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City Living: Fort Greene is a haven of history

fort greene

fort greene Credit: See more photos of the neighborhood in our gallery below. (Linda Rosier)

Nestled between a park and the waterfront, the centuries-old Fort Greene neighborhood offers cultural diversity and accessibility.

Ask Cecilia Clarke how she likes living in Fort Greene and she’ll tell you that  “Fort Greene is the best place I have ever lived in my life. Ever.”

Why?

“I moved to Fort Greene ten years ago from Brooklyn Heights and within two weeks I had good friends on my block, the 51-year-old CEO of the Brooklyn Community Foundation said. “I have never, ever  experienced anything like that--the clusters of friendships up and down my street are amazing. And I love the sense of devotion to community that you find here.”

JoAnn Ebanks, an agent with Citi Habitats, bought a home in Fort Greene 15 years ago.

 “When I graduated from Howard it seemed that all my friends were going straight to Fort Greene. There are lots of Brooklyn neighborhoods with great architecture but there’s so much more to Fort Greene,” she said. “It’s the people who add such a wonderful dimension. People come wanting community and they want a diverse community -- diverse racially and economically. And that’s exactly what they get.”

Rodney Ripps, 59, who is an agent with Halstead, agrees.

“Fort Greene, where I’ve lived for seven  years,  is the best reflection of all ethnicities and cultures, of rich and poor,” he explained. “I love the cool vibe, the laissez faire attitude among residents. And there’s the supreme architecture: from what was once Brooklyn’s tallest building, the former Williamsburg Savings Bank, to the rows and rows of 19th century townhouses and  wood frame gems.”

And if that’s not enough, he said, there’s also the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) cultural district: arts galore at BAM itself, the BAM Cinema, the Mark Morris Dance Center, the Theater for the New Audience, the new BRIC House Art Center and Urban Glass workshop and just a few blocks away from BAM, the Irondale Theater.

This neighborhood that residents love so much, owes its name to a fort -- originally called Fort Putnam -- built in 1776 by General Nathanael Greene and renamed in his honor in 1812.

During the Battle of Long Island, the continental army, led by George Washington, surrendered to the British at the fort and retreated to Manhattan.

After the defeat, the British imprisoned thousands of men and women on ships moored out on the East River. Not surprisingly, conditions were deplorable, and 11,500 prisoners died on the ships, according to the city Parks Department. Fort Greene Park’s Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1905, is a memorial to the lost prisoners.

It was one of Fort Greene’s most famous residents, Walt Whitman, at the time a newspaper editor, who lobbied for the creation of a public park, then known as Washington Park, in the 1840s.

In 1867, when Fort Greene had become solidly middle- and upper middle-class, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the designers of Central and Prospect parks, laid out a new plan for the park, which remains today.

A large swath of Fort Greene was designated a landmarked historic area in 1978. In the words of architectural historian Andrew Dolkart, who wrote a report supporting the historic designation: “The Fort Greene area retains its original character to an astonishing degree. The graceful Italianate, Second Empire and Neo Grec rows [of houses] create a united architectural composition that continues to reflect the lifestyle of Brooklyn.”

More than 100 years ago, historian E. Idell Zeisloft described Fort Greene as a “dwelling place for business folk and employees who possess moderate incomes, and those of greater means, who abhor the feverish and artificial joys of the modern Babel.”

In 2013 the description still applies.

Find it:

The boundaries of the neighborhood are “a bit of a moving goal post” according to Phillip Kellogg, director of the three-year-old Fulton Area Business Alliance but he states with confidence that they are Vanderbilt Avenue to the East, Flatbush Avenue to the West, Atlantic Avenue to the South and the Navy Yard to the North.

Transportation

Trains:

B, Q, R to DeKalb Avenue

 2, 3, 4, 5, B, Q to Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center

C to Lafayette Avenue

G to Fulton Street

Buses:

B25, B26, B38, B41, B45, B52, B54, B57, B62, B69

Library:

Walt Whitman Branch Library

93 St. Edwards St.

718-935-0244

Post office:

The closest Post Office is the Pratt Station branch at 524 Myrtle Ave. It will lose its lease soon however, and its relocation address is not yet posted.

