Thursday, January 29, 2009

Screaming off the walls

I sing the praises of street art. Like much of the overstimulation in New York City, it can be easy to tune out, the way one tunes out loud conversations on the subway or the handbills that cover downtown construction sites. But every now and then as I traipse around the borough, something jumps off the walls and grabs my attention, be it with color, whimsy, or a full-on shout. Much of what I see may or may not be graffiti--it's hard to tell whether the owners of these buildings acquiesced or not. Still, as the presence of ads in both photos above demonstrates, our visual world brims with messages in all shapes and sizes daily, so even if these messages were the work of rogue spraysters, it's hard for me to fault them. At my most naively sentimental, I can almost think of them as "urban environmentalists," staking a public claim to what our world looks like against the private-property claim that allows the owner to sell his space for ads that are, aesthetically speaking, equally garish.

Caveat: I know full well that there are institutional channels through which to pursue control over our built environment (public hearings, the election of officials who promise certain types of zoning and usage laws, etc), but the problems in these channels abound: they're slow, they're ineffective, they're easily frustrated by wealth and power. I'm also aware that slapping your own slogan on a wall isn't any more democratic than buying up the property and doing what you want with it--in fact, it's probably less so, if you take at face value the premise that anyone has the opportunity to make money, buy a property, and dress it up as they so choose. But I can't help enjoying the subversiveness of the better bits of street art out there (fantastic catalogue of work at this site). Maybe it's the Yippie in me.

Truth be told, I'm not convinced that advertising execs and the vast majority of taggers are that different--both seem rather unconcerned with what any sort of democratic majority wants a particular space to look like, both are hellbent on being seen at nearly any cost, and both are willing to subvert the law (ad execs by buying it out, taggers by scaling a bridge or fence) if the situation requires. But before I offer unqualified praise of graffiti artists, I should say that I watched an MTA employe scrub and scrub at a boring, unoriginal tag in the Grand Street B-D Station the other night. It looked like the most tiresome, boring work on the planet, and it was clearly going to take hours (I saw him make a miniscule amount of headway in the 10 minutes I stood on the platform). The employee was clearly exhausted, and his body language from across the tracks was almost enough to turn me into a law-and-order voter.

To conclude the ramble: I'm a fan of street art, particularly when it offers a positive message to passersby and occupies a wall at the behest of the proprietor. If you find an obnoxious tag on your building, however, call the city up, and they'll help you get rid of it.

We're gonna need a bigger shovel

Awhile back, I wrote of my relief at seeing a steam shovel actually making some progress on the construction site at 333 Eastern Parkway (on the NE corner of Franklin and Eastern). Two days ago, I dismayed when I saw the same shovel on a flatbed leaving the site, only to realize that it had been replaced with a bigger, more orange model. I also was able to poke my camera inside the site, revealing a very large foundation and not much else. This snail's pace may be cause for concern (Brownstoner announced the work's beginning nearly 18 months ago), but at least they're still working away. The rendering of the building (at the Brownstoner link above) is impressive, and promises retail and medical offices, so hopefully it will actually get finished at some point.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Still Serving

This funky old redbrick castle at Vernon and Tompkins in Bed-Stuy was built for the Brooklyn Police Department as a station house for their 158th Precinct. Later an NYPD building, it most recently housed Traffic Unit F (this I learned from Forgotten NY's great page on former precinct buildings). Two gents on the opposite corner told me that it had been a police building but was abandoned "at the time of Martin Luther King." I took this to mean the late 1960s, when King's assassination spawned a massive wave of tension and rioting in predominantly black areas like Bed-Stuy, though I'm not sure whether these tensions led in any direct way to the realignment of precincts or abandoning of station houses by the NYPD. New York, after all, famously avoided a riot in the wake of King's death. What seems more likely is that shifting population and transit patterns (including the demise of the Els in Bed-Stuy I wrote about yesterday) rendered the Traffic Unit somewhat out of place.

The building currently sits in the 79th Precinct, which operates from a thoroughly modern cement and glass building just down the street at 263 Tompkins Ave. The original local precinct building still serves the community, however, having been rehabilitated by Services for the Underserviced, a supportive housing organization that targets children, adults, and seniors with mental and physical disabilities. The old station house is home to 40 adults, and is one of five buildings they operate in the neighborhood.

