Thursday, August 13, 2009

To Coney Part 1

You know, I am not only walking all over creation on the weekend, all over Brooklyn, anyway, but also walking from work in midtown home to Brooklyn every evening. So, I don’t often have the energy to jump at the computer, write up whatever it is I want to say, and post it.

I was chagrined, disappointed, the whole thing. I found a setting on my digital camera awhile ago that allows me to take about 4 seconds of audio each time I take a photo. This is a great thing for me. I can take a hundred photos on a long walk on a good afternoon (like last Saturday) and I go through so many neighborhoods, most for the first time, that I can’t possibly remember where every photo was taken.

But the settings on my camera seem to change at a whim; maybe I hit a reset button without knowing. On Saturday, on my way out for my walk, I turned on something with a microphone symbol that had been off and was sure that it was the audio accompaniment to the photos. I took close to 120 photos across southeastern Brooklyn. Each time I took a photo I spoke into the camera, I am sure there were people who saw me and thought I was nuts talking to my camera. Anyway, when I got home and downloaded the photos there wasn’t even one audio file. Damn!

Actually, now that I think of it, probably no one thought I was nuts speaking into my camera considering all the Bluetooth devices around, they probably thought I was talking to someone. Except for that little old lady who looked at me strangely in front of St. Athanasius’s Church at Bay Parkway and 61st (you see, those damn churches again!).

But speaking of those damn churches again, they do help in situations like Saturday’s, I have a few photos here that I took along Bay Parkway but could not remember where (even though I recall speaking the cross street into the camera). What I did remember was that they were taken in front of St. Athanasius Church (Hope Happiness Joy Faith Honor . . . they look like something that would be across from a church) because I remember moving out of the way when that little old lady who was crossing the street stepped on to the sidewalk. In fact, it occurred to me that she could be headed to the church for a novena or something. I download the photos . . . no audio. Where the hell did I take them? Let’s go to the map. The two photos following show street signs saying, respectively 79th and 81st Streets, so I know this photo was taken before that. I checked the map for a large corner building lot that would hold a church, across the street from another one large enough for a school and, Bob’s your uncle, St. Athanasius at 61st Street and Bay Parkway. But more of Bay Parkway later, that was at the other end of the day’s jaunt.

To get back to the start of the day. Seeing that the weather was supposed to be nice (and the next day was supposed to be rainy), I decided this was the Coney Island day. I mean, August is getting close to half done and I still have Canarsie and a few other places left to visit, and I’d really love to finish phase 1 by Labor Day. Phase 1 meaning I have walked through or into every neighborhood in Brooklyn. I don’t know what phase 2 will be, probably getting deeper into a particular neighborhood or, when winter comes, maybe using the Brooklyn collection at the library to get more background on these places.

I had checked out a likely route on my invaluable map during the week and remembered there being two ways I could go but forgot which one was better. And someone was on the PC when I was ready to leave so I thought the hell with it, I’ll just wing it. As long as I’m heading in the general direction, I’ll get there eventually. Actually, that’s the beauty of these walks, it’s almost better to get lost than to know exactly where I’m going

Library first; I had a couple of uninteresting mystery paperbacks to return (one unread, which is unlike me). After that the choice was: Flatbush to Ocean Avenue or Prospect Park West to McDonald Avenue. Having been down PPW only a week or two ago, I decided on Flatbush. I like Ocean Avenue. Of course, I wasn’t around when it was one of Brooklyn’s fashionable middle-class neighborhoods with its pseudo-Gothic and Art Deco apartment buildings but it still retains a lot of its charm.

The avenue is still lined with mature shade trees and the buildings are well kept up. I get a kick out of many of the names (see the pictures above). They sound like they came out of The Adventures of Robin Hood (MGM version). I also like the idea of naming the avenue because it takes you straight out to the ocean.

And I am still amazed at how one street can make such a big difference between a neighborhood (or two). On Bedford Avenue, as soon as you cross Flatbush Avenue, you go from seedy to suburban. On Ocean Avenue, though the change isn’t quite as dramatic it is obvious when you cross Dorchester Road. You can see it very clearly on the aerial shot here. You are crossing from Prospect Park South into Ditmas Park; from the ranks of urban apartment buildings to houses in their own ample yards, many surrounded by shrubbery, some almost obscured by 100-year-old trees.

Go another block past Dorchester to Ditmas Avenue and turn right and you might as well not even be in Brooklyn any longer; at least not the Brooklyn of Williamsburg or Bed-Stuy or Sunset Park or downtown. In fact, it almost seems like you might as well not be in the 21st century any longer (or even the 20th).

Walking through some of the streets of Ditmas Park, I had the eerie feeling that someone was going to jump down the front steps from the broad verandah of one of the houses and shout that President McKinley had just been shot! You get the idea that the word “gracious” might have been coined just to describe these houses and this neighborhood.

Some of the ones along Ocean Avenue actually remind me of a Raymond Chandler or Perry Mason mystery from 1930s Los Angeles. Maybe it’s the tiled roofs but whenever I read one of those books, these are the kinds of houses I am imagining the characters live in. They look like a remnant of a time when life may have been just a little easier (notwithstanding a depression and a world war) Brooklyn as time machine; go figure.

On the other hand, the houses in Ditmas Park itself look like something out of Booth Tarkington where the living is easy and the summers are long and leisured (imagine the cars aren't there); broad verandahs on tall Victorian houses with gables galore shaded by ranks of Norway maples (if that’s what they are, I’m not great at trees).

And then . . . there is Coney Island Avenue. That is if you keep walking far enough. You see, that’s what many of these Brooklyn neighborhoods are like, sort of like squares on a hop-scotch game. You come upon them suddenly, walk through them, and then walk into a totally different part of the borough, maybe a little more upscale, maybe a little more ordinary, maybe really down and out. But you will pass through that, too. The word is “diverse,” big time! And that really is the beauty of Brooklyn.

So, five blocks past the sun scorched commercial strip of Coney Island Avenue you are at Ocean Parkway. Besides Eastern Parkway, I think this was the only other one of Calvert Vaux’s plans for a broad sweeping highway from Prospect Park to achieve reality. I’ll check into that. I don’t know if it’s the same width as Eastern Parkway but it feels wider and more spacious. Maybe it was all in my mind: I know I am headed toward the beaches and the sweep of ocean and sky and that gives me a feeling of freedom as I walk.

I had meant to take Ocean Parkway all the way to the beach but was sidetracked by another lure: Bay Parkway, veering off to the right for parts unknown. Who could resist a side trip down an avenue with that name? Not me. More . . . later.


  1. My trick for keeping track of where I am in an unfamiliar neighborhood is to take photos of the street signs and house/building numbers. Here's an example. Someday I may invest in a portable GPS unit that tracks me as I go.

    Both Prospect Park South and Ditmas Park are landmarked historic districts within the larger area of Victorian Flatbush, the leafier, greener part of Flatbush. Two other neighborhoods are joined as the single historic district of Fiske Terrace-Midwood park. Most of the area, however, is not landmarked.

    There are a dozen different areas with their own neighborhood associations. For example, the leafy street of your photo (lined with London Plane Trees) is in Ditmas Park West; this is bounded by Cortelyou Road and Newkirk Avenue to the north and south, and Coney Island Avenue and the B/Q subway cut to the west and east. Proceeding north of that is Beverley Square West, Prospect Park South, and Caton Park. South is West Midwood.

  2. I'm convinced. I've got to walk Ocean Avenue.