Where City and Community Meet A Tour of Park Slope

You know you’re living in a hot neighborhood when people from Manhattan visit the area to sample the restaurants and shopping. That’s exactly the status enjoyed by Park Slope, Brooklyn, the area under the south side of Prospect Park that is home to a varied and vibrant population that includes students, young married couples, new parents, wealthy professionals—and some longtime residents who stuck with the area through some rough times and are now enjoying the social and financial fruits of the neighborhood’s revitalization. It’s hard to find someone who lives in “The Slope” who doesn’t love it.

Slope of Ages

Before the Brooklyn Bridge was built in 1883, the area that was to become Park Slope was accessible from Manhattan only by ferry, making it largely the domain of farmers and wealthy landowners keen on elbowroom.

One of the latter was lawyer and railroad magnate Edwin C. Litchfield, who owned all of what eventually became Prospect Park. The city purchased the 526 acres for the park from the Litchfield family in the 1860s, and today the Brooklyn Parks Department uses the Litchfield Manor as its headquarters. The creation of Prospect Park gave the neighborhood an anchor, and the presence of established, wealthy families like the Litchfields made Park Slope a fashionable place for the very wealthy to build and live.

Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge enabled goods and people to pass back and forth with greater ease and less expense, and by the end of the 19th century the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Park Slope residents had the highest per capita income in the nation. The ornate limestone and brownstone façades of Park Slope are a testament to the attention those Victorian Brooklynites paid to detail and luxury—and to the money they were willing to spend for both.

Tough Times

Rich and prosperous as Park Slope was in its turn-of-the-century incarnation, the neighborhood was not immune to the pressures of global conflict and economic downturn. The Great Depression forced all but the super-rich to scale back their lifestyles, and many of the wealthy homeowners in Park Slope sold their properties and cleared out.

“From my experience, growing up here, it was mostly an Irish and Italian Catholic area. Mostly lower class,” says Tom Miskel, a trustee with the Park Slope Civic Council who has lived in Park Slope his entire life.

“Through those years [the 1950s and 1960s] Park Slope real estate did not sell very well. People were more interested in migrating to Flatbush, then Long Island, then when the [Verrazano Narrows] Bridge went up, to Staten Island and New Jersey. You had a large group of people leaving the area, old buildings were collapsing, you had an aging population, fewer people were going to the churches. You even had gang wars in the ‘50s and ‘60s.”

According to Miskel, things began to change in the 1970s, when people realized that the area was just four subway stops from Manhattan, that the houses were extremely well built, and that one of the city’s (if not the nation’s) best parks helped define the area.

“Everything changed in the ‘70s as a group we called the ‘young pioneers’ came in,” says Miskel. “They took over some of the older houses—which probably could have been bought for $20,000 to $25,000—and we’re talking about some very lovely houses.”

Indeed, hearing about those prices can make you wish you had a time machine. According to the Corcoran Report for Brooklyn, strong demand keeps prices in Park Slope rising steadily upwards. The average sales price of a co-op as of year-end 2004 was $457,000, while condos were selling for upwards of $594,000. Other prices ranged from $198,000 for a studio to $714,000 for a three-bedroom, with some rare four-bedrooms hitting well into the millions.

Though The Slope’s rebirth may have started in the ‘70s, Huebner says its real estate market experienced some ups and downs throughout the years, the downs coming in 1987 after the stock market crash, and the slip the market took in 1990 when few people were looking to buy.

“The free-fall occurred more dramatically in Manhattan, but it occurred in Brooklyn as well,” Huebner says. “The market did not begin to recover in co-ops overall until 1995 or 1996. But it wasn’t just Brooklyn that was reviving—it was the market in general.”

Couple the real estate boom of the last 10 years with Brooklyn’s renaissance, and you end up with some remarkable results.

“Park Slope and Brooklyn did revive with a vengeance because more and more people spread the word,” Huebner says. “Their friends had moved there, and more and more people were attracted to Brooklyn and the sense of community and its scale. It’s like Manhattan was 100 years ago in terms of its neighborhood, its architecture and sense of community.”

The Homes of Park Slope

That old-time city sense is on display in Park Slope’s residential buildings. According to Huebner, the largest buildings house between 30 and 90 units, and many brownstones were converted into two-, three-, and four-unit co-ops.

“It’s all on a much smaller scale [than Manhattan],” says Huebner, “and our elevator apartment buildings are desirable for those who don’t want to be part of a smaller co-op board or don’t want to maintain a common property.” She adds that Park Slope has a “huge number” of house and co-op buildings, but relatively few condos.

And as built-up as Brooklyn—and New York City overall—may be, there are new homes coming to The Slope. “Most significantly,” Huebner says, “between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, where some of the blocks are intact and very nice, but many of them [consist of] parking lots, warehouses, and are essentially non-residential properties. Any remaining space on these blocks, especially in Center Slope, but even in North Slope and South Slope now, is being bought up and developed into condos.”

Among the most noteworthy luxury condo projects is one along Second Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues, near P.S. 321. Park Slope Estates, a 36-unit condo unit is going up there. City Views, a 46-unit building, is currently doing brisk sales.

