“I was born in the South Slope on 11th Street off Sixth Avenue,” said Matthew Roff, 33, owner of the new Crown Heights beer garden Franklin Park. “Bar Toto was my bodega.”
Someday someone might say the same about the renovated garage that is now Franklin Park. The hip bar – which opened a few weeks ago at the end of the partially unsavory block on St. John’s Place between Classon and Franklin – is simple and inviting. Closer to Franklin Avenue, the area probably looks and feels a lot like Park Slope must have when Mr. Roff was growing up.
The first time friends and I went to the beer garden it was Saturday afternoon. We walked down St. John’s Place to Franklin. The four of us looked around — there was no bar in sight. We back tracked up the rowhouse-lined block to find a driveway peppered with outdoor seating. Beyond that, a garage door was raised to reveal a wood-and-tile bar. The indoor seating was full of young professional types. Outside, clouds hovered menacingly.
We sat at an outdoor table drinking $4 well beers. I positioned myself for people watching.
Upon seeing the bar – the indoor entrance of which is about 50 feet from the sidewalk – the facial expressions of pedestrians oscillated between surprise, skepticism and curiosity. With drab ’90′s radio rock floating through the open air, passers-by craned their necks in skepticism; when a catchy beat came on, they looked on at the presumed party longingly. It was like an improvised dance based on white yuppies looking for a cheap rental in a borough.
“People are coming from all over now on the weekends,” Mr. Roff said, though during the week he says it’s mostly locals warming the seats. “[My partner and I] felt that if we were going to continue in our line of work then we needed to find an area or neighborhood that had some promise as well as affordability.”
This is the story of any of Brooklyn’s gentrified neighborhoods – now and historically. The borough is populated with communities full of residents who find themselves in a place where they don’t necessarily belong. But nor do they belong anywhere else.
Over the five months I’ve spent living in Prospect Heights, the neighborhood (including its border area with Crown Heights) has slowly revealed itself to me. Young professionals populate the areas closest to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Museum. Further in, neo-hippie and hipster types might sell marijuana to get by on rent. During the day elderly people roll their shopping carts slowly up Washington Avenue. During after-school hours, packs of roving teenagers annex sidewalks to giggle, yell and shove. On a recent trip to my bodega, where you can encounter everyone from kids buying candy to drag queens dancing to booming salsa music, I emerged to find five such teenagers shoved up against a police cruiser.
This is the New York I remember from my childhood. That New York where, at one moment, my father could (and did) witness a drive-by shooting in front of our building on West 56th Street and the next he could walk five blocks to the Plaza Hotel and enter an entirely different universe. Not that Franklin Park could ever be confused with the Oak Bar, or that I or anyone else is nostalgic for a more dangerous city. It’s the variety of life, in close urban proximity, that makes this city what it is. That’s what Brooklyn stands to lose at some point, just as most of Manhattan did.
On a walk to my neighbor’s place a few days ago, I arrived at my destination just in time to witness a disheveled-looking man buying an illicit substance from another very well-dressed man. I was less surprised at this unexpected encounter than I would have anticipated. The exchange took place in front of a run-down brownstone, where two other men were smoking marijuana. On the same block, two new glass condo buildings have gone up, sandwiching my friend’s slumlord-owned building.
“I guess I can see the area becoming more like Park Slope down the road but it will take some time,” Mr. Roff said.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to whine about gentrification, nor do I think I am actually in a position to do so. How I actually feel about this “emerging” neighborhood of Prospect Heights is a hard thing to pinpoint. I don’t like crime. I do like nice bars and restaurants in close proximity to my house.
But authenticity is hard to come by when neighborhoods become only that, a place for people with money to spend it. The fact that the community is still a community is its major draw, as are the added perks. Like Franklin Park.