Monday, May 06, 2013

"Florida In Brooklyn": Part One Of The Carroll Gardens Chronicle By Neighborhood Resident Alan Lantz

Alan and Cynthia Lance in front of their beautiful Carroll Gardens Brownstone.
photo credit: Max Kelly
IMG_2768 1
High School year book 1978
Alan and Cynthia Lantz in the early 1980's. (family photo)
Alan and Cynthia in 1987, after they moved into their home on Union Street
(family photo)

I first moved to Carroll Gardens from Manhattan in the summer of 1985.  I had gotten married and my husband was quick to point out that the floor-through brownstone apartment on Union Street between Henry and Clinton Streets in which he lived at the time was a much better (and bigger place) to start our life together than my studio apartment.  Though I understood his logic, it was hard to abandon Manhattan for a neighborhood that none of my friends had ever heard of. "Are you moving to Brooklyn Heights or to Park Slope?" they would ask.  At that time, those were the only two Brooklyn neighborhoods that Manhattanites would have contemplated moving to.
"No. To a little Italian neighborhood called Carroll Gardens" I would reply.  "Oh!" was the inevitable response. "Where is that?"
I quickly grew to love the open sky, wide front yards and lovely family-owned stores of Carroll Gardens.  Eventually, some of my Manhattan friends even came for a visit and seemed impressed by our large apartment and the quiet streets.
In those first few months, I always seemed to cross paths with a tall, silver haired gentleman who seemed so very, very familiar, though I could not place him.  After all, except for my husband, I knew very few people in my new neighborhood.  But I would see this man come out of a lovely brownstone on Union Street, or I would encounter him at Rainbow Market on Court Street, then our local produce store.  I knew that our paths had crossed before, but where?
One day, it came to me.  "If I didn't know any better, I would say that the librarian from my old high school on Long Island lives a block away from here," I told my husband one day.  I had never forgotten the librarian.  He had been so very kind and patient in the first months of me arriving in America and starting tenth grade without speaking the language.
But it seemed rather implausible that this was the same person.  As far as I knew, the librarian lived on Long Island.  What would he be doing here in Carroll Gardens?  I immediately dismissed the idea.  Until the next time I saw him.
I finally worked up the courage to ask him directly when he was standing in line at Rainbow Market one day.
"I know this will sound bizarre, but you have a striking resemblance with the librarian at my former high school in Huntington, Long Island.  His name is Alan Lantz." His face split into a wide smile.  "My name is Alan Lantz and I was the librarian at Huntington High for many years."
So, here we were, re-united in Carroll Gardens.
Over the years, we have become friends and Alan has shared the story of how he and his wife Cynthia found their way to the neighborhood, found an old home, lovingly renovated it and settled into retirement.

Alan has written a wonderful account of his Brooklyn journey and I feel very fortunate that he is allowing me to post it on Pardon Me For Asking.
There are two more parts, which Alan wrote in subsequent years, which I will also post as Part Two and Part Three in the next two days.  So please make sure not to miss them.

Here now Part One.  I am sure you will enjoy it immensely.

The Carroll Gardens Chronicle
"Florida In Brooklyn"
By Alan Lantz
“You’ve crossed from steroidal eccentricity into certifiable lunacy,” is the way in which our most charitable friends described our plan to retire to Brooklyn. After twenty-five years in the suburbs we finally decided to pursue the dream which sustained us while we attended to the quotidian tasks of working and raising a family on Long Island. We lived amidst heavily wooded, rolling hills, a short walk to the beach along a country lane decorated by car-squashed opossums. But we were weary of being held hostage by two cars. We were weary of being the only Democrats in a rabidly Republican community. We were weary of being under continual siege by formidable raccoons which nightly wrestled with our garbage cans. We hungered for city life as the Israelites must have hungered for the promised land after forty years in the desert.

Ever since our marriage vows we secretly promised that in addition to loving and cherishing each other we would some day move back to the City. Brooklyn was not a part of that dream: by “City” we meant only the Borough of Manhattan…and only the Village of Greenwich.

Like athletes training for the Olympics we subjected ourselves to a regimen of iron discipline. We subscribed to every cultural and anti-cultural event that the City could offer that we could afford. Having committed ourselves to the advance purchase of tickets, we could not flop down on the sofa after a hard week of work and postpone our obligations. I shudder to think of the number of times I slept through my favorite plays and operas - or through the clash of cymbals and symphonic cannon-fire in Avery Fisher Hall. Afterwards, my eyes would open long enough to climb behind the wheel of he car, then close again as I negotiated the hour and a half on the Long Island Expressway. My wife, meanwhile, screamed in my ear all the while to keep me semi-conscious until we arrived safely home.

