Carroll Street

by

12/18/2022

Neighborhood: Gowanus, Park Slope

In 1979, when my boyfriend Bob bought the house, Park Slope had not yet exploded in a frenzy of gentrification. But change was on its way. Young professionals from Manhattan, starting families and priced out of Brooklyn Heights, were establishing themselves, transforming 7th Avenue with upscale specialty stores and busily renovating neglected brownstones with woodwork to die for.

But the boundaries were clear. Anything below 7th Avenue, the main shopping strip, or above 9th Street was considered questionable, an unsafe no-man’s land And as you descended down the avenues from Prospect Park West, or south from 9th to 14th Street, that questionability increased exponentially.

Without an ounce of woodwork to its name except for the patterned oak floors in the front room and living room of the parlor level, the house that Bob bought was a very narrow 3-family brick (only 12 feet 6 inches wide) on Carroll Street in the middle of the block between 4th and 5th avenues.

That was fine with me. Prior to moving in with Bob, my four-year old daughter and I had lived for a little over a year a couple of blocks away, on Garfield Place between 5th and 6th Avenue. I would still be able to enjoy the very immediate neighborhood that I had come to love and call home. I could chat with the Italian guys who ran vegetable store on the corner of Garfield and 5th Avenue and the butcher shop a few doors down. I could still do my wash at the 5th Avenue laundromat. And it would be easy for me to trot around the corner and continue playing Scrabble with my friend Susan, or Boggle with my ex-landlord.

Carroll between 4th and 5th in 1979 was very Italian. In fact, Bob and I may have been the first non-Italians to live on the block. Strung across the block from lamppost to lamppost on the 5th Avenue side was a series of Italian flags. I thought how sweet it was for the people on the block to be patriotic about their country of origin. But I was soon informed that was not the message the flags were sending. It was a warning: this block is protected. And despite its lowly status in the Park Slope hierarchy of where to live, Carroll Street between 4th and 5th was one of the safest streets in the neighborhood. It was the only block I ever saw that had no wrought iron bars on the garden level windows. The older residents guarded the block like it was the Hope Diamond. Spring, summer, and fall they planted themselves on their front stoops or set out beach chairs on the sidewalk in front of their houses. In the winter, eyes watched from windows.

At the time Bob bought it, the house was probably worth about $75,000. But it was being sold to him for $45,000 by a very nice Italian immigrant who didn’t speak English all that well and perhaps had no idea what it was worth.

The man, his wife, and four children were all crowded into the garden level in a three-room apartment with one bedroom. The front room appeared to double as a living room and second bedroom. They had already bought a house in Bay Ridge and were itching to move into it.

Part of the deal was that the people on the second floor would be gone, so Bob and I could take over the garden and parlor levels.

An older couple – Albert and Connie – remained as the third floor tenants. Connie had a secretarial job in Manhattan and Albert worked part time doing something on the docks of the Fulton Street Fish Market. In his free time, Albert hung out in the nearby private ‘social club’. They had been paying $150 a month in rent since the Stone Age. We raised the rent to $250, which was still well below market value. Albert, who had lived on the block his entire life, nearly had a stroke when we told him we would be raising the rent. But Connie, with her customary saltiness, assured me all would be well.

“Bob can raise the rent as much as he wants. Albert ain’t goin’ nowhere,” she told me, chuckling. “He couldn’t live nowhere but on this block. Wouldn’t know how to.”

So Bob, my four-year old daughter, and I moved into our very slightly renovated house in late February of 1980. We had exposed the brick, which was then the style, in the parlor level front room and put in a staircase from the second floor down to the front room on the garden level, which became my daughter’s bedroom. The back room of the garden level, after the kitchen appliances were removed, became our bedroom, with a linoleum floor and white tin kitchen cabinets above the head of our bed.

