Monday, June 30, 2014

Bay Ridge--a Brooklyn Success Story

Originally from Brooklyn Daily Eagle

A recent Brooklyn Daily Eagle article by Paula Katinas states that “Bay Ridge is such a desirable neighborhood to live in, people will do anything to live there.”
Many buyers are purchasing one- or two family homes, gutting them, then transforming them into multi-family housing with as many as eight apartments. In some cases, says Katinas, the buyers claim they’re only making minor improvements, get permits for the work, but then redo the house from top to bottom.
If they are caught doing so, they should pay the penalty. But the question remains—what is it about Bay Ridge that makes the area so attractive? It’s common to see third- or fourth-generation residents living in the area – something that can’t be said about most neighborhoods.
One reason is that Bay Ridge has a mix of private homes, two-family houses and apartment houses. The smaller houses range from spacious wooden homes to row houses that in many cases are as appealing as those in Park Slope and nearby areas. The apartment houses are generally solidly built, many are elevator buildings, and they are generally well maintained. This is not the situation in some nearby neighborhoods where the single-family homes are well cared for, but many of the older apartment houses are somewhat rundown.
Another factor in Bay Ridge’s success is its nightlife. The bars and restaurants of Bay Ridge don’t feature famous singers and musicians, but they make the neighborhood as lively at night as during the day. If a neighborhood has crowds of people walking around at night, crime is less likely to occur. The clubs and bars contribute to a sense of community, and many of the bands have a local fan base. If one particular bar is a problem, the community moves into action, but the majority of them are solid, law-abiding enterprises.
In addition, Bay Ridge and nearby Dyker Heights have a very high number of people who are actively involved in local affairs. Political clubs (of both types), churches, Boy Scout troops, PTAs, youth baseball leagues, amateur arts groups, community gardens and more all have very high rates of participation.
Why this is the case I don’t know, but this type of cohesiveness may easier to maintain when you have large numbers of people who have grown up together and known each other for many years. One Bay Ridge resident who works for the Eagle once told me that most residents know who their local politicians are. By contrast, when I went petitioning to get my assemblyman back on the ballot in my own neighborhood, quite a few passers-by didn’t know who he was – even though he’d been in the Assembly for more than 25 years.
Finally, Bay Ridge is a community where small business thrives. A case in point is Hinsch’s, now known as Mike Hinsch’s Greek-American Diner. There used to be hundreds of places like Hinsch’s all over the city, but it’s not an accident that Bay Ridge is where this one has survived. Yes, chain stores are making inroads on 86th Street and other Bay Ridge arteries, but not as much as in some other neighborhoods.
This type of small-town living isn’t for everybody, but it appeals to enough people to make Bay Ridge a Brooklyn success story. No, builders shouldn’t cheat to get more people in – but can you really blame them?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

My Memories of Long ISland College Hospital

From Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Now that LICH is closed, regardless of when or in what form it will eventually reopen, it’s time to reflect on the past.
I first heard of it when I moved from my basement apartment in a two-family house in the Bronx to an Art Deco apartment house in Midwood, Brooklyn. At the time, I was suffering from serious asthma. That was why I moved out of the two-family house – my place was next to an open boiler, and I believed it was exacerbating my condition.
Once in Brooklyn, I started to look around for a new doctor. My previous doctor was a well-known pulmonary specialist at a prestigious Bronx hospital, but it was clear he was doing nothing for me – I was still going to the emergency room frequently and wheezing and getting out of breath constantly. I decided to try an allergist, and found an allergy practice in Brooklyn Heights. I knew very little about the Heights at the time, but I reasoned that it was about halfway between my new home and my job in Midtown Manhattan. The doctor was affiliated with what was for me a new hospital – Long Island College Hospital.
For the first time since childhood, I found myself taking allergy injections on a regular basis. No offense, but these allergists didn’t really help my condition, and I was actually admitted to the hospital a few times. After changing jobs to what is now the Brooklyn Eagle, my health plan changed and I had to find another doctor. My new doctor was also a LICH-affiliated physician with an office in the Heights. He stopped the injections, and put me on the road to recovery, a road that improved as new medications were added to my regimen. Even though I soon got married and moved to Manhattan, I kept my Brooklyn doctor for a few years.
Along the way, I had two operations at LICH. The first was to take out nasal polyps. My doctor exclaimed that they were growing at such a rate that they not only endangered my breathing, they would push into my brain area. The operation was a success. The second operation was also a success, but the aftermath was extremely painful.
There was also the time that I was taken to the LICH emergency room from the Eagle’s old office on 30 Henry St. after I attempted to open a Snapple bottle, only to have the bottle break and cause a wide gash in my wrist. The Eagle’s production manager at the time filmed the whole thing with his digital camera and suggested that I sue Snapple. I did, but my lawyer gave up after Snapple kept insisting on more and more documentation.
Even before LICH’s recent financial crisis, we wrote stories about the hospital. I once wrote a feature on the Lamm Institute, a division that provided services to developmentally disabled children. The building has since been sold. I also interviewed a new high-powered chef at LICH whose goal it was to bring gourmet food to the hospital cafeteria. Sadly, it couldn’t last. On a third occasion, I interviewed a group of doctors who were introducing a new machine to detect osteoporosis. They tried it out on me, and to shock, it turned out that I had a mild case of the disease. They told me that years of taking asthma-related steroids had taken their toll.
At any rate, these are some of my memories of LICH.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

