Scaling the Heights: Brooklyn-born or transplanted, devoted residents here plant their deep roots
Around Halloween, when golden maple leaves collect along the streets and orange pumpkins give stoops and steps a warm glow, Brooklyn Heights looks and feels almost, for New York City at least, like small town America — but reconstructed among brownstones and apartment blocks. This welcoming, neighborly feel goes beyond Halloween curb appeal, though: residents attest to the Heights’ year-round livability due to its natural splendor, architectural grandeur, access to major to major subway lines and congenial street life and walkability. Perhaps that’s why, unlike many parts of the city with a resiliently transient population, people move to Brooklyn Heights to set up home, and never leave.
Koren Volk, a retired bank executive, moved to New York City from Toronto when her fellow Canadian husband, Rick, was transferred for work. “We were in corporate housing here in the Heights at first. We toured apartments in Chelsea, Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side, and we just thought, ‘No!’ We were attracted to the Heights because of reasonable rent; then we saw the view: Oh my gosh. We thought, why would you leave?”
The view Volk refers to is seen from the Promenade, which draws tourists and residents alike to take in what is probably the best sight of Manhattan to be had in the state.
Neil Calet, a retired advertising executive, was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and moved to the Heights 55 years ago, almost by accident. He was on the subway making his usual trek home from work in Manhattan and some technical difficulty stopped the train.
“It got stuck. So I got out here and liked what I saw,” he says, beaming. “It was the physical beauty of the place that first got my attention.” But his first Heights home didn’t have a view. “I thought, what’s the point of living here without a view? I used to work late all the time and thought it was time to move into the city. Thank god, the rents were already too high in Manhattan. So I looked for a place with a view here and ended up moving around the block to where I am now.”
Calet chats with Volk in her spacious apartment over coffee. The two speak like two lifelong friends. “The Promenade was quite new then,” recalls Calet, a key figure in the Brooklyn Heights Association. “The view toward Manhattan wasn’t as spectacular as it is today. Starting at about Orange Street, Civil War warehouses blocked the view. They would never be torn down now, but back then there wasn’t so much preservation. We were lucky. It’s hard to say, but how do you weigh preservable entities to things that have real life validity?”
Brooklyn Heights, like much of New York City, is mostly made up of people who came here from somewhere else. But not entirely. Grace Faison stands on the roof deck of her building on Pierrepont Street, once again taking in her familiar, yet no less amazing view of Manhattan’s steely towers and the calming East River below. Faison is a week shy of her 90th birthday. She looks at the Freedom Tower and shakes her head: “No one needs a building that tall,” she says disapprovingly. Her gaze comes back to this side of the river. She points over to a low rise brick building a few stories below on the street near her apartment building: “That’s where I was born,” she says.
Remarkably, Faison is a seventh-generation Heights native. “I’ve moved seven times around the block,” she laughs. And though she and her first husband lived in other parts of America while he was in the military, when she was widowed at age 20, she returned home with her infant son, Jeff. “This was the only place I wanted to live,” she says. “For a young widow, this community sustained me.” Eventually, she met her late husband Jack here.
Authors Adele Griffin and Jenny Han sit together on a cushiony couch in the Griffin’s Remsen Street apartment. They regularly write together to boost inspiration, often decamping one street over to set up their laptops in Le Pain Quotidien on Montague Street. The Manhattan skyline is one thing, but the Heights’ architecture and street life is a more immediate attraction for them.
“It was the brownstones that attracted me; they just said New York to me,” says Griffin, 44, who is originally from Pennsylvania.
“The brownstones,” agrees Han, a Virginia native, who moved to New York ten years ago when she was 24. “It was from watching ‘The Cosby Show’ — that idealized idea of what New York City life should be.”
Like many Heights-based novelists before them, Griffin and Han found the atmosphere inspiring: “Of course there’s a romantic element. I look at my neighborhood and think about who lived here — who were these people? All the people who have looked at that view from the Promenade. It feels so warm compared to Manhattan where we used to live; it’s much more social walking around here,” says Griffin. “You meet people, especially on Montague Street. It doesn’t have that anonymous city vibe, but you still feel like you’re having a New York experience,” adds Han.
Montague Street is the neighborhood’s “town square” — a hub of everyday activity, whether for acquiring necessities or enjoying a break over drinks and food. “I don’t think any other place in Manhattan has a street like this,” says Calet. “You have everything within walking distance. We have the dry cleaners and the drug stores…And the drug stores and the drug stores,” he jokes. “Though you can’t buy a pair of socks in the Heights anymore,” he adds disappointedly.
What ultimately kept Volk in the Heights was more than a view and the ease of commuting into Manhattan — it was good neighbors. “The first apartment we lived in, the woman who lived on the first floor adopted us. She was very connected to the cultural scene and was on every mailing list for events. When she’d finished with them, she would put them under our door — every arts event and everything to get involved with in the city to make yourself at home. I thought that was really special. We got out of our apartment and it became a community for us. We lived in our neighborhood in Toronto for five years and never developed the rapport.”
Volk and Calet both volunteer for The Promenade Gardeners, caring for the public garden running along the waterside walk. Calet is a board member, too. “Being on the board made me very much a part of the community. That’s how I met you,” he says warmly, glancing at Volk. “It’s how I’ve met many of my neighbors. People here are alive to what makes a good city, not just a good neighborhood. Commitment and involvement in the community helped me a great deal. It gave me a community.”
For Griffin’s daughter, Brooklyn Heights is the only home she’s known: “I feel I live vicariously through my daughter. She loves her school here and her friends are here. This is her neighborhood more than mine.”
Han and Griffin are still growing into their new community. “People ask me where I’m from and I don’t know if I’ve earned the right to say Brooklyn or New York, but I feel it’s home,” says Han. “I feel like I am getting to know my neighbors already and that didn’t happen as quickly before.”
Faison, like her husband Jack, is a leading Heights citizen. She has strong ties to the Plymouth Church of The Pilgrims, where she’s still active, especially in the garden, which she took from being a wasted patch to heavenly green space. Faison believes it is essential to contribute to your neighborhood. “I just wanted to be of use and participate. It’s a privilege to be a part of this community, not a right.”
In Jack’s book, “Brooklyn Boy Remembers,” he talks about the immigrant populations of New York and notes that the Heights’ immigrants are New Englanders. No doubt Jack saw stoic New England grit in Grace.
“The only reason I’m talking to you is because I want Dozier thanked for what he did for Jack,” she says forthrightly, referring to Dozier Hasty, publisher of the Brooklyn Heights Press and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “Encouraging him and helping him to write the book really kept his spirits up towards the end of his life. You put that in there. I’m so grateful to Dozier and what he did for Jack.” With one final stare daring this thank you be omitted, she seals the deal; Hasty, who Grace calls a good neighbor, is to be thanked.
Grit and gratitude over entitlement and leisure are her core qualities. She will spend her 90th birthday with some middle-aged couples from her congregation at Plymouth Church, who are throwing her a celebratory dinner party.
“These young people want to spend time and throw a party for me,” she says. “I’m no big thing. I am amazed and so thankful for them.” Such neighborliness is a daily gift, though. “I walk up Montague Street every day and see people who say hello and stop to talk.”
Nowadays, people talk about owning a space and making it theirs. This is an alien concept in the Heights.
“I’ve been absorbed. Everything I needed was already here,” says Calet. “I didn’t need to do anything other than enjoy it as home. People came here for something and wouldn’t want to let that go. Young people still come here and pick up the culture of the place. People slow down and enjoy. It’s pretty simple.”
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