Monday, January 26, 2009

One El of a Ride

They're old. They're dirty. They're loud. They're exposed to the elements. They hurt real estate values, and they provide dark dank places to incubate crime. At their absolute worst, they shriek overhead and drip oil on you while you're being mugged or harassed outside your cheap rental with terrible light where you can never get any sleep.

And yet, I wholeheartedly and unabashedly love elevated trains. That they are more fun to ride than subways strikes me as beyond argument--they sail over bridges and clatter through neighborhoods, the platforms provide striking views, and they're full of natural light. Few things allow you to experience urban geography like a long ride on an el, and certainly none that cost two bucks.

Despite simply being known as "the subway," the system runs roughly 40% of its distance on elevated lines, many of which survive in Brooklyn from earlier rapid-transit developments. I took the photos above on the Knickerbocker Avenue platform of the M train, or Myrtle Avenue El (great story and photos here). Brooklyn's second-oldest elevated line (opened in 1888, three years after the now completely-defunct Lexington Line), these tracks have been in continuous service for 121 years. The line originally ran all the way along Myrtle from the Brooklyn Bridge, where it connected to Manhattan. Maps showing this service survive here and here. If you ask me, the M is the second-best line in Brooklyn for skyline views, with the title going to the F train at the Gowanus Viaduct

I know that they're not the most popular form of rapid transit in the world, but I can't help thinking it would be possible to get something out of New York City's slow rollercoasters. Sure, they don't go sailing through midtown the way the Chicago El rattles through the Loop, but isn't there a niche market of train enthusiasts and urban history buffs to be tapped through clever use of these lines? Chicago offers a free downtown architecture tour (when they can afford it) and the city's history museum runs longer, more advanced tours along the length of several lines. I would think New York City could do the same, attracting the same crowd that rides the vintage subway cars every December. After all, the infrastructure is already in place: all you need is a permit, a ticket booth, and a head full of history. Given subway riders' iron constitutions, I can't imagine that an undergraduate history major rattling off fun facts to gawking tourists would be any more bothersome than a mariachi band or a UHO announcement. Maybe one could even win a few tips from the locals.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

This Sunday's Message

Storefront churches are some of the most varied and vibrant institutions in Brooklyn, and this one, Tabernacle of God's Glory Church on the corner of Dean and Franklin, is no exception. I haven't attended a service, but the sanctuary hidden beneath the shutters in the photo is bright and lively, and the pastor brings a jolt of scripture to Franklin Avenue every Sunday with his faux-wood-paneled Pontiac station wagon, covered with verses and calls to prayer on white plates (I have a feeling he never gets rear-ended). 

I've written on this topic twice before, and I never miss a chance to post a link to one of my favorite Brooklyn-related photo albums. There's a long tradition of storefront worship in major cities in the United States (here's a great photo from 1940s Chicago), one that's been well-documented by academics and a PBS miniseries. Their origin is simple: newly-arrived pastors, whether African-Americans during the first and second Great Migrations or immigrants of all races and faiths throughout the last two centuries, call their congregations together in readily-available spaces at the commercial hearts of their communities. Sometimes in contact with extant institutions back home, these places of worship often grow out of their storefronts as their parishoners gain a foothold. A great example of this trend is the history of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge. Founded by German immigrants in a grocer's shop 1905, the church is currently housed in a stately stone building, and is now in its 104th year. 

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Grand Old School

The NYC Department of Education has some pretty impressive buildings in its care, including this specimen on Kent between Myrtle and Park. Originally Public School 15, the campus now houses two schools, and at five big stories tall, it towers above the rest of the street, most of which retains an old-style tenement feel (see the last photo above). The building was completed in 1908, making it a proud 101 years old.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Notorious Prospect Place

I went and saw "Notorious" over the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. I don't have any groundbreaking insights to add to existing reviews: it's a fun, fan-friendly biopic; you don't learn much you didn't already know; Jamal Woolard aka Gravy is absolutely spectacular as Biggie Smalls (of course, we already knew he was a man dedicated to his craft); the music is delightful (particularly the scene that spawns "Juicy"); it's a little unsatisfying (you want to know more about the minutia that are glossed over, but then again, biopics can get long if you aren't careful); the ending is poignant but a little too easy. Peter Travers' review from Rolling Stone is dead-on.

