Sunday, July 7, 2013

Brooklyn nostalgia trip (not for hipsters) -- Part I

Let's take a Brooklyn break.
Brooklyn street box -- Kings Plaza mall
Let's take a break in southeast Brooklyn, where I grew up. A place where hipsters are apparently still few in number. No subway to take you directly to Manhattan; no sidewalk cafes. Some pretty awful, gentry-repellant features -- along with a surprising degree of compact walkability and urban amenity. The image at left might lead you to think the area is a wasteland, but the urbanism is there. The contrasts might possibly make the place more interesting than a Disneyland paradise of narrow streets.

The New York Times has characterized the non-gentrified parts of Brooklyn as either "rough-edged" or anachronistically suburban. Residents of the more  "suburban" areas are portrayed as reveling in an abundance of parking and as preferring "manicured lawns" to "reimagined 19th-century row houses." I'm by no means familiar with every part of Brooklyn -- gentrified or not -- but this suburban characterization of the borough's more outlying areas sounds inaccurate to me.

The neighborhoods that I want to focus on in this and a forthcoming companion post -- Old Mill Basin, Flatlands, Georgetown -- actually exhibit what I think is a rather unique mix of walk appeal and trashy sprawl, with the sprawl elements perhaps protecting the area as a whole from an undesirable socioeconomic "upgrade."

The residential construction in these parts -- dense without being overcrowded, consisting mainly of brick single-family and multifamily rowhouses and small wood frame homes on very modest plots -- could hardly be improved upon, as we'll see below. The commercial areas, by contrast, encompass everything from traditional shopping streets to hideous strip malls, to the windowless hulk of Kings Plaza. But however gargantuan their parking facilities may be, they are still easily accessible by public transit and get plenty of foot traffic from the locals living just across the "stroad."

What I want to convey in these posts are the contrasts and incongruities that make this part of Brooklyn liveable and loveable without being elitist. My "taking a break" idea reflects nostalgic promptings as well as an element of opportunism -- my brother happened to be in the area and took some nice photos, which I couldn't resist using (interspersed with a great many Google street views).  I'm also partly inspired here by the "traditional-city breaks" that form a part of Nathan Lewis' enlightening and entertaining Traditional City/Heroic Materialism archive. Now I know Lewis doesn't care much for Brooklyn, which he dismisses as a collection of 19th-century hypertrophic streets. He's certainly right about the excessive road widths; but my feeling, as someone who grew up in south southern Brooklyn and whose taste for walkable urbanism was formed there, is that you can, somehow, compartmentalize -- look past the hypertrophy and see an excellent housing stock, great connectivity, pleasant street environments, and, on the whole, superior conditions for car-free or car-lite living.

Maybe Kings Plaza and the strip malls lining Ralph Ave. should be filed under the rubric of "good enough urbanism." And maybe their very ugliness plays a role in ensuring that the area retains its heterogeneity!

I'm going to look at the housing styles of southeast Brooklyn in the present post, and (Gd willing) follow up with a discussion of the area's commercial development in a companion post. My idea, again, is that the housing in this part of the world fits the bill for compact-walkable urbanism; the shopping centers are car-oriented and vulgar; and yet the two formats somehow manage to work together.

Housing in Old Mill Basin and Flatlands

Brick rowhouses:

They may not date from the 19th century, they may not be brownstones, but they are rowhouses and they come in a variety of forms -- single-family, two- and three-family; equipped with rear alleys or front-loading garages (which, however, are relatively unobtrusive); presenting all sorts of variations on the front stoop/front porch/front patch of shrubbery theme (yet without over-large set-backs).

I'm going to display a few representative specmens, with comments to follow:

East 58th St. near Ave. J -- three-unit houses with front-loading garages
(Google street view)

E. 55th near Ave. O (Google street view)

Ave. T near E. 59th -- (attractive houses, over-wide road)

E. 52 near Ave. J -- rowhouses coexisting with other housing types  (Google street view)

E. 59th between O and T -- single-family rowhouses, no garages, rear alley for parking

E. 55th between J and K  (Google street view)
Avenue J near E. 51 -- The houses look tiny, but include small ground-floor rental units
(Google street view)

Here's what I like about the brick rowhouses:

1) Good enough density: I'm not interested in comparing the density delivered by this housing format with that of some mythical -- or real -- skyscraper city. What's nice about this part of Brooklyn is the implicit understanding, embodied in the built environment, that you have to quit while you're ahead. You have block after block here defined by solid walls of housing, with very little wasted space. You can fit a lot of people into this kind of housing, without making them too uncomfortable.

2) Heterogeneity: The fact that there is a mix of single- and multifamily dwellings means that people of widely-varying economic circumstances, age levels and personal/familial statuses can all live in the same neighborhood, and enjoy the same street environment, as well as the same local services, amenities and shopping facilities. The brick rowhouse is an especially democratic form of housing, in that its multifamily and single-family incarnations don't look too different from each other. Basically, it's all just the same wall of houses, plus or minus a storey, with small stylistic variations. The rowhouse is a great leveler: it blurs socioeconomic distinctions and provides less affluent people with living conditions that are almost identical to those of their better-off neighbors. The owner/landlord of a multifamily rowhouse gets to enjoy a small backyard and the convenience of a garage for his vehicle. The tenant, who might be living just upstairs from the landlord in virtually the same apartment, lacks a backyard and a designated parking spot; but he does get to enjoy residing on the same attractive and people-friendly street, in the same pleasant and safe neighborhood as his landlord, despite his inability to afford a home of his own. He might not need a parking spot because he might not own a car; in any case, he would certainly be able to get by without one in this transit- and shopping-rich area.

