Cynthia and Alan Lantz in their Carroll Gardens home
photo credit: Max Kelly
In 1985, as a newlywed, I found my way to Carroll Gardens, settled and eventually bought and renovated a house and raised a family. Little did I know that Alan Lantz, the librarian of my former high school on Long Island, had settled in the neighborhood to retire just a few years earlier. Our paths crossed a few times before I realized that the tall, soft-spoken gentleman who sometimes stood in line at the local bakery and produce store on Court Street was indeed the same kind librarian I had first met in 1975, the year I arrived in the United States and started tenth grade without speaking English at the local high school.
We have become good friends over the last few years as we lead our parallel Carroll Gardens lives.
I have always enjoyed Alan's tale of how he and his wife chose to leave suburbia and move to Brooklyn to retire. In 1984, he wrote a wonderful essay about their decision. With his permission, I posted his "Florida in Brooklyn" on Pardon Me For Asking yesterday.
Today, I am pleased to share the second part of his Carroll Gardens Chronicle written in 2004, twenty years after he and his wife Cynthia moved to the neighborhood.
It is a real treat and every bit as enjoyable and humorous as the first part.
Stay tuned for Part Three, written in 2013, which I will post tomorrow.
Here now is the second installment of the Carroll Gardens Chronicle.
The Carroll Gardens Chronicle
"TWENTY YEARS LATER"
By Alan Lantz
Over twenty years ago my wife and I set sail from the bucolic hamlet of Northport, Long Island, in search of a new life on the Island of Manhattan. However, a ferocious storm in the form of Manhattan real estate prices drove us off course, and we landed instead on the rocky shores of Carroll Gardens in the Borough of Brooklyn. I described in my earlier essay “Florida in Brooklyn” how we originally looked on Brooklyn merely as a convenient conduit to Manhattan. Slowly, the rough charms of the Borough won us over, and we settled on Brooklyn as our final resting place (Union Street in Carroll Gardens, not Greenwood Cemetery). As we were drawn deeper into the rich, complex, urban stew that is Brooklyn, our earlier dreams of living in Manhattan evaporated like spit on a hot August pavement. Little did we realize then that we were part of a wave that would radically alter both the borough and the neighborhood. The engine of change was, for others, as for us, the cost of finding a place to lay one’s head at night
Only the super rich or the non-claustrophobic were entitled to inhabit Manhattan. All others who did not give up and head back to Des Moines or Sauk City had to evolve into a species known as “gentrifiers,” a term that evoked fear and contempt among the indigenous population, Over the bridge bearing the banner of gentrification trudged multitudes of young people, and the middle-aged like us in search of both shelter at a reasonable price and proximity to the neon charms of the City. Bohemians relocated from SoHo or the Village to Williamsburg or the then unnamed Dumbo. And, when daytrippers and baby strollers clogged those streets, the hip fled to Red Hook where even now they are under siege by Philistines and Progress. Young professionals who were shut out of the upper West Side poured into neighborhoods like Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Boerum Hill, or Carroll Gardens, bringing with them their tastes for radicchio and Chilean Sea Bass, and Ikea and Gap. Whereas for their parents the American Dream was home ownership, this new generation dreamed of finding a 700 square foot walk-up for under $2,000 a month.
Close-knit ethnic enclaves crumbled under the assault and retreated to Staten Island or New Jersey. Landlords urged on by realtors salivated and began a campaign to drive out long time occupants who paid lesser sums. Consequently, the former inhabitants of the brownstones in Carroll Gardens, usually multi-generational Italian families, were forced out or bought out on the cheap. The dumpster replaced the Brooklyn Bridge as the borough symbol, and the quintessential neighborhood sport of stoop-sitting came to be regarded with as much enthusiasm as Mad Cow Disease.
Gone now are the women who used to hang out of the window surveying the street scene and talking to the stoop-sitters below. Any woman who hung out of a window today would be the subject of a 911 call, suggesting an imminent suicide leap. Old Italian grandmothers in black have given way to hip young things in black with navel rings and tongue studs and cell-phones riveted to their ears.
A digression concerning black: When I once attended a performance at the New Wave Festival of The Brooklyn Academy of Music wearing a canary yellow sweater, the noir-clad minions of the avant garde shrank away from me as if I were Buffy the Vampire Slayer brandishing a large cross in their midst. Point taken. Now when I attend I dress in a sensible shade of charcoal.
There have been some positive changes. We remember when the New York area code, 212, became 718 for Brooklyn, a further stake in the Dodgerless heart of Brooklyn. Our friends on Long Island thought we had moved to Minneapolis. Now “718” is boldly emblazoned on designer T shirts hawked in trendy boutiques along Smith and Court Streets, and more than one tummy of a pregnant young thing is encased in a tight-fitting garment bearing the legend “Brooklyn Baby.”
