The neighborhood is known for its charm, for a family-friendly atmosphere, 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 of shops, restaurants, bars, and coffee houses.
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 one of 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 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 though, and today, the area 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 of Brooklyn Bridge Real Estate. 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 in 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 across 526 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."
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 found their way into the area, the schools began a long, slow decline, and families 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 rehabbed buildings throughout Brooklyn, 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, most notably, perhaps, the Park Slope Food Co-Op.
Founded in 1973, The Co-Op, which was meant to give consumers more control over the food they bought, has continued to prosper. Over the years, it has relocated several times, each time to bigger premises. "We've grown," says Linda Wheeler, one of the early members, "and we have more space on our shelves to carry a wider selection of products." However, she says, there isn't a significant difference in what people buy; indeed, she says, many of the original members still buy their groceries at the Co-Op.
The Co-Op -- with its rule providing that members devote a certain amount of time each month stocking shelves and ringing up purchases -- was emblematic of the sensibility of the slope as it gentrified, a token of the enthusiasm the brownstoners brought with them for urban life and its institutions. By the early 1980s, those enthusiasms had bloomed, 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.
Aaron Bashy is one of the area's new breed of businessman. Three and a half years ago, he opened Minnow, a well-regarded fish restaurant in the neighborhood. "We were priced out of the Manhattan market," he says, remembering why he and his family moved to the Slope. He liked the fact that the area was close to the park, and he liked the quality of life that he saw here. Aside from all that, there were his kids. "All my life," says this veteran of the Culinary Institute, Le Bernardin, and Aureole, "I wanted to have a business close to home, where the kids could be a part of it."
Settling into a space on Ninth Street, he's buiilt up the business; the restaurant will shortly move into a new location that will be about double the size of the current place. He says the reasons for his success have to do with keeping the restaurant focused on being neighborhood-friendly and providing good value. His clientele, he says, is mixed. "We appeal to Brooklyn people," he says. "We get folks coming in who live in Sheepshead Bay and can't get a good piece of fish over there anymore. We have our share of bar regulars. It's very diverse: gay, male, female. But you don't get the Park Avenue-East Sixties people we used to get at Aureole. We still get firemen who come in."
Bashy's experience over the past few years is not uncommon: A Manhattanite moves across the river, settles in the borough, and makes good. Alan Harding at Patois over on Smith Street did it, the Bromberg brothers at Blue Ribbon, on Fifth Avenue, did it. And, while all of them came, armed with experience, sophistication, and determination, they also arrived in neighborhoods that were on the verge of swinging upscale.
"Manhattanites think all this started yesterday, but this has been a viable community since the '70s," says Peggy Aguayo, a partner in one of the neighborhood's 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 industry -- 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 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.
And, for many in the area, the most vivacious part of the neighborhood is the Fifth Avenue corridor. Linda Spector, who with her husband, Joel, owns Zelda Victoria, a decorating business long a fixture on Seventh Avenue, has moved to new quarters on Fifth. "The area is hipper, younger," she says. "There are all the new restaurants -- and the rent was going up on Seventh."
David Yassky, who represents the neighborhood in the City Council, is also enthusiastic about what he sees along Fifth Avenue. "Fifth Avenue has had an unbelievable emergence as a retail strip. It has transformed itself very quickly -- in a year or two. It's just amazing." He acknowledges, though, that there is a down side to some of the development mania. "The Slope overall has become more upscale, " he says, "but that's been going on for awhile. Rents are literally doubling, and some people are being forced out."
Money is the nub, and the numbers tell part of the story. The average household income, according to the statistics, is $78,386 a year. However, real estate values chart a different scale entirely: One-bedroom apartments sell for $300,000 or so; two-bedroom/two bath places, $650,000 on up to $800,000 if you insist on prime real estate with a view of the park. To Manhattanites, those prices sound like bargains, but no matter: Households with incomes under $80,000 a year can't afford those numbers.
There's another side of the story, too. Whereas a typical Park Slope apartment used to be a floor-through in a nineteenth-century brownstone, increasingly, buyers are looking at new construction, says Peggy Aguayo. "Those places have all been renovated by now, or mostly renovated," she says, referring to the old houses on the blocks radiating out from the park. "What you're looking at now is new construction, condos mostly" she says, and a lot of that is going into the outer edges of the neighborhood -- between Fifth and Fourth Avenues, or in the far reaches of the area, around 14th Street or 15th Street.
Meanwhile, the houses closest to the park are still trading at the top end of the market. And, while the prices on Prospect Park West don't begin to approach prices on Central Park West or Fifth Avenue, they are among the highest in the borough. In fact, with its celebrated residents -- Sen Chuck Schumer, Jennifer Connelly, -- the neighborhood may simply have become what it was built to be all along.
Park Slope returns to its roots