Amateur movie reviews aside, my viewing of "Notorious" was noteworth for a Crown Heights/Franklin Ave sighting. The pivotal scene where Biggie and D-Roc are arrested for illegal firearms possession takes place and was shot right down the street. You can even catch a glimpse in the trailer--the duo are dealing on Prospect Place just west of Franklin when the cops arrive, and they spring down the alley next to the shuttle, pictured above from the St. Marks side. Initially, I figured the neighborhood was just a stand-in for Bed-Stuy, but then I heard an officer onscreen shouting "they're headed for St. Marks!" Apparently the location was deliberate enough to warrant a specific reference. I poked around a little bit but couldn't turn up any concrete evidence that the Notorious B.I.G. was once arrested down the block, but that doesn't mean he wasn't. If anyone can verify, let me know.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Mighty Remnant in Bed-Stuy

There is no shortage of grand old houses of worship in Bed-Stuy, where the Brooklyn moniker "the city of homes and churches" is as true as anywhere in the borough. Walk along any major avenue and you're bound to see an impressive steeple standing tall in the distance or a great wall of windows rising from the sidewalk. Still, this monstrous old church on the block bounded by Lewis, Hart, Willoughby, and Stuyvesant caught and held my attention as I passed it the other day, both because it looks considerably older than its surroundings, and because it's positively enormous.

Designed by architect Patrick Keely in 1868, the parish church of St. John the Baptist is truly gigantic: it stands 10 stories tall--before the NYCHA high rises were built it would easily have been the one of the tallest buildings in the neighborhood--and holds 1,200 parishoners. It was commissioned by the Vincentian Order of the Roman Catholic Church, who founded both the parish and the school on the site, which grew into St. John's University two years later. The university moved to Queens and Staten Island in 1960, but the church remains, as do the original school buildings on Lewis Avenue, also designed by Keely and still serving as a high school.

As big as the building is, it was slated to be much larger. Bishop John Loughlin (for whom the Fort Greene High School is named) was the presiding Catholic leader in Brooklyn, and envisioned a massive cathedral on the site, and went so far as to erect almost a story's worth of the entire building before deciding to devote his efforts and funds to charitable institutions. The original "chapel of St. John the Baptist" remained as the parish church.

The recent story of the building is a familiar Brooklyn tale--abandoned by the Vicentians and their university during the decade of urban renewal, the church decayed as its surroundings changed or did the same. The upper nave is now closed (hence the plywood over the windows) and the church above looks a good deal different than it did in its glory days. Despite this, the church has found ways to continue contributing to the community, turning the planned site of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (later an athletic field for St. John's University) into affordable housing, the red buildings you see in the foreground of the photograph.

All is by no means lost for the once-grand church. New leadership began putting an agressive plan for church and community in place in the early 1990s, and has also begun restoring the shuttered interiors (photos and more on the structure here). Perhaps most importantly, it still serves its primary function, housing a large congregation, and stands tall in a corner of the neighborhood where most structures of its vintage have long since long since pulled down.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What it means . . .

Bedford-Stuyvesant, Myrtle and Broadway, J-M-Z platform looking southwest. The window to the right bears three images of President Barack Obama.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Stars over Crown Heights

To the eyes of anyone familiar with some not-so-distant history in Crown Heights, the use of the Star of David by African-American street gangs might seem a little unexpected. I didn't know much about the Crown Heights riot before I moved here, and that link to the Wikipedia page doesn't help much, because it changes almost every day. It may have taken place 18 years ago, but wounds from that riot, if not immediately apparent in day-to-day community life, haven't completely healed, either.

Awhile back, I devoted a post to this use of the Star of David in graffiti along Franklin Avenue, as well as in a mural at a Bed-Stuy public high school. My interested in this topic was born of a presentation that I heard artist Kerry James Marshall give in Chicago a few years ago. During his talk, Marshall showed several images of Chicago graffiti depicting the Star of David, confusing for Chicagoans who know a history of tension as well. He explained the graffiti as part of an historical phenomenon: Chicago's African-American "black belt" had previously been a Jewish neighborhood, and as the demographic transition took place during the Great Migration, the local synagogues became churches but retained their iconography. By way of example, he showed slides of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, originally a Louis Sullivan-built synagogue. Another source of Star of David imagery in the American black community, Marshall noted, was the use of the star by Rastafarian migrants from the Caribbean.