Casualties of the transformation abound, however. Remnants of The International Longshoreman’s Union have been eradicated by the sale of their former union hall and its adjacent clinic. The marbled hall where hundreds of stevedores congregated to pick up their checks every two weeks has become ….a Mormon Temple. The clinic where longshoremen, their families, relations, and sometimes friends were treated gratis was sold to Long Island College Hospital where a skeleton staff does who knows what. The smart money on the street thinks it will be sold to developers whose vision and cash will spin the straw of former examination rooms into the gold of condos. The attached parking
lot has been privatized and the luxury cars now living there pay dearly to avoid the omnipresent traffic agents and their ticket pads.
Years ago a good friend of ours from Florence, Italy, stayed with us.When we walked him around the neighborhood showing him the bread bakeries, the pork store, the pasticcerias, the bocce court, the pasta and mozzarella makers, the coffee roasters, and a grocery store where a rudimentary Italian vocabulary was necessary to be served, we remarked that the neighborhood was like a small town in Italy. He snorted, “A small town in Southern Italy.” And, although no one now would mistake Carroll Gardens for Milan, still…..
Take Smith Street, for example. For years our favorite of the red-sauce Italian eateries held sway on Smith Street. Traditional. Papa in the kitchen, Mama behind the cash-register, the children behind the bar and waiting tables. A feast of veal parmgiana, broccoli raab, spaghetti, crusty bread, all washed down by a $10 bottle of wine, followed by inky expresso and biscotti. When we left, we glowed with contentment, our inheritance still intact. But a few years ago because of the explosion of upscale restaurants on Smith, Papa felt compelled to upgrade. An “authentic” chef was hired, and the menu began to sport such items as tuna tatare, crostini di buffalo, a rollatine of monkfish and skate, swathed in a reduction of goat cheese and chianti. We have never returned.
Chic Smith St. is one block away from our house. When we first saw it in 1978 we almost decided to stay in the suburbs. It was super-shabby, amply pot-holed, buildings sagging at angles that made the Pisa’s tower seem plumb-line vertical, and while not necessarily threatening, certainly not welcoming. Today the bodegas and ethnic social clubs have given way to such a number and variety of restaurants that rarely a week goes by without a new opening. There is an apocryphal story of a man who starved to death on Smith Street because when faced with choosing among the 300 eateries, he was paralyzed by indecisiveness and wasted away without ever crossing the threshold of one. Mom and Pop have been replaced by the concierge who tries to get reservations, the maitre d’ who welcomes you, and the ATM across the street where you excuse yourself to go after you see the menu prices. Just Kidding. There are still restaurants where great food can be had a prices well below those of Manhattan. Planted between the restaurants are clothing and craft emporiums, funky bars, antiques shops (since the customers are so young, what qualifies as an antique was created in the late 1970’s), an occasional realtor rooming with an “Abrogado,” and any other type of store-front enterprise that will be converted into a restaurant before the month is out.
Occasionally a double-decker red tour bus from Manhattan loses its way and the occupants stare down at the inhabitants of Carroll Gardens as if they were visiting a wildlife preserve. But the wilderness here is restricted to Carroll Park where pigeons, squirrels, and toddlers on swings play under the massive plane trees which surround a ball field, a bocce court, and a playground.
The Gowanus Canal, Carroll Gardens’ answer to the Grand Canal of Venice, is another institution which is being changed for the better. Ever since a highly successful cleaning program was undertaken , the once malodorous, highly toxic canal has become the site of
occasional boat tours. It is rumored that Brooklyn ladies dab water from the Gowanus on the back of their ears in the fashion of eau de cologne. A local beer garden styles itself
the Gowanus Yacht Club, and there is talk of a river walk with outdoor cafes and shops lining the once despised body of water. And, miraculously, crabs and fish have returned to the Canal. Gowanus seafood has not yet made it to the menus of Smith Street, but who knows? Can a Gowanus Regatta be far behind? Will cheering fans line the banks during the 2012 Olympics as world class swimmers thrash their way along the sparkling, crystalline waters?
Even now the dowdy precincts of Court Street are awash in spas, boutiques, yoga parlors, Starbucks, and artisanal bread bakers Admitting to the stigma of Brooklyn residence has been reduced to the extent that formerly when a friend of ours from Manhattan was introduced with us and was asked if he too came from Brooklyn,
he recoiled as if he had been struck with a lash. Recently we ran into him unexpectedly
dining in a Smith St. restaurant. We suspect that as soon as the rent on his Manhattan studio rises above $3,000, he may joint the ranks of those who throng the side walks in front of the myriad local real estate offices. And he may even become a fan of our soon-to-be named professional basketball team, the Brooklyn ________.
And finally, our choice of Brooklyn as a place of retirement is no longer considered by our former Long Island friends as a manifestation of insanity. Rather, they think of us as dimwits who somehow won the Megabucks lottery.
Please check back to read Part Three tomorrow.
You can find the first part Florida in Brooklyn here.