Crime:

Fort Greene is served by the 88th Precinct at 298 Classon Ave. Its Commanding Officer, Deputy Inspector Scott Henderson, graduated Fort Greene's Brooklyn Tech High School in 1988 so he knows the area well. In his Precinct, crime is down 76% since 1990, almost 25% since 2001. Grand larceny is slightly up over last year, under 10%, which is due primarily to iPhone thefts.

Celebs who have lived in Fort Greene:

Walt Whitman

Richard Wright, wrote “Native Son” while living in the nabe

Erykah Badu

Real estate:

Trish Martin, executive director of sales for Brooklyn’s Halstead branch, says: “Whatever becomes available -- condos, rentals in brownstones or prewar multiple family apartment buildings -- goes quickly. The housing stock in Fort Greene easily matches up and may surpass what people think of as brownstone Brooklyn. Somehow, the ceilings seem higher, the buildings are wider. As a result, buyers can expect bidding wars. A house on Cumberland listed for $1.195 [million] was sold for $1.4 [million].”

To buy:

4 South Portland Ave. #4. Two beds in a brownstone in the heart of the historic district with views of the park and a Jacuzzi; 1,012 square feet: $1,059,000.

289 Cumberland St. Beautifully restored six-bedroom, three-floor house with fireplaces, two decks and a garden; 2,900 square feet: $2,900,000.

To rent:

58 Greene Ave. One-bedroom in classic brownstone on a tree-lined block; 500 square feet: $1,900 a month.

378 Vanderbilt Ave. Convertible one-bedroom in an 1879 brownstone with original details and private patio; 900 square feet: $2,400 a month.

Looking for a home in Fort Greene?

Brooklyn Properties, 725 Fulton St., Brooklynproperties.com

To eat:

iCi, 246 DeKalb Ave.

Provence-born Catherine May Saillard’s French farm-to-table restaurant is a big favorite with locals for weekend brunch or dinner every night but Monday. The menu changes monthly, depending on what local farms have to offer. 718-789-2778

Madiba, 195 DeKalb Ave.

They say this is the first South African restaurant of its kind in the U.S. The owners, Mark and Jenny Henegan have recreated the feel of a “shebeen”, an informal dining hall found in South African townships. Be adventurous: try amagwinya/retkoek, fried bread with mince and mango chutney filling or amadumbe, a sweet potato quiche. 718-855-9190

Olea, 171 Lafayette Ave.

This cozy and friendly Mediterranean taverna is perfect for a pre-BAM dinner. If you're there for lunch, try their green eggs and lamb--delicious merguez lamb sausage and eggs scrambled with cilantro, tomato and red onion. 718-643-7003

To party:

Note: Habana Outpost, 757 Fulton St., is a wildly popular place to party but it is open only during summer months.

BAM Cafe, 30 Lafayette Ave. This is BAM’s cavernous public living room where just about every Friday and Saturday night, starting at 9, there’s live music and drinks. 718-623-7811

Brooklyn Public House, 247 DeKalb Ave.

This irish pub, Brooklyn style has an impressive choice of beers that go perfectly with the bangers and mash and hamburgers. Outdoor seating when the weather warms up. 347-227-8976

DSK (Die Stammkneipe), 710 Fulton St.

This is Fort Greene's first beer garden. ( watch out DSK, new competition, the Black Forest, just opened across the street at #733) DSK fans love their bratwurst, great selection of beers, communal tables, weekly movie night and "mommy and me" afternoon play groups. 347 -841-4495

To shop:

Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton.

This much beloved independent bookstore was founded in 2009 and amazingly, partially funded by contributions from neighborhood residents. More than a bookstore Greenlight is a central meeting place for the community, a town square with sing a longs, story hours, book talks by local writers and discounts on books recommended by staff. 718-246-0200

Yu Interiors, 75 Greene Ave.

In Fort Greene since 1999, this shop is the perfect place to buy a gift or treat for yourself--bath products, candles, ceramics, pillows mid-century furniture, buddha heads and books of Russian criminal tattoos — something for everyone, really. 718-237-5878

The Greene Grape, 753 Fulton St.

