The Park Slope Civic Council Civic News June/July 2009 Volume LXXI, No. 10 www.parkslopeciviccouncil.org The Little School That Anchored a Village PS 133 and ‘The Battle for Baltic Street’ I n 1972, PS133 was the last building standing amid six acres “Widespread deterioration was… precipitated by the razing of of rubble stretching from 5th to 4th Avenues, from Baltic Street over 400 units between Fourth and Fifth Avenues to make way for a across Butler and halfway to Douglass. The site was so barren, new school that was never built,” wrote neighborhood activist Fran PS133 so isolated, that 78th Precinct police called it “The Little Justa in her 1984 doctoral dissertation, a long chapter of which was School on the Prairie.” The only reason the 1898 building had not entitled “The Battle of Baltic Street.” “The sudden loss of the families, shared the fate of dozens of its neighbors — row houses, storefronts, and the increase in surrounding abandonment, was disastrous for warehouses, small factories — was that the city was going broke, and Fifth Avenue.” it had run out of money to build the massive new elementary and Through the 1970s, Justa reported, the number of abandoned or middle schools that were supposed to fill the vast, empty space. demolished buildings rose from 32 to 105 in the blocks surrounding In 2009, PS133 is again slated for demolition and replacement by a the six-acre dump. massive new school, and its fate will be decided by the City Council Finally, in 1977, a group from the Baltic Street Block Association this summer. Just as happened four decades ago, it has become the approached the Park Slope Civic Council and asked for help cleaning focus of fierce arguments over good and bad development, class up a portion of what had come to be known as the Baltic Street Lot divisions and neighborhood character. The arguments are enlarged to create a community garden. Trustee Joan Ryan jumped on the idea by the involvement of a lush and spacious 30-year-old community and helped the group apply to the Astor Foundation for a grant. garden that would be buried under the new school and replaced by “Brooke Astor liked the idea,” recalls Ryan, who succeeded Goetz a smaller garden halfway up Butler Street. as Civic Council president in 1980. “I’ll never forget it: She sent her The major difference today is that what happens to PS133 will grant officer, a real East Side matron, who walked all around the lot have enormous impact on its immediate neighbors, community with me, beautiful clothes and all. She gave us whatever we asked gardeners, several hundred school children and those who care ...See Village, page 6 deeply about historic preservation, but most people would likely see In 1983, 11 years after 6 acres of homes and businesses had been cleared from around its demolition and replacement as simply one more example of what PS133, construction began on 56 new townhouses. The city wants to replace the Park Slope has become in the last 30 years. In the 1970s, by contrast, historic school with one three times as large. antagonists on all sides saw the fight over PS133 and its environs as Fifth Avenue Committee a struggle for the soul and future of the neighborhood. Those older conflicts offer context for what is happening today. In 1972, when Jim Goetz and his wife, Diane, moved close by on Sterling Place, two brownstones still stood, like broken teeth, as the sole survivors of a once-vibrant block. Those last holdouts were soon gone, Goetz recalls, and then the site entered a prolonged, wasteland limbo as New York’s economy went sour. The city was losing popula- tion as well as money, meaning it didn’t need new schools even if it could afford to build them. “We used to joke that first they tore down all those homes and displaced all the families who lived there, then they wondered where all the kids had gone,” said Goetz, who soon became active in neighborhood affairs, helped found the Fifth Avenue Committee and served as president of the Park Slope Civic Council in 1979-80. The giant lot became a garbage dump and a home for stray dogs. Rival Puerto Rican gangs used it for rumbles. PS133 stayed open but sank further and further into disrepair. The city had promised urban renewal but instead accelerated urban decay. News & Notes for the Civic Minded To the Editor: A Tree Dies in Brooklyn: On June 22, Parks Department I have been hoping that somehow, somewhere, someone would find workers cut down a dead American elm on 3rd Street between a way to stir the Civic Council into action. I find it almost impossible to 7th and 8th Avenues. A crowd gathered to watch the last believe that despite all the changes in Park Slope since 1973, the city has moments of a tree described by Joe Ferris as the oldest not expanded the boundaries of the landmarked