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Ditmas Stroll

27 Apr

I “write” a lot in my head. I compose as I go on a neighborhood walk, thinking about a letter I want to write to a friend or an imaginary post that never goes up on this blog (or shouldn’t). Often I come up with somewhat ambitious ideas that I never do anything with, like eating my way around the world and writing about it. Then I realize I probably won’t get to eat my way around the world literally, but of course I could give it a try in New York. Write about a meal I’ve had in each neighborhood of each borough. How delicious.

The other day I went on one such stroll, from Kensington into Ditmas Park. I didn’t end up eating anything because I couldn’t stop myself from wandering. I followed the old routes of my childhood. Maybe now the ambitious plan would be a psychogeographic memoir. Some of the things I love to read are about places and lives in those spaces. So why not try that.

Here is the house I grew up in, on Beverly Road, second story of a 3-family. Here, across the street, the ancient apartment buildings that gave me my boombox lullabies. Both structures are gray and dingy. Broken glass still on the sidewalk, just as I remember. Children playing whiffle ball on a brown, balding lawn between concrete walkways.

Firecrackers would swoop up onto our roof on the night of July the 4th, crackling smoke in the windows. My father would rush out through the window in his underwear and, with invincible flat feet, kick the offending pyrotechnic back into the street where it was launched.

I cross Coney Island Avenue, past the 11-7 and the former Kantacky Fried Chicken (most likely sued by Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street). I enter the green zen of Beverly Square and Ditmas Park. Rows and rows of enormous trees line these streets. Unlike Kensington, where people lop off branches and chop chop chop (we need sunlight, they say, or, the next storm could send these trees crashing down, they say). In Ditmas Park no one chops trees. No one squints in the light. There is a coolness here, amongst Victorian houses in various stages of renovation or disrepair.

I wander passed lawns bedecked with pink flamingos and plaster-cast lions. Houses renovated in the ‘80s by Park Slope expatriates, and houses renovated by Flatbush’s upwardly mobile. Porch swings, silver cats, magnolia trees. Columns at each intersection proclaim each street name with British regality: Marlborough, Stratford. Argyle. Dorchester. Remnants of 19th century moguls.

More interesting to me are the houses still in ruin: relics of a past and food for a darker appetite. A green house with musty brown shards of windows; mummified in plastic; shutters hanging askew off their hinges. A copper plaque on a porch column by the steps reads the name of a doctor, an orthopedist: ancient doctor for an ancient generation. All gone. A dusty sign written in careful block letters pleads, “DON’T PLAY ON THIS PORCH…” the rest is unintelligible, but the warning is clear: the porch steps are broken, a ragged hole. Collapsed where some small child may have played, fallen through and eaten by some slithering monster underneath.

Next door, a house with new stucco and two slender saplings of cherry trees, fresh-blossomed and swaying in the spring breeze.


3 Dec
This is Edmund.

This is Edmund.

We have a penguin. His name is Edmund. Edmund guards the dog house that came with our new house, which is an old house – 1892 or 1900 depending on where you look. Our new-old house is in the Central District, a neighborhood much like Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, and the old creaky house itself feels just like an old creaky house in Brooklyn, which is part of why, as soon as we stepped inside of it, it felt right.

In the crawl space, we found a volleyball and in the kitchen drawer a 1962 high school yearbook from Macon, Georgia. Edmund, our ceramic penguin, is the crown jewel of our object-finds. He looks serene and proud in front of the dog house, which sits before a towering cherry tree and a slip of a maple.

The architecture of the house itself is a jewel. Built as a “working man’s Victorian,” it’s a Victorian in miniature, with gables and nooks, all fairly tiny. Our favorite spot is the nook beneath the stairs in the dining room, which we’ve declared the reading nook, complete with an ottoman, dreamy cushion, and wooden milk crate of currently-reading or to-be-read-soon books. Despite being nearly blocked off by towers of boxes, I’ve already spent several delightful hours reading poetry there in the bluish morning light.

Moving, and a host of other things (a new job, mainly), have kept me away from this blog. November was dedicated to nest-building, poultry-roasting, bread-pudding-making, big pots of soup-making. All pleasant things. I’ll be sure to poke my head back on here again this month; I’ve got lots of exciting projects in store for the new year.


26 Jan

M & I went to Seattle and Vancouver earlier this month. Here’s a bit about Vancouver.

Vancouver is awash with construction cranes and gleaming green glass set before a ring of snowy mountains. The city is preparing for the 2010 Olympics, and it seems a city of pretty surfaces and fashionable people.

Our first day we wandered to touristy Gas Town (the closest approximation to an “old town” and hardly a central part of the city or dense mess of winding streets), and from there right into skid row. At the “steam clock”, the major Gas Town landmark, a glassy-eyed man offered us a silver chain in exchange for food. As we moved along, there was a conflux of bearded hobos, gaunt prostitutes, men sleeping in the street; needle exchange and detox centers, shelters for women, and shelters for children . Payle$$ Meats sat beside Mission Possible. Balconies on a halfway house advertised nouns of encouragement: hope, faith, strength, courage.

This concentration of the needy struck us as odd, perhaps because the needy of New York are more diffuse and spread out, and perhaps more hidden. Here they seem to converge in one area, in stark contrast to the high-end gloss of the rest of downtown– the joggers in Stanley Park, the highrises along Coal Harbour and in the West End, the yuppies of Yale Town. The rawness of skid row, I’m told, is older than the prospering sheen of the rest of the city. The institutions (the shelters, soup lines, etc.) are also relatively new.

We walked a good deal that first day, happy to end our wandering with martinis atop the Empire Landmark Hotel, slowly rotating over twinkling Vancouver. We admitted relief at not having been approached all afternoon. Later M. pondered the differences between the homeless in NYC subways and the homeless in Vancouver and other cities, hypothesizing that the relationship the homeless have with the subways here are unique and not present in other mass transit systems. We didn’t take the Sky Train (though really it’s more of a commuter rail) so we couldn’t test the hypothesis.

The next day we were sore and achy and relied on the car. Abundant Granville Market (lunch: bratwurst and designer soda), foggy snow-crusted Kitsilano Beach (just lovely), and the UBC campus, separated from the city by a small forest. UBC was a bit of a disappointment; I enjoyed the small Belkin art gallery, warm and abuzz over a show opening, but we found the design of the campus odd– parallel malls and apparently no welcoming central area. In the dark of the Thunderbird Arena, M. gave me my first driving lesson; I meant to go in circles and instead drove figure eights.

We finished our trip Saturday morning, with dim sum at Pink Pearl, touted as best dim sum in Vancouver. We were gluttonous fiends, feasting on all manner of shrimp, pork, taro, bean curd, and red bean paste-filled dumplings, in all manner of sticky and glutinous or crunchy wrappings. Two pots of tea and two bursting bellies later, were back on the road to Seattle, one last chance to gasp at cool snow-covered conifers, gauzy lakes, and violent mountain peaks.

Despite numerous comparisons to New York (Kitsilano=Park Slope; Mount Pleasant=Ditmas Park), the ecology and the landscape is wholly unique, and gives the place air of something fresh and vibrant. I can’t imagine becoming complacent about those surroundings, but I suppose anything is possible.

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