The Q at Parkside

(for those for whom the Parkside Q is their hometrain)

News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.

Friday, November 1, 2013

On Nabes, Names and Nuance

So the Q has a confession to make. He's been cheating on Lefferts, almost daily, as each morning he mounts 4-year-old Little Miss Clarkson Flatbed Jr. onto his fixed gear cruiser bike (what else?) and glides up the Bedford bike lane towards Crown Heights and the school she got in for Universal Pre-K called PS705, also known as the Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary School, or BASES, which is odd because we ride by a High School on Washington at Eastern Parkway called BASE, but 705 is a public elementary school that's actually in our district (17) and in its second year, not a charter, but the deal is it does this Dual Language thing, Tuesdays and Thursdays being all in Spanish, and we heard great things and enjoyed our tour and the principal and it's right on my way to work, so that now that I drop her off by 8:10 (are you serious?) I can get into work by 8:30 and plow through some labor before my youthful colleagues even get out of bed.

So no, for Pre-K anyway we did not find a school within walking distance. Pre-K is all about the system-wide online lottery anyway, so a lot of it comes down to luck. I'm still hopeful for the future of the Lefferts Gardens Charter School (new principal) and even PS92 which will finally get a new principal next year and hopefully a new lease on life. (I've written about the area schools under the banner "Schools Tool" if you want to hear my whole song and dance on the topic.) This PS705 really isn't that far away, especially on the bike. The MTA version is to waddle 1/4 block to Flatbush and take the B41 up to Empire and jump on the S train. The S wasn't really part of my life until this whole school thing, and now it is and I gotta say it's a real eye-opener. Suddenly Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy feel like a part of my 'hood in a way they never did before. All the crazy shenanigans going on north of Eastern Parkway seem really dang close, and if you ride a bike it's, like, right here. At the same time, being on the Community Board has made me much more aware of the neighborhood going east even passed Kings County Hospital and Dodgertown and Wingate park and the Wingate high school with the amazing farm happening out front. And of the areas north of Empire. Streets with identities, like the absurdly fast-developing Franklin, have totally different feels south of the ridge, as I think of Eastern Parkway. It might not feel like a ridge, or plateau, if you're driving, but I assure you the bike will eagerly alert you to fact.

Let me just break in here for a second and tell you a little pet peeve. Prospect Heights? It ends at Washington. That's it. There's a giant school called Prospect Heights High School on the SOUTH side of Eastern Parkway, which no one would dare call anything but Crown Heights. It's a Red Herring pure and simple. So don't give me that line about the High School being east of Washington and therefore P-Heights goes to Franklin or Classon or the other day someone tried to tell me Bedford. No sir. Not buying it. When I lived in Prospect Heights in the early '90s (Lincoln Place for two years and Vanderbilt for two years) there were a couple things that were perfectly clear. Crime got worse the father east you went (not that I cared that much - my place on Lincoln was next to a massive crack den and I hardly gave it a second thought, given my age, means and attitude). The other thing that I knew for certain was that everything north of Flatbush, from Grand Army Plaza to the Manhattan Bridges was a "black neighborhood." I'm not saying that because I decided it. EVERYONE told me. Including both of my landlords, who were quite surprised to have me for a tenant. People who'd lived in Brooklyn for decades told me. People would tell me of the high crime in Prospect Heights, and they weren't lying. Crack vials and screams and was all happening, but not quite so much south of good ol' Flatbush, the veritable train tracks at the time. (Seeing the movie "The Landlord" brought home the fact that now lily-white North Park Slope was pretty full-on funky back in the late '60s, full of street life, black-power, urban hippies, and cheap cheap cheap brownstones to BUY, which seemed like a strange bet at the time given the winds of razing whole blocks for Urban Renewal. But who wanted a whole house when you get a whole floor of a house for $100 a month and drop acid every other day? An old house didn't necessarily fit with the revolutionary life-style. I've often wondered if home sales took a nosedive when the counter-culture got into full swing in places where the counter-culture took hold. For a little while, at least, home ownership didn't seem quite so much the American Dream, though beneath the veneer of radicalism and socialism there were probably quite a few Yippies who secretly longed to mow a lawn. For the most part, they'd get their wish eventually.

