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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Thursday Evening at the Brooklyn Historical Society: Reception & Launch of the Park Slope Neighborhood & Architectural History Guide


This evening at 6 p.m. we arrived at the Brooklyn Historical Society for a reception celebrating the launch of the Park Slope Neighborhood & Architectural History Guide, the latest in the BHS's series of wonderfully written and lavishly photographed neighborhood guides.

Written by the noted architectural historian Francis Marrone, the author of The Architectural Guide to Brooklyn whose Thursday New York Sun "Abroad in New York" columns we'll miss, the guide is compelling and fascinating little book and well worth the $10 we paid for it as we went into the reception room tonight. We've been reading around in it, and looking at both the archival photos and the exquisite contemporary ones taken by Etienne Frossard. It reads like a wonderful collection of stories about a neighborhood that's had an interesting place in New York and American history.

After about fifty people in the crowd enjoyed the nice spread of food and drinks on the tables, we sat down to hear Kate Fermoile, the Society's vice president for exhibits and education, discuss the guide as part of its ongoing series devoted to the history of various neighborhoods.

Starting in the 1990s with the waterfront communities - Fulton Ferry/DUMBO/Vinegar Hill, Red Hook/Gowanus, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bay Ridge/Ft. Hamilton - the series has moved inland this year with its guide to Flatbush and now to Park Slope. These books highlight Brooklyn's rich history and can serve not just as a source of great information and photos but also a good companion on a walking tour of our borough's neighborhoods.

Kate Fermoile, as others would later do, thanked the sponsors of the project, American Express and The Trust for Architectural Easements, one of the largest preservation easement holding organizations in the nation, and the additional support of the New York State Council on the Arts and Constance and Henry Christensen.

Then Tim Gunn of the Trust came up and thanked various people who worked on this "very terrific project," most of all Frances Marrone, whom he called "quite amazing." Mr. Gunn said the guide showed that Park Slope was more than a collection of aesthetically pleasing buildings or a terrific neighborhood to live in, that it is a historic part of not just New York, but the entire nation.

The main presentation of the evening was by the book's author, Francis Marrone, who - inspired by a recent Brooklyn Paper story which asked him to choose his favorite buildings in Brooklyn Heights - discussed his favorite Park Slope buildings and other sites, accompanied by a slide show of photographs, historic and contemporary, from the guide.

Mr. Marrone's delectable selections included the obvious - the Old Stone House, the Litchfield Villa, the Prospect Park Boathouse, the Montauk Club - and others that some of us pass all the time and whose splendor isn't always obvious in our rush and routine - for example, P.S. 39 on Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street; P.S. 107 on Eighth Avenue and 13th Street; the Garfield Temple; and a pair of homes on Montgomery Place flanked by two very different style houses, which somehow blend in to make these four structures one of the most beautiful parts of one of Brooklyn's most beautiful blocks.

There were also photographs of lost buildings, some sadly torn down, and some - like the original Beaux Arts Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza - never completed and replaced by the more contemporary Art Moderne structure we love, which Mr. Marrone called a great American public building.

His talk, and the guidebook, also go into such fascinating history as the story of how Prospect Park was created and how it was rescued from decline just as the whole of Park Slope, which we thought of as a "bad neighborhood" back in the 1960s, was revived by intrepid brownstoners, civic leaders, longtime residents and bohemians.

Our own experience with Park Slope as a Brooklyn kid growing up in the more suburban southeast of the borough was mostly to feel sorry for people who lived there. We didn't go there very often, except to Prospect Park, where we adored the zoo - then an old-fashioned animals-behind-cages 1950s zoo which we associated with the much-loved smell of peanuts - and the "mountain climbing expeditions" our dad took us and our brother on by the Flatbush Avenue side of the park.

Because our mother had fallen down the stairs in her seventh month of pregnancy and went to be checked out that day at her gynecologist/obstetricians Dr. Jacob Levine (who had delivered Mom herself) and Dr. Stanley Silverman (Beverly Sills' older brother), whose office was on Plaza Street, we were in the neighborhood on December 16, 1960, the day the plane crashed just a few blocks away on Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place. The guide has photos of the crashed plane, and we tell our story in "The Boy Who Fell to Brooklyn."

In junior high we occasionally went to Wollman Rink for ice skating with friends, but we rarely ventured into the neighborhood, and when we did, it seemed creepily seedy. During the 1965-66 school year we attended a private school in Manhattan for most of tenth grade and so would drive up Flatbush Avenue early in the morning with our dad; that's when we noticed the Cinderella Project storefront from Brooklyn Union Gas Company, which was trying to show off the virtues of the inexpensive "brownstones" (the first time we'd heard the word) nearby.