“That block has virtually been transformed over a period of three years . . . now it’s a prime residential block,” Huebner says. “It’s an amazing transformation.”

Huebner adds that the new projects were designed with the intent of fitting in with Park Slope’s low-profile skyline, and will stand in harmony with the neighborhood’s predominantly four-story or five-story buildings. “Their architecture was done with a sense of history,” she says. “They hark back to a turn-of-the-century look.”

Population and Families Return

Like everything else, the population of Park Slope has changed over the years. Go back 25 or 30 years, and many people with children left Brooklyn so that they could raise their kids in suburbs with big houses. Today, the grown children of those families have their own kids and are moving back to Brooklyn, says Miskel.

“It’s a good cross-section,” Huebner says of the population. “You have older couples returning because they moved to the suburbs, raised the children, and now want to come back. You have couples with children, or who are planning to have children here because Park Slope has such good public schools.” Huebner adds that the community services, transportation, and Prospect Park itself are also big draws.

“And it has that incredible sense of community, and the historic architecture,” she says. “It’s rather pristine here.”

Jennifer Tullo moved to The Slope in 2001, after she was evacuated from her apartment near Battery Park following 9/11. Her then-boyfriend (now her husband) was already living in Park Slope. They liked the area and found an apartment there.

“I couldn’t move back [into my apartment at Battery Park] for six months,” she says. “At the time, we decided to move in together, and he was already living in Park Slope. We thought it would be a good place to go because we were a little bit reluctant to stay in Manhattan, and also because we thought we’d get a better space for our money.”

When it came time to buy, Tullo and her husband knew they’d be staying in Brooklyn, and looked into Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Park Slope. They purchased a co-op in an eight-unit building in Park Slope and moved in in late July.

Then there are like people like Miskel, who never left. He says the area where he lives, near Flatbush Avenue, never got a bad as other areas of The Slope did during the harrowing in the 1960s. “Most of the people who stayed, stayed within this area,” he says. “So between Third Street and the other side of The Slope, a lot of people are still here from my period.”

When asked if during the bad years he thought the area would bounce back, he says with a laugh, “I was pretty sure it would, but this is ridiculous.” He adds that there were too many good things going for Brooklyn, even during its worst days, for the area not to rebound. “And I happen to like the idea of Brooklyn, period,” he says. “But we never would have figured this—we laugh about it. Every once in a while you’ll see an old Irish lady saying, ‘They offered me a million dollars!’

“It’s like Monopoly money now,” Miskel continues. “It’s improved, and it’s gotten more crowded, more and more New York. We used to be able to take the newcomers and convert them into Brooklynites. But too many people are coming in now, we can’t convert them—they don’t know how to sit on stoops, things like that,” he says, laughing.

They Love the Nightlife

Park Slope residents take particular pride in their neighborhood’s restaurants. According to Huebner, the first “glamorous and hip” restaurant to hit Fifth Avenue was the charming (and tasty) Cucina. “After that,” she says, “the door opened for other restaurants.”

Sometime in the mid to late-‘90s, the number of restaurants took off to the point that it’s just about impossible to count them (Miskel says there were three restaurants in the area before the dining scene took off in The Slope, and now there are literally scores.) You can find high-quality food of almost any type there. Another big move was when Blue Ribbon steakhouse opened a restaurant there. “That signaled all other restaurants—it was a milestone,” Huebner says, adding that one of the restaurant’s owners lived in Brooklyn, which led to the opening of Park Slope’s Blue Ribbon.

“We don’t have to leave Brooklyn to have a great dinner, or go shopping—it has everything,” Tullo says. “It’s great because a lot of Manhattan restaurants opened sister restaurants here, and the waits aren’t as long, and they’re not as crowded. It’s a different way of living, but it’s still close to the Manhattan lifestyle.”

The Future

A big project that will certainly make news in Brooklyn for the next few years is developer Bruce Ratner’s proposed complex that will bring the NBA’s New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn, and along with the team, even more restaurants, shops, and residential and professional buildings to the borough.

The Park Slope Civic Council (which has been around for more than 100 years and was known as the South Brooklyn Board of Trade until it changed its name in 1960) is following the development’s progress. Miskel says the group doesn’t have any legislative power, but that “we can be an annoying thorn in their side.”

The Ratner project, according to Miskel, would be “on the border” of Park Slope, so the council is committed to being aware of how the complex could affect The Slope.

“It’s not that it’s on us, but certainly with traffic, overloading facilities, storage and all that, it’s going to affect us,” he says. “And at some point, he may go over further into Third or Fifth Avenue. That’s looking into the future.”

With the real estate market being what it is, Miskel says a lot of people wonder if they should sell, but then the question becomes, “Where do I go?” Though eventually it would seem the real estate market has to slow down, Park Slope is thriving in so many ways that it should remain attractive to buyers for a long time to come.

“The economy is moving along, more people realize they can afford houses, and are learning how to do it,” Miske says. So it may be difficult to find a bargain in Park Slope, but that’s only because it’s quickly becoming one of the more attractive places to live in the city. And Huebner says the people of Brooklyn know how good life there can be. “Once you’ve lived in Brooklyn,” she says, “it’s hard to consider living anywhere else.”

Anthony Stoeckert is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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