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Autumn 1990
City Journal Autumn 1990.
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  U rbanities

Letter From Park Slope
Maggie Gallagher
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At sunset, when the light slants through the leafy green of spring and bathes the burnished brownstones and the terra cotta palaces in a warm red glow, Park Slope is a place of aching beauty. There is so much here, so many aspirations caught and transfixed in hard stone; in church steeples and townhouses, in monuments and in the fading paint along Seventh Avenue, exposing the mercantile ambition of long-dead shopkeepers. Here, battered and buried under the assorted sordid burdens New York City neighborhoods are asked to carry, the skeleton of the Brooklyn the city fathers envisioned remains. You can still see it: a city of parks and churches, museums and concert halls, of art and music, knowledge and industry—brimming with civic pride and a brisk, practical optimism. The people who built Park Slope believed in destiny: their own and this city’s.

Park Slope was built 100 years ago by people with big ideas and deep pockets. Between 1860 and 1900, bustling diamond merchants, lawyers, inventors, and business executives erected row after row of elegant townhouses—Victorian Gothic, French Second Empire, Queen Anne, and Romanesque Revival—in the streets genteelly renamed after philosophers, presidents, signers of the Declaration of Independence. They imagined Prospect Park, upon whose slopes the neighborhood rests, would become the centerpiece of the new Brooklyn, rivaling the splendor of Manhattan.

Thomas Adams Jr., inventor of the world famous Adams Chiclets automatic vending machine, built a mansion on Eighth Avenue, right down the street from the imposing Romanesque Revival palace erected by Charles L. Feltman, inventor of the Coney Island classic “hot-dog-on-a-bun.” Stewart L. Woodford, onetime ambassador to Spain, lived on President Street, just down the block from Laura Jean Libbey, author of over 80 novels with titles such as The Price of a Kiss, Lovers Then But Strangers Now, and A Fatal Wooing.

In New York, there are many mansions, and the restless rich moved on. The urban palaces and tasteful brownstones degenerated into restaurants and rooming houses in the Thirties and Forties, then became havens for large Irish and Italian families in the Fifties and Sixties. During the Seventies, the neighborhood, though never really rough, became decidedly bohemian, only to be reclaimed by the bourgeoisie in the Great Eighties Brownstone Boom.

There are three enormous Catholic churches, cathedrals almost, within three blocks of my home in Park Slope. On Sundays, they stand three-quarters empty, mute testimony to the migration of the Italian and Irish families to greener climes, further out the Island, to Queens and Levittown, and beyond. “There used to be six, seven, eight kids in all these houses,” reminisces a friend of mine, who grew up in Park Slope, “We didn’t have toys in those days, we played on the sidewalks and in the streets.” Walking up Carroll Street, with huge trees arching over the wide sidewalks, I can see their ghosts.

The first thing you notice about the Slope is still the kids. Park Slope is a survivor of an earlier era, when the middle class lived in the city, as well as working and playing here. The baby boomlet hit here with a vengeance. When I take a coffee break with my friends in the neighborhood, the conversation, after wandering a ways through the latest Anne Tyler novel or the Laurie Anderson concert at BAM, settles down to the business of life: to husbands and kids, nursery schools and encounter groups, teenage angst and mid-life crises. Often, I am startled to look up and realize that each of the other half-dozen or so women sitting around the broad kitchen table have three and four kids. There are seven elementary schools in the neighborhood (three public, two private, and two parochial), three toy stores, two children’s clothing stores, and on hot summer nights, the line at the local Haagen Dazs store stretches out into the street. Park Slope remains that most delightful thing: a family neighborhood in the heart of the big city.

At three o’clock the mothers gather on Seventh Avenue outside the school yard at P.S. 321, one of the better elementary schools in New York City, to exchange greetings and gossip and also to keep an eye on the school. Park Slope is fiercely proud of its great good luck in having such a public school at hand and also fiercely protective of the school’s welfare. Like the neighborhood, the school is integrated by both race and class. Children of lawyers mingle with children of welfare mothers. I experienced slight culture shock at discovering that the parents of two of my son’s friends are Communists. Card-carrying.

Seventh Avenue, the Slope’s main commercial strip, is lined with many of the other necessities of family living: fish markets, craft boutiques, butcher shops, health food stores, a movie theater, and an amazingly literate bookstore or two, staffed by local artists and browsed in by local authors (I was not the only mother in my son’s kindergarten class with a book in the window).

Many of the ornaments of life are equally near at hand. The imposing facade of the Brooklyn Public Library is just a stone’s throw away, as are the serene avenues and lilac forests of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. The nearby Brooklyn Museum, designed in 1893 by the firm of McKim, Mead & White, was originally envisioned to span 1.5 million square feet. The central dome alone would have dwarfed the dome of the Capitol in Washington D.C., but only one-sixth of the plan was ever realized. Originally intended to house all knowledge, it has since become an art museum. Once, during the middle of the day, I stopped by to see the latest retrospective. It might as well have been a private exhibition: just me, the security guard, and a hundred Courbet paintings. The neighborhood’s chief charm, far more important than the marble fireplaces and the gaslit streetlamps: It is indisputably urban, yet livable—a neighborhood for educated New Yorkers with cosmopolitan tastes and children.