Students of Brooklyn history will recognize similar trends in Crown Heights--still a Jewish neighborhood and simultaneously a center of West Indian life in Brooklyn--and sure enough the Temple Issac (on Prospect across from the former Jewish Hospital of New York) is now the Faith Chapel Baptist Church. On the other side of the old hospital on St. Marks, I took these photos of six-pointed star grafitti along the shuttle tracks and an adjacent apartment. Whatever local gang or tagger painted them might well be a part of the historic trend Mashall talked about in Chicago, at least at some level, because the six-pointed star has since become a national symbol for the "Folks" family of gangs, whose most prominent associate gang is the Crips. However, gang-studies sites like the one linked above cite a more specific history, also based in Chicago: an early leader of the Gangster Disciples (a massive Chicago street gang that developed national connections), David Barksdale, was known as "King David," and his followers adopted the symbol to honor him after his death. The "C"s featured in and around the graffiti above suggest a potential Crips affiliation.

Incidentally, the grafitti on the hospital itself features five-pointed stars. These could be the work of a rival gang, but in this case, they seem more like the flair of taggers. However, the star carved into the doorframe of a locked-up brownstone on Lincoln (last photo above) might well be gang-related.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Dryer-time thief!

Before I launch into a silly story, let me start with an endorsement: After celebrating the impending arrival of a new laundromat on Franklin and Park in December, a commenter turned me on to the excellent, unexpected, brand-new laundromat in the basement of the old Jewish Hospital complex off St. Marks. It's certainly out-of-the-way, and the entrance kind of makes you think "members only poker club," but inside there are brand-new machines, including monster 5-load washers, and a friendly staff who will do your laundry for you by the pound (I've never done this so I don't know if the prices are reasonable, but I assume they are). The DIY prices are great: 2 bucks for a double load, 3 bucks for a triple load, etc, and drying costs 25 cents for 8 minutes.

The only catch is that the machines only take a "cashcard" that you purchase for five nonrefundable dollars your first time through the door. Instinctively, this drives me crazy (why can't I just swipe my friggin' credit card if we're going to get all high-tech about it!), but after a little thought, I decided it was a good commitment device. After all, are you really going to drag all your laundry out of there and up the street to the place at Franklin and St. John's in protest once you've lugged it all there? No. And once you've bought the card, you're going to keep coming back because a) you've most likely got some money still on it (the machines only take $5, $10, and $20 bills) and b) you paid $5 bucks for the stupid card! So despite my initial gripe, I salute them for a clever piece of customer retention. The place also sports a pair of flatscreen TVs (usually playing sports, though I sat through an episode of "Dora the Explorer" on a Saturday morning), and a few comfy chairs, which are handy if you decided to stick around and watch your laundry spin.

So check out this laundromat, especially if you live closer to Atlantic than Franklin. The following tale should in no way keep you from doing so, because I'm convinced it was an isolated incident.

I never hang out to watch my laundry, because I assume most people don't want a pile of grungy wet t-shirts, but today I realized that a clever thief could (and did) find a way to take advantage of my absence. I tossed my wet clothes into three adjacent dryers, fired them all up for 40 minutes, and sauntered off to grab some junk food at my local bodega. When I returned, my laundry, still wet, was sitting in the pair of dryers NEXT to the ones I'd plunked it in! I'd dawdled on my way so the crafty knave was long gone, and a pleasant young woman had just put her laundry into what had once been my dryers. And there I was, hoodwinked, robbed of $2.50 and 40 minutes of my time.

Feeling supremely stupid, I stalked over to the counter and asked the suprised attendant if she'd seen the criminal in action, which of course she hadn't. As a testament to the good nature of the ownership, she re-programmed the dryers for me free of charge, over my protestations (it wasn't her fault, after all). I realized at this point I had turned into "that stuck-up kid who's new to the city" . . . I think the other patrons were waiting for me to say something like "well, where I come from, we believe in fairness!" before stomping out in tears. The second time, I stuck around with my book and watched my drawers tumble like a hawk.

