Fort Greene, Brooklyn: Riding the Wave of Gentrification
By: Julie LaskyPublished: 11/6/2019Source: The New York Times
Featuring Steve Brady:
Fort Greene, Brooklyn: Riding the Wave of Gentrification
In recent years, the area has seen staggering changes, with proliferating arts organizations, housing and amenities. But that hasn’t come cheap.
Gregory Buntain has rented the same apartment in Fort Greene since 2006, when he was a student at Pratt Institute. His home is a fourth-floor walk-up in a brownstone on Clermont Avenue, between DeKalb and Willoughby Avenues. Mr. Buntain, 35, shared it with a succession of roommates until he kicked out the last one five years ago to make room for his girlfriend.
Today the place, which has “one and a half bedrooms,” as he describes it, rents for $2,200 a month — a bargain for the immediate area, where standard one-bedrooms routinely start at $3,000 — and he is very sorry to have to leave it.
But life is protean, and so is Fort Greene, a part of northwest Brooklyn that has seen staggering changes in the last several years. As apartment towers laced with cultural institutions continue to fill out the area around the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and as other big developments are scheduled to rise around the neighborhood’s edges, Mr. Buntain’s landlord has expressed interest in selling.
On top of that, Mr. Buntain and his girlfriend, Isabel Seely, 30, eventually married and are expecting their first child. Shopping for an affordable rowhouse with room they can grow into, they searched for a fixer-upper (gut renovations don’t faze Mr. Buntain, who is the co-founder of Fort Standard, a Brooklyn company that makes furniture). But “finding a building like that in Fort Greene is just, like, impossible,” he said. Ultimately they discovered one in neighboring Clinton Hill.
The move will take them only five blocks east of their current home. That is still within easy reach of Fort Greene Park, with its convivial Saturday morning farmers’ market, and of Roman’s, a popular Italian restaurant on DeKalb Avenue. If Mr. Buntain is nostalgic for the Fort Greene of the aughts, he can return to the Alibi, a cash-only dive bar across the street from Roman’s.
Like many who surf the wave of Brooklyn gentrification, his attitude about Fort Greene is complicated. “When I first moved in, I felt like one of the only white kids on the block, and now it’s almost like Park Slope,” he said. “It’s changed so much and so dramatically, you start to get sentimental or territorial about it.”
Fort Greene is a historically African-American neighborhood, which hosted a cultural revival in the 1980s and 1990s that has been compared to the Harlem Renaissance. According to the Furman Center at New York University, the black population in Community District 2, comprising Fort Greene and Brooklyn Heights, was 25.8 percent in 2017, down from 41.8 percent in 2000.
But like other parts of Brooklyn, Fort Greene experienced a slow recovery from the economic ravages of 1970s New York, and Mr. Buntain recalled the inconvenience of having no accessible bank branch. “I had to go to Manhattan to deposit a check,” he said. “It’s come a long way in terms of amenities.”
The filmmaker Spike Lee, who grew up in Fort Greene and was at the center of its creative whirl of black musicians, actors, artists and writers, offers a stark chronicle of its transformation in his two versions of “She’s Gotta Have It.” The 1986 movie, which Mr. Lee wrote, directed and performed in, is about an artist named Nola Darling who lives in a spacious Fort Greene apartment with double-height arched windows. Asked how much it costs, she says, “It’s cheap.”
In the film’s 2017 revival as a television series for Netflix, Nola has a marble fireplace and is again questioned about her rent. “This is gentrified Fort Greene,” she says. “You already know.”
What You’ll Find
Fort Greene is bordered by Flushing Avenue to the north (the Brooklyn Navy Yard lies beyond), Clermont Avenue (and Clinton Hill) to the east, Atlantic Avenue (and Prospect Heights) to the south, Flatbush Avenue (and Boerum Hill) to the southwest, and Ashland Place and Navy Street (with Long Island University) to the west.
The neighborhood merges imperceptibly with Downtown Brooklyn and has access to no fewer than 10 subway lines, as well as the Long Island Rail Road. This density, combined with greenery and charm, sets it apart from other borough growth spots like Williamsburg and Prospect Heights, said Steve Brady, who sells real estate in Corcoran’s Fort Greene office. “People want to live in an area that has it all — transportation, recreation, bars, cafes, night life,” he said.
At the geographical and emotional heart is Fort Greene Park, the 30-acre hilly sward designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, with a 150-foot-tall monument to the more than 11,500 patriots who died on British prison ships in Wallabout Bay during the Revolutionary War.
Long seen as a dividing line between Fort Greene’s brick-and-brownstone-lined streets to the south and housing projects to the north, the park is being renovated to provide more comfort to less affluent residents, said Rosamond Fletcher, the executive director of the Fort Greene Park Conservancy. The park has secured $13 million for new paving, ramps, lighting, recreational areas and gardens on the Myrtle Avenue end, which “has not seen this level of investment since the 1970s,” Ms. Fletcher said (or in the case of the paving, “the 1930s”). There are also plans to expand a fitness area with equipment for older users, a population that will be increasing with a new LGBT-friendly senior development being built on New York City Housing Authority land, on St. Edwards Street.
First, however, a dispute must be resolved between neighborhood organizations and the city Parks Department regarding the legitimacy of the undertaking, which was planned without an environmental review and would involve the uprooting of several dozen trees. “The Conservancy is not a part of the suit and supports the capital project,” Ms. Fletcher stated in an email.
A precinct of a vastly different character is the BAM Cultural District. Four decades ago, the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a lone fortress on Lafayette Avenue; the jazz singer Betty Carter lived on a stretch of St. Felix Street alongside it that looked as if it had been intermittently bombed. Now BAM is just one of many arts organizations rippling out like man-spreaders on the D train after midnight.
