Joys of the ‘Hood

Finding our home away from home in Brooklyn

The narrow, dim stairway, smelling faintly of roach spray, loomed straight up for three floors like a Hitchcock movie. Following Wayne and the landlord’s mother up the stairs, I caught my husband’s eye and gave him a thumbs-down. The prospect of humping groceries and laundry up that endless staircase was too daunting to contemplate.

One more flight led to the apartment we’d come to see, a one-bedroom on the top floor that Wayne had spotted on Craigslist. I’d given up on that site myself after a couple of phone calls with guys who sounded like Ukrainian pornographers, but even working with the ubiquitous local realtors, who also handled rentals, hadn’t got us far.

The first surprise was all the light flooding in from big southeast-facing windows. The appliances were new—not fancy models, but gleaming like the fresh paint on the walls. The rent was half again as much as our Montpelier mortgage, i.e., reasonable by New York standards.

Then there was the bedroom—unlike most of the glorified closets we’d seen, big enough to hold both our bed and a dresser and still leave room to walk around. From the roof you could see the skyscrapers of Manhattan, Lady Liberty, and the Coney Island parachute jump—a 360-degree view.

We told the landlord’s mom we’d get back to her. Back on the street, the sky, which had been darkening steadily, let loose in torrents. Caught without raingear, we ducked into the nearest storefront along with half of the neighborhood and were wafted off our feet on fumes of garlic, sesame, and lox. We’d stumbled upon Terrace Bagels, rated by the New York Times as one of the six best bagel bakeries in all of metro New York. That did it.

Windsor Terrace, unknown to us until two years ago, is a wedge of streets in northwest Brooklyn between Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery, which is almost as big as the Park and arguably more decorative. (Green-Wood is the final home of such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and Boss Tweed.)

With brick and frame rowhouses, modest by New York standards, and lines of four-story buildings with apartments above and shops below fronting its three-block-long commercial hub on Prospect Park West, the Terrace is one of the highest points in Brooklyn. That’s a bit like saying it’s one of the highest points in Amsterdam. Like neighboring Manhattan, Brooklyn was first settled by the Dutch; known as Brueckelen in those days, its low-lying swampiness must have seemed comfortably familiar.

We’d spent our first New York year sharing a huge co-op apartment overlooking the Brooklyn Museum and the Botanic Garden with its owner. It was a bit like living with your mom, except that Mom in this case was a lively African-American woman in her mid-70s who’d known everyone from Alvin Ailey to W.E.B. Du Bois and had been married to a Namibian freedom fighter. With a subway entrance close enough to swan-dive into, it was very convenient, but the trains rumbled beneath us 24/7, orange sodium lights burned on the Museum, and the yobs on their crotch rockets, zooming down the parkway at 2 a.m. like a bunch of angry hornets, got in the way of sleep. The rent was too high, especially for a place that never really felt like our own. Virginia Woolf is onto something.

We focused our search at first on Park Slope,  a neighborhood of large, genteel brownstones on tree-lined streets sloping gently down west of Prospect Park. However, we were daunted by stratospheric rents and the hordes of narcissists-by-proxy bowling pedestrians aside as they pushed their Harvard-bound progeny down the sidewalks in strollers which gave new meaning to the term Urban Assault Vehicle. Park Slope, we learned, is where Manhattan bond traders go to breed.

Nearby Windsor Terrace has a looser, slightly scruffier working-class vibe, with people of all shapes, ages and colors living over the Korean groceries and ethnic restaurants. Hispanic kids on trikes chase each other around the sidewalks on warm nights, watched over by groups of chatting parents. There’s a huge Catholic church painted pink inside, an Irish pub that only has Bud and Bud Light on draft, a New Zealand meat pie shop where the artsier young folks like to hang. Farrell’s, the pub, didn’t allow women until sometime in the 70s when Shirley MacLaine stopped by and nobody had the nerve to throw her out.

You can eat cheap in Windsor Terrace. Joe’s Pizza (whose else?) has huge pizza slices for three bucks, and you can get five killer garlic knots for a dollar. Or for a recovering Brit like myself, indulge in a steak-and-kidney pie from Dub Pies for five bucks and change.

Our own favorite watering-hole is tucked away down a side street. Rhythm ‘n’ Booze (I am not making that up) is the last refuge of the genial Italian and Irish geezers who used to own the neighborhood. “What can I get yese?” asks the slender, dark-haired waitress from Antrim. It’ll often be a perfectly done pair of pork chops or a generous slab of grilled salmon, for half of what you’d pay in Manhattan. Accompanied, of course, by a fresh pint of Brooklyn Lager, brewed in nearby Williamsburg by people who know what they’re doing.

On weekends when I’m in town, we go for walks in the Park, threading our way between softball games on the Great Lawn, watching the dogs chase ducks in their very own swimming pond. Sometimes we do takeout for dinner and go up on the roof to watch the green lights twinkle on the Verrazano Bridge.

Windsor Terrace isn’t a perfect neighborhood. Graffiti disfigure many of the rolling steel shutters that hide store and restaurant windows at night. On weekends before the Monday pickup, trash spills over the sidewalk bins and flies around in the street. Many of the stores and restaurants only take cash; the ATM charges mount up. And I do use the word “schlep” more often lately, especially when that three-story staircase looms and I have a full suitcase or a bulging laundry bag. But it’s friendly and quiet and real, and less than forty-five minutes from Broadway, and when I’m there, it feels like home.

Category: Brooklyn One comment »

One Response to “Joys of the ‘Hood”

  1. Elizabeth Coleman

    So great to read about life in Brooklyn from afar! Great post.

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