Fast forward a couple decades, say to 1989. Yes, there was the occasional budget-conscious whitey then, trying to look cool walking down Vanderbilt, probably smoking a cigarette to show how nonchalant he was. Not often though. Back then the fast-track gentrification was happening on the Upper West and Lower East sides (interesting how gentrification involving Latinos plays differently in the media). But by the mid to late '90s, once the barn door of Flatbush busted down, the blocks became pricier and tonier and less black in Prospect Heights. They HAD to I suppose, given the desirability that was creeping back into Brooklyn by the middle class, which lets face it in America is still largely white and uptight about race. Thankfully in Brooklyn we can face these things a little more head on, since we have to live on top of each other. But as I watched back then with an anthropologist's distance, I NEVER could have seen the Franklin Avenue bourgeois renaissance. For fun one day not long after I moved to NYC, I took the S train just to see what it was and where it went. A graffiti covered train pulls up at Prospect Park station and I take it to the end - Fulton and Franklin. I get off, trying to get my bearings by looking at my fold-up Brooklyn map. An older lady comes up to me and asks where I'm going. I say I'm just looking around and she tells me I'd better get back on that train. This is a true story. Same thing happened to me just off the G at Clinton-Washington, though the person telling me was younger and male-er and used a more menacing phrasing. I remember exactly where it was because there's a playground there that I pass by when taking a cab home from LGA, and I remember I was taunted by the teenagers on the playground. "You're in the wrong neighborhood" was the nicest thing I heard when I walked by. Of course I'm sure I looked like I just got off the boat from Crackerland, and my outfits and hair practically screamed for comment. (I always expected those instances would repeat again and again. But they rarely happen at all. Most people have more important things to do than racial catcall, though when it happens, it is quite a shock. It's usually a matter of mental illness, cheap wine, or a combination. Most folks have the good sense to keep their comments to themselves or to hushed tones. Ever seen one of those racial outbursts on a diversely packed bus or train? Especially when it's a white lunatic it's always reassuring to look and see the smiles of understanding when you lock eyes for a moment with strangers. Yes, uncomfortable as it may be, there's something oddly poetic and powerful in those moments, when some of the reserve melts away and you see that we're all a bit nervous and all ultimately dealing with these things just below the surface.

So the long and short of it is that these days I don't really think on the race of a Brooklyn neighborhood so much, not like I used to. I go for days without thinking much on race at all, at least the surface kind. I really DO notice when I'm in a place that's all white. Vermont. Very, very, very white. Windsor Terrace. Very, very, very white. Upper East Side? Not so much, not during the day. The nannies are almost ALL black or Latino, lots are Caribbean, many many hailing from Flatbush. ("The Rich They Are Raised on the Laps of the Poor") Hope they're getting benefits and enough cash to bring home and spend in the 'hood.

But the other thing I really, really notice now is the speed of neighborhood change, sometimes referred to as gentrification, that oft-used word with willy different interpretations, like "hipster." It's impossible not to view it through your own lenses of a) class b) education c) race d) birthplace e) occupation f) political leanings g) renter or owner h) accent i) style and j) attitude.

Which brings me back to my mistress, nabe-wise, this Crown Heights North, which recently went through a big rezoning effort as a direct result of indigestion from neighborhood churning. They had good reason to look at zoning, as they were being tossed about willy-nilly by the swash of capitalism. As you walk and ride around the blocks in the box bounded by Bedford, Washington, Atlantic and Eastern Parkway, you can't help but notice the wild hodge-podge of newly constructed four to six story buildings, often alongside old frame houses and light industrial warehouses. Many of the blocks pre-re-zoning look positively insane. When it comes to architecture, I don't know from pretty, but I know ugly when I see it. On some blocks it's like a bizarre building bazaar, take your pick folks, we've got something for everyone! Closer to Eastern Parkway you still find lots of the grand brownstone mansions of yore...some blocks outshine the Manor by a fair bit (the neighborhood had its fair share of rich, not just middle class, back in the day). Many of these big houses became home to multiple families by the '70s/'80s; many have been since renovated to single family abodes, or single family with, say, a first-floor rental. Those are blocks are now being or have been landmarked, which of course does tons for the neighborhood's character but not a lot for affordable housing. The new zoning looks at the housing issues a bit more holistically, and its plan is certainly a blueprint for what might work south of Eastern Parkway and (gasp) Empire Boulevard as well. Sort of.