Our target date was based upon the day our youngest child graduated from high school and flew the nest. Four years prior to that day we began our quest for a retirement site in New York City. All our dreams evaporated like spit on a hot August sidewalk as soon as we began to inquire about Manhattan real estate prices. Alternatives included the Bronx (“No thonx,” in Ogden Nash’s words) and Queens where we had already spent half our lives driving past cheek-by-jowl high rises lining the Expressway; and Staten Island where we would pay seven bucks to get home across the Verrazano Bridge to the Fresh Kills Landfill. Fuggedaboutit. Thus it was in 1978 we set out to find our Florida in Brooklyn.

Although my wife was born in the rarefied precincts of Brownsville, Brooklyn, she spent her formative years in a section known as South Brooklyn/Red Hook. During her high school days she moved to Staten Island. This was an era before South Brooklyn, aided by cachet-conscious realtors, went into the phone booth and emerged as …, CARROL GARDENS.

I, on the other hand, had spent only a few hours in Brooklyn. While a graduate student living in Manhattan I crossed the river to see the Dodgers play at Ebbets Field. The experience did not inspire me to take out borough citizenship papers. A shirtless, large-bellied fan in the seat next to me sprayed beer on himself – and me – every time the Dodgers scored a run. Fortunately, the game was a low scoring one. Further, the Brooklyn Sym-Phony, that famous assemblage of bangers and blowers provided the background music, a circumstance that led me to question Nietzsche’s assertion that “Life without music would have no meaning.” My second visit to the Borough was on the invitation of a classmate who asked me to Sunday dinner at his parents’ house. Present was his extended Italian family, and unexpectedly, an extended Italian repast. I gorged on the minestrone and the “maccaroni and gravy,” assuming that I had spanned the gamut of the meal. I was disabused of that fiction when in came tiny, fried fish, followed by chicken cacciatore, followed by veal and peas, followed by gnocchi and garlicky escarole, followed by fresh fruit, followed by gelato and cookies, all of which was accompanied by crusty bread from the corner bakery and innumerable glasses of wine concocted in the cellar. Thimble-sized cups of steaming, dark expresso, laced with anisette, completed the meal – followed by fervent apologies for the meagerness of the meal. The only reason I didn’t collapse was that I was afraid of dying on the BMT train and being buried in Brooklyn.

Now after all those years I was being squired around Brooklyn by a perky, young realtor who checked out our ages and finances. “You’re not rich enough to afford Brooklyn Heights or even Cobble Hill,” she said. “And you’re too old to pioneer in Fort Green or Boerum Hill. I think Carroll Gardens will do just fine for you.” Since we were totally ignorant of such brownstone arcana as “details,” “gentrification,” “floor-through,” “rent-controlled, “ “wbf and hwf, “ she undertook our education.

The first house she showed us on President St. was dark, narrow and gloomy, with ancient appliances, tattered linoleum, and peeling mauve paint. When she told us that at $75,000 it was a give-away, my wife and I nudged each other. For that price on Long Island we could buy a house on a wooded half acre with a two car garage and an inground swimming pool.

“If I had the money,” she said, “I’d snap it up, slap white paint on the walls, refinish the parquet under the linoleum and rent each floor for four-hundred and fifty dollars.”

My wife and I exchanged winks which meant, “Sure you would, and the Messiah would be here already except that he’s circling the block trying to find a parking place.” Six months later our young friend found a partner with whom she bought the house, did as she said, and today rents out each floor at a price beyond belief.

Over the next year we looked at perhaps fifty houses. We went on house tours showing before and after renovations. I took a course at NYU called “The Brownstone as Home and Investment.” We subscribed to the “Old House Journal” and joined the Brownstone Revival Committee. We discovered Sahadi’s, Barge Music, Almontaser’s Restaurant (now defunct), A&S (likewise defunct), The Brooklyn Museum, The Botanic Gardens, Prospect Park, and most surprising of all, my wife’s former elementary school, PS142. During the process a mysterious chemistry coursed through psyches, transmuting us from Manhattan Wannabees into avid Brooklynophiles. And, at last, we found the house that Fate had destined us for. After protracted negotiations and a price beyond our means, we captured our personal Grail: high ceilings, burl-walnut woodwork, cut-glass French doors, tin ceilings, marble mantles, the whole megillah. We were extrordinarily fortunate to find the brilliant architects Noel Yauch and Mel Smith who provided plans for and oversaw the renovation of the building, converting the five family building into a duplex and three single apartments.

Best of all were the neighbors who came as adjuncts to the house. Many of them had lived in the neighborhood fifty or sixty years in the same houses. They became wonderful friends. Now they sit on the stoops with us on warm evenings. They find parking places for us when the alternate side dance becomes onerous. They watch our house when we’re away and bring in the garbage cans after they’ve been emptied. The wives sit in the window and chat with us from across the street. We’ve had figs and apricots from their backyard trees which they tend carefully. The designated “Mayor” of the block performs a variety of services, everything from jump-starting our car to advising us where the best sopressato and mozzarella are to be had.

