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Crown Heights and the Resurgence of a Glorious Past

With a rich history, and being more affordable than Manhattan, Crown Heights’ recent transformation is drawing the attention of savvy buyers

Crown Heights, Brooklyn (Wikimedia Commons).

While not always having been a desirable neighborhood, Crown Heights’ checkered past with racial relations is now only a part of history. Today the neighborhood offers stability, charm and value, being a Manhattan alternative that is “10 times less noisy than Manhattan, and 10 times more spacious”

Park Place, Crown Heights (Credit: Laura Wagner).

Although the memory of 1991’s race riots in Crown Heights has faded, many still recall the tension created by Jewish & African American residents as they were pinned against each other, in one of NYC’s ugliest racial conflicts.

Thankfully, there have been significant changes in the area and, now including the western parts of Prospect Park, it is enjoying a similar popularity to other sections of Brooklyn. Since 2002 the transformation that the area has experienced is no less startling than in many other upscale neighborhoods.  Since it is more affordable than Downtown Brooklyn, many have chosen Crown Heights based on its value.

Film client Alexandra da Sousa would be a perfect example of a former Manhattanite who decided that sleep deprivation was a good enough reason to consider relocating.  In 2005 when she chose Crown Heights, the main draw, as she explained it, was that it was “10 times less noisy than Manhattan, and apartments were 10 times more spacious”. Purchasing her 1908 brownstone also gave her the advantage of culling her worldwide possessions, and nesting them under one roof.  “Sleeping with open windows and waking with birds chirping” were just a few of the aesthetic reasons for her decision. Entertaining has been yet another factor, as she seldom hosts less than 20 around her dinner table, often encouraging friends in her circle to invite acquaintances, creating lively and diverse evenings.       

As many may recall, in 2005 Crown Heights would not conjure thoughts of stability, as tension in the streets still prevailed. However, there were those who forged ahead, carving a niche for themselves, while creating a home in what was then considered a fringe neighborhood. The upside, as Alexandra tells it, was the affordability of shopping for flowers/food and a host of other daily necessities. Prices for amenities were drastically lower than in neighboring areas.  

Black Lady Theater (Credit: Laura Wagner)

 As a scientist, at that time she was transitioning from doing humanitarian work to working for UNICEF. Crown Heights’ proximity to JFK was an added luxury, accommodating her frequent travel schedule.  With one medical degree and two Ph.D.’s, Dr. da Sousa enjoys feeding her curiosity through her studies, which takes her on long and extensive research programs often to remote parts of the world. As she is currently residing in Ethiopia, her brownstone is on the market for rent. 

The landmarked mansion was the former home of fur trader Isaac Meseritz. The Edwardian interior has been preserved, retaining the oak and walnut sliding doors, coffered ceilings, mantles, and stained glass windows; an ideal backdrop for gracious entertaining in any era. Upon entering the kitchen, you leave the 20th century behind, with state of the art appliances and contemporary cabinetry throughout. However, the crowning jewel is a wisteria-covered pergola in the rear garden. After viewing this, one can easily understand Alexandra’s decision to reset her GPS to Crown Heights, as many others have since.

Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights (Credit: Laura Wagner).

Crown Heights is located in the central portion of Brooklyn, with Eastern Parkway, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, being its main thoroughfare. Bordering neighborhoods include Prospect Heights to the west, Flatbush and  Prospect Lefferts Garden to the south, Brownsville to the east, and Bedford- Stuyvesant to the north.

The areas around present-day Crown Heights saw their first European settlements starting in 1661 or 1662, when Governor Peter Stuyvesant and the directors of the Dutch West India Company granted a group of men “particles of free woodland” to develop, on the condition that the homes would not become a hamlet.

In the mid-20th century, Crown Heights became a fashionable residential neighborhood, a place for Manhattan’s growing bourgeois class. In the 1900’s traditional brownstone buildings were constructed along Eastern Parkway, attracting a more upper class clientele, and peaking in the 1920’s. Before WWII, Crown Heights was among NYC’s premier neighborhoods. However, following the end of WWII, suburbanization began to affect CH, with many families moving east. 

The 1957 departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the ultimate destruction of Ebbets Field served as the end of the old white ethnic Crown Heights. The demographic change was astounding; in 1960 the neighborhood was 70% white, and by 1970 it had become 70% black. The one exception were the Lubavitch Hasidic Jews, who are still a highly visible group of residents.    

As of 2010, Crown Heights’ population consists of a majority of West Indian and African Americans; reflecting the most varied population of Caribbean immigrants outside the West Indies.  The West Indian Carnival is one of the neighborhood’s most anticipated annual events.  This colorful parade begins on Utica Avenue and ends at the Grand Army Plaza, traveling along Eastern Parkway.

Nostrand Ave, Crown Heights: (Credit Laura Wagner)

Lincoln Place, Crown Heights (Credit: Laura Wagner).

Crown Heights is home to some of NYC’s greatest attractions, beginning with the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.  Aside from Prospect Park, you can visit smaller, more intimate parks such as Brower, St. Johns and Wingate. The Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch is located along Eastern Parkway.     

Lefferts Historic House, located within Prospect Park, is the former home of Continental Army Lieutenant Pieter Lefferts and was built in 1783.   Formerly a farmhouse, it is now a Museum focusing on family life in Brooklyn in the 19th century. 

On the eastern part of Prospect Park lies the Boathouse, built in 1905-07 by proteges of McKim, Mead & White; it shares many architectural features with the original Penn Station. After 20 years as a Visitors Center, in the late 1990s the Boathouse was restored and now houses the Audubon Center–the Audubon Society’s only urban interpretive center in the US.     

The Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, located at the intersection of Prospect Park West and Flatbush Avenue is one of the borough’s most frequented weekly venues. Founded in 1989, it is the second largest market in NYC; only Union Square is larger.  It’s open Saturdays year round from  8am to 4pm.

Some of the city’s most notable figures reside–or have resided– in Crown Heights, including politician Shirley Chisholm, music mogul Clive Davis, journalist Maggie Haberman, novelist Norman Mailer, soprano Beverly Sills, just to name a few.

And if thoughts of a move are on the horizon for you, you might consider hosting your next dinner party at 851 Park Place, in historic Crown Heights.

My thanks to Wayne Burkey for an insider’s guide to Crown Heights … 

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