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The Insider's Guide to the Neighborhood

A renowned Brooklyn historian talks about his latest book on Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.

Fort Greene and Clinton Hill are the latest neighborhoods to get the intensive attention of Francis Morrone, the polymathic Brooklynite known as an architectural historian and social historian, tour guide, teacher, and author of books like An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn.

His latest work, the "Fort Greene and Clinton Hill Neighborhood and Architectural History Guide," has just been published by the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Going well beyond architecture, it takes on social and cultural history, including people like Walt Whitman, Marianne Moore, Richard Wright, and even Biggie Smalls; and institutions such as Pratt Institute, Colored School No. 1, and Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.

The book closes with two walking tours through the neighborhoods. 

What surprised you walking around Fort Greene and Clinton Hill?

I'm always surprised by architectural details I had not noticed before, usually because the light is falling on them in a way I hadn't seen before. Having known these neighborhoods over many years, I am staggered by the amount of reinvestment in housing stock that's gone on since the days of redlining [the practice, prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s, of banks refusing to loan money to buy real estate in certain urban neighborhoods].


Did Fort Greene simply decline and then renew in the 1960s-70s?

For me, the life of the poet Marianne Moore provides a great lens for looking at Fort Greene — partly because she was a famous local personage, partly because she lived on Cumberland Street from 1929 to 1966 (what people normally think of as the lost years of brownstone Brooklyn), and partly because her decision to leave in 1966 occasioned an extraordinary amount of press coverage. The Times, on the occasion of her leaving, ran a photo essay called "Fort Greene: Twilight of a Neighborhood." There was no mention that young professional couples who had been renting in Brooklyn Heights were beginning to buy old brownstones south of the park. And just a year after Miss Moore's departure, local activists led by Herbert Scott-Gibson, an African American man who had bought a house on Washington Park, began to document the buildings to bring their case to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In the same year, Harvey Lichtenstein took over BAM at a time when people thought it was going to shutter for good.

Fort Greene in the 1980s and 1990s gained notice for its concentration of the black creative class. But that misses something, right?

Around the time Marianne Moore moved out, the famous jazz trombonist Slide Hampton owned a house at 245 Carlton Avenue where numerous famous musicians lived or boarded, including Wes Montgomery, Eric Dolphy, and Freddie Hubbard--a roster of all-time greats. Betty Carter was in Fort Greene. In other words, the seeds were planted back in the "twilight" days. No article mentioned, when Marianne Moore moved out, that all these great musicians lived in Fort Greene. 


The Fort Greene Houses--they've needed renovation for a long time.

Poor materials and hasty construction, related to wartime exigencies, led to spiraling breakdown after the war, when the projects were repurposed as low-income housing. They had been low-income housing for about a decade only when they were Exhibit A in Newsweek's condemnation of public housing. 

The Williamsburgh Savings Bank on Hanson Place doesn't have any retail at its streetfront but the adjacent Central Methodist Church does. And both were done by Halsey, McCormick, and Helmer. What does that say?  

I find it curious and amusing. It's clear the bank did not want to be sullied with any such thing as storefronts. But the church apparently did not mind. It was kind of ingenious on Helmer's part--I think he inserted those storefronts into the church (which is a very handsome church) seamlessly. They are not jarring. 

What's the most grievous loss to the neighborhoods?

You know, there are neighborhoods that have sustained far greater losses than have Fort Greene and Clinton Hill south of Myrtle. North of Myrtle, and especially in the Fort Greene Houses area, there was wholesale rebuilding. I don't know how many landmark quality buildings may have been lost, probably not that many, but I'd be interested to see. Wallabout Market [north of Myrtle Avenue] was possibly one of the handsomest wholesale markets in the world. The same can't be said for the old Meat Market [now the site of the Atlantic Center mall and nearby housing], but I would have liked to have seen it. Ditto for the Myrtle Avenue El, which was a dominating fixture in the neighborhood for so many years.

How do you go about your research?

I had already done a considerable amount of architectural research. I was of course greatly aided by the Landmarks Preservation Commission's Historic District Designation Reports. I also consulted Department of Buildings records and such publications as Real Estate Record and Builder's Guide, as well as old directories, real estate maps, etc. For social history, I find newspapers invaluable. The Times and the Tribune are available through the ProQuest service and are full-text indexed. Basically, I read every article in the Times, Tribune, and Brooklyn Eagle that included "Fort Greene" or "Clinton Hill." Once I had identified interesting or important people who lived in the neighborhood, I was able to zoom in on them by reading articles and biographies.I of course also consulted the major reference works, such as Henry Stiles "A History of the City of Brooklyn."

 

Journalist Norman Oder writes the Atlantic Yards Report blog and also works as a tour guide.

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