Don’t Let The Name Fool You

July 19, 2010

When you hear the name of the place, it would be reasonable to assume that it is somewhere along the Hudson or East Rivers. But don’t let the name fool you. Manhattan Beach is not on, or near, the island of Manhattan. In fact, this neighborhood is located on the narrow peninsula that forms the southernmost boundary of Brooklyn.

Physically, Manhattan Beach is about 12 miles from Manhattan Island and less than two miles — straight down the road — from the bright lights, clatter and raucous throng at Coney Island. But culturally, economically and spiritually, Manhattan Beach is a world unto itself.

The area was first developed as a summer resort by the Manhattan Beach Improvement Company. In 1877, the company opened two luxury hotels here along the sparkling sand. By the time World War I erupted, the hotels had both been torn down and the land sold to a residential developer. Soon the quiet stretch of beach, only three blocks wide, was filling with single family homes, many of them lavish enough to be described as mansions.

Today, the neighborhood, where the streets are in alphabetical order, is one of the wealthiest, quietest and safest in New York City. Since 1955 it has included a 40 acre public park that boasts fountains, playgrounds, picnic tables, two baseball diamonds and tennis, volleyball, basketball, and handball courts.

In fact, the most significant change to the stability of this enclave of about 7,000 people has been an influx of newer residents, many of them immigrants from Russia, during the past decade.

Many of the newcomers have purchased older houses, torn them down and replaced them with larger, showier, more elaborate places. Quite a few of these new residents tend to favor architecture reminiscent of The Sopranos or Las Vegas. But they, just like those who have lived here for generations, adhere to the neighborhood’s unspoken creed: they are fiercely protective of their property, their privacy and their community.

An armed private security force, the Beachside Neighborhood Patrol, drives through these wide, quiet, shady streets, keeping an eye out for trouble. A significant number of the homes prominently display burglar alarm signs, security cameras, keypad locks. Houses and yards are hidden behind impenetrable hedges (both natural and artificial), high fences, locked gates.

And yet … this is no exclusive, gated community that is locked away from the world. The residents of Manhattan Beach are sophisticated, dedicated urbanites who have consciously chosen to live in the most populous borough in the largest city in the US.

Here, behind the thick hedges, beyond the manicured lawns, they enjoy the best of both worlds: the richness, diversity, art and culture of the city, along with the space, tranquility, peace and quiet of the country — and all of that, just steps from the ocean and public transportation.

No Trespassing signs on a dead-end street in Manhattan Beach

A backyard with an ocean view


Hedge and wall ensure privacy

Fence embellished with gold paint

A home in Manhattan Beach overlooking Sheepshead Bay

Plenty of custom windows here

Paved driveway behind gates

Curved plantings echo curved stairs

A synagogue in Manhattan Beach

Cedars in pots hide the back yard

Beige stone with red tiles

Off street parking

Elaborate roof structures

Little room between these houses

Red brick and white woodwork

Victorian-inspired with multiple balconies

Balcony and roof deck

Elaborate front gate

Mediterranean influence

Front yard with plantings

No one can see inside when there are no windows

Beachside Neighborhood Patrol saved after surge of support from Manhattan Beach
Manhattan Beach Community Group
If You’re Thinking of Living In Manhattan Beach
Sheepshead Bites

Where a Girl Can Find a New Best Friend

December 15, 2008

A kiss on the hand
May be quite continental,
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

A kiss may be grand
But it won’t pay the rental
On your humble flat
Or help you at the automat.

Men grow cold
As girls grow old,
And we all lose our charms in the end.

But square-cut or pear-shaped,
These rocks don’t loose their shape.
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

–Jule Styne, 1953

Midtown Manhattan is home to the world’s largest shopping district for diamonds and fine jewelry. The quiet, elegant shops of Tiffany, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpel, Harry Winston, DeBeers, H. Stern, Bulgari, Mikimoto, Dunhill and Piaget are clustered in the area around 5th Avenue and 57th Street.

Ten blocks further south, on West 47th St between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas, is an entirely different type of jewelry shopping experience. Over 90 percent of the diamonds that enter the United States go through New York City, and most of those spend some time on here, in the Diamond District.

The District, confined to a single city block, holds close to 3,000 jewelers, most of them working in booths within the marketplaces known as exchanges. Inside the exchanges, haggling is expected. The deals often involve great displays of emotion with buyers and sellers gesturing wildly and shouting in dozens of languages.

