Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Day 298 - I ♥ Ridgewood!

Ridgewood, Queens (and for that matter, Ridgewood, Brooklyn) have been pre-occupations of mine this spring. A group of friends with whom I do informal walking tours of outer borough neighborhoods came here in April. I returned today. The neighborhood, which straddles the Brooklyn-Queens border, is an amazing mix of sold, handsome housing stock that manages not to be ostentatious. It is mostly rows of 3- and 4-story apartment buildings, uniformly constructed by the same builder around 1931. Blond and deep orange brick face dominate, giving sun dappled streets a warm glow in the late afternoon.

It began as an enclave of German refuges who arrived between the world wars. There is a smattering of Germans left, many of whom find camaraderie at Gottscheer Hall on Onderdonk Ave. This period place has been reinvigorated in the past several years by the general manager Will Osanitsch. On Friday nights there is live music--often of old German influence.

Today, the residents are much more mixed. Poles have moved in over the past few years as they have been priced out of gentrifying Greenpoint. Each street has a healthy share of Hispanic residents, too, though their proportion is greater on the Brooklyn side of Cypress Avenue.

The whole area retains an old-time feel. Stores are entirely locally owned with simple signs that provide basic neighborhood goods and services. Aside from uniformly beautiful brick buildings, the most dominating feature of the neighborhood is the elevated branch of the Jamaica El which passes through here on the way to Fresh Pond Road.

You can imagine this being the next cool place to become hippified. God help us.

Grover Cleveland Park, at the north end of the neighborhood, and nearly in the shadow of the imposing spires of St. Aloysious RC church, is a center of family activity after school hours during the week. Mothers gather in klatches at the edge of the playground while gaggles of kids clamber up slides and swing from monkey bars. If the trees aren't fully in leaf--and if the sun isn't setting in your eyes--you can gaze west, and catch the teeth of Manhattan's skyline beyond the low-lying plain near the mouth of Newtown Creek.

Wander a little east and south from Grover Cleveland and you'll come across the most bizarrely decorated house you're likely to see outside of Halloween. (See pics below.)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Day 292 - The Smallest House in Brooklyn? Wrong Number!

A friend passed along an e-mail with one of the most titillating subjects an urban nerd could imagine: Brooklyn's Smallest House!

Before you read too far along, I might as well be clear: I was had. But the adventure and trip back and time were well worth it. Read on.

It's true, the note smacked of artifice. No, it didn't have thousands of e-mail addresses or endless historgrams of carats from being forwarded umpteen times. But one could tell by the language obsessive variety of text colors and animation that it wasn't something casually forwarded to a friend of a friend of mine.

One photo showed this breadbox of dormered A-frame, allegedly 300 square foot in total, at the head end of a walkway and nestled between two larger homes. On reflection, I (perhaps of all people!) should have realized that NYC's zoning was unlikely to allow something like this to be built.

But I was taken in!

With property values pressing ever upward, and there seeming to be no cranny of empty space in which a developer would not fill with new homes when it's legal (and occasionally when it's not), it almost seemed plausible.

The location information was also convincing, despite its lack of precision. "This house is in the vicinity of Avenue T and Van Sicklen Avenune." That would be the heart of Gravesend... hardly a popular place in the blogosphere for a hoax, and one in which a small-time developer just might try getting away with something like this.

So I happily played hooky one afternoon last week and went to have a look.

I got off the N train to the zed-end of Brooklyn, a few stops before Coney Island, and wandered along Avenue T through a low-slung residential neighborhood. Sidestreets were two- and three-story single family homes. There was local retail on the corners. A few blocks east of the station, I crossed Van Sicklen Avenue and saw the church of St. Simon & St. Jude. An omen? St. Jude is the patron of--that's right--lost causes.

But the area looked promising: cheek-by-jowl homes with car-wide margins between that I had seen in the e-mail.

I wandered in each direction from the intersection, methodically surveying each block "in the vicinity of Avenue T and Van Sicklen Avenune."

There was plenty of intriguing architecture. The homes were aged, handsome and modest. A few bore the apparent eccentricities of their residents. And if you were magically teleported here, you might not know if you landed eastern Brooklyn in the early 21st Century, or the mid-19th.

I looked and looked, but there was no sign of the smallest house in Brooklyn. One structure that might have passed for it turned out to be merely a converted garage. Judging by the satellite dishes on top, it something a husband likely used to hide out from his wife.

I headed back toward the train station and passed, for the second time, The Wrong Number Cocktail Lounge. I happily made a mental note earlier that the lighted Bud sign meant that this period piece of a bar (circa 1966) was still serving suds. Surely, if anyone in the neighborhood would know about a crazy tiny house shoe-horned between two others, it would be the crowd in a place like this. Such a structure was likely to be the derisive talk of old-timers in the neighborhood. And this place, I was confident, would be full of old timers.

Well, "full" would be a stretch. But, yes, there were old timers--at least in the sense that every one of them grew up in the neighborhood within a few blocks of the joint. The place was pure unreconstructed 1960s Brooklyn that could have passed for a Scorsese set: dark and long; low ceilings punctuated with Deco-style round air vents rimmed with dust; occasional incandescent lamps. But most of the light in the place crept in as wisps of cigarette-filtered sun through the front window at the narrow end of the bar. It silhouetted a wizened woman of perhaps 50 who wore a startling amount of lipstick, and her quiet companion. Toward the back were three gents in their 60s, and one bandanna-topped laborer in his 30s pacing along a row of barstools, exercised about something and grousing loudly to no one in particular. Behind the bar was a simple set of shelves that looked to come from a hardware store which carried a modest selection of spirits for the usual clientele. Yankees and Giants souvenirs hung from a mirrored wall beside signs describing the flouted no smoking policy. A hand-lettered, yellowing oak tag poster announced the results of the Superbowl pool from several months back.

