Brooklyn Heights

Longtime residents reflect on their time in Brooklyn Heights

December 12, 2014 By Linda Laban Special to the Brooklyn Heights Press
Elizabeth Gaffney. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese
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Linda and Henry Cateura have lived in the same house on Willow Street since 1966. Around the corner, Ann Walker Gaffney and her late husband, Richard, moved into their Hicks Street brownstone that same year.

“Buying this house was the best thing we ever did,” Linda says.

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She sits opposite Henry at the wooden table in the dining room of the Willow Street house’s basement apartment in which they live. The room overlooks the pretty greenery of a small, shrouded back garden. Even on this bitter late-November day, the patch remains verdant.

“You couldn’t pay me to move,” Ann Gaffney says, sitting in her elegantly comfy living room, the lofty ceilings of which are grounded by a bold old fireplace mantel.

Indeed, if anyone were to wave dollar bills and invite Gaffney to up and leave her Hicks Street home, which is split into apartments housing herself and her daughter Elizabeth’s family, they would need to offer industrial-sized buckets of cash. If there is one thing that has been pouring into the Heights this century, it’s money. This new moneyed class benefits from decades of civic action, which preserved the neighborhood.

“Back then, the area had just become landmarked,” Henry recalls. “It was beginning to have an effect. But, prior to that, a lot of great old brownstones were demolished to make way for high-rise towers — like Cadman Plaza on what was Old Fulton Street. Those were the last to be permitted before the landmark law took effect. But they had already demolished whole blocks of brownstones.”

“I was very pregnant with you when we moved here,” Ann says, nodding at Elizabeth, who sits on the adjacent couch, nursing a mug of coffee.

Elizabeth’s children play in the next room. There are three generations living in the house now.

“It was very different then; it was still very picturesque,” says the Washington, D.C. native. “But, for one thing, there were lots of hotels here. There was Club Wild Fyre, too, which was a strip club,” she shrugs.  

“There were a number of hotels here at that time, all of which were somewhat seedy,” Henry says. “The Saint George became Single Room Occupancy — an SRO. The others were not much better. The area was a mixed bag at that time: the hotels were bringing things down.”

“Basically, it was a flop house,” Ann adds about the Saint George, which was once a grand place for residents to dine, dance and socialize. Apparently, the Saint George wasn’t the only neighborhood blight; the Palm Hotel in the old Behr Mansion also fell into disrepute. “Everyone knew that was a brothel. Interestingly, when it closed, it became a Franciscan monastery. What a change of ownership,” Ann chuckles.

“I remember getting off the subway and having to walk past the Saint George back then,” Elizabeth says. “The rooms had no refrigerators and people would use the windowsills to keep their milk fresh. You always worried about the danger of falling milk bottles or produce hitting you. But I remember all this as being normal. My brother was mugged … Our basement door was kicked in. What did they use?” she asks her mom.

“A crowbar. I still have it,” Ann says. “They left it behind in their hurry to get out.”

Another memento is the screwdriver a thief dropped after breaking the Gaffneys’ car window to steal the radio. Both Ann and Elizabeth laugh at the recollection, though uncomfortably. Elizabeth’s childhood memories of street life in the Heights starkly contrast the scene today.

“I started babysitting when I was 13 and the parents would teach me how to walk safely home — things like not walking under scaffolding, or being aware of who might be following me,” she says. “It made me hyper aware in the street. Now, I don’t worry so much. The street crime rate is lower now; in the ’70s, there were good reasons to be scared. Even though I don’t worry, I will teach my children to be aware and be safe on the streets.”

“There was quite a bit of crime,” Henry recalls. “A lot of burglaries, attacks on people. Low-level, but crime nevertheless. We were burglarized twice in the late ’60s and 1970s. Things have improved since then.”

“Absolutely, yes, it’s completely changed,” agrees New Haven-born Linda.

As soon as she left college, Linda headed to New York City, eventually landing an editorial position at Harper’s Bazaar. Since moving to the Heights to raise their children, Linda has written several nonfiction books, including a notable art book, “Oil Painting Secrets from a Master,” which was first published in 1984 and remains a worldwide bestseller.

Henry was born in Manhattan and says he has lived in every borough. Before he retired, he worked for an oil company — “in the economics end of it,” he says vaguely.

For a time, he was vice president of the Brooklyn Heights Association.

Ann, a history buff, is an accomplished graphic designer and artist. She compiles the official Brooklyn Heights Association Calendar from reproductions of historic area maps as well as her own drawings and photographs of the streets through the seasons. Her husband Richard, whose roots lie in Rehoboth Beach, Del., was a painter and printmaker, and chairman of the department of art, theater and music at Staten Island’s Wagner College.

An accomplished author and former managing editor of New York literary quarterly The Paris Review, Elizabeth is now the editor-at-large of the Brooklyn-based literary magazine A Public Space. Her most recent novel, “When the World was Young,” is set in post-WWII Brooklyn Heights.  

Post-war decline and neighborhood devastation, which hit much of New York City, didn’t spare Brooklyn Heights. But street crime wasn’t the community’s only enemy: the expansion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway into western parts of the borough threatened the neighborhood with devastation, including the very home in which Ann now sits with her daughter and grandchildren.

“If the original plan had gone through, we wouldn’t be in our house,” Ann says grimly. “We didn’t always have the Promenade. The mansions on Columbia Heights had gardens that went down to the piers; they had the views. And these grand houses lost their beautiful gardens when the expressway was built.”

From lobbying en masse to become a landmarked historic district, to individuals preserving their own properties, civil action saved Brooklyn Heights from the destruction many neighborhoods suffered from the 1960s to the 1980s. There was also unexpected outside help in preserving its architectural treasures and quality of life.

“To my mind,” Henry says, “what really helped the area — although we didn’t like it at the time — is the Jehovah’s Witnesses started buying up all these questionable properties and improved them. They took over the Bossert Hotel and some brownstones, and everything they did was first class, if you ask me. You’d see them walking around in flocks and we thought, ‘What’s going on?’ That was 1968 to 1969 and they kept on expanding, which worried some people. Even though there was resentment at the beginning, eventually, everyone felt they were doing a good job. They proved a great asset to the Heights.”

The recent decrease in the Jehovah’s Witnesses real estate holdings in the Heights will set off new changes, Henry fears.

“They sold many properties, selling to people who are active with children and cars,” he says. “The Witnesses had no children here. The population will increase exponentially, so they say.”

Though the area is already more congested, the Heights retains its cozy neighborhood feel. But for how long, Henry wonders.

“I have a sense of it being more crowded, but it’s not unlivable,” he adds. “It’s just a whole different feeling; there are nannies all over the place. PSA is bulging. People don’t know what they’re going to do with their kids. There’s no immediate answer. There are private schools here, but they’re expensive. On the other hand, I have a feeling the people moving in around here are wealthy. Someone joked recently there’s so much money around here now, people call out for their coffee in the morning and have it delivered.”

Henry is incredulous that people don’t make their own coffee. Extravagance is one thing, but the lack of effort to perform a simple daily necessity is a greater concern.

“The Jehovah’s Witnesses took care of things; I don’t know if the new people will,” Henry shrugs. “There’s a new wealth moving in. There’s got to be some place you can go nowadays without a big bankroll, surely.”

 


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