Out on the street, barkers stand outside the shops, urging passersby to enter and offering to buy unwanted gold, silver and platinum. Couriers rush along the sidewalks, briefcases holding fortunes in jewels handcuffed to their wrists. Rich and poor alike stop to gaze at the glittering windows, behind which, it is said, total receipts for a single day’s trade average $400 million.

Banner on a lamppost

Sign outside a diamond exchange

Two diamond-topped pylons mark each end of the District

Diamonds on holiday decorations

Sign for a diamond exchange

Shopper inspects a window

Necklaces hang in a shop window

Jewelry on display

Window at a diamond exchange

Sign at a diamond exchange

Diamonds on an awning

A row of diamond shops

Window shoppers

The Diamond District
Reel Classics: Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend

Open House New York: Richmond Hill

October 7, 2007

I spent this, the final day of OpenHouseNewYork, in Richmond Hill, Queens.

Located more or less in the center of the borough, in many ways Richmond Hill seems more like a suburban community than a part of the city of New York. The streets are filled with single homes, many with driveways and garages. The residents spend sunny days washing cars, mowing lawns and puttering in vegetable gardens.

There is a small business district cluttered with store-front lawyers and tax preparers, family-run candy shops and discount stores, fast food joints and Latin American restaurants. Richmond Hills also contains a handful of notable churches, a few neighborhood institutions and more than its share of boarded up buildings, including a train station abandoned by the Long Island Railroad.

The most remarkable aspect of the area, however, is the way it has been divided into two camps: the long-time residents who want to preserve its past and, far outnumbering them, the newcomers who have come here to build.

Not long ago, Richmond Hill was best known for its stock of century-old wooden Victorian  houses, many with large yards. But, unlike many areas where such buildings are protected, the residents here have never been able to rouse the city into giving the structures here protected landmark status.

As a result, the newcomers tend to treat the houses either as tear-downs (the house is demolished and a new structure built in its place) or remodels (original features are destroyed and replaced by incongruous, often gaudy elements).

Trees are ripped out and buildings extended to the very edges of their lots. Fishscale shingles are covered with vinyl siding, cedar shakes are hidden behind asbestos tiles and brick veneer. Wrought-iron gates are replaced by chrome, wooden millwork is stripped off, gilded plaster hidden behind suspended tile ceilings. Satellite dishes replace privet hedges and lawns are turned into parking lots.

A walking tour through the district is accompanied by a sad litany of vanished treasures. But the long-time residents are fighting back. They’ve organized the Richmond Hill Historical Society and are working to preserve and protect their neighborhood’s heritage.

Richmond Hill still contains architectural treasures including the remaining Victorians, the public library (an original Carnegie library), the Catholic and Episcopal churches and Jahn’s, an ice cream parlor founded in 1897 which still contains its original fountain, player piano, hanging lamps and furnishings.

While the majority of the newer residents have no interest in historic preservation, other newcomers are busily painting, plastering, re-pointing and restoring their historic homes to their former glory. Clearly, the final chapter in the battle for the character of Richmond Hill has yet to be written.

Victorian home with stained glass windows and wooden trim

Syrup dispenser in Jahn’s

Jahn’s soda fountain and amber light fixtures

Restored Victorian features several types of shingles

Sleeping balconies were used on hot summer nights

Another type of sleeping balcony

A homeowner lovingly paints his Victorian

A “Painted Lady”-style paint job

Experimenting with contrasting shades and colors

The roof lines were inspired by pagodas

Painted terra-cotta on old apartment building

Crumbling remains of a community center

Entryway to former RKO Keith’s movie theater, now a flea market

The theater’s grandeur hidden behind florescent lights

Wooden Victorian “improved” with plaster columns and circular marble staircase

When these remodelers ran out of vinyl siding, they continued in a different color

Victorian house “improved” with columns and bricked-over windows

Wooden Victorian “improved” with asbestos shingles

openhousenewyork weekend
Richmond Hill Historical Society Archive Museum
Historic Richmond Hill Walking Tour
The Richmond Hill Historical Society
Forgotten NY: Richmond Hill
The Food Section: Jahn’s, the Best Way to Travel Back in Time
Wikipedia: Carnegie Libraries

Open House Harlem Pt 2: Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill

October 6, 2007

The OpenHouseNewYork Weekend continued with a trip to another section of Harlem, the areas known as Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill.

