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Brooklyn Heights looks old. And if it's history you seek, Brooklyn Heights is a pretty safe bet. A walk through this neighborhood will take you through five or six of the variegated architecture trends of the 19th and 20th centuries. The oldest standing home in the neighborhood, a wooden house dating to 1824, at 24 Middagh Street, is a perfect example of the Federal-style that first dominated the budding suburb. There are over 600 pre-Civil War buildings in Brooklyn Heights.
The Canarsie Indians were the first to run a ferry service from the Brooklyn Heights area to Manhattan. When the Dutch began to settle in Brooklyn, they took over. In 1776, George Washington used the ferry to sneak troops to Manhattan in order to avoid capture by the British. By 1814, Robert Fulton's steam ferryboat, known as Nassau, shaved the Brooklyn Heights-Manhattan commute to about 10 minutes. This public transportation led to the establishment of Brooklyn Heights as what many historians call New York City's (and possibly the country's) first suburb.
Brooklyn Heights also has housed and inspired a number of authors. Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood in his basement apartment on Willow Street. Norman Mailer has lived in his apartment at 142 Columbia Heights on the Promenade for the past four decades. (Side note: He designed his waterfront apartment to resemble the guts of a ship, with rope ladders and high suspension walkways leading from one room to the next.) Arthur Miller, W. H. Auden, and Hart Crane also called the Heights home.
But for all of its history, Brooklyn Heights is, well, yuppified. The neighborhood is about a seven minute subway ride to Wall Street and there are an abundance of suits and briefcases on the morning commute from Borough Hall. Ethnic diversity Brooklyn Heights does not have, and a multitude of typical businesses enterprises are moving in (think Starbucks and more Starbucks). But even with the commercial change, buildings remain the same. The neighborhood was designated an historic district (the city's first) in 1965.
Perched atop two levels of highway is the Promenade, a/k/a the Esplanade, a prime place to view Manhattan's skyline. If you sit on a bench along the approximately half-mile boardwalk and look left, you'll see the Statue of Liberty. Look right and you're framed by the Brooklyn Bridge. This is probably the most popular postcard shot of New York City.
For a less wholesome historical tour, walk to the corner of Henry and Pierrepont, where Happy Hooker author Xaviera Hollander shacked up with Penthouse founder Bob Guccione and wrote the magazine's sexual advice column, "Call Me Madam". (Pierrepont is also lined with gorgeous Brownstones.)
Stop in for a beer at Last Exit, Floyd, or Magnetic Fields along Atlantic Avenue. After a night of drinking, consider pausing before 182 Clinton Street, where Brooklyn Heights drunkards gathered in 1935 to hold the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
Quick! Wait? No. Is that Mr. Mailer sipping a mocha?
photo: Holly Northrop/hnorthrop.com
How to get there: Subway: 2; 3; 4; 5. A cab from Union Square is $10.
Main Drags: For sentiment and general aesthetics walk along Montague St. (which dead-ends at the Promenade), Columbia Heights, Joralemon Street, and Willow Street. For shops and restaurants, try Montague Street, Court Street, Henry Street, Atlantic Avenue, and Clinton.
Prices to Rent and Buy: Brooklyn Heights Realty says it's hard to find a home for less than $3 million these days. The median price for a home in the rest of Brooklyn is $220,000. A two-bedroom apartment in the Heights runs about $2,300. Most studios rent for an average of $1,250 and one-bedroom apartments are approximately $1,700.
Hangouts, Parks, Restaurants: Word on the street is members of the Beastie Boys hung by the courthouse on Pierrepont Street and Monroe Place in the '80s. For romance, of course, you've got the Promenade, but don't neglect Bargemusic, a classical music venue that floats around on the river. Brooklyn Heights's Montague Street doesn't have a very stellar reputation for sporting the tastiest eats in Brooklyn, but there are some gems. For a fancy-pants meal, battle the crowds at Henry's End. For famous pizza, try Grimaldi's, a/k/a Patsy's Pizza. To fight away an impending hangover at 3 a.m. or 3 p.m., try Happy Days Diner on Montague Street. A few doors down is the kitschy and Cuban El Cubanito, best at brunch on weekends, with amazing fresh fruit French toast, live music, and a rubber chicken hanging above the bathrooms. Lassen & Hennings on Montague has always been a popular small gourmet shop (baguettes, cheese), but Garden of Eden might be giving them a run for their money.