On the way home, I noticed the sign (above) advertising the St. Marks wing of the old hospital as a potential supermarket space. I like the idea--it seems like the folks in charge of redeveloping the place are looking to create a mini-community on the site, with basic commercial spaces to complement the residences. With the nearest true supermarkets at either Eastern Parkway or Fulton Street, a savvy grocer could tap the growing population of the old hospital, as well as the rising new condos and rental units in the former warehouses on Bergen and Dean.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I'm not here for the house, but can I have the car?

I stopped in the snowstorm on Thursday to capture this tremendous old Suburban on Vermont Avenue in East New York. I didn't really plan to use it on the blog (I suppose I could've tried for something along the lines of an artsy "flames in the snow" piece, but that would have been a stretch), but while I was taking the photo, a middle-aged man hurried out into the street towards me. I turned, worried that I was somehow violating a local code with respect to dolled-up cars, but I was thrown off by how concerned he looked. He spoke rapidly at me through his scarf, but I couldn't hear him, so he pulled it down and uttered a single questioning word: "Foreclosure?"

I was surprised, but I shouldn't have been--East New York has been hit as hard as any neighborhood in the city by the subprime lending catastrophe. Brownstoner has covered the past year well: A piece in January demonstrated just how high the rates of foreclosure were in the borough--the table in the linked post shows foreclosure rates at 20%, and the writer reported that over 435 homes in ENY were in foreclosure in October 2006 alone. In March, ENY led Brooklyn with the 7th highest foreclosure rate in the city, and in October, even a borough-wide decline in foreclosures wasn't good news for the neighborhood, as it led the city in pending suits. Foreclosure rates made citywide headlines in the Daily News and the Post, and Yahoo Real Estate shows over 2600 foreclosed homes in the borough.

So the man in front of me in the snow on Thursday was probably convinced that I, a white guy in a long coat snapping photos, was yet another agent working to put his neighbors out, and with fairly good reason. After a moment's confusion, I pointed at the flame-adorned Suburban and said "Naw, I just like the car." His expression went from concerned to relieved to incredulous (really, that's what the kids like these days?) in a matter of a few seconds, and he was on his way, leaving me to reflect on just how nasty a foreclosure would be on a weekend like this one.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Drop me a line

I snapped this payphone carcass on Classon because it made me wonder how payphones are faring in the cellular/digital/information age. Shockingly, I'm not the first person to wonder this, and apparently, numbers are shrinking, though New York City still maintains nearly 23,000 payphones on city streets (though only 5 freestanding phone booths). The Pay Phone Project maintains an impressive list of every phone and its number here, but as I found out from the site, almost none of these phones accept incoming calls anymore (despite what you may have seen on The Wire).

As it turns out, the supposedly disappearing pay phone inspires no small amount of nostalgia. The fine folks at Forgotten NY have a whole page devoted to the phone booth, and both writers and readers of the Times have expressed their regret at the pay phone's declining fortunes. The phones themselves are no longer profitable, as witnessed by AT&T's exit from the business this past year. A number of factors have supposedly led to their decline, from the proliferation of mobile phones to their use by the "criminal element" (whether that means the homeless taking shelter or drug dealers running their operations).

However, there's a twist in this somewhat typical story of urban decline that has begun preserving pay phones and even inspiring some new ones. Call it payphone gentrification or renewal: the minimalist boxes of the 1980s (the hull above being an example) are giving way to bigger, shinier, freshly-erected shelters. Why? Advertising. The Times reported in 2007 that streetside payphones were the hottest new locale for the fruit of Madison Avenue, and had blossomed into a $62 million/year industry, with a cool $13.7 million of that headed to city coffers. With returns like that, you can bet the payphone won't be rolling up its cord and trundling off down memory lane anytime soon.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Case for Bloomberg's Bag Tax

Mayor Bloomberg rolled out a proposal to tax plastic bags in January, which drew a mixed bag of responses from New Yorkers, particularly in the context of city and state budget plans that seemed to offer new taxes on every conceivable item. Bloomberg's plan was two-fold: reduce the amount of plastic filling up city landfills and raise somewhere in the vicinty of $15 million for the city in the process.