Like Manhattanville, the western boundary of Hamilton Heights is the Hudson River, the eastern end at St. Nicholas. The neighborhood’s name derives from its most notable early resident, the first Secretary of the US Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who spent the last years of his life here at his country home.

As with Manhattanville, development here started in earnest when the railway lines were extended. A jewels of the area is the Church of the Intercession, built on one of the highest points of Manhattan. Its origins date to 1843, when sanitation problems downtown led Wall Street’s Trinity Church to stop performing burials in their yard.

To create a solution, Trinity reached beyond the city limits and purchased a large parcel of land in the tiny country hamlet of Carmansville for use as a graveyard. The land, which they dubbed Trinity Church Cemetery, became the last resting place of many notable and affluent citizens.

Within a few years, demand began for a convenient chapel, eventually leading to construction of the Gothic style cathedral that adjoins the Cemetery. Now celebrating its 160th anniversary, the Church features an altar designed by Tiffany, notable terracotta floor tiles, and an Aeolian Skinner organ.

Nearby is Audubon Terrace, which fills a block that was once part of a farm owned by naturalist John James Audubon. Created by railroad heir Archer Huntington, Audubon Terrace was intended as a modern-day acropolis, a sophisticated center of art and culture. At the dawn of the 20th century, Huntington hired the leading architects of the day, including Stanford White and Cass Gilbert. They designed the Beaux-Arts plaza and buildings that today house the Hispanic Society of America, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Boricua College.

Sugar Hill, a residential section of Hamilton Heights, was once the country’s most fashionable address for African Americans, the place where life was sweet. In these palatial brownstones and apartment buildings lived the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, including Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn (who immortalized the neighborhood in his song Take the ‘A’ Train), Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Zora Neale Hurston and Paul Robeson.

The neighborhood was also home to prominent professionals and civil rights activists like W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Adam Clayton Powell and Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court justice.

When the city’s fortunes declined in the late 1960s and 1970s, this area was severely affected; as most of the well-heeled moved away, drugs and violence became widespread. Elegant brownstones were divided into cheap, poorly-maintained apartments, then vandalized. A significant number of neglected buildings were demolished or burned.

But today, Sugar Hill is on the upswing. Professionals, artists and community activists again walk these streets. Newly-created private schools and arts institutions (including the Dance Theatre of Harlem) have made this area their home.

Everywhere are signs of renewal and revitalization. Houses that were filled with squatters only a few years ago are now being restored and selling for millions of dollars. Buildings that had become rooming houses are being converted back to spacious homes and Sugar Hill is again becoming one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city.

Audubon Terrace at 155th Street and Broadway

Sculpture on the Plaza at Audubon Terrace

Bas-relief of Don Quixote on horseback

Above the entrance to the former home of the Museum of the American Indian

Entrance to American Society of Arts & Letters

The Church of the Intercession

Detail of wall at the Church of the Intercession

Gatehouse at Trinity Church Cemetery

The Gould mausoleum in the Cemetery

Garret Storm’s mausoleum in Trinity Church Cemetery


Building with Mansard roof in Sugar Hill

On W. 152nd St., three houses designed to look like one

Restored buildings on St. Nicholas Avenue

Classic Sugar Hill brownstones on St. Nicholas

Row of houses on St. Nicholas Avenue

Doorway with stained glass panel

Wrought iron railings in Sugar Hill

Painted stonework highlights the construction date

openhousenewyork weekend
Hamilton Heights Homeowners Association
The Hispanic Society of America
Church of the Intercession
NY Times: Living in Sugar Hill
Harlem One Stop Tour: Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill
Historic Districts Council: Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill
Hamilton Heights-West Harlem Community Preservation Organization
Harlem One Stop Tour: A Walk Through Sugar Hill
Harlem One Stop Tour: Trinity Cemetery
Dance Theatre of Harlem

Open House Harlem Pt 1: Manhattanville/W. Harlem

October 6, 2007

NOTE: Thanks to a particularly robust strain of influenza, Blather from Brooklyn was knocked out of the blogosphere for more than a week and a half. Publication is resuming where it left off when the flu bug raised its ugly head.

