27 January 2009

Lost City's Guide to Cobble Hill

To many, the realtor-hatched neighborhood names of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens mean little. "What's the difference? It's all South Brooklyn in the end." Indeed, the nabes are so small and so close together, they might as well be categorized under one name. Still, over the years, I've discerned enough differences between the two areas that I think they deserve separate handles. Cobble Hill is tonier, its average street more architecturally beautiful; Carroll Gardens a bit more scruffy, closer to the highways and the docks. CG retains a stronger ethnic, Italian-American edge, while CH is more blandly heterogeneous. And CG, in my opinion, has more mercantile personality than CG, which just has, you know, a lot of nice shops.

Another way of saying that is there's just not as much living history on hand in Cobble Hill. Still, the area is a joy to walk through and there's enough to talk about. And so I will, in this, Lost City's fourth such guide to New York neighborhoods.

FORMER INDEPENDENCE BANK: Let's start on Court Street, Cobble Hill's main artery, as it is Carroll Gardens'. At the corner of Court and Atlantic is the former Independence Bank, now a Trader Joe's. Take a look, because the 1922 building, with its mighty white bricks and mightier arched windows, is impressive—but also because of the plaque honoring George Washington outside. Want to know why it's called Cobble Hill? Because a conical hill topped with a fort once stood roughly on this spot. Washington used it to spy the approaching British and watch his forces duke it out in nearby Gowanus. The British didn't like that. When they got here, they razed the hill to the ground. Thus, Cobble Hill has no hill.

METROPOLITAN ROD AND GUN CLUB: Take a brief detour to the right on Pacific Street. The name of this institution itself screams 19th century. Actually, the club was incorporated only in 1934. They bought the Pacific Street building in 1939. Inside, you'll find an indoor pistol and smallbore rifle range and archery range.

STAUBITZ MARKET: Back to Court. This butcher, the last holdout of what used to be a strong German enclave, has been near Warren Street since 1917. The McFadden family, which has owned the business for more than 40 years, has retained the old time feel of the place, and sells about every kind of meat you can think of. It—along with the 1960-founded PAISANOS MEAT MARKET a block over on Smith Street—are the last, best butchers in the area.

JIM & ANDY'S: An old-school green grocer, run by a family whose patriarch used to help sell vegetables from a horse-drawn cart and who recently died. Wall-to-wall produce, Sinatra on the radio, a big metal scale, paper bags, vague prices. Nice place.

SAM'S PIZZERIA: An old family eatery near Kane Street with faded decor and peculiar ways. Don't tell them how to serve you, they're going to do it their way regardless. The old man of the family still makes the pizzas, as he has done for the last 58 years. There's a wooden phone booth that doesn't work and a cocktail menu that apparently does. It's never busy.

KANE STREET SYNAGOGUE: As you pass Kane Street, glance to the right. The somewhat drab, but still majestic building on the south side of the street is the Kane Street Synagogue. It's real name is Baith Israel-Anshei Emeth, but no one really calls it that. At 152 years, it is the oldest Jewish congregation that still serves the Brooklyn neighborhood in which it was founded. The congregation has been in the current building since 1905, and was for a while called the Harrison Street Synagogue, during those early years when Kane Street was Harrison Street. The edifice was built in 1855 as a Middle Reformed Protestant Dutch Church. Aaron Copland had his Bar Mitzvah here in 1913.

COURT PASTRY SHOP: Some think this bakery near Degraw makes the best Italian pastries in the area. I'll vouch for the Svingi, apple turnovers and the unshowy, timeless interior. Anytime a Catholic holiday is on the way, look for specialized cakes and treats.

: Walk east of Degraw a hundred feet and see the defunct Engine 204, which was shut down by the City amid much protest in 2003. It's a beautiful 19th-century structure, redolent of the days when firehouses were more private men's clubs than public institutions.

THE STREETS: Almost any block in Cobble Hill—which runs from Atlantic up north to Degraw in the south, and Smith Street at the western point to the BQE—is gorgeous. The trees are tall and old. Most of the brownstones have been well kept up, and were handsome to begin with. Churches, small and grand and old, pop up regularly. The grid is nicely interrupted by picturesque one-block streets like Strong Place (rich people), Tompkins Place (more rich people) and Cheever Place (some rich and some oldtimers). There are good patches of old bluestone left on the ground. The run up Clinton Street from Degraw to Atlantic always lifts my spirits. Try it on a bike; there's a lane.

CHRIST CHURCH: At the corner of Clinton and Kane is a Gothic masterpiece built in 1840 by Richard Upjohn, the guy who did Trinity Church across the river. The Upjohns lived nearby and were congregants. There are Tiffany windows inside, though it's hard to tell them apart from the fakes put in after a fire in 1939. Take a look.

CONVENT WALL: Turn left on Kane and walk to Henry. Lining this corner is a particularly ancient-looking wall, covered with wines, crumbling and with a metal door near the center. If it seems out of place, it's because the convent it once encircled is now gone. The Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor order was started in France. They left sometime before the 1960s.

COBBLE HILL PARK: Thank tenacious residents that the church that used to stand on Clinton between Congress Street and Verandah Place wasn't replaced by a supermarket. If it had, we wouldn't have this lovely vest-pocket park, which—combined with the quaint nearby corner coffee shop and Verandah's exquisite alley of former carriage houses—has the quiet elegance of a piece of Parisian urban greenery. It's easy to forget that you work and have bills here.