From an environomental standpoint (and I mean environmental in the broadest sense), the plan is excellent--these sorts of taxes have a longstanding success rate when it comes to reducing plastic bag use (a partial list of places using this tactic can be found here). The flagship example is Ireland's 2002 tax, which reduced plastic bag use by over 90% in that nation. Even if you're not a capital "e" environmentalist, there's no denying our lived environment is improved when trees don't look like the one above (photo from Bed-Stuy). When I asked a South African friend about their plastic bag tax, his response had nothing to do with tax revenue: "we just didn't want the black plastic bag to become the national flower of South Africa."

From a tax standpoint, the plan is a more difficult sell--straight up taxes on goods are always regressive, and can disproportionately affect those businesses and consumers who are just barely breaking even. Plus, there's the issue of enforcement. Bloomberg suggests allowing stores to charge an additional penny, but this isn't much of an incentive. After all, if stores thought selling plastic bags was good for business, they probably would already sell them. A better option, enforcement-wise, would be to tax the bags at the wholesale point of purchase, when stores buy them from suppliers (plastic bag plants, I suppose). Stores could either decide to spread the added costs around in their pricing and still offer free bags, or simply make up the difference with a bag fee. Most likely, the added price of bags would discourage businesses from buying them in the first place, which would in turn keep customers from getting ahold of them and then letting them sail on the breeze into the nearest tree.

Ultimately, the pairing of the environmental concern and the tax need is a marriage of convenience. Environmentalists would like to see the tax set high enough to change consumer behavior, while from a tax standpoint such a change would eliminate the revenue stream. However, the compromise might just exist in the time delay it takes for behavior changes to take hold: if the tax is set just right (to your caculators, economists!), it could provide a short-term revenue boost when the city needs it (right now), while helping us kick the plastic bag habit and re-green our neighborhoods in the long run.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Hit the deck!

I spend a lot of time walking around Brooklyn for work, so I like to think that I'm pretty comfortable on the sidewalks of the borough, even though I'm obviously a transplant and I've only really been doing it for a few months. Still, I no longer jump when a junkyard dog hits the fence barking bloody murder, or when a car horn blasts next to me, or a teenager throws a shoulder at me to impress his friends. I'm no local, I tell myself, but I'm no farm boy, either.

Cut to this afternoon, when I was walking down one of my favorite blocks in Bushwick, the stretch of Woodbine between Evergreen and Central that's home to the Woodbine Street Block Association. It was about 1 in the afternoon, the sun was shining, a pair of older gentlemen had stopped for a brief chat in front of me, an old blue Oldsmobile was rolling by slowly . . . and then a loud blast, followed by the sound of clattering, shattered the peace and quiet. The car screeched to a halt, the two men ahead of me startled, and I, well, I damn near jumped out of my skin and then stumbled all over myself on the ice as I tried to take cover behind a totally inadequate tree. Was it a brick through a window? A bullet through a window? A Molotov cocktail?

Nope. See above. Some pour soul carrying groceries home had apparently lost a coconut, which had made its way into the street only to meet a ghastly end at the hands of the Oldsmobile, a Caribbean retelling of "On Top of Spaghetti." And once I figured this out, I felt about as green as a rack full of discount Brett Favre jerseys. After all, what could possibly be less threatening than a coconut?

To my credit, the noise visibly startled the other men on the street, as well as the driver, who probably thought he'd blown a tire. And it's not as though I'd ever heard a coconut popping before--it was a foreign sound! And come on--the Swiss Family Robinson made use of coconuts to deadly effect! If you think I'm reaching at this point, you'd be right. The bottom line is that a coconut still scared the beejezus out of me.

In conclusion, if you're ever making a low-budget film that requires a few shotgun-blast sound effects, head to the supermarket, buy a few coconuts, and record your buddy running them over with his Olds in the parking lot.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Death on Franklin

The block of Franklin between St. Marks and Bergen was draped in police line tonight, with a cruiser and officer posted at each end to re-route all traffic, including pedestrians. The reason, as a typically laconic NYPD officer informed me, was that a man was shot and killed on the sidewalk in front of the B & B Sports Club bar on the west side of the street. This is presumably the first homicide on the avenue this year.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Learning from a Local

If I may shamelessly re-post, I find the comment that a genealogist and longtime longtime Crown Heights resident posted in response to this post (a silly bit about deli name similarities on Pennsylvania Ave) absolutely fascinating.