OpenHouseNewYork Weekend is here, a time when New York celebrates architecture and design. Sites around the city throw open doors that are usually closed to the public while designers, historians and enthusiasts eagerly lead packs of the curious on walking tours and explorations.

This afternoon, as part of the celebration, participants were treated to a tour that included elements of West Harlem’s past and future: highlights of the now mostly-vanished industrial neighborhood known as Manhattanville and a preview of a waterfront park scheduled to open next year.

Situated between St. Nicholas Terrace and the Hudson River, Manhattanville was once a quiet waterfront village eight miles north of New York City. The 1800s brought paved streets, Robert Fulton’s ferryboat and a flock of city residents who ventured north for the green fields, fresh country air and new opportunities.

In the closing years of the 19th century, when construction of an elevated railway made it possible to travel from Wall Street to Manhattanville in less than an hour, the population tripled. The area was rapidly transformed from a community of tenant farmers and factory workers to a bustling commercial and transportation hub.

Over the years, changing fortunes plunged Manhattanville into a decline. But today, those who know where to look can glimpse the area’s past glory. Some of the luxurious buildings that rose here in the early 1900s are relatively unchanged, their facades still clad in marble and terra-cotta. In certain spots beneath the elevated tracks, the asphalt has worn away, exposing the granite Belgian blocks and bronze insignias of the long-defunct 3rd Avenue line.

As for the future, you’ll view it by crossing the West Side Highway to the spot where 125th Street ends at Marginal Street. There, along the river, is a construction project that will reclaim a long-inaccessible section of waterfront. Known as West Harlem Waterfront Park, the project is transforming a grubby, weed-filled parking lot into a lively spot for recreation.

When it opens next year, the small but carefully-designed park will contain sculptures, fountains and benches. It will feature designated spaces for fishing, kayaking, playing, performing and relaxing in the sun. Most importantly, it will fill a missing link in the greenway and bike path that will eventually stretch along the entire length of Manhattan island.

Under the elevated tracks

Plaque and unused tracks of the 3rd Avenue line

The view from Marginal Street

The fence is opened for OHNY visitors

This area will be filled with grass

Trees and grass will grow here soon

Design of the long, narrow park is based on intersecting triangles

Benches and walkway under construction

The future Water Taxi pier

The proposed fishing pier

The kayak launching area

The park will end here but the bike path will continue

openhousenewyork weekend
West Harlem Waterfront Park
Eric K. Washington
Archipelago Architecture and Landscape Architecture
Community Board 9: West Side Harlem
DMJM Harris: West Harlem Waterfront Redevelopment Program
NYLCV: Work Finally Begins on West Harlem Waterfront Park

A Day on Sheepshead Bay

November 29, 2006

“If you’d come here five, ten years ago,” said the old waitress, “you would have seen twice as many boats, three times as many restaurants and none of these great big places. Back then the tallest building was three stories high.”

She leaned on the counter, wiped her hands on her apron, and talked about the neighborhood’s many vanished businesses. In recent years, dozens of mom and pop stores have disappeared as real estate developers bought up blocks, demolished the existing structures and replaced them with luxury condominiums.

Similar stories can be heard in nearly every corner of the city but the denizens of this neighborhood are a stubborn lot, and most are determined to stay put here in Brooklyn’s only fishing village, Sheepshead Bay.

The Bay, named after the sheepshead (a large saltwater fish), is renowned for its abundant waters. Fishing once played a vital role in the neighborhood’s economy and the area around the concrete piers on Emmons Avenue still includes several bait and tackle shops, seafood restaurants and clam bars.

While the sheepshead disappeared from these waters long ago, the piers remain crowded with dozens of ducks, gulls, swans and fishing boats. The fleet usually goes out after dawn and returns before dark. The boats are met by shoppers who eagerly swap cooking tips and snatch up the catch of the day, often including flounder, tuna, bluefish and crabs.

A bit further down the road, tucked between the yacht clubs and construction sites, are a few rusted gates. These lead to narrow alleyways crowded with tiny bungalows. Most of the alleys and cottages are what remains of Sheepshead Bay’s first housing development, built around 1920 by a developer named Robert Densely.