DEGRAW MANSION: Walk further up Clinton to the southeast corner of Clinton and Amity. Freestanding homes are rare in South Brooklyn. You had to be super rich to demand an unattached swelling. The Degraws were and they lived here at 219 Clinton. It was built in 1844, and was later home to the first private elevator in all of Brooklyn. As recently as 1988, the house had had only three owners. Don't know if that's still the case.

: Walk west over to Henry Street. Long Island College Hospital has been busy lately trying to knock down or sell off all its magnificent old buildings. They're still stubbornly hanging on, though, including the 105-year-old Lamm Institute building at 110 Amity Street and the Pholemus building across the street. Gaze while you can.

: Walk west on Warren. Don't walk too fast, though. You'll miss the tiny, gated Warren Place on the left, a narrow alley of miniature brick "Workingman's Cottages." They were built by Alfred Treadway White, the 19th-century developer-with-a-soul, who thought laborers should live in dignity. A more beautiful mews you won't find. They go for millions there days. The gate's usually open. Go in and walk around. Just do it quietly.

TOWER BUILDINGS AND HOME BUILDINGS: Two magnificent, and magnificently red apartment complexes overlooking the BQE. They were built as tenements by that self-same White. Everything about the sturdy, yet appealing architecture is wonderful, from the outside recessed apartment entrances to the peekaboo stairwells to the castle-like turrets.

LONG ISLAND RESTAURANT: Walk back to Henry and up to Atlantic. The Long Island Restaurant at this corner hasn't been open for a year and a half. But it remains as is inside and the distinctive neon sign still hangs over the street. Gaze inside and sigh at the half-century old mainstay that has been lost.

ORIENTAL PASTRY AND GROCERY: Walk east on Atlantic to this small, crowded shop, one of the better exemplars of Middle Eastern foodstuffs on this avenue. Sacks of nuts, dried fruit, spices, everything. Sweets are in the back and worth sampling, including various pistachio and honey-based goodies. You can find a good many treasures here, if you know where to look.



Anonymous said...

Great post - you totally nailed Cobble Hill, down to Jimmy's 'vague prices' (may he rest in peace). Kane Street Synagogue is not drab inside - it's Pepto-Bismol pink and decorated with flowers - check it out sometime. In twenty years of living there, though (on Verandah Place), I never noticed the so-called blandness - compared to Brooklyn Heights, CH is colorful and diverse. One secret you didn't mention: behind the Towers, on Baltic just east of Hicks, is a gate into the back of the property. Push it open, walk past the garbage cans, and you're in an open, grassy courtyard with a huge gazebo in the middle that is covered in wisteria in May. I've often taken visitors there to show it off, and never been chased away (there's never been anyone there). Thanks for the on-target view of my old neighborhood. Cara

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Thanks, Cara! What I mean by the blandness is not that the neighborhood is bland per se, but that the neighborhood's population was long ago given over to a certain sameness not quite dissimilar to Brooklyn Heights. There's little ethnic edge left over from the old day. Neighborhoods are often defined by their merchants, and the shops on Court between Atlantic and Degraw could, for the most part, be found anywhere: Chelsea, the Village, Soho, Greenwich.

Anonymous said...

Staubitz better than both Esposito's and Los Paisano's? Hmmmmm . . .

Other than that, kudos on an informative and killer post!

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I see what you mean, Josh. But I tend to think of Esposito as a specialty meat shop, for Italian delicacies and such. Staubitz is more an all-around butcher shop.

Unknown said...

Paisano's beats Staubitz.

dhex said...

very nice post.

and yeah, second the love for sam's.

Anonymous said...

redolent of the days when firehouses were more private men's clubs than public institutions

That's still largely true of suburban volunteer fire departments.


cais said...

I agree - nice post!
The biggest difference between Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens is that every street in Cobble Hill is landmarked while only the two blocks of Carroll and President between Smith and Hoyt are landmarked in Carroll Gardens. That's why Carroll Gardens is struggling with over development in a way that Cobble Hill is not.

-another Neighborhood Cara

Anonymous said...

Great post. I didn't note that Jimmy died. Oh. I must have last been there in December, then. Best blueberries last summer, and I trusted his tomatoes in the tomato scare. A man of few words, and I was always amazed he was still there as the neighborhood rose up around him, but I was told he owned that building. The Staubitz proprietor owns a lot of rental buildings around the neighborhood, too. I love Cobble Hill park, and it was where I used to sit with my golden retriever during his arthritic last years. He dug himself a cool spot behind the bench I sat on to read, write, knit, or do research. Lovely days. Another odd historical part to the area somewhere on Amity is the house where Winston Churchill's mother was born.

Matt said...

Amy, check out a piece in the New Yorker about the guys at Cafe and Clinton and Jim's entry into their basketball pool after his death.

As for commercial blandness, it hardly matters since Sahadi's, Two For The Pot, Joya, the Grocery, etc. are all so close. I could stand for some more diversity among the residents, but Fort Greene style diversity not the kind of "diversity" that existed in CH when I grew up there.

Jon Glovin said...

What about the Community Bookstore on the corner of Court and Warren?

That kind of bookstore isn't found in Manhattan at all anymore.