The Mark Morris Dance Center, at the corner of Lafayette Avenue and Rockwell Place, is leasing rehearsal space in Caesura, a two-year-old apartment building on the block that is also the headquarters of the Center for Fiction. And last month it was announced that a 24-story, 167,000-square-foot apartment tower, designed by FX Collaborative, is planned for St. Felix Street, with 120 units, 30 percent of which will be affordable. The Brooklyn Music School will take over 20,000 square feet of the building.
BAM itself continues to grow. Last month, the long-awaited $25 million BAM Strong complex united the remade BAM Harvey Theater on Fulton Street with a newly built visual-arts gallery and sculpture terrace on Fulton and an unprogrammed residential building on Ashland Place.
Along with the waves of residents settling into rental buildings like the 53-story Ashland, which opened on Ashland Place in 2016, visitors are patronizing the cultural venues and local businesses. As always, density is a mixed blessing, with clogged streets and sidewalks and scuffed, poopy park grass the less desirable outcomes. But development is a juggernaut, and for some it is welcome.
“I’m wanting there to be a few more little shops,” said Genevieve Platt, the owner of Feliz, a 10-year-old gift store on DeKalb Avenue that sells ethically made products, like lipstick packaged in a bamboo tube decorated with cherry blossoms. Ms. Platt, who has lived in Fort Greene since 2001, pointed out that the neighborhood still lacks the critical mass of retail outlets that Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg has.
Other notables are the independent bookstore Greenlight, on Fulton Street, and Bird, a clothing boutique on Lafayette Avenue. Within the last two years, an Apple Store opened on Flatbush Avenue and a Whole Foods Market 365 on Ashland Place.
And it is possible to live in Fort Greene and feel buffered from the forest of new towers. “We know it’s right here, we know it’s technically considered Fort Greene, but it feels like there’s a line that gets drawn there, whether it’s literal or emotional,” said Daniel Greenspun, 45, a clinical psychologist who lives with his girlfriend, Sarah Natkins, in a brownstone close to the park.
What You’ll Pay
In September, Grant Ginder, a novelist, and his husband, David McCarty, a real estate developer, moved into 75 Greene Avenue, condominiums that were recently converted from the 1929 brick office building of the Diocese of Brooklyn and the adjacent 1936 brick chancery, four blocks from the park. The couple, both 37, paid $1.4 million for their two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit on the fourth floor. Before moving to Fort Greene five years ago, Mr. Ginder lived in the West Village, which he described as “America’s most expensive ghost town; everything is closing.”
According to Property Shark, the median sale price of Fort Greene homes from July 1 through Sept. 30 was $982,500, a year-over-year decrease of 21 percent. M.N.S., a Brooklyn real estate company, reported the average rent of apartments in September as $2,431 for studios, $3,164 for one-bedrooms and $4,530 for two-bedrooms. The year-over-year increase for the price of rentals overall in the neighborhood was 4.2 percent.
As of Nov. 5, StreetEasy’s website featured 43 properties for sale, culled from multiple sources. The least expensive active listing was a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment at 115 Ashland Place with a no-pets policy, priced at $699,000, with a monthly homeowner’s fee of $947. The most expensive was a five-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom townhouse at 322 Carlton Avenue, priced at $3.995 million, with monthly taxes of $1,051.
If you were in Fort Greene Park on the Saturday before Halloween, you would have seen — and might have voted on — contestants in the annual Great PUPkin Dog Costume Contest. First prize went to Lincoln, a 2-year-old Yorkshire terrier dressed as Snoopy, and Lola, a 7-year-old mixed breed outfitted as the Red Baron; they were seated in a spinning biplane made of insulation foam.
P.S. 20, the Clinton Hill School, on Adelphi Street, near the border of the two neighborhoods, enrolls 539 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade, and offers a French-English dual language program. On 2017-18 state tests, 54 percent of the students met standards in English, versus 46 percent citywide; 63 percent met standards in math, versus 47 percent citywide.
Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters is a lottery-based school with a diversity-based admissions policy open to students throughout District 13 in Brooklyn. It shares a building with P.S. 20, but because of overcrowding might merge next year with P.S. 35 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The school enrolls 525 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. On 2017-18 state tests, 72 percent of students met standards in English, versus 47 percent citywide; 58 percent met standards in math, versus 43 percent citywide.
Greene Hill School, on Adelphi Street, is a private, progressive school that enrolls about 150 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade. The annual sliding-scale tuition is designed to encourage diversity and ranges from $4,239 to $32,440 in the lower school and $5,060 to $36,990 in the middle school, with financial aid available.
Brooklyn Technical High School, on Fort Greene Place, is the largest high school in the United States devoted to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It enrolls about 5,900 students from all five boroughs in ninth through 12th grade, who met mandatory scores on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. The average SAT scores for the class of 2018 were 657 in reading and writing and 708 in math, versus 534 in both subjects statewide.
Fort Greene is served by the B, D, N, Q and R trains at DeKalb Avenue; the A and C trains at Lafayette Avenue; the G train at Fulton Street; and the 2, 3, 4, 5, B, D, N, Q and R trains at Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center. Long Island Rail Road trains stop at Atlantic Terminal, at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues and Hanson Place.
The original fort in Fort Greene was Fort Putnam, a star-shaped garrison built in 1776 that the British captured in the Battle of Long Island. Rebuilt for the War of 1812 and named for General Nathanael Greene, the site was developed in the late 1860s as Washington Park. (Walt Whitman was an early advocate, having called a generation before for a green space that would be “lungs” for the rapidly populated surrounding community.) In 1897, the year before Brooklyn officially became part of New York City, Washington Park was renamed Fort Greene Park.
Copyright © 2019 The New York Times Company. Reprinted with Permission. Julie Lasky/The New York Times.