Park between Broadway and Throop - I found this tremendous set of six meticulously preserved brick rowhouses sitting unexpectedly amidst the sprawl of urban renewal that is northern Bed-Stuy. I don't know how they survived, as they don't seem to have any historic designation or landmark status, but they're in excellent condition and seem deliberately maintained to showcase their grand age. At this point, they look totally out of place on their original block, like the Italian grandmother who wakes up one day and discovers she's living in Chinatown.

Looming behind them is the Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center, which the NYT called a "rust-colored machine of steel and glass . . . a monument to a different time - it recalls the days when the stark and often harsh lines of modernist architecture seemed to hold a promise of urban salvation" when it opened in 1982 (having sat completed but unused from 1978). The article pokes fun at the determined modernism of the building, which was outdated by the time it opened in an era of smaller, more intimate health care constructions, but then asserts that despite its overwhelming size, the interior layout is an "improvement" over "the kind of hospital building New Yorkers are used to." With 600 beds at its opening (it now holds 378), it was one of the largest hospitals in the city, and in recent years it has developed specific programming to serve the local community, including an award-winning childhood asthma center that partners with local schools.

Across the street are the mid-rise Sumner Houses, completed in 1958 and housing 2,554 people on a little over 22 acres. They were erected as part of the massive slum-clearance drives that remade the neighborhood in Le Corbusier's style, which also saw the building nearby of the Tompkins Houses (1964, mid and high-rise, home to 3,218), Marcy Houses (1949, mid-rise, home to 4,286 including a young Jay-Z), and Roosevelt Houses (1964, high-rise, home to 1,956 including a young Mos Def). That's over 12,000 units of NYCHA housing in the immediate area, which is to say that it's all the more impressive these little gems remain on display today.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Update on Pfizer Site: A bid from Quadriad?

An anonymous tipster informs me that Quadriad Realty Partners has put a bid in on the Pfizer site discussed in yesterday's post. The 10-acre site (aerial view here) has sat empty save for a charter school since Pfizer left in 2007, and was the subject of an attempted land-grab in Albany earlier this year. The Quadriad plan was described as a "large, mixed-use proposal," something that Pfizer had expressed interest in initially, offering their former plant building as a community education center. Hopefully the plans will be forthcoming--as it sits now, the site is a concrete tundra (though a few new condo developments are on the rise to the west of the parking lots, across Flushing from the Marcy Homes).

Quadriad has made waves in Brooklyn recently with their proposed high-rise development (fabulous comic in that article) between Berry and Bedford on 3rd in Williamsburg. Initial plans pegged tower heights at up to 38 floors, despite existing zoning laws that forbid buildings of that size in the area. Community members have voiced all sorts of concerns, captured well by the bloggers at Gowanus Lounge (articles here and here, with links to more), so the current construction will only stand five stories tall (rendering here). The original designs included a block of affordable housing units (developer-defined), but it doesn't appear that the current building will contain any.

Quadriad (or their graphic designer, anyway) asserts that they are "dedicated to creating affordable housing in up-and-coming neighborhoods." They're headed up by Henry Wollman, a developer and architect (he designed the Or Zarua Synagogue in Manhattan) who was the first director of the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute at Baruch College. Mr. Wollman has long shown interest in developing Brooklyn, chairing a 2000 conference titled "Brooklyn Ascendant: Metropolitan New York's Second City." His remarks as chair of a roundtable on "Brooklyn's Residential Future" are available here. Longtime NYC pol and former Bronx Borough President Herman Badillo also has a stake in Quadriad (the linked article from Brownstoner does not take kindly to Badillo's involvement in efforts secure a new zoning deal in Williamsburg).

The Pfizer site has already sparked controversy, bu it seems Quadriad won't shy away from such things. The community battles will be of a different sort on Flushing, as this liminal zone between Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg has been depopulating (PS 297K, which sits directly behind the Pfizer plant on Park Avenue, houses 350 students where it once served nearly 1,000), in part thanks to Pfizer's departure. The challenge here will be less about pleasing those still living nearby and more about winning over the parties who want to lead the shaping of the neighborhood's future.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Monument to the end of an era (and an uncertain future)

I walked past the former Pfizer plant on Flushing today. taking in a few things. This was an absolutely massive operation. The structure itself, which include Pfizer's original building, runs the length of a Bed-Stuy long block between Marcy and Tompkins, over 1/8 of a mile. The adjacent parking lots and other building (now a charter school, the first photo above) sit on a 10 acre site. Aesthetically speaking, the buildings aren't exactly fascinating (their current Manhattan headquarters is equally massive and nondescript), but they provide a neat timeline of the Pfizer logo.