In Praise of Landmark Districts

From Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Claims that landmark districts are holding back the city are exaggerated.
In an article in the Eagle about a forum sponsored by Crain’s New York Business, Matthew Taub quoted Kenneth Jackson, professor at Columbia University, as saying that “History is for losers…Boston and Philadelphia, Savannah and Charleston lost out keeping their gracious streets and their old buildings. New York is a world city–you want to live in a world city? You have to accept change.”
The cities Jackson named are very different from each other. Boston seems to be doing OK. There are about 60 colleges and universities in greater Boston, and I doubt that they would be prospering if Boston were a town for “losers.” The Red Sox seem to be doing all right, too. As for Savannah, it was the subject of a best-selling book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” by John Berendt.
There are about 25 officially designated historic districts in Brooklyn, most of them in an area stretching from Prospect Park north to Brooklyn Heights and then east to Bedford-Stuyvesant. Many of these districts are well known: Brooklyn Heights itself (the first in the city), Cobble Hill, various parts of Victorian Flatbush, Stuyvesant Heights, Park Slope, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. Some of them encompass fairly large areas. Others, such as the Borough Hall Skyscraper District, only consist of a few blocks or half-blocks.
Landmarking regulations can be a pain to homeowners within the district – for example, they have to replace a window or door with the same type of window or door, and they often have to get approval even to install a window air-conditioning unit. Yes, things sometimes get out of hand. But, homeowners who need to make repairs to their landmarked houses needn’t fret. There’s an entire industry of contractors, designers, etc., who specialize in this type of work.
If one looks at the sheer size of Brooklyn, the landmarked districts take up about a tenth of the borough, if that much. And it’s not as if the districts are imposed on residents – there is a formal hearing process, where both proponents and opponents of landmarking have their say. Often, as in the cases of the Heights and Park Slope, residents led the effort to declare the area a historic district. In the case of the Skyscraper District, many of the owners and tenants of the skyscrapers opposed the effort, saying that landmarking could hurt business. While their objections weren’t successful, they were seriously considered.
In Taub’s article, Professor Jackson is quoted as saying, “I have been leading tourists and teaching students for 40 years. I have never heard a single person say they wanted to go to see a historic district.” I think Jackson is splitting hairs--maybe the students never said it in those terms, but I bet plenty wanted to go see Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. And landmarking has done a lot for those neighborhoods. If Brooklyn Heights were dominated by 40-story buildings, fewer tourists would come to the Promenade because they wouldn’t even be able to find it.
Clearly, not every neighborhood deserves to be landmarked. But in general, landmarking has done far more good than harm.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Learning to Drive in Inwood

By Raanan Geberer

I never lived in Inwood, the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan. But we lived in Marble Hill, just over the bridge on the Bronx mainland, and most of my learning-to-drive experiences took place in Inwood. And what experiences they were – painful at the time, but sometimes humorous in retrospect.

During senior year at Bronx Science, everyone was learning to drive. Because Science didn’t have its own driver’s ed program, you could take driver’s ed at any nearby high school and Science would give you credit. The closest school to me that offered driver’s ed was the Academy of the Sacred Heart of Mary, a Catholic girls’ school in Inwood. I was a little nervous about going there, thinking I would be out of place, but I needn’t have been. The class was co-ed, and there were several other non-Catholics. I was one of three Jewish kids in the group – the other two were Jewish greasers from George Washington High School who wore black leather jackets and looked like something out of “Da Fonz.”

We first went out in the car in the “industrial area of Inwood” east of Broadway, north of 207th Street. The neighborhood was dominated by the subway yards, warehouses, garages and a pet cemetery. There were few people on the streets and there was plenty of room to practice. As we became more comfortable behind the wheel, the teacher, whose name I don’t remember, took us into the nearby Bronx. We went to Jerome Avenue, as far as Bronx Science itself. He also took us up and down the steep Kingsbridge Road hill, which in retrospect was a foolish choice when dealing with inexperienced drivers. 

It soon became apparent that I was as klutzy as a driver as I had been in sports. Making fun of the way I frequently took my foot off the gas pedal, braked and then put it on the pedal again, the teacher invented a name for me: “Herky-Jerky.”  Once, when he criticized me and I began a sentence with “I have,” he yelled, “Here’s what you don’t have! You don’t have control of the car, you don’t have awareness of the other cars, you don’t know how to turn…” When it finally came time to take the road test, I went up onto the curb and failed.

