as blotches of green. There are good, clear arguments that this green space failed because it was inaccessible, dividing people and forcing them into tiny apartments in the towers instead of inviting them out onto the grass beneath the trees. Still, for the faraway observer, the city planner in his helicopter or penthouse (or the passerby kid with his digital camera), these spaces can look surprisingly gorgeous, given what we're used to associating with projects.
The playground begs a question that anyone who came of age in the mid-90s would ask--is it the namesake for Marcy Playground, the band that did "Sex and Candy"? The answer, sadly, is no: the band was named for a playground at the Marcy Open grade school in Minneapolis. However, they now call NYC home, which gives them a similar heritage to Brooklyn-based, Twin-Cities bred rockers the Hold Steady (local shows in a couple of weeks). I say sadly because the towers behind the trees housed a young Sean Carter (whose own stage name is, at least partially, a reference to the local el lines). If the playground had really fostered both Marcy Playground and Jay-Z, I'd feel justified calling Danger Mouse or Girl Talk to demand a "Sex and Candy/Two of Brooklyn's Finest" mashup. And frankly, I think that'd be pretty cool.
History buffs, NB: The houses and playground were named for 19th century New York Governor and US Senator William Learned Marcy.
I found this four-leaf-clover habanero at Nam's, the super-bodega at St. Johns and Franklin. They've just re-arranged the store, which has created a unified refrigerated section on one side of the space while leaving a mostly-empty corner at the other. In between is a ridiculously tight (not even a yard wide) aisle that is stocked from floor to ceiling.
The merits of the reordering aren't clear to me, but the food is as good as ever, with a pricey but impressive array of cheeses, olives and high-end salamis now facing a cleaned-up and well-stocked produce case. Nam's, as plenty of people in the area know, offers the only organic food to be found between Eastern and Atlantic on Franklin (the Associated by Crown and Franklin also stocks some goodies), and they're open 24 hours.
I got a vague answer when I asked today, but I wonder if they've always offered tofu, small-batch brie, and Muir Glen organic canned tomatoes at Nam's. These items seem aimed at a particular clientele, especially given their prices when purchased (as I assume Nam's must) in small batches. The store itself seems to have been around awhile, so my current hypothesis is that it's operated by some savvy managers taking aim at the neighborhood's better-off. It must have initially been a gamble (though I imagine they didn't switch their whole stock all at once), but now they've got a captive market on lockdown. By doing so, they've succesfully carved a space for themselves between a few rather different populations who shop on Franklin. Judging from some of the businesses along the way, this is no easy task, but that's a topic for another night.
The Melo Grocery, on St. Marks and Franklin, is for sale. This isn't really a surprise--Franklin Ave has been undergoing a slow but steady commercial boom for the past decade, moving from 69 to 108 functional storefronts from 1999 to 2003--but Melo is no ordinary out-of-business bodega. This shutterd storefront stands alone by virtue of the red, white and blue sign on its door that bears the words "United States Marshal: No Trespassing."
The Marshals? The ones that chase fugitives? The ones that will forever call to mind a wisecracking Tommy Lee Jones crashing around in a sewer after Harrison Ford? What exactly was going on at the Melo Grocery?
News searches don't yield much of anything. This NYT article from 1989 deals with a series of marshal-led raids on cocaine fronts, but doesn't mention anything about Melo, and nothing else pops up. It seems unlikely that the storefront has sat untouched since 1989, but not impossible, and it certainly looks run down enough. If it was a drug den, its appearance fits the bill, complete with a horror-movie-creepy front door that hangs open day and night, though not enough to see in. The realtor might know, but I haven't reached their office yet.
The US Marshal Service does some more mundane things, too, including serving federal court orders. The notice next to the "No Trespassing" sign appears to be something in this vein, though even when you can read it (it's too small to make out in the photo above), it makes almost no sense. The mad-lib style order appears to have been filled out by someone who put the word "court" in every blank after the first one. I'm not a lawyer, but I assume if that made sense, they'd just print the document that way.
So before I let my imagination run wild with sordid images of late-80s NYC, I'd better research this more. This potential drug den might merely have housed a run-of-the-mill federal criminal, along the lines of a tax evader. Of course, at least one legendary Brooklyn-born criminal has been nailed on tax evasion when greater crimes could not be proven.
