Brooklyn Heights History and Harmony Just Across the River

If Manhattan is a sea of change, Brooklyn Heights is the peaceful shore to which weary Manhattanites retreat. More than 175 years ago, Brooklyn Heights emerged as one of the first American suburbs. Bounded by the East River, Fulton Street, Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, this quiet neighborhood has long been a haven for professionals, couples and families with its tranquil, tree-lined streets and stately 19th century homes.

"It’s a very nice place to raise a family," says Nancy Giddons, a condo owner who moved to Brooklyn Heights in 1972. "I walk down the street and people say ‘hi’ to me. It’s like a sophisticated small town."

It All Began with a Bridge

The "small town" of Brooklyn Heights began to take shape as a residential alternative to Manhattan with the introduction of Thomas Fulton’s steam ferry in 1814. The ferry made regularly-scheduled crossings to Manhattan, and by the late 1830s, a local real estate agent was advertising Brooklyn Heights as having "all the advantages of the country, with most of the conveniences of the city," according to New York: An Illustrated History by Ric Burns and James Sanders.

Starting in the mid-19th century, prominent landowners began dividing their property into standard 2,500-square-foot lots for development. Wealthy families began moving into Brooklyn Heights, enjoying the area’s unparalleled views of the waterfront and growing Manhattan skyline. With the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, residents had a new way to get to the City, taking a 20-minute walk across the footbridge and into the Financial District.

With the opening of the subway in the first decade of the 20th century, many other New Yorkers began migrating outward to Brooklyn Heights. In order to accommodate the new arrivals, many private homes were converted into rooming houses, seamen’s clubs or missions, according to Blue Guide New York. Between the World Wars, the area fell into something of an economic slump that only began to abate in the 1950s when young couples began moving back and restoring the aging brownstones. In 1965, Brooklyn Heights was designated the city’s first historic district, permanently acknowledging and preserving the area’s historic and architectural significance.

Official historic status has meant that Brooklyn Heights has seen far less architectural turnover than other parts of New York. "Brooklyn Heights is probably the prettiest of the neighborhoods," says Chris Thomas, vice president for the Brooklyn offices of residential real estate brokerage William B. May. "The housing stock has been carefully maintained and restored within historical guidelines. It’s far more architecturally homogeneous than other neighborhoods."

The Landmark Landscape

During the economic boom times of the 1980s, many of the neighborhood’s old hotels and rooming houses were converted to co-ops and condominiums. The history of co-op and condo living in Brooklyn Heights goes back much farther than that, however. "One of the oldest co-ops in the city is in Brooklyn Heights, built in 1903," says Thomas. Though the cooperative precedent was established in the neighborhood over a century ago, co-op and condo conversions really reached critical mass between 1982 and 1988.

Giddons, whose five-unit condo complex was converted from an old YWCA building, believes the architectural preservation of the neighborhood is a large part of its charm. "I enjoy walking around the neighborhood and seeing the architectural details. I still find new things to see."

The developmental restrictions that came part and parcel with Brooklyn Heights’ landmark status have impacted the neighborhood in a number of ways. Since 1965, the structural face of the area has changed very little. Couples looking for a fixer-upper will be hard-pressed to find a project. "When I first moved into the neighborhood, there was a lot of work underway, but there’s nothing left to renovate in Brooklyn Heights," Giddons says. "Physically, nothing’s changed.

Landmark status also means few new residences are being built. "Because of zoning and landmark status, it’s not easy to develop property here," Thomas says. "The number of people who want to move here exceeds the availability of property. Even in weaker markets, Brooklyn Heights prices haven’t gone down."

And those prices are formidable; at the lower end of the spectrum, a 400-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in the heart of the Heights sells at around $200,000. A mid-range one bedroom occupying a full floor in a small brownstone, or a one bedroom in a postwar building, goes for between $250,000 and $300,000. One-bedroom, parlor-floor spaces with about 1,000 to 1,100 square feet can run up to $450,000, but are very rare. According to Thomas, "The one bedrooms in the $200,000 to low $300,000 range are much more typical." For the most part, prices in Brooklyn Heights, which is currently the most expensive area in Brooklyn, tend to stay steady, rising moderately in step with housing prices in Manhattan.

Well Worth the Price of Admission

The harmonious combination of a little of everything is what keeps people clamoring for Brooklyn Heights property. Aside from the attractive homes, families move to the neighborhood for the top-notch educational opportunities for their children. Schools like P.S. 8 and P.S. 29 offer Brooklyn Heights children solid academic curriculum and a wealth of before- and after-school programs. The neighborhood also boasts exceptional private schools. "Three of the top private schools in New York are in Brooklyn Heights," Thomas says. Those three schools (St. Ann’s School, The Packer Collegiate Institute and St. Charles Borromeo) provide instruction for more than 2,000 children from throughout the City.

Just as it did nearly two centuries ago, Brooklyn Heights continues to attract parents, couples and single professionals looking for an easy commute. Few suburban neighborhoods can match Brooklyn Heights’ proximity to Manhattan-a 20-minute walk across the bridge, a short subway ride, or a ferry across the river-all provide easy access.

In the evenings and on weekends, Brooklyn Heights residents have a wealth of top restaurants such as the River Cafe at their disposal, as well as a variety of small shops and upscale chain stores lining Montague Street.

Topping off the neighborhood’s overall appeal is the ineffable sense of calm so rare in a place so close to an enormous city that never sleeps. "The proximity to everything in Manhattan is great," Giddons says. But the quiet of Brooklyn Heights can be a welcome relief. "Even the noisier streets are far more quiet than anything in Manhattan."

What’s Next for Brooklyn Heights?

The future looks bright for Brooklyn Heights. It also looks a little different. After years of debate and planning, work is now underway on a new, 75-acre waterfront park, set to include a hotel and marina, sports center and skating rink, as well as a science and ecology center. Thomas hopes the park will enhance the natural splendor of the waterfront. "I can’t begin to tell you how beautiful this stretch of waterfront is," he says. "It moves from urban to marshland to parkland to harbor vista. It’s a very beautiful two-and-a-half mile stretch."

As attractive as the park will eventually be, Thomas does not believe it will change housing values in the area. "It may positively impact some housing values in the general area," he says. "But it’s a little like gilding the lily. There’s more than enough to attract people to Brooklyn Heights anyway."

Although its riverfront may change, there’s little doubt that Brooklyn Heights will continue to flourish as it has for the last two centuries, aging gracefully on the quiet little shore just across the water from the roar of Manhattan.

Ms. Lent is a freelance writer living in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

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