Brooklyn’s Flatbush Malls become grass median oases in the age of social distancing
In 1899, Dean Alvord purchased a 50-acre tract of Brooklyn farmland to develop a new neighborhood, Prospect Park South. He envisioned this community as “rus in urbe,” the country in the city. Crucial to cultivating this rural atmosphere were the Flatbush Malls, a series of grass medians along Albemarle Road; these were to be communal oases for the neighborhood’s residents. Yet for most of their existence the malls have sat unused, simply becoming eye-pleasing ornamentation for car passengers to glance at while whizzing by.
The arrival of COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown has brought fundamental changes to daily existence, including life along Albemarle Road. The Flatbush Malls have finally become the sanctuary that Alvord had intended them to be, although most of the visitors are coming not from the private homes of tree-lined Prospect Park South but from the surrounding neighborhoods where homes are surrounded by concrete and asphalt.
“There’s people painting and knitting and playing ukuleles,” said Chris Lindsay-Abaire, 50, who is a board member of the Prospect Park South Association. “People bring their laptops, it’s like an open-air office.”
While the expansive Prospect Park is not far away, many Brooklynites have come to prefer hanging out at the Flatbush Malls. “I tan and listen to podcasts and I usually read,” said Eana, a 21-year old student, who declined to give her last name. “It’s nice to be outside and not feel like I always have to wear a mask because it’s more isolated. In Prospect Park, you have to dig around and find a place to hang out in that’s not super crowded.”
Others use the malls as a space for social-distanced socializing. “We have a lot of friends that are spread out through Windsor Terrace and Ditmas Park, so it’s a nice middle point for all of us,” said Rachel Zeiss, 32, who lives in a nearby apartment with her husband, George, also 32. “It’s nice to have some sort of human interaction while staying safe.”
The uptick in visitors to the Flatbush Malls has met no resistance from the community — in fact, the neighborhood has embraced it. “It’s brought a sense of vitality to the community that wasn’t present before,” said Lindsay-Abaire.
“There was a house with a sign and they welcomed you to sit on their lawn,” said Samantha, 13, who sat with a group playing cards and eating dinner on the mall. “It’s clean and convenient, people who come here clean up after themselves, you don’t sit in trash,” added Daisy, 49, who was with the same party.
“It just seems very communal,” said Fernanda Lai, 38, who lives in Los Angeles but has been staying with her sister and visiting the malls regularly. She brought “The Untethered Soul” by Michael A. Singer to pass the time.
George Ford, 41, was listening to a podcast and reading a book, “All Grown Up” by Jami Attenberg. He had initially been reluctant to use the medians, he said, because “it’s in the middle of the road and that might not be the safest place to hang out.” But after walking past on numerous occasions he realized it was actually quite serene.
Lindsay-Abaire, who lives on the corner of Albermarle Road, says that sense of calm along the Flatbush Malls stemmed from reduced traffic when streets emptied during the worst of the pandemic. She also mentioned that a series of new stop signs were added along Albemarle Road in April, making the malls “a safer place than it was in the past.”
The malls extend down the middle of Albemarle Road between Coney Island Avenue and Buckingham Road, and continue around the corner on Buckingham Road for one additional block. While owned by the Department of Transportation, the malls are maintained by the Prospect Park South Association, which uses funds donated by neighborhood residents to hire private caretakers. An assortment of pine and oak trees, holly bushes, other trees, and seasonal flowers are planted along the malls, and the serenity the nature brings is a strong attraction for those utilizing the medians.
“It’s cathartic coming out here, it’s very tranquil,” said Allison, 24, who lives twenty minutes away by foot. “During the pandemic it’s definitely a way to relax my nerves a little bit.”
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