And yet some suspicions about our motives linger. Occasionally our neighbors query us, “Why did you move from Long Island to Brooklyn? Our dream was always to move away to Staten Island or New Jersey – to leave the neighborhood.” To which I reply, “I’m glad youse axed me that question.” And then I list for them the resources (in addition to our neighbors) which are available to us within a five block radius of our house: three bread bakeries; the “F”and”G”subway trains; two banks; two pharmacies; a laundromat; a park; drycleaners; two funeral homes (one for humans and one for pets); two bookstores; a public library (the same one my wife used as a girl); two Italian pastry shops; a wine shop; a police station; an Off Track Betting branch; two florists; a Chinese restaurant, innumerable Italian restaurants and pizzerias; a movie theater; gift and card shops; a health club; a bagel shop; a butcher shop; two tailors; two shoe-repair shops; two bus lines; two churches and a synagogue; two luncheonettes; a senior citizen center; a bocce court; a fish store; a hardware store and lumber yard; a health clinic; a video shop; hair dressers and barber shops; a paint store; a nail shop; a copy/print/fax service; a jewelry store; a bar; a slew of lawyers, chiropractors, MD’s, opticians and real estate offices; a VCR shop; a photographer; a vacuum cleaner repair shop; an Italian specialty food store that makes ravioli and mozzarella; a pet store; a pork store that specializes in home made sausages; a car service; a children’s clothing store; a coffee-roasting establishment which perfumes the neighborhood and sells every conceivable type of coffee.

I’ve probably listed only half the extant enterprises, and if I were to extend the radius to six blocks…well, that way lies madness. On Long Island an eight minute car ride would get me to a supermarket, a riding stable, a restaurant, a lawn mower repair shop, and a gas station.
Our retired former colleagues and friends in Florida tell us about manicured golf courses and lighted tennis courts, beaches, and early bird dinner, sunshine and swimming pools. When we rhapsodize about BAM,the Heights Promenade, The Botanic Gardens, Prospect Park, Patsy Grimaldi’s pizza, the walk over the Brooklyn Bridge – and all the enchanting ethnic diversity that we encounter daily, they shake their heads in wonder. They still consider us deranged for having adopted Brooklyn as our final resting place.

Click here for Part Two of the Carroll Gardens Chronicle:
" 20 Years Later": Part Two Of The Carroll Gardens Chronicle By Neighborhood Resident Alan Lantz

Click here for Part Three of the Carroll Gardens Chronicle:
'The Babyfication Of Carroll Gardens': Part Three Of The Carroll Gardens Chronicle By Alan Lantz


Melissa Sarno said...

This is a great story - I look forward to part two and three! Even though we are many years apart and at different stages of life, I love living in this neighborhood for the same reasons Alan states here : )

vivien said...

Wonderful post and terrific writing by Mr. Lantz. Looking forward to the next parts.

Anonymous said...

WOW. Pure Poetry! Now I wanna move back!

Anonymous said...

These are the amazing victims next door to that hideous monster on Union street? They never got paid for damages?
I love these people. Pioneers.
Also amazing that even loosing the rest of the corner years ago, their house has stayed strong with no walls collapsing until that huge, horrid, tanker ship broke ground.

jenny said...

Enjoyed this post and can't wait for the next. I am going to send this little treasure to friends and family the next time they question my love for Brooklyn.

Katia said...

I just posted the second part. Enjoy!

Jim Kenna said...

Hi Katia,
Your story of the Lantz family, and your personal reference to Huntington High School, reminded me of the truth of "Six Degrees of Separation". I live on First Street. In 2011 my youngest daughter bought her home on First Street, consequently, two of my grandchildren are the sixth generation of my family living on First Street. During the 1950's and 60's my family had a second home in Northport. I became very familiar with and fond of the north shore of Long Island, including Huntington, which was a great town. My wife Joan and I bought our home on First Street in 1970 and our three daughters grew up here.
In the late 1970's Joan and I were looking for a summer rental in Northport and I believe we met the Lantzs, who were renting their home in Fort Salonga. They were charming and delightful, and their home was beautiful. We eventually rented a home in Eatons Neck from Mike and Corinne McGrady. Mike was a writer and the creator of the best selling novel, "Naked Came the Stranger". I have probably passed the Lantz home hundreds of times, never aware they were the fine people we met more than thirty years ago.
Great series. Great story. Great neighbors.

adele said...

truly a wonderful read! these stories keep our community alive and bring us closer together.