I don't know how many hits it gets, but the Crow Hill Community Association site/blog has some handy features for anyone on Franklin. Among them are a list of Wi-Fi spots in the area and this overloaded but fun map of area businesses (useful for contact info and delivery numbers). Following the lead of DailyHeights, I'm hoping to post/solicit some reviews of local spots as I get to them and hear about them.
An update to yesterday's ramble: someone suggested checking out the Post Office in my zip code (11216) to see what they call the area. This only complicated the issue--the local Post Office is "Brevoort Station." By zip code, this means I live in Brevoort, NY. The Brevoorts were one of the original Dutch families of New Amsterdam (the Parks people have a nice bit on them here), and a nearby NYCHA project and park bear their name. Their connection to Brooklyn seems to be through the Lefferts-Brevoort Homestead. Another root of the Post Office title might be Willam Augustus Brevoort Coolidge, for whom Brevoort Place (just north of Atlantic) is named.
I haven't met a soul that says they live in Brevoort, though a local artist does use the name.
When I found my place at Dean and Franklin on Craiglist, it was advertised as a one-bedroom in Prospect Heights. The folks at DailyHeights would dispute that claim, (as would my Prospect Heights-living buddy) as Franklin is decidedly east of Washington, but Wikipedia would argue that if you're on the west side of Franklin, you're in. Down the street, the About Time Boutique on Franklin between Park and Sterling proudly flies the Crown Heights flag, but the Wikis would have it that by the time I've made it to Dean from the 4 Train, I've crossed into Bed-Stuy. Most of the Bedfordians I know dispute this, however, claiming that Bed-Stuy doesn't REALLY start until Atlantic Ave, and I'm inclined to agree, based both on the demographic shifts that are visible as you head north to the C train and the fact that Atlantic is a very solid geographic border (with its 6 heavily-grooved lanes of traffic and the LIRR elevated tracks). Sterling and Prospect, on either side of Park (wikipedia's border), look very similiar in these parts.
The closest signpost I have to work with, a hanging canvas sign on the corner, tells me I reside within the boundaries of the Crow Hill Community Association, who in turn purport to serve the "residents and merchants of North Crown Heights." A handful of historic sources also cite "Crow Hill" as the original name of Crown Heights, which was renamed thus when Crown Street was cut in 1916.
Why bother asking, or labeling? If you're in real estate, it's obvious enough, but why as a resident? Two longtime Brooklynites have given me two opposing answers: one told me "say you live in Bed-Stuy--you don't want to saddle yourself with Crown Heights," while the other said "oh, no, you live in Crown Heights. Bed-Stuy . . . no, I wouldn't say you live in Bed-Stuy." Both seem to gesture at various stigmas the two leading candidates for "my neighborhood" status have achieved, Crown Heights as the site of "The Crown Heights Riot" and Bed-Stuy as an urban gangland of the 1980s (which, when spoken of by New Yorkers trying to scare new arrivals sounds like Baghdad circa 2004 with crack). On the other hand, there are great reasons to claim both: Bed-Stuy has a wealth of history to match any neighborhood in New York, as well as being the home of that quintessential Brooklyn home, the brownstone, and Crown Heights once housed Ebbets Field.
As a new arrival attempting to navigate a social conscience, there are other potential concerns: Crown Heights is an historically mixed neighborhood, while Bed-Stuy makes it known that it is the largest African-American neighborhood in New York City (a claim addressed to better-know Harlem, it seems). For those of us whose salaries keep us amongst the shock troops of gentrification, Crown Heights seems the more palatable choice, if only because our presence does less to threaten the historic character of the neighborhood. Both areas are gentrifying quickly, of course, but based on my own very limited observations and some conversations, Crown Heights seems a little less irked by it.
At any rate, I don't need to claim a neighborhood just yet--I'm happy to live on Franklin Ave., which remains my "neighborhood" when I'm asked. But I'm curious to keep learning what other folks call the liminal zone I find myself living in.
On a Brownsville field named for a boxer (Floyd Patterson) and flanked by baseball diamonds, someone has been playing the world's most time-consuming sport. The space is more of a rectangle than an oval, but I'll bet the slow bowlers have a field day.