Park Slope, A Sad 50th Anniversary, and Neighborhood Revivals

In a cover story for New York magazine this past April, numbers whiz Nate Silver ranked the 50 most satisfying places to live in the five boroughs. Entitled, “The Most Livable Neighborhoods in New York,” Silver combined objective polling data with subjective presumptions about what is important to different types of New Yorkers. Despite almost being beaten by the Lower East Side, Brooklyn’s Park Slope took home the crown for “Best Neighborhood.”

Silver praised the Slope for it’s public schools, low crime, green space, restaurants and bars, retail, and culture. And he is right. the neighborhood has all of those. People move there in hopes of getting their children into P.S. 321. Fifth Avenue rivals any stretch in the city for great restaurants. Prospect Park is the place where Frederick Law Olmstead perfected what he started in Central Park. The tree-lined streets create a magnificent arboreal canopy up and down the streets from the first leaves in the spring to the changing colors of the fall.  My father will tell anyone who’ll listen that Grand Army Plaza trumps the Arc de Triomphe any day of the week.

But it wasn’t always this ways. From the mid-1980s until 1994, my family lived in the heart of the neighborhood.  The schools were good back then. But 5th Avenue was nowhere near what it is today. The notion that Fourth Avenue would one day actually become home to fugly condos and neighborhood bars would have been considered crazy.

And like much of the city at the time, crime and personal safety was a major issue.  It wasn’t uncommon for neighbors to get mugged coming home from work. Drag racers kept breaking into our car – albeit they returned it the next morning – and there were a few instances where our house was broken into for such pricey items as a very used bicycle. On top of all this, it was the idea of me having to take the subway by myself to get to middle school as an 11 year old that led my parents to move us to Vermont. While the Slope was safer than many neighborhoods in those Koch-Dinkins years, it was just beginning its transformation to what it is now.

Flatbush Ave & Sterling Place

The thing that makes Park Slope’s current state, and even what it was in the early 1990s, that much more amazing is the place it was in at the beginning of the 1960s. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this the past week because tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of a mid-air collision over Staten Island. One plane, TWA Flight 266, a Lockheed Super Constellation, en route to LaGuardia from Ohio, fell to earth in the Staten Island neighborhood of New Dorp. The other crashed at the intersection of 7th Avenue and Sterling Place in Park Slope.

Over the past few days, The New York Times, in their print and more extensively on-line at their City Room page, has taken a wide-view of the crash, how it happened, and the impact it had on Park Slope. All told, there were 134 fatalities – 128 passengers

Sterling Place & 7th Avenue - Allyn Baum/NYT

and crew and 6 on the ground in Brooklyn. United Flight 826, a state-of-the-art Douglas DC-8 crashed into the Pillar of Fire Church, also destroying a grocery store and Laundromat.

The day following the crash, The New York Times headline read, “Sterling Place, An Area of Run-Down Houses, Ripped Asunder by Crashing Plane.” In an on-line article, City Room interviewed my father, Joseph Ferris, about the neighborhood at the time of the crash. Explaining the state of the Slope, he said, “It was a neighborhood seriously in trouble.” After the crash, he added, “You shook your head.”  The Times described the neighborhood as “a run-down neighborhood politely referred to as ‘in transition.’”

The Times paints a picture of a neighborhood that had seen better days. Many, including the Federal Housing Administration, which had stopped backing mortgages in the neighborhood, agreed. Banks had redlined the neighborhood.

Sterling Place 1961 - Meyer Liebowitz/NYT

Families moved to the suburbs and were replaced by landlords who subdivided brownstones in rooming houses. Look at some of the photos The Times has posted. Besides the haunting images of that day, the snapshots from the early 1960s show empty lots and most glaring, at least to me, streets without trees. Nowadays, Park Slope is a neighborhood of tree-lined streets.

So how did the neighborhood come back from those dark days in the early 1960s? It was the neighborhood that did it. Residents wanted better. They saw all that a neighborhood nestled next to Prospect Park, walking distance from BAM and The Brooklyn Museum, and stocked with once beautiful housing stock could offer. It was these people, neighbors coming together and creating political entities on a block-by-block and community-by-community level that was the change that transformed the neighborhood. Groups like the Park Slope Civic Council helped transform a run-down written-off neighborhood into a great place to live. I am particularly proud of this, not only because my father had the chance to represent the area in the New York State Assembly for ten years in the 1970s and 1980s, he was also one of those early fighters. In the 1960s, before he ran for office or worked on Norman Mailer’s 1969 campaign for mayor, he spearheaded an effort, with assistance from the city, to plant 1,000 trees in the neighborhood.

Now, at least to Nate Silver, Park Slope is the best place to live in the city. Things look good in the future for the Slope. But is it possible to see the advances made since the 1960s reversed? At one time in the 19th and early 20th Century, Park Slope was home to the well off of the day. After all, it was this group that built the brownstones that now give the neighborhood its distinctive look. Some catalysts for a theoretical decline – a continued economic downturn or other unforeseen events – can not be controlled by community civic groups. However, block associations and local civic groups derive their power directly from their members and neighbors. It is these types of groups that can harness the power to avert any backwards slide while making their neighborhoods as diverse, safe, and welcoming for all.  This is a type of neighborhood governing that people of all political stripes can fully support – in any neighborhood, in any city across the country.

This year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the crash, Greenwood Cemetery will erect a bronze plaque to honor the memory of those who died on January 16, 1960. In the last decade, the remaining empty lot on the corner of 7th Avenue and Sterling Place, a remnant of the crash, was filled with a condominium that matches the look of the surviving brownstones.

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