Monday, July 18, 2016

Prospect Lefferts Gardens - a historical history in many movements. Opus 1.

What follows is a rewritten excerpt from a paper I wrote for my History and Theory of Historic Preservation class at Pratt last autumn.

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Prospect Lefferts Gardens is Changing
As I was walking around, admiring the architecture in my neighborhood and feeling fine, I pondered the question of how landmark historic districts relate to the cost of housing in Prospect Lefferts Gardens (PLG), where I have lived for the past 11 years.  I wondered if historic districts drive rental/housing prices up, or if they help keep prices stable.  PLG is a small neighborhood with three historic districts within its boundaries.  Since the buildings in the historic districts are protected (more or less), large-scale housing developers, who haven't paid much attention to the neighborhood for decades, are now focusing their attention on the areas surrounding the historic districts.  As a lover of old buildings, I originally thought maybe the quality of the area's historic architecture (due to its landmark status) was the main reason for the local rapid price increases and gentrification.  In other words, I wondered if the historic districts were so nice, it made the neighborhood more desirable to live in.  

But, I found out that things are far more complicated than I thought, and it has to do with the history of Brooklyn and the history of race relations in this country.  Let's start with a basic history of the neighborhood.


This is the first installment of a journey through gentrification, if you will.
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PLG Resident Groups Through Time
Picture in your mind verdant forests filled with huge trees, meadows, streams, and pleasant hills. The Wisconsin Ice Sheet had receded, leaving Long Island behind.  Native peoples and all manner of non-human animals, birds, plants, and insects lived here.  As far as we know, Brooklyn carried on more or less in a state of lush abundance from the end of the last ice age until the early 1600’s.  The first white (Dutch) people arrived in the area and purchased land from the Lenape people in the 1630’s.  Prospect Lefferts Gardens is today’s name for an area on the northern end of the original Dutch village of Midwout (established in the 1650’s).  The village was renamed “Flatbush” in 1664, when the British took over.  In the 1800’s, the bustling country town of Flatbush was home to Erasmus Hall High School (established in 1786) and Kings County Hospital (originally founded in 1830 as an almshouse for the poor).  By the late 1800’s, with the urban expansion of Brooklyn, the town-turned-neighborhood boasted several thriving theaters and cinemas, including Lowes King’s Theatre, an opulent building which was neglected in recent decades before being restored and re-opened in 2015.  In 1913, Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team was opened.  At one time, Flatbush had so many impressive Victorian mansions (including one belonging to the Vanderbilt Family, which was very close to today’s Prospect Park subway station), the town was a tourist destination, and picture postcards of the mansions were popular.  In 1957, The Empire Rollerdrome was opened in an old Ebbets Field parking garage, and by the 1970’s, it was the epicenter for roller disco.

The Flatbush neighborhood is currently bordered to the north by Crown Heights, to the east by Brownsville/East New York, to the south by Flatbush/Ditmas Park, and to the west by Prospect Park.  The area was also briefly referred to as "Prospect Park East" by real estate developers in the early 1910's, but that name didn't last, probably because it's kinda lame.  In 1969, residents defined and named a small neighborhood within the larger Flatbush area “Prospect” (in honor of Prospect Park) “Lefferts” (in honor of the original prominent Flatbush land-holding Lefferts family) “Gardens” (due to its close proximity to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden).

In addition to your run-of-the-mill professionals and immigrants, it's fun to think that what is now Prospect Lefferts Gardens has over time been a center for baseball fans, horticultural enthusiasts, park-goers, those needing to make a stopover on their long, horse-drawn journey to Coney Island, and disco roller skaters (including Cher).

Cher and Bill Butler at the Empire Roller Disco 1979.
Photo: Pinterest by way of Brownstoner.com
Flatbush has always been home to a mixture of different people, however original homeowners in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens area were predominantly Dutch farmers.  As the area became developed, it was home to prominent Protestants of Western-European descent.  From the 1920’s through the 1950’s, Irish, European Jews, and Italian immigrants settled in the area.  In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, just north of Flatbush.  And in the 1950’s, although the neighborhood was still 99% white, a handful of black families started to establish themselves in the area.  

Ten years later, in 1960, at the end of PLG’s first 50 years as an urban neighborhood (as opposed to a sleepy farming town or Revolutionary War battle site), parts of the neighborhood were changing. Although there was still a majority of white people, in some census tracts, the majority had shifted from 99% to around 75%.  “White flight,” redlining, and blockbusting had begun.  Within only 10 years, by 1970, black people held as much as a 70% majority in the blocks East of the Manor (I’ll explain what The Manor is in a later post).  The total number of people living in PLG in 1970 was reportedly very close to what it had been 10 years earlier, however there were likely significant numbers of undocumented black workers from Haiti and other West Indian countries in residence. Also, the majority of the white population by then would have been Hassidic Jewish residents from the border of Crown Heights further east.

By the 1980’s, the entirety of PLG was 70-80% black of either African-Caribbean or African-American descent (two separate groups which have had tensions between them).  The neighborhood has had a white minority for the past 30-40 years, and since the arrival of my white self ten years ago, I have occasionally sensed and been witness to expressions of worry and displeasure from some long-time neighborhood residents that my presence was a sign of coming gentrification.  My neighbors were right, but it took a while.  The neighborhood racial makeup (mostly Afro-Caribbean) stayed generally steady through the 2000's, until the past 3-5 years, which have seen a large influx of young white people.  There has certainly been some racial turnover in home ownership (as happened with my own house, for example), however today’s new residents are mostly moving into neighborhood apartment buildings, because what working class person can afford a house these days?

That pretty much catches you up on the history of PLG’s human residents.  In the next post on this subject, I’ll explore the architectural history of the neighborhood.  Then we'll get to shenanigans, and eventually wrap up.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for putting this together! I'm doing a little of my own digging into prospect lefferts history. Any suggestions for good archives with a salty of PLG documents/photos that you suggest?

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  2. It not only happens with Prospect leferts garden(PLG),its almost with all the properties who prices go up very rapidly.Government needs to control this rapid increment in the prices of land.

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  3. Great history post after so long, I was looking for some posts that are related to historic nature and finally, you post it. Thank you and keep it up

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