The whole scenario is strikingly different from the Lefferts/Caton Park/Caledonian Flatbush area. With fewer huge apartment buildings, Northern Crown Heights has already and is still experiencing a major expansion in higher-income rentals and condos (the new construction) AND the typical Brownstonering wealth influx. Comparisons of Franklin Ave and Flatbush commerce are not particularly appropriate either. Franklin was on life-support just a few years ago, and the new money and energy lit it up like a light-bulb. So fast in fact that some of the first wave of new merchants are now being priced-out...just a few short years into their run.

While the influx of "amenities" has been cheered by recently arrived Crown Heights locals aching to stay local for shopping, dining and nightlife, Lefferts has seen a much slower rate of change on the commercial strips. Density plays a part, as do demographics. For instance, a huge Caribbean middle-class continues to shop on the Flabenue. The hair suppliers and beauty salons continue to pack 'em in. Even cell phone stores and discount stores seem to stay in business despite high rents. You may not be able to find kale salads, but danged if you can't find all manner of fare from the West Indies. All in all, the Flabenue never fell off as far as Franklin. It continues to pay the rent, much to the consternation of some retail watchers.

Speaking of which, the Q's attitude has always been contrary-wise, which is to say I continue to subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, make choices I believe to be in opposition to the mainstream. It's rooted in a jaunty pubescence and Devil's Advocate DNA. But the problem is that Brooklynites and the American zeitgeist are all doing it at the SAME time, making it very hard to make choices that run counter to the mainstream. In fact, try choosing an opposing idea, and I'll bet someone has already pickled it and is selling it at a charming shoppe along Manhattan or Myrtle or Fulton or Franklin.

As the Q ages he laughs more at the silliness of it all, this need to choose an attitude or worldview w/condescension towards all others and stick with it. Who cares, I asks? Well, some people do, and if you're not looking closely you may miss their humanity and mistake their choices for the wrong choices and dismiss them entirely, or not even notice. Case in point...displacement. It's easy to assume that the displacement of long-residing folks in an "up-and-coming" neighborhoods is a result of simple market forces - supply and demand, stemming from the expression of a million Americans making the same contrary-wise choice at the same time - to buy real estate of the same ilk in the same places that were once shunned by the dominant culture and are now relatively cheap for those coming back. The Brownstoner movement, and the desire for new and rehabilitated housing in once-impoverished neighborhoods, has created a perverse incentive to speed the rate of change. After all, what person of considerable means with a quality baccalaureate education wants to live in "the ghetto?" Sure diversity is nice...but c'mon now, a feller needs a few goldarn amenities!

Here the discussion breaks down into finger-pointing. Developers get called out. Whites and middle-class Blacks and Browns become usurpers. Ruffians get lumped in with honest folk. Privilege begets privilege and entitlement breeds contempt. Old resents young, young bemoans old, and new businesses take hold where others founder. The die gets cast, the cast dies, and the whole theatrical production becomes mired in labor redundancy, cancelling the final run and assuring a sequel with a new set of actors.

And who gets off with nary a nick? Landlords of course. The single-most powerful link in the chain is the landlord who, seeing green, cheats-coerces-tricks-cons-or generally skirts the law to turn apartments protected by rent stabilization into cash cows and those folks on housing subsidies into pariah.

Why does the Q harp on it so much? He's pissed and feels helpless to help, and keeps searching for answers. The growing organization of 626 Flatbush opponents makes me wonder if there's appetite out there to take on the real problem, not so much the developer with incentive to build, but with the landlord with the incentive to destroy.

I'm not out to scapegoat anyone. But there are some real goats out there, and if I could I would help identify them, alert folks to their methods and bring the worst of the lot to justice. Anything less is a failure of those with power and access to wield that power with compassion. When it's too late, it's too late.