Three years ago, the first homeless appeared.

I do not live in a tenement. My neighbors are mostly two-income professional couples, refugees from the Upper West Side: an investment banker, a couple of lawyers, an ad man. Nonetheless, there is an otherwise homeless man who lives just outside our basement door, underneath our stairwell. Our garbage is apparently a major source of income for him. We have tried asking him politely not to live and defecate in our stairwell, but social pressure does not appear to move him. We are hoping the landlord will solve the problem by installing a locked grate, but social pressure does not appear to move him, either.

This neighborhood still retains a great deal of official sympathy for the homeless, but it is waning. It is hard to sympathize with people who are urinating on your sidewalk, throwing your garbage on the street, and knocking on your door late at night when you are home alone with your kids and “asking” for money in a belligerent tone.

Last Friday, I attended a farewell party for a couple who, after four years in Park Slope, is packing up their three kids and heading for Scarsdale. For them, the moment of truth came 18 months ago, when a neighbor came running over to say she had just been held up, at gunpoint, while standing outside her front door. On Seventh Avenue a purple wreath put up by the Seventh Avenue merchants’ association flutters gracefully in the wind. It is a memorial to a local store employee who was shot and killed a few months back. “Where and when did it happen?” I ask, but nobody answers. Nobody wants to talk about it.

Between 1970 and 1990, the total number of children living in New York City dropped by nearly a quarter. Almost all the decline came from the flight of white middle-class families from the city. Without middle-class families, the city becomes an open battle ground between the insulated rich and the trapped poor, a place where the young and restless roost temporarily in decaying brownstones to cheer from the sidelines, imitating the former but rooting for the latter, before moving on in search of better nesting grounds.

If it wants a middle class, New York City will have to make it safe for us to have children. But instead of nurturing enclaves like Park Slope, the city prefers to sit around dreaming up new methods of torturing us, as when city officials decided to use an Armory in the South Slope as a city homeless shelter, or when Beep Howard Golden applauded a private charity’s decision to turn two Slope townhouses into homes for wayward “boys” aged 16 to 21 years.

The ending to the Park Slope story has not been written. Perhaps it will be a happy one. One way or another, the story of Park Slope is very likely to become the story of New York City. For here, the middle class turned and made a final stand: reclaimed a neighborhood, built a community in which one can enjoy both family living and cosmopolitan culture. Yet the ability of the neighborhood to defend its character remains in doubt. The forces arrayed against this urban oasis remain powerful. One of the strongest forces is the ambivalence of the residents themselves, uncertain not only of how to preserve this neighborhood, but whether they have any right to do so. Like most New Yorkers, people here in the Slope are torn between the oft repeated and sincerely believed platitudes about root causes and Reagan’s neglect, and the plight of the homeless, and the growing realization that if we want to keep the neighborhood with which we fell in love, we will have to fight for it.

So people in the Slope are busy now: improving the local junior high, raising money to restore the Prospect Park carousel, hiring private security guards to patrol the streets, reclaiming Berkeley Place playground from drug dealers, meeting with police to find ways to close the brothels and the crack houses operating openly 24 hours a day on Fifth Avenue. When in broad daylight, about 8:30 one fine June morning, a pocketbook was ripped from Maria Stecker’s hands, she screamed, “Help! Thief!” A construction worker called the police, a doorman let her use his phone, two women joggers and a male pedestrian chased the thug and recovered her possessions. The neighborhood survives.

At 6 a.m. a car alarm screams. I am up anyway and so I do the decent thing: I look out my window. The cause of the alarm becomes clear: Two young men are jumping up and down on automobiles.

When you live on the ground floor in an apartment with no bars on the windows, and a pair of unknown individuals are, in the face of all claims of common decency, jumping up and down on cars at six in the morning, the question you must ask yourself is, “Will I be afraid?” Will I do something or will I just hole up here in my urban cave and hope nobody notices? After all, I don’t even own a car.

But my neighbors do. Carefully I tailor my message as narrowly as possible. Get off the cars, I say with a certain firmness. They pause, startled, to look at me. Get off the cars, I say again, loudly and distinctly. They pay no attention. I close the window, meditating whether to bother the police. Thirty seconds later, the kids vanish. So they were kids, then, after all, and not murderous crackheads on a turf-battling rampage. From where I stand it is sometimes hard to tell.

For the rest of the day, I enjoyed that smug and secure warmth that comes from knowing you are the boss of this turf. Another day, another victory.

Park Slope survives. And in fin-de-siècle New York City, that is a triumph.

 

 


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