“Okay,” my father said, “from now on, I’d better start giving you some lessons myself.” Once again, I found myself in the industrial area of Inwood, but this time with my father as the teacher. My father had just bought a used ’64 Lincoln Continental. When this model car first came out, it had been my favorite, but now it was 1971, seven years later. Dad had bought the car for a ridiculously low price, but with gas prices going sky-high, it still cost him more than it was worth. To top it off, the car was so big, it was difficult to park.

When I was younger, Dad, who had once been sergeant in the Military Police, had taught me how to play the piano. Now, behind the wheel, I found that his teaching methods hadn’t changed: “You idiot! You’re going to back right up into the curb! What? Don’t you signal before you turn? You drive like a lunatic! There’s a car right in front of you—you want to get yourself killed? What’s the hell’s the matter with you!....”  In August, I took the test a second time, and just like the time before, I failed.

My father apparently realized that a kinder, gentler approach was called for.  The next year, I was up at the State University at Binghamton as a freshman, but in June he took me over to a driving school, again in Inwood, owned by an acquaintance of his, Jerry Kristol. I’m not sure how he knew Jerry – it may have been through his job or at the synagogue – but Jerry was a good teacher. The fact that the driving school was on 207th Street, next to Francesca’s Ice Cream Parlor, didn’t hurt. After each lesson, I had a cherry lime rickey at Francesca’s. The next time I took the test, I failed again, but only by a few points. 

My father, undaunted, sent me for more lessons with Jerry Kristol during the winter and spring breaks. To augment these lessons, he gave me a few lessons of his own, and actually let me drive part of the way to and from Binghamton on Route 17 a few times. By the summer, our family had moved to Co-op City, but I still took the long ride on the 12 bus to the driving school on 207th Street. In July, I was ready. I took the test again in the all-too-familiar industrial area of Inwood, and this time I passed. Within a few months, I was the owner of a 10-year-old clunker, a Pontiac Tempest. And that was how I learned to drive in Inwood.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Observer Tackles Brooklyn

From Brooklyn daily eagle
The New York Observer has focused its latest issue on Brooklyn. Its front page carries the New York Observer logo, but the words “New York” are crossed out and “Brooklyn” is written above it. The bottom of the page reads, “Heading for Brooklyn: 128 important, influential and interesting people to know now.”
In the spirit of the late Eagle columnist Dennis Holt, who critiqued every Manhattan-based publication when it focused on Brooklyn, I will do the same for this issue of the Observer.
“In many parts of the world,” the main article reads, “Brooklyn is shorthand for ‘cool,’ but shaggy beards aren’t the borough’s only exports. Its talent is all over TV, its tastemakers are dressing Hollywood, and its tech visionaries are redefining social media.”
The Observer is accurate in that its list of 128 influential Brooklynites represent the Brooklyn of today. You won’t find Barbra Streisand or even Jay-Z on that list. No mention of egg creams will be found.
Many of those on the list are people whom I heartily agree should be there. Among these are Steve Hindy and Garrett Oliver of the Brooklyn Brewery; Karen Brooks Hopkins of the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Andrew Kimball, former president of the Brooklyn Navy Yard; Dr. K.R. Sreenivasan of NYU Polytechnic; director Spike Lee; Brooklyn Bridge Park planner Regina Myer; and former Prospect Park Administrator Tupper Thomas.
These are all people who have solid accomplishments. The paper also has a section on politicians, headed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, although that doesn’t stop the Observer from bashing him in several editorials for being too pro-tenant.
The article begins to lose me when it starts talking about restaurants, culture and real estate. Two restaurateurs, Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli, are praised for updating the old “retro red-sauce joints.” Traditional Italian restaurants of the type the Observer means are hardly dead—they’re alive and well in places like Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge. However, the Observer barely acknowledges that such neighborhoods exist.
Garth Risk Hallberg, a writer who sold a book to Knopf for $2 million last year, is profiled, but what about other authors, such as Paul Auster, who have been writing books for years? Jake Dobkin, the founder of the news blog Gothamist (of which I am a fan) is profiled, but why not local bloggers? There are any number of blogs, such as Pardon Me for Asking, Brokelyn and Sheepshead Bites, that have been doing consistently good work. 
The writers also seem to have little appreciation of the type of quirky charm that marks the borough’s traditional neighborhoods. At one point, the Observer writes of a zoning change that helped transform Greenpoint from a neighborhood dominated by “the Polish National Home and 99-cent stores.” I’ve been to Greenpoint, and to me, thrift stores and Polish bakeries are what make the neighborhood interesting.
Try as it might, the Observer, in its Brooklyn edition, can’t shake its bias favoring wealth, glitz, glamour and big-time success. A friend of mine says there are actually four Brooklyns: Trendy Brooklyn (stretching roughly from Williamsburg to Prospect Park), Immigrant Brooklyn (Sunset Park, much of Bensonhurst, Brighton Beach, etc.), African-American Brooklyn (Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, most of Flatbush, etc.) and Traditional Brooklyn (Midwood, Bay Ridge, Marine Park, etc.). To the Observer, only the first Brooklyn seems to be real.