Our reaction was basically to wonder who would be stupid enough to buy those crappy houses in a bad neighborhood.

Then, when we were Brooklyn College students in the early 1970s, we used to rent bikes near the Parade Grounds and ride through the park, but it was still kind of dangerous. One Saturday when we were invited along to ride with a bunch of guys from the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity - the only non-APO person there - some in the group got mugged. We really started coming to Park Slope when we met fellow BC students who lived there.

In particular, we spent a lot of time at the house of a friend we met in our sophomore year as the girlfriend of a friend; when her grandfather died that year, her mother inherited his house, which like many Park Slope houses, including many brownstones, was chopped up then into little rooms for boarders, usually single men - a phenomenon Francis Marrone writes about in the guidebook.

That's when we began to explore and hang out in the neighborhood. We'd drive our friend's brother - who now lives in the family house with his wife - over to J.J. Byrne Park to buy nickel bags from the drug deals who hung out there. We knew nothing about the Old Stone House back then. Gentrification had started years before, of course, but things were still so unsafe that our friend's brother and his wild pals used to act as vigilantes, with one guy acting as mugger bait and the others hiding until they set upon the hapless robber and beat the crap out of him.

Our friends' mom - on whom we based the character Mrs. Judson in our 1978 story "With Hitler in New York," which became the title story in our first book published the following year - was the kind of mom whose house became a hangout. Even after Linda moved to the West Coast, we continued to hang out there with her mother and brother and other friends, we'd spend every Christmas there, and so we got to know Park Slope better and come to love it.

We had favorite spots, like the old Camperdown Elm restaurant and The Leaf and Bean (we also used to go hang out at their Montague Street location in the Heights) and Circles Cafe. And when we lived in Florida in the 1980s and stayed in New York only in the summer or sometimes in the fall, we still used to spend lots of time in the Slope with our friends who rented apartments in brownstones. We were part of a writers' group in the late 1970s that met at our friend's apartment at the corner of Polhemus Place (one of the members was Joel Agee), where we once had a car accident driving down that narrow street.

But the only time we lived in Park Slope was from August to November 1985, when we temporarily took over the bedroom of a three-roommate duplex apartment on President Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, while our friend Judd Lear Silverman was directing plays out of town in Pennsylvania. (Judd's current directorial project, "Evilution," three dark comedies by Edward Musto, is playing this weekend at the 78th Street Theatre Lab.)

Even then, we rarely went to Fifth Avenue because it seemed dangerous. There weren't stores and places to hang out like on Seventh Avenue, where we frequented Roma Pizza (we loved their "baby pizza," a small round cheeseless pie with fried onions, cut into quarters), Grand Canyon, the Community Bookstore, the new health food store, and other places to shop and eat and hang out - some still there, many gone in the intervening 23 years.

Over the years we had many good friends on other blocks in the Slope - like Susan Mernit, now the CEO of Peoples Software Company, who lived on Sterling Place; the writer and food and travel blogger Peter Cherches, who still lives on Garfield Place; and Pete's and our Brooklyn College MFA program director, the novelist Jonathan Baumbach, who lived on Montgomery Place (for a fictionalized film version of his home, see Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale; for the interior of his real house in a fictional film, watch Mike Nichols' Heartburn.) And Judd - with his partner, the artist Barry Steely, has been living on President Street since 1979 we first met him when he was straight out of Brown and one of our friend Satnam's roommates.

In our many years living out of state, no visit to New York City was complete without coming at least once to Park Slope, and when we moved back to the area in May 2006, it was one of the first places we came back to as we gave a reading at Barb├Ęs, at which the majority of the audience were six of our friends, all of whom live in the neighborhood. And last year, we made the Park Slope 100 at Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn Historical Society guide tells the stories of the pioneers like the developer Edwin Litchfield, who essentially once owned most of the neighborhood; and more recent "pioneers" like the Ortners, who were instrumental in Park Slope's revival, starting in the mid-1960s; the Park Slope Food Co-Op; the lesbian community; and so much more. They've also got a walking tour to accompany the guide and a great podcast, part of which Francis Marrone played this evening in which the voices were those of three generations of the Rubin family who have lived at 641 Carroll Street since 1971. And the photographs are great, better than the stuff we have here, which are, unfortunately, not from the guide.

It was a great evening and it's a great book that we learned a lot of cool new-to-us stuff by reading. (Did you know that the horsecar, perhaps more than anything else, was responsible for Park Slope's amazing growth in the late 19th century? Do you know what a horsecar is?) If you love Park Slope, you owe it to yourself to get to the Brooklyn Historical Society or its website and get a copy.

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