My nameless neighborhood—the blocks above and around Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street subway station—has suddenly become hot property. Developer Bruce Ratner wants to build a small town, including an arena for the Nets, on top of the one that’s already here. (“We have to get over the Dodgers,” he’s remarked.)
A lively network of residents has organized to oppose Ratner’s vision; their first problem is explaining what’s at stake. We’re steps away from Prospect Heights and Fort Greene and Park Slope and Boerum Hill, areas that conjure images of the best of brownstone living, but we’re not really part of them. Many people seem surprised that anybody here sees something worth saving.
Our house is on Dean Street between Third and Fourth avenues, just shy of Ratner’s footprint. The block was an infamous prostitution market as recently as 10 years ago, but in the years after Stonewall and Vietnam and before AIDS and gentrification, it was also an oasis of gay rooming houses and communes. It even had a name.
“The police called us the ‘Pansy Patch,’ ” says Elliot, a Brooklyn native and 30-year Dean Street veteran. “Mostly they left us alone.” In 1972, Elliot bought 346 Dean, one of the rustic wood frame houses that distinguish the block. Soon friends from the Heights and the Village joined him, and in a few years they had filled nine of them. The whole area was redlined, so even if these marginal characters were recognizably employed, they had to borrow the purchase price—$30,000 at most—from the seller. Now that wouldn’t even be a down payment.
Their scene ranged from elderly vaudevillians to sweet young things fresh off the bus from the Midwest. “Everything from the flaming avant-garde demimonde to more conventional types,” says Elliot. “You know Cabaret? It was like that.” Liz Eden, the basis for the transgender character, Leon, at the heart of Dog Day Afternoon, lived next to what was then Sarah J. Hale High (Lil’ Kim’s alma mater). Her friend Vanessa would wait in the street for passing cars to slow down and then flash her dick at them. In The New Yorker last summer, Jonathan Lethem described our block in the 1970s as “slummy,” but Elliot recalls a celebratory mood, particularly in the parlor of the gray house at 344 Dean. “Someone was always up there,” he says, “eating, drinking, talking.”
Lethem grew up two blocks to the west, on a block of Dean Street lined with more stately brownstones, although in his childhood most were occupied by poor people and few by white people. His latest novel, The Fortress of Solitude, offers before-and-after snapshots of the real estate revolution, when a corner of barely working-class Gowanus was renovated to become Boerum Hill. Elliot and company came at the same time as Lethem’s “renovators,” but they didn’t change the houses, just the demographics of the roomers (while the block had been African American and Puerto Rican with one Yemeni family, the newcomers were almost all white). They planted their front gardens and hired a kid from the Navy Houses, who everybody knew as “the Gardener,” to tend them.
There were gay hippies, too—they lived in our house, one of two remaining brick homes on the block. Elliot claims not to have known them, but they remember him, or at least his friends’ parties. The deed says the place belonged first to John, an opera singer who bought it the same year Elliot arrived, and then to Carl, a marketing guy turned artist, carpenter, and chef. Their housemates say the place was owned collectively by all of them but agree that Carl was the spirit of the place. He lived on the first floor in the front and was generous to a fault, inviting in whoever he saw passing by. “There were always 10 people in the kitchen,” remembers Audrey, a painter and occasional resident. In her Park Slope studio she keeps photographs of our backyard crowded with people and heaping platters of food; a few of the portraits on her walls were painted here.
Carl was more of an innovator than a renovator. He built leaded windows out of salvaged stained glass, an interior wall out of windowpanes, and a greenhouse from scraps. He found his furniture and decor in the street, an aesthetic still prevalent on the block, and he treasured a scrapbook left by a woman from Alabama who had lived here as a roomer decades before. He died of AIDS in 1991, before any practical treatment was available, and in his last years he became a prisoner of his own tenants. Tom and Ann, the renovators who bought the place from Carl’s estate, took possession of the still-occupied house and kept their door padlocked from whichever side of it they were on. When the last of Carl’s men moved, they shoveled out a deep carpet of used needles from his room. My son sleeps there now. When I carry him to the changing table, I hear the echo of the works crunching underfoot.
Tom and Ann restored the plaster walls, peeled up layers of piss-soaked linoleum, and erased subdivisional partition walls. They lived here with their own extended family, just as the first residents must have. We paid a price well above the cost of their labor, a price many here thought was astronomical, and hence proved Bruce Ratner’s point: This neighborhood has arrived.
But not in the visible way Lethem’s old block has. In the five-plus years we’ve lived here, this stretch of Dean has remained caught between Boerum Hill and Gowanus, between the legend of a reborn city and the reality of the neighborhoods left behind. We don’t have a block association. There’s a Medicaid office at either end of the block, one of which shares space with the city’s AIDS services program. Fifth Avenue may be crowded with new boutiques and restaurants, but Fourth Avenue is still a daytime hangout for veterans of the methadone programs that used to line it, and Third Avenue is hopeless. Sarah J. Hale (itself a shady character in Lethem’s last two novels) was deemed an irredeemable failure by the Board of Ed and terminated in 2000; the building is now home to two new experimental schools.
Hardly any of the former residents still live here, but it’s not simply a matter of a rising tide wiping away the past. Our immediate neighbor grew up with Lethem on his block, went to med school, and came back to raise his family. Liz and Vanessa and Louisa Tetrazini and Lina Moskowitz, Elliot’s partner, have all died, but Elliot isn’t sure they’d still be here even if they’d survived. “We were young then,” he says. “A lot of people moved to Florida.” Elliot has to move, too: Lina died intestate, his family wants to sell, and Elliot can’t afford to buy them out. Just one member of their old crowd remains, and that’s only because South Brooklyn Legal Services took his case when his new landlord, a speculator, tried to empty the place. The Gardener still works around the corner, but he lives in Manhattan. When my partner bought a kitchen table at a Third Avenue junk shop, the man who delivered it looked around for a few minutes and then burst into tears when he realized that in his 1950s youth, his entire family had lived in our common room.
The only remaining rooming house is the one that was Elliot’s, although it now belongs to Frank, the speculator. Last year Frank bought and emptied two others; he keeps the buildings vacant so he can sell them with a Certificate of No Harassment, a Talmudic legal document that the City issues to enable a landlord to convert an SRO to a more marketable status. One has a grove of ailanthus trees (the ones that “grow in Brooklyn”) sprouting from the basement. Right after his men boarded it up, someone painted “Willie Sutton RIP,” in memory of the quotable outlaw (“Why do you rob banks?” “That’s where the money is”) who once lived there and supposedly hid his money in the basement of what is now the corner halal Moroccan joint.
Anywhere else in New York, time would pass too fast or slow for us to notice this unfolding history. Most of the city has such a high turnover rate, no one would ever bother to learn anything about the prior residents, while those places that pride themselves on their constancy, like Carroll Gardens or Fort Greene, are desirable because they haven’t changed. Now that Ratner and company have awakened us to the possibility of upheaval in our backyard, we’re feeling very protective of what we have: a comfortable community that doesn’t feel bourgie or exclusionary, that makes room for its past while slowly evolving into most people’s present. It’s the best kind of New York, and it’s why we chose to live here. We want our son to feel at home on the block, but we want him to think everyone he meets belongs here too.
Josh Goldfein is a lawyer and writer; the U.S. Post Office says he lives in “Times Plaza.”