Pfizer got their start on this site at the border of Bed-Stuy and Williamsburg in 1849 (their corporate website has a nice history and timeline here--click on the "learn more" links), and despite the disappearance of most industry from Brooklyn in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the company hung on until 2007, when they finally closed up shop. Their departure garnered a glowing article from the NYT (how often can big pharma claim one of those) and similar piece on Gothamist (good aerial photo of the site here). When everyone else was packing up, Pfizer dug in and entered a series of novel partnerships with the city that sparked a series of developments, the opening of the Beginning with Children charter school, and a number of other initiatives designed to preserve the jobs and neighborhood. In the end, they couldn't hang on forever, but the extra 30-40 years is something a lot of folks are grateful for.

The company had hoped to make their departure a bittersweet goodbye by turning the old headquarters into a community education center and selling off the rest of the land for development. However, a fierce debate has arisen over how this attractive sight might be re-imagined, and the result has been a circus of threats and a failed attempt (for now) to seize the land through eminent domain in the state assembly. With funding for this sort of large-scale development already in trouble around the city, it seems likely the site will remain mostly vacant (second photo above) for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Local Developments

Brownstoner beat me to the punch by a week, but the new condos at St. Marks and Franklin are almost done. The workers out front were pouring the new sidewalk this morning around 9, so it should be walkable in a few days. If you want to buy one, click here, and you'll be led to strange site that allows you to hand over contact information but doesn't feature a rendering of the building. It does claim, however, that the condos are in Prospect Heights, which seems like a bit of a stretch. The listing from Triumph (the property group) is here, offering up a fairly rosy view of the locality and telling you that a direct walk to the 2-3-4-5 is no problem while not mentioning the option of a direct walk to the C (though the C train is slightly closer). It's always interesting to see how the realtors sell the area.

Strolling up Classon thinking about development inclined me to take a photo of the awesome new/old building that houses Abigail. I love that they preserved the original facade and managed to add everything they did--it satisfies both the historian and the progressive in me. I can't imagine these things are cheap, but what a wonderful way to do development without completely eliminating a pre-existing neighborhood aesthetic.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Storefronts and Scapegoats

The mural above graces the side of the Solid Rock Pentecostal Church on Classon, and brings a smile to my face when I pass it. A cynic might drive home the irony (the Garden of Eden has a parking lot?), but I think that would be getting the message exactly wrong: paradise might well be right around the corner, if you're looking in the right places (and the right frame of mind). I wrote a bit about storefront churches in Brooklyn awhile back and I wanted to use this photo to re-post a link to a great album of storefront places of worship.

Speaking of great photos, the Brooklyn Historical Society folks have a nice little slideshow of the Williamsburgh Bank Tower rising from the edge of the railyards in the late 1920s here.

An addendum to yesterday's post, since the link to the Forgotten NY page seems to be on the fritz: The Malbone Street Wreck, the deadliest accident in the history of the NYC subway, took place beneath what we now know as Empire Boulevard, where the tracks take a sharp right into the Prospect Park station after running a mostly straight shot from Franklin and Fulton. The interesting part of the story, at least to my mind, is that the wreck was largely the result of an attempt at union busting. The normal operators were all on strike in 1918, and the company shoved an inexperienced younger employee named Antonio Luciano in front of the controls. Unfamiliar with the route, Luciano hit the deadly curve well above the recommended 6 mph (different sources report 30-50 mph), and while his lead car made it, the trailing cars were whip-cracked off the tracks into the tunnel wall, killing 93 people. The event spawned a movement to replace wooden mechanical elements on elevated trains, and is examined in a book by Brian Cudahy.

I'm going to dig into some archives to see if I can find out what sort of response the wreck garnered from the union. It would have been difficult to mention it without seeming callous, but if ever there was a case for skilled labor, this is it.