A bit farther down the street, past the few retirement homes and “no-tell” motels, Emmons Avenue turns into an entrance to the Belt Parkway. The sand dunes begin where the sidewalk ends. The trails in the sand lead down to a quiet beach, where amateur fishermen patiently throw their nets into the water and haul their evening’s meals from the Bay.

The fishing fleet on the bay  Posted by Picasa

The Brooklyn VI boasts a “Curtious” Crew  Posted by Picasa

The Crystal Marie  Posted by Picasa

Fisherman on deck, filling bag for customer Posted by Picasa

Entrance to Sheepshead Bay Yacht Club  Posted by Picasa

Bernie’s Bait & Tackle  Posted by Picasa

Stella Maris Fishing Shop  Posted by Picasa

Sand dunes  Posted by Picasa

Brush on sand dunes  Posted by Picasa

Cottages at 3082 Emmons Avenue  Posted by Picasa

More cottages at 3082 Emmons Avenue  Posted by Picasa

View of Bay from 3082 Emmons Avenue  Posted by Picasa

View from the center of Lake Avenue  Posted by Picasa

Houses on Hitchings Avenue  Posted by Picasa

Swan  Posted by Picasa

Swans and ducks near the Ocean Avenue footbridge  Posted by Picasa

Ocean Avenue footbridge  Posted by Picasa

WPA Guide: Sheepshead Bay
Wikipedia: Sheepshead Bay
Forgotten NY: Sheepshead Bay
Forgotten NY: Alleys of Sheepshead Bay
Sheepshead Bay Party Boats
NY Fisherman: Sheepshead Bay
Sheepshead Bay Yacht Club
The Belt Parkway

They call it “Blooklyn”

October 13, 2006

You say you’ve been to Chinatown in New York? Which Chinatown?

The fact is, New York City now has three separate Chinatowns. The oldest is in Manhattan. The largest is in Queens. And the smallest and newest is right here in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Brooklyn’s Chinatown is centered on 8th Avenue between 50th and 60th Streets. It is commonly believed that the Chinese moved here because they consider the number eight fortuitous for business and “8th Avenue” can be interpreted as “the road to wealth.”


But a more plausible explanation is that those seeking to escape from Chinatown Manhattan’s crowded, twisting alleys, noisy factories and overflowing tenements appreciated Sunset Park’s clean, grassy recreation areas, the relatively wide streets, an abundance of retail space and a direct subway connection to friends and jobs in the old Chinatown.

As with the other Chinatowns, many of the most visible businesses here are focused on food – preparing it, serving it, selling it. The curbs are lined with baskets of skittering crabs, tubs of fat, bobbing bullfrogs and Styrofoam coolers of flopping, freshly-caught fish. Vendors stand in tiny pushcarts, transforming thick, eggy batter into hot, puffy cakes ($1 a bagfull) and transforming skewers of marinated meat into hot, sizzling satay ($1 each). Bakeries fill the air with the scents of fresh-browned chestnut bread, lotus cakes, cinnamon crisps and pork buns.

In terms of charm and quaintness, Chinatown Brooklyn comes in dead last, which means that it is almost completely free of hulking tour buses, pushy sightseers and cheap, tacky souvenirs. If you go, instead of t-shirt shops and Starbucks, you’ll see hundreds of businesses that cater to the residents’ daily needs: insurance agencies, banks, bakeries, pharmacies, acupuncture clinics, hairdressers, tutoring services, cell phone centers, internet cafes, restaurant uniform and supply stores and florists.

Want to know which shops have just opened? Look near the doorway for an array of green plants festooned with red ribbons, traditionally thought to bring luck to a new enterprise.

Church notice board Posted by Picasa

Egg cake cart Posted by Picasa

Fa Da Mall Posted by Picasa

Moms doing errands Posted by Picasa

Price list in beauty salon Posted by Picasa

Funny dry cleaning shop Posted by Picasa

Optician’s shop Posted by Picasa

Sign in deli window Posted by Picasa

Dried fruit displayed outside shop Posted by Picasa

Banks at the corner of 55th & 8th Posted by Picasa

Fresh caught and for sale curbside Posted by Picasa

New Dawang Seafood Market Posted by Picasa

Hong Kong Supermarket Posted by Picasa

  • Village Voice: The Other, Other Chinatown
  • Asia’zine: Brooklyn’s Chinatown
  • Chinatown NYC: Brooklyn
  • Prosper with 8 88 888 88888

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