A one-stop food market for the neighborhood with wine and cheeses, prepared foods, fresh produce and Brooklyn made products. A perfect place to pick up goodies for a picnic in the park. One regular says that the "cheeses are phenomenal, the sandwiches are great--the Moo-seum is my favorite and it goes perfectly with their amazing kale salad." 718-233-2700

To do:

Fort Greene Park, DeKalb Avenue and Cumberland Street

The sloping hills of this historical and geographical heart of the neighborhood is a perfect place for a stroll, preferably followed by a picnic. Along the periphery of the Park, you’ll see some of the fabulous brownstones that date from the 1850’s and epitomize brownstone Brooklyn at its best. Nycgovparks.org

Brooklyn Flea/Fort Greene, 176 Lafayette Ave.

In just five years, this crowded, frenetic marketplace has become world famous and is now open every Saturday from June to November in the playground at 176 Lafayette Avenue . (For the winter version, you have to go to Williamsburg) What will you find there besides hipsters? Antiques, vintage clothing, repurposed furniture, antiques and lots of good food. 718-928-6603

The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), 80 Hanson Place.

Part of the BAM cultural district, this is both a museum and a cultural and arts center. Its community space hosts workshops and performances and until January 19 its main gallery features "Six Draughtsman" an exhibit that highlights the drawing practices of six diasporan artists. 718-230-0492.

The buzz:

Pedestrian safety has been a concern of many Fort Greene residents since the tragic death in November of a 9-year old boy who was hit by a car that jumped a curb on DeKalb Avenue.

Robert Perris, district manager of Community Board 2, which includes Fort Greene, says that the city Depaartment of Transportation “has made numerous improvements in Fort Greene to calm traffic and improve pedestrian safety. These include installing numerous speed bumps and sidewalk bulb-outs, creating bike lanes and making adjustments to signal timing."

According to Nicholas Mosquera, a DOT representative, the agency plans to do more to respond to the concerns of both the residents and local elected officials. For example, this spring they will install four new speed bumps in the neighborhood, he said.

Q&A with Howard Pitsch: Local author

Howard Pitsch is the perfect guide for a visit to Fort Greene. Pitsch has lived in the neighborhood since 1982 and is the author of “Fort Greene: Images of America,” published in 2010 by Arcadia Press. He is also a past chairperson of the Fort Greene Association, a neighborhood group that was instrumental in the effort to have much of Fort Greene designated as an historic district.

What was Fort Greene like in the ’80s?

The best word to describe the neighborhood then was "tragic.” I used to go out to Cuyler Gore Park on the corner of my block with a neighbor and every morning we would pick up crack vials, underwear and other detritus of drugs and crime. I had some wonderful neighbors then -- Grenadians, Norwegians, a real mix -- but their neighborhood was deteriorating around them. Now we still have a wonderful mix on our block and the rest of the neighborhood but the streets are safe and beautiful once again.

My clapboard house, built in 1853, was completely covered in brick asphalt, tar paper, when I bought it. Luckily I found a photograph of the house in its original condition and was able to put it back together. That took 15 years. At one point I had to send 27 doors to New Jersey to be stripped of layers and layers of paint. In 1990 I received a landmark restoration award for the house.

What’s it like here like now?

I think that it was [the Brooklyn Academy of Music -- BAM] that saved the neighborhood. BAM and Harvey Lichtenstein, [its] director for 32 years. Look at BAM now: the new theater, the BRIC House with the marvelous Urban Glass showroom, and the beautifully restored houses. The best way for anyone to get a feel for the neighborhood is to come to the Fort Greene Association's At Home with the Arts in Fort Greene, an event in May that will combine a walking tour of the BAM cultural complex and five wonderful houses in the neighborhood.

When I moved in, there was one restaurant on DeKalb, a spaghetti palace called Cino, I think. Now I can choose from Ethiopian, Chinese, French, South African, Indian and more. All within a few blocks of my house. I never have to leave the neighborhood. In fact, I rarely do.

What is the future of the nabe?

I think that it is going to be remarkable. People used to say, years ago, how many perambulators -- you call them strollers now -- they would see on the streets of Fort Greene. We're seeing them again; dozens and dozens of strollers.

We need to be sure that these people stay. We need to work on making the public schools the best they can be. I think that the prospects are nothing but great. We will keep attracting writers like Jennifer Egan and Michael Weller, architects and designers who are connected to Pratt [Institute], techies. The future looks bright.

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