And then we inherited a car. My mother had died a little over a month before we moved into the house, and in the spring, my father gave us her car. So began our career in the competition called finding a parking space. Even with that dreaded urban phenomenon of alternate side of the street parking, it was still possible to find a parking space in our neighborhood. The trick was finding a good parking space, which meant one closer to 5th Avenue than 4th. As you got closer to 4th Avenue, which was strewn with boarded up warehouses, things definitely got dicey.

There were times that we had to park close to 4th Avenue. And on those occasions, my battery was stolen out of my car at a rate of about once every other month.

After having to buy a new battery several times, I’d had it. Whatever a parking lot cost, it would be better than getting into my car to discover that nothing happened when I turned the key in the ignition.

A few doors down from my house, there was a small, narrow parking lot with a high chain-link fence where Albert parked his car. But there was no information posted about how to contact the owner to get a parking space. Since Albert had no use for a telephone, I went up to his apartment to consult him, explaining my battery issue.

“There’s no room there,” Albert informed me. “But gimme about an hour and I’ll get back to you.”

An hour later, I heard his booming voice, his usual means of communication, yelling down the stairs. I went back up to his apartment and received my instructions.

“Go down to Monte’s, ask for Honey or Blackie. Tell them Junior’s Uncle Al sent you. They’ll give you a parking space.”

Monte’s was an Italian restaurant on Carroll Street between 3rd Avenue and Nevins Street, which was pretty much the middle of nowhere. Other than a very small Italian bakery a block or so away, Monte’s was the only commercial establishment in the midst of a working class residential neighborhood. The modest homes were decent looking, but a far cry from the mansions that lined Prospect Park West and the blocks between it and 8th Avenue.

It was a gray, windy day around the beginning of November. I felt like I had suddenly been plunked into a film noir, and should be wearing a little black hat with a half veil covering my face and very red lipstick. Since it was before noon, the restaurant was not yet open and the street was deserted. Next to Monte’s there was a small, white valet booth, and across the street a large, open parking lot – about a quarter of a block long. A number of cars much snazzier than my little light-blue Ford were parked there.

I stood in front of Monte’s wondering what to do next when a tall young man in a red jacket, tight black pants and a white shirt open at the collar came out of the valet booth.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“I want to rent a parking space in your lot.”

“Oh, no. Sorry. No one except the restaurant’s customers park here.”

I recited my mantra. “I’m looking for Honey or Blackie. Junior’s Uncle Al sent me.”

His face brightened up. “Oh, that’s why Al called about an hour ago!”

Just then, a black Cadillac pulled up across the street in front of the parking lot.

“There’s Honey,” the valet said.

I walked across the street. Honey was a small man with black, slicked back hair. I told him my name, and once again recited my mantra. “Junior’s Uncle Al sent me. I’d like to park my car in your lot.”

“Yeah. I spoke to Al. Bring your car at about five tonight and bring an extra set of keys in case we have to move it, or in case you lose your keys. Once a month, put ten dollars in an envelope with your name on it and give it to Johnny,” he said, with a nod towards the valet still standing across the street.

“Do you have a gate or something that you close the lot with at night,” I asked, looking at the expansive, open entrance of the parking lot.

Honey smirked. “You see all these expensive cars?” he said with a sweeping hand gesture. ‘”We don’t need a gate. No one goes near these cars. Don’t worry. Your car will be safe here. We’ll take care of it.”

Not only was the car taken care of, so was I. Once, when I discovered the car had a flat tire, Johnny fixed it.

Another time, when it was raining, Honey, who was driving a van that day, offered to give me a ride home. As we approached the little Italian bakery down the block, I suddenly remembered I meant to stop in there. But when I told Honey to please let me out because I needed to buy a loaf of bread, he just reached behind his seat, and handed me one, still wrapped in its paper bag. “Take this. I bought a few extra for the restaurant.”

And then he proceeded to drive me to my door, knowing, of course, exactly which house I lived in.

The whole time I lived in Park Slope, I felt totally comfortable and secure on my Italian block and with my Italian “friends” down at Monte’s.