I loved The Wrong Number immediately; I was brought to places like this by my parents when I was growing up. But despite it feeling familiar, I hate being the new guy anywhere--particularly in a place where regulars seemed wary of anyone new.

So I swallowed hard, sidled up to the bar and got the attention of the ancient bartender.

"Hi there. Wondering if you could help us find this house." I pulled out my BlackBerry (idiot!) and called up one of the photos as he shuffled over to where we were standing. He looked pained to have to learn a new customer's needs. "I hear it's the smallest house in Brooklyn and it's around here," I added trying to be helpful.

The bartender looked quizzically at my contraption and asked sharply, "You got an address?"

"No, but the e-mail it was attached to said it was near the corner of Avenue T and Van Sicklen."

"Well, that's just down this way a bit." He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder.

I explained that I had already been there, walked a half-dozen blocks around there looking for it, but no dice.

By now, the other folks in the bar were looking up from their beers and offering their help.

"It's for sale?" one asked.

"Well, it might be," I said. Then I quickly realized that this crowd probably couldn't understand why some dude would come to the neighborhood to see something like this if they weren't going to buy it. "I think so," I settled upon.

"Well, I never seen nuthin' like this kinda house around here and I lived here all my life. Show dis ta the guy overdere."

I walked down the bar to another old timer and offered my BlackBerry. But he quickly handed it back, pointing to his face. "Don't got my glasses. You got an address?"

My kingdom for an address.

"No," I said, and repeated that it was near Avenue T and Van Sicklen.

"Well, that's down that way," the old timer said as he pointed over the bar.

I was wandering deeper into an Abbot and Costello routine.

But I seemed to be getting into the good graces of the folks here and they were trying to be helpful. So I ordered a glass of Bud as a courtesy. This seemed to me like the old school kind of place where you could get a glass of beer--not a pint but an eight-ounce glass as was the custom in working men's bars a generation ago.

"A glass?"

"Yes, please."

A red plastic Solo cup full of foamy warm beer was eventually produced. An incredulous customer at the front of the bar hooted to the bartender. "John, you got tap beer? When was the last time you poured a tap beer? You're always sayin' the lines gotta be cleaned or sumthin!"

Oy. Bottoms up.

After a little bit, my nearest neighbor said, "You see that guy over there? Ask him. If that house is in this neighborhood--and I don't think it is--he'll know about it. Been here all his life. This place is his." His eyes moved toward the ceiling and I got what he meant.

Tony--"Baldy" as he said everyone has called him since he was a kid--came over in a rust-colored velour Puma jumpsuit and took my BlackBerry into hisi beefy hands. He was hovering around 70, I thought. But despite a sizable paunch and being a few inches shorter than me, could have flattened me without much effort.

Baldy bantered back and forth with the other folks at the bar, all of whom offered anew their opinions on where such a house could possibly be near Avenue T and Van Sicklen Avenue. But none satisfied him.

"C'mon," he said to me. "If dis place exists, I wanna see it myself."

We walked out into the shockingly bright afternoon sun to a parking meter halfway down the block and climbed into a white SUV. I fastened my seatbelt and became immediately conscious of the act as a minor slight; Baldy didn't wear his.

"Dis here is Gravesend. It's the oldest parta Brooklyn. I lived here all my life." With a little prodding, he offered that his parents arrived from Italy and lived on Thompson Street in Manhattan for awhile before coming out to Brooklyn. "I lived right on this block most of my life," he continued as he stuck the accelerator along an empty side street. "That house isn't here," he said with authority. "But if it was, this is where it would be." I pondered that for moment and wondered if he was channeling Yogi Berra.

Inside of five minutes, we had retraced every block that I had gone up and down on foot, along with a few more, and I wound up with a gruff and parsimonious nickel tour of old Gravesend. Unsuccessful, Baldy took drove back to the bar where I thanked him and said goodbye as he walked away back to the bar, barely acknowledging that a stranger had just joined him for a ride--at his invitation--around his neighborhood. It was so strange. I loved it!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Day 274 - Fairview Cemetery

I took a friend to Staten Island to show off Joe & Pat's--my favorite pizza in New York City. (This tends to change from time to time, but having grown up less than a block away, I find myself continually returning here. We can discuss separately, if you'd like.)

After scarfing down most of a pie, ordering it a slice at a time, I was left with needing to give a nickel tour of the old neighborhood. We wandered west along Victory Blvd. a few blocks from the pizzeria and stumbled, quite unexpectedly, on a cemetery I never really knew existed, tucked back behind a stand of trees and climbing a gentle incline. Fairview Cemetery, with a modest sized grounds, has apparently been accepting interments since 1876 and doesn't seem to be in danger of filling up anytime soon. (Though new plots are creeping closer to the front gate on Victory Blvd.) It does have a very eclectic collection of monuments and headstones which I thought worth sharing here. Look at each one closely--some are really intriguing.

I, of course, mean no disrespect in sharing these images.