In Defense Of Park Slope
Abroad in New York

November 8, 2007

NY Sun

Last month, the American Planning Association presented its first-ever list of the "great neighborhoods" of America. The only New York City neighborhood on the list was Park Slope, Brooklyn. It was a bit of good press for a hot neighborhood that's been something of the victim of an Internet- and press-backlash this year.

In the spring, London's Daily Telegraph ran an article about Park Slope: "In a city of the smug, Park Slopers are reviled as the smuggest."
In the top-featured essay in this fall's American Scholar, "Brooklyn Books of Wonder," writer Melvin Jules Bukiet says of Brooklyn, and of Park Slope in particular:

You can see it from Manhattan if you look carefully across the East River. You can even go there if you follow a young couple (he's got a goatee and she has a ponytail) onto the F train. But if you're not blessed to reside within walking distance of Prospect Park, you can always read about Brooklyn in the work of the writers who live there or find inspiration there. Brooklyn principles can be found anywhere that young people gather to share their search for love and meaning, a search that they alone are qualified to pursue by virtue of their pristine vision of the deep oneness of things. Whereas physical danger or emotional grief leaves most people lonely or ruined or dead, they triumph over adversity.
Bucking this trend, the Planning Association citation quotes Columbia University architectural historian Andrew Dolkart: "No neighborhood in America has a finer and more intact collection of late 19th-century row houses than Park Slope." When all is said and done, it's hard to think of a city neighborhood in the country more beautiful than Park Slope.

By the 1870s, horsecar service had made the areas bordering the new Prospect Park, which was built out at the border of the City of Brooklyn and the Town of Flatbush, easily accessible to the East River ferries. An affluent new commuter suburb took shape on the sloping side of the terminal moraine running down from Prospect Park to the Gowanus Canal. Grand Army Plaza, at the northeastern corner of Park Slope, serves as a sort of gateway to the neighborhood, and is one of the too-few really grand urban-design gestures in the city. For all of Park Slope's shady intimacy, the neighborhood begins with a bang. The plaza is home to the nation's finest triumphal arch and one of the city's most frightful torrents of automobile traffic. Prospect Park West begins at Grand Army Plaza and runs south, with the 526-acre park on one side, and Park Slope on the other. Several of the neighborhood's most spectacular houses line Prospect Park West, along with a few pre-war luxury highrise apartment buildings. The "park blocks," between Prospect Park West and Eighth Avenue, though, are where, for most people, Park Slope comes true.

Three blocks south of the plaza, Montgomery Place extends all of one block. The architect C.P.H. Gilbert designed 20 of the block's 46 houses between 1887 and 1892, at a time when Park Slope emerged as one of the most affluent neighborhoods in America. In these early years of his career, Gilbert — who would go on to design stupendous Upper East Side mansions such as that of Felix and Frieda Warburg, now the Jewish Museum, on Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street — worked in his own endlessly inventive variations of "Richardsonian Romanesque." The joy of these houses — as heart-meltingly lovely an ensemble as to be found in the city — is in their details. My own favorite, in its general effect relatively demure, is no. 46, designed by Gilbert and built in 1889 for the stained-glass artist Alex Locke. The house is a symphony in elegant, golden Roman brick, including a sensuously upswelling shelf of brickwork that shows just what the craftsmen of the time were capable of.

Striking an altogether different but no less felicitous note are the two apartment houses at 10 Montgomery Place and 143 Eighth Ave., both completed in 1911. Brooklyn architect Montrose Morris designed these lusty Beaux Arts confections. Gilbert and Morris were major architects, whose clients wanted something grand and eyecatching. But a building can't be eye-catching unless it stands out from its surroundings; and a neighborhood can't be great unless the surroundings — the background buildings — are of high quality. A perfect example of the kind of backgrounder that puts Park Slope over the top extends west from the northwest corner of Eighth Avenue and Garfield Place (one block south of Montgomery Place). The little-known architect Henry Pohlman designed the group of small apartment houses from 1903 — charmingly named Belvedere, Ontrinue, Lillian, and Serine — that typify the handsome, high-quality fabric of Park Slope. That magnificent classical synagogue across the street, by the way, is Temple Beth Elohim, completed in 1910.

When I moved to Park Slope more than a quarter-century ago, I never thought I'd live to see the day when at least two neighborhood restaurants would be places I'd as soon eat at as any place in the whole city, but Franny's, at 295 Flatbush Ave. (yes, technically in Prospect Heights), and Al di Là, on Fifth Avenue at Carroll Street, are exactly that. Smug? Maybe. But how many New Yorkers never want to leave their neighborhood?

November 8, 2007 Edition > Section: Arts and Letters


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