This was all many lifetimes ago. Four years after I moved in with Bob, we broke up and I moved to a meditation center in Vermont. But Bob and I stayed friends and he kept me up to date about the goings on in the house on Carroll St.

Connie died of a brain tumor a few years after I moved. Albert continued to live on the third floor, but at some point started losing his eyesight and moved in with his girlfriend.

In 1990, for business reasons, Bob moved to Connecticut, but he kept the house and rented out the floors we had lived in. In 2004, he sold the house. By then, gentrification had spread to the very borders of Park Slope and, bursting its seams, spilled over into Windsor Terrace to the south and Prospect Heights to the north.

Gone were the little 5th Avenue mom-and-pop shops. The Avenue now boasted chic restaurants and specialty stores. The warehouses on 4th Avenue were metamorphosing into $500,000 co-ops. I recently googled Monte’s. It has been renovated to the hilt , and among other changes, it now has a fenced-in outdoor space.

Altogether, Bob put about $50,000 in repairs and a few minor renovations into our house over the years. When the realtor came to assess it, she estimated the its value at about $820,000. We were flabbergasted. But after an open house, so many people wanted to buy it that the realtor said it should be put up for bids. In the end it sold for $920,000. Neither of us could believe that little narrow-house was worth that much, but it was. The house – along with the rest of Park Slope – for better or worse – had come a long way, baby!

***

Joan Kydd is a native New Yorker living in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. She works from home part time teaching English online to adult Koreans. She also teaches Ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arrangement), and writes.  She does not have a vegetable garden, raise chickens or ski.  Body and soul, she is a New Yorker – not a Vermonter.

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§ 3 Responses to “Carroll Street”

  • Yep, that’s perfect. Nice job with this essay. I moved to the Slope in ’85 and left in 2010. It was the first time I ever had to move in NYC because the neighborhood got “too good.” Monte’s Venetian Room was awesome. I remember they started you off with fried zucchini. Another interesting place was Two Toms, on 4th Avenue off Union. No menu. “What can I cook for you tonight?” the waiter would say. One time, we walked in for dinner, really hungry. The place was very empty. “Dinner for two?” I said to the guy. “We got no tables,” he said. I looked around at the empty room. “But…?” I said. He just looked at me, like “What, I gotta spell it out for you?” We left.

    Another time, a car service guy called me and my wife, “fg yuppies” — I was like, “wow, I guess I’ve really made it!” I grew up near Tolentine, went to Clinton, and “yuppy” was not exactly how I would have described myself back then, playing b-ball on weekends on the cracked courts of 282 and 51, with rims shaped like Mobius strips.

  • Nim MacFadyen says:

    This is so familiar to me. I had a similar trajectory a few years later, around 1982, after loosing the loft we’d pioneered under the Manhattan Bridge in DUMBO. I tried in vain through a realtor and wound up walking from the Heights to Atlantic and beyond, looking for any sign of affordable rentals. Stopped into a tiny Ma&Pa on Union street for a pack of smokes and saw a snippet pinned to the door jamb for an apartment to rent… Ask Pa! So I did and after a phone call, was escorted down Union to a place not far above the canal. It’s a long story ( I have it all written somewhere ) but I wound up being the only non Italian on that long block, the first renter. I had to meet the capo on the stoop across the street, have Sunday macaroni and gravy with an assortment of residents in the garden apartment, and spent three years upstairs from Carmella and her three boys. Never locked my door, never felt the slightest worried on the block. And as I walked down Union from Henry and hit my block, all the curtains would flutter in my periphery as the Nonas peeked out and checked me out; concerned, as it turned out, that they hadn’t seen me bringing a girl home…. Not for lack of trying! But I was eventually confronted by an embarrassed Carmella who came right out and asked… And I had to squirm about how I was trying and seeing a few girls but yada, yada, yada… I even thought she was considering me as a prospect at that point, but that would have been a bridge too far.

  • Joan Kydd says:

    Interesting story. Thank you for sharing it.

§ Leave a Reply

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