Is Northern Crown Heights heading towards its NoCro moment? CroHiNo? NoCroHi? Or like Ft. Greene is it now getting bigger - Prospect Heights with a splash of Crown? And when does Brownsville get its day? Don't be smirking...the next stop on the IRT express is calling out to become tomorrow's BroVee or ENY, pronounced Eenie, for East New York.

"Yeah man, got priced out of BroVee and just found a loft in Eenie. Trevor just got married and moved into the "hot" school zone. He's gone totally mainstream and living over in bourgie E-Flab. Can you believe he was a rich kid, growing up in NoCro? I always thought he was more Oz Park. But even Oz Park is getting too trendy for me."


Anonymous said...

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Such an introspective and heartfelt post.

Mobile Duck said...

You keep it honest and real, Q. Everyone wants to tell us what we're supposed to think and feel. You just tell us what you think and feel. I appreciate that. Even when I disagree with you I always I appreciate your being upfront about who you are and where you're coming from. I think that's what essays are supposed to do so yes you get to call yourself an essayist. Though your runon sentences go beyond artful into tiring sometimes. Sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if I sound exasperated, but people don't seem to get it. The last time physical change to Brooklyn happened on the current scale was before the WWII. The Brownstones themselves around here that are so beloved are from just 100 and a few years ago, depending on which block and which neighborhood. We're undergoing a total massive rebuild and re-contextualization that will set the stage for the next 100 years. People looking to buy a place three generations from now will have to deal with the stupid decisions being made now.

Most people's vision is so narrow. They're thinking about their "amenities" or creature comforts and trying to micromanage demographic issues to suit their fancy rather than envision how their city will look and feel to the 22nd century. It's pathetic really. All these educated people and no wisdom or leadership.

cheryl on parkside ave said...

Keep it real Q, keep it real!!!! Great piece!

Anonymous said...

Q I know you sometimes get frustrated with some of the newbies moving into the area and their racist comments on some threads but please do not go on any blogging strikes. I do not know who would continue to carry the torch for blogging about our ever changing neighborhood. We all know about the failures of other blogs like Plog, Hawthorne Street blog, and Son of Planet PLG. You are the only reason I know anything about this hood.

PS, the National Enquirer is to the New York Times as the Lefferts Manor Echo is to the Q at Parkside. You should be so proud with all of your accomplishments Q!!

The Snob said...

Great post, Tim. I only wish to chime in with a bit on the Franklin phenomenon that I haven't heard much of. Back when the Family Snob was lording it over Eastern Parkway, we watched the shoot-outs on Franklin give way to specialty cheese shops, amazed. Talking with the new crop of entrepreneurs then -- ones who are getting priced out now -- a salient point was the crash of 2008, which relieved a bunch of smart kids of their boring desk jobs, and propelled many into working for themselves. Rent on Franklin was very cheap. The Jewish Hospital conversion had brought hundreds of young renters into the neighborhood, and they had nowhere to go and nothing to do after 8 pm on a Saturday night (aka last call for Ben & Jerry's on Washington Avenue). Like the wave of artists that typically presages the neighborhood change called gentrification, this class of businesspeople proved the viability of Franklin Ave. to the more established hospitality pros from Bay Ridge and Manhattan, who would eventually move in. Like artists in Williamsburg and Bushwick, they shared expenses and suppliers, enabling local shops to become micro-chains. As capitalism goes, it was pretty punk rock.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

True that, Snob. The old hospital of which you speak is HUGE to the changes in the neighborhood. Interestingly, the relatively cheap rents on the Avenue are long gone. I wonder how much longer locals will be able to create funky start-ups with those kind of space expenses.

Not all the shoppes are run by locals however. Many are actually second, third or fifth attempts by other Brooklyn "pioneers." So often, it really does take money to make money...or at the very least, cash flow.

djejnyc said...

Awesome post. I was just thinking of you the other day when I was walking out of the Church ave Q and stopped to look at a curious flyer littering the steps. "Just Graduate College? Gentrification just took your job!!!!" No number, no website, just a statement.