Some of the borough’s most elegant residential neighborhoods have been in vogue since the 19th century, when rows of brick, limestone, and brownstone houses sprang up to line streets set in more or less regular grid patterns. This is the area known as Brownstone Brooklyn, which includes Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Park Slope. It’s plainly beautiful. And the real estate prices are nothing to sneeze at. In fact, many properties in these areas are pricier than housing in Manhattan, although most Brooklyn residents will tell you they settled here because you get more for your money, which is still generally the case.
So where do you start to explore? Ironically, as close to Manhattan as possible--on the Brooklyn Heights Esplanade a.k.a. The Promenade. Posted on this stretch above the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), Brooklynites watched the twin towers fall. But that searing memory has only made the view that much more special, a reminder that life goes on.
Wandering around the surrounding neighborhood offers the prettiest of tree-lined streets--among them are Willow and the fruit streets: Cranberry, Orange, and Pineapple. Brooklyn’s also notable for lovely mews lined with carriage houses, including the practically pristine Grace Court Alley in Brooklyn Heights. VERANDAH PLACE is a row of 1850s carriage houses fronting Cobble Hill Park, in the Cobble Hill Historic District, just across Atlantic Avenue from the Heights. Cobble Hill’s Warren Street MEWS on Warren Place are a different story, having been built as workers’ cottages in 1878. With lush central and side gardens, they’re magical--even more so because of their proximity to the Tower apartment building, “model tenements” built in the 1870s by Alfred Tredway White, and to the rushing traffic on the BQE, just half a block away.
Once these parts were home to Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, and Truman Capote. Now, the brownstone neighborhoods are attracting the likes of Norah Jones and Maggie Gyllenhaal, writers Jonathan Lethem, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Paul Auster, and countless more or less celebrated creative types.
The borough has become a haven for anyone who loves design. Preservationists fiercely protect their 19th-century blocks, while emerging (and established) designers continue to bring new ideas. According to Judy Stanton, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association--which is celebrating its 100th year--protecting the architecture helps preserve a sense of community. She was instrumental in the fight to make the Heights New York City’s first landmarked neighborhood, which means that a board of overseers must approve all exterior renovations and new buildings. She also helps protect the neighborhood’s 50-foot height limit, a zoning regulation that contributes to maintaining its human scale. Meanwhile, in areas like Williamsburg and Bushwick, young artists and designers push things forward, living in lofts, former tenements, and apartments that they make their own.
Says interior designer Kathryn Scott, who has lived in the Heights for more than 20 years with her husband, artist Wenda Gu, and now their young daughter as well: “I had a specific vision of the kind of house I wanted. I was looking for certain proportions. I looked in Manhattan for two years and couldn’t find anything I liked. I thought: What does it take to get what I want?! So I came to Brooklyn and found my house the next day. It has charm, intimacy, and a certain quietness.”
She’s not alone. People love living in Brooklyn because it’s a pleasant place to, well, live. In 1939, James Agee described it as “this borough of ‘being’ rather than . . . that of doing and bragging.” There’s light, air, space, and a sense of belonging that’s as strong as anywhere. Interior designer Eric Hilton moved into Fort Greene in the mid-1980s, well before the recent wave of gentrification. His street is generous in width, with a row of brownstones on one side and Fort Greene Park on the other. “Why do I live in Brooklyn?” he asks. “That’s easy. I love to see the sky. And it’s beautiful.”