The neighborhood is known for its charm, for a family-friendly vibe, for leafy streets, and century-old houses adorned with elaborate terra-cotta and brickwork. Summers, it's a green and flowery refuge from the city, with gardens that spill onto the sidewalks from the area-ways. Along the broad avenues, there's a relaxed cafe society: shops, restaurants, coffee houses.
From that description, you could be in almost any part of Brownstone Brooklyn: Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Boerum Hill. But we're talking about the Slope here, the area bounded by Flatbush Avenue, Prospect Park West, and Fourth Avenue, a place that has seen its ups and downs through the generations and slowly found its way back to its roots.
This was probably the grandest of the borough's neighborhoods when it was first developed in the 1880s and '90s. Unlike Brooklyn Heights, which had flourished before the Civil War as a neighborhood of prosperous business types who had settled their own small city, quite independent of Manhattan, Park Slope was very much a creation of Greater New York, developed in the wake of the great bridge that linked the two boroughs.
Setting a pattern that would hold true a hundred years later, the neighborhood attracted wealth -- although never on the scale, say, of the Rockefellers or the Astors. Instead, the mansions that line Prospect Park West today were built for the likes of Charles Pratt (founder of the Pratt Institute) and railroad developer Edwin C. Litchfield. That was the Gold Coast, meant to compete with Fifth Avenue; it never really did, and today, the neighborhood is more often likened to the Upper West Side.
"Eightth Avenue is like Central Park West, with $2 million apartments," says real estate salesman Robert Fry. Fry, who moved into the area in 1996, a refugee from Manhattan, has found the neighborhood a terrific place to live. "It's more relaxed here than Manhattan," he says. "But it still has the pulse -- still has the vibe. It's as sophisticated as Manhattan, and I find I go less often to Manhattan -- there are more restaurants here now. And the park is my backyard."
The park -- Prospect Park -- has long been a major drawing card for residents. Developed by the same team who created Central Park, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead, it stretches tk acres in the heart of the neighborhood. Like its more famous cousin, it is known for its bucolic romanticism; in fact there are some who say it beats Central Park in its planning; that the two landscape designers made their mistakes in Manhattan and corrected them in Brooklyn.
Running alongside the park, Prospect Park West presents an eclectic frontage of palatial limestones with turrets, leaded and stained windows, cupolas, canopies, balconies, loggias, and piazzas. Few house single families anymore; many of them are now schools or other institutions. Interspersed among the houses are apartment buildings that went up in the teens and twenties: art deco baubles set beside more staid, Gotham-esque high-rises. Heading up Eighth Avenue toward Flatbush, you come upon the neighborhood's great jewel: a Venetian fantasy in brick and terra cotta. This is the Montauk Club, once the haunt of the area's rich businessmen, their equivalent of Manhattan's Union League or Century. It remains a private club today.
You find most of the single-family houses in the side streets, in the named streets and block-long places -- Montgomery Place being one of area's loveliest streets. This is where the first pioneers -- called Brownstoners back then -- started showing up in the mid-60s and early 70s, buying up houses that had been turned into roominghouses in the '30s and '40s. While their counterparts across the river remade the Upper West Side, they re-created a neighborhood in the blocks between Seventh and the park.
It was an area that had been on a downslide for the better part of a generation. During the late 1940s and '50s, it was a stable neighborhood, made up mostly of working-class New Yorkers. Georgie Lee, whose immigrant grandparents had bought their building in the early 1920s, remembers it as a "wonderful place to grow up. Technically, we lived in Windsor Terrace, but we ran all over the neighborhood. My father was a cop, and my ex-husband's father was a conductor. His family had a house in the Slope, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. I don't know how they had it, but they did. They had boarders on the top floor. People who lived in a single room with a shared bathroom in the hall."
But even during Lee's childhood, there was a darker side to the neighborhood. "In our neighborhood, there was a gang, the Tigers, who were pretty tough," she remembers. "Down in the named streets, down around President, Union ... there was a gang that was very tough: The Garfield Street Gang. Some of those guys, I suppose, wound up in the Mafia."
As the 1950s progressed, hard drugs -- heroin, mostly -- found their way into the area, the schools began a long, slow decline, and families like Lee's started moving out to the suburbs, to Jersey or Long Island, leaving behind them houses dismissed as too old-fashioned to compete with the sparkling new cape cods of Levittown.
So, when the first brownstoners appeared, they were something of a surprise. Along with Brooklyn Union Gas, which sank $TKk into its Cindarella Project, which rehabbed buildings in the neighborhood, the gentrifiers brought the promise of money and new businesses.
Not that they were rich -- they were a far cry from today's Wall Street millionaires. Mostly they were modest enough young professionals, with a healthy sprinkling of vaguely counterculture types. And they bequeathed a few signature institutions to the neighborhood: TK coffee shop, for instance, and, most famously, the Park Slope Food Co-Op, founded in 1973 and still going strong today.
QUOTE HERE FROM FOOD COOP PEOPLE.
They also brought with them a sensibility -- an enthusiasm for urban life -- that began to fuel a business and cultural boom that blossomed thirty or so years later with the revival of BAM, which, while not technically in the neighborhood, balances along the boundary, and the renaissance at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, which borders Prospect Park. As the neighborhood began to come back, the local public school -- 321 -- gained a reputation for excellence, which drew yet more home-buyers to the area and sparked a demand for restaurants and shops that saw, first, Seventh Avenue, and, later, Fifth Avenue, re-invent themselves as commercial strips drawing in people from the rest of the borough as well as from across the river.
"Manhattanites think all this started yesterday, but it's been a viable community since the '70s," says Peggy Aguayo, a partner in one of the neighborhood's preeminent real estate brokerages, Aguayo and Huebner. "The neighborhood is one that can accommodate people who can afford $2 million homes and people who can afford $400,000 apartments." She says the mix of professions remains largely what it's always been, with people in the arts, doctors, and lawyers -- plus some in the financial sector -- taking the place of the cops and firemen who once lived here. Robert Fry likes the neighborhood's diversity. "This is a very mixed neighborhood -- gay friendly. You'll see two ladies walking along with a baby, or two men with a baby. Everybody seems to get along. "
In addition to being gay-friendly, the Slope has always been known as extremely family friendly. Cruising up and down Fifth or Seventh Avenues, you can't help noticing the number of kids' stores -- or, for that matter, the nuimber of strollers on the sidewalks. "People like to stay in the neighborhood," says Peggy Aguayo. "My daughter grew up here, and now she's raising her kids here."
The question is, of course, where the neighborhood is headed now. Some of the older residents -- many of them among the early waves of gentrifiers themselves -- regard their newer neighbors as the barbarians at the gates, obsessed with real-estate values at the expense of the fabric of neighborhood. And, as development passes Fifth Avenue, heading for Fourth, the question of just where the neighborhood begins and ends has become increasingly common.
Aguayo says, though, that this haggling over neighborhood boundaries is nothing new. "First," she says, "people wouldn't go below Seventh Avenue. Then, they wouldn't go below Sixth. Then, Fifth. But there is plenty of new development going in now between Fourth and Fifth. People who paid a fortune to live on Eighth Avenue or the park, don't want to admit that anything other than Eighth and the Park is the Slope," she says, laughing.
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