I'll illustrate the democratization point further by referring to my own personal experience: while I was growing up, my family (in various configurations) occupied no fewer than 4 of the houses pictured above. We owned a single-family rowhouse while my parents were married, then rented a series of apartments in multi-family rowhouses after they divorced -- first a small ground-level apartment (with entrance next to the garage) during the financially tight immediate post-divorce period, then a larger, upstairs apartment when things had stabilized. While all these upheavals were going on, I was able to attend the same school, keep all my friends, and still feel part of the same general neighborhood. That was a great advantage. Later on, as a young man in his twenties, working full-time and going to college part-time, my brother actually returned to this area and rented one of the small ground-floor apartments on his own. He just liked the neighborhood so much that it seemed natural to to him to return to it, even after the rest of the family had moved away.

2) No snouthouses! Note that many of these brick rowhouses come equipped with 1-car front-loading garages (as well as driveways that effectively provide additional private parking spaces). Note as well that these garages manage not to detract from the pleasantness of the building facades or kill the street atmosphere. The Old Urbanist blog has explored the question of whether townhouses and front-loading garages can work together -- here and here. I think these specimens hold their own alongside those featured in the Old Urbanist posts.

 Small single-family wooden frame houses:

These come  as fully detached houses or as semi-detached pairs, with small front yards, small back yards, and narrow paths (often used as driveways) between them. They are older than the brick rowhouses and, while I was growing up, were thought to be an inferior, less prestigious form of housing. Archie Bunker's house (in Queens) is of this type, reinforcing the blue-collar image. Not having spent much time in the area since the early 1990s, I'm not sure this class distinction still exists -- though the Google street views do show quite a few American flags (perhaps denoting military service or political affiliation?) on the porches of these houses, a sight that is uncommon on the brick rowhouse streets. 

I always had a regard for these dwellings and enjoyed walking along the streets lined with them, even when they were thought (by some) to be disreputable. They vary the scene by breaking up the blocks of brick rowhouses, and by displaying a certain diversity of color, facade, etc. I don't think this is the phony kind of diversity that you have in suburban tract housing. The idea is that the houses all work together to form a complete street environment (just as the brick rowhouses do). They are modest in size, the spaces between them are small, and they create the desired "outdoor room" or enclosure effect that is thought to be essential to the pedestrian experience.

Representative samples:

East 53rd near Ave. O (Google street view)
E. 57th near Ave. O -- jazzing things up with partial brick veneer ( Google street view)

E. 53rd near Ave. S -- co-existing with brick rowhouses ( Google street view)
E. 61st near Ave. T -- small stylistic variations (Google street view)

Mill Ave. and Ralph -- American flags

It's interesting to compare the street environment yielded by these single-family wooden frame houses of Old Mill Basin with the single-family homes that line the streets of "new" Mill Basin -- an enclave that, unlike Old Mill Basin, does fit the New York Times label of "suburbia:" 

E. 64th St. near Mayfair Drive South, suburban Mill Basin
(Google street view)

E. 66th St., suburban Mill Basin (Google street view)
The NYT article linked to above doesn't distinguish between Old and "new" Mill Basin, but when it talks about a "zone of lawn mowers" and a "country club’s worth of swimming pools," it's referring to the newer area that juts into Jamaica Bay and was "whipped up from scratch" by engineers -- not to nearby Old Mill Basin with its more traditional street grid and architectural style.

Why do these two latter photos from "new" Mill Basin scream Suburbia, while the preceding ones from Old Mill Basin don't (and I've deliberately steered clear of the McMansions that have recently replaced many of the original "new" Mill Basin houses)? These aren't huge houses, and the garages don't protrude for a snouthouse effect. The setbacks of the "new" Mill Basin houses aren't any larger than those of the classic Old Mill Basin houses, the spaces between them aren't much larger, and they display similar slight variations of color, window and porch style, etc. Why do these suburban-Mill Basin homes have such a solitary, every-man-for-himself feel? Why, taken together, do they produce monotony rather than harmony? Even as a teenager, visiting friends in "new" Mill Basin, I could tell the difference between this much more expensive/upscale area and the area where I lived, and preferred my own area.

Old Mill Basin/Flatlands housing styles -- subjective/emotional response:

Why do the unglamorous street scenes of Old Mill Basin and Flatlands tug at the heart? (And I believe they could tug at anyone's heart, not just the heart of someone who grew up there.)

Modesty. Simplicity. Staying within bounds. Small parts making up a whole that is greater than the sum. Being separate -- together. Everybody having their own bit of privacy and comfort, that do not come at anybody else's expense. 

These, in my subjective estimation, are the values embodied in the housing styles of Old Mill Basin and Flatlands, and are what give these neighborhoods their peculiar charm. Living within limits, when translated into architecture, apparently has aesthetic merit. Making the most of available space, "a place for everything, and everything in its place." 

Walking these streets -- or even looking at them via Google street view -- is at once restful and stimulating. Simplicity is pretty, and fun.

Charles Siegel's Politics of Simple Living connects traditional neighborhood design with precisely these values of simple living. 

I'll leave the reader with just one more Google street view that shows how these tranquil, walkable streets coexist with elements of autocentrism and sprawl, in anticipation of Brooklyn nostalgia trip -- Part II:

View of Kings Plaza Lowe's shopping mall, E. 55th St. intersection
(Google street view)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post! The last photo is a terrific segue.