community. and largest elm in Park Slope, its age estimated I see apartment houses going up all over. The April issue of the Civic at between 125 and 150 years. News says nothing about that. There is a piece about Snapper Garrison, Ferris should know: In the an 1880s jockey. After that there is nothing about the protection of 1960s, working with the Civic today’s elegant and endangered Park Slope, with cheesy apartment Council and block associations, houses rising at its fringes. the former state assemblyman –Everett Ortner spearheaded efforts to plant We apologize to Mr. Ortner, whose late wife, Evelyn, led the effort to create hundreds of trees around the the Park Slope Historic District. Our intention had been to provide an update Slope. in each Civic News on the progress of our Historic District Expansion Com- Ferris, who shared the block mittee, but we have been remiss of late. The committee is deeply engaged in with the elm tree for many expanding the district; regular updates may be found on our web site and, decades, wrote this “Ode to a we promise, in future issues of the Civic News. Near and Dear Friend”: Always there in all seasons: – Spring boughs, a budding harbinger of warm sunny days – Summer plumage, a verdant canopy of this majestic monarch – Autumn — a burst of golden reds and rich dark browns – Ah, winter, its silhouetted arms captured the diamond stars in the mysterious cobalt sky night. And a late March storm turned ice and rain to shimmering crystals. The gentle moon through all these wondrous times orbited in her arms. For 47 years, I have stopped many a day and night, gazed up to travel on her outstretched arms into the heavenly sky. Now gone. But, in thankful memory, always there. PS Civic News_3.75x4.5_April_DrS:Layout 1 4/2/09 3:34 PM Page The best lung care is only a breath away Specializing in Park Slope since 1987 Arthur Sung, M.D., Marc W. 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They are Fatoumata Bah (Secondary School for Research, the Park Slope Merchants Scholarship); Sachi Moncion (Secondary School for Law, the Mary Laverne Allman Scholarship); and Sidoney Flowers (Secondary School for Journalism, the Kazeroid Scholarship). They are flanked to their right by Scholarship Committee Members Tom Miskel, Nat Allman and Joan Emerson and to their left by their college counselors Amy Seponara (Journalism), Elizabeth Torres (Law) and Josh Steckel (Research). Trustee Lumi Michelle Rolley presented a posthumous Lovgren Award for outstanding volunteer service to the late Robert Guskind, founder of the Gowanus Lounge blog; it was accepted (top right) by his widow, Olivia Kissin. The second Lovgren Award, which goes to a community professional, was presented by PSCC President Ken Freeman to Catherine Bohne (left), owner of Community Bookstore, for her work reviving the Park Slope Chamber of Commerce, launching the Buy Local campaign, and many other efforts in service to the Park Slope community. New Trustees calendar John Casson, Linda Gnat-Mullin, Melinda Morris and Sarah Murphy For details and additional listings, go to parkslopeciviccouncil.org. were elected, as were officers Ken Freeman (president), Lauri Schindler PCCC Monthly Meeting (1st vice president), Gilly Youner (2nd vice president), Eric McClure Thursday, Sept. 10, 7pm, New York Methodist Hospital Executive (treasurer), Judith Lief (recording secretary), Michael Cairl (financial Dining Room. secretary) and Richard White (membership secretary). Free Apple Diagnostic! 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They changed that!” Usually, they were stuck behind their name to the Mack Brothers Company in 1902, but the buses a line of cars trying to get past a gar- were marketed in 1904 under the trade name “Manhattan,” prob- bage truck (long before they were ably to distinguish them from the company’s horse-drawn product officially supposed to be called sani- line, which was still being manufactured in Brooklyn. They soon tation trucks). But I never realized introduced the concept of placing the cab over the engine, which is how the story of Mack Trucks and still seen in many buses and trucks today. Brooklyn were really intermingled In 1905, the Mack brothers, now numbering five, moved their From the collection until I found a post card of a Mack headquarters and factory to Allentown, Pa. In 1909, they built of Bob Levine Bus at Prospect Park. America’s first engine-driven fire truck, with extension ladders and In 1890, John M. Mack had gotten a job at Fallesen & Berry, a hooked poles. They delivered it to Morristown, N.J., where it ran carriage and wagon company on Atlantic Avenue. In 1893, John and until 1926. his brother, Augustus (better known as Gus), bought the company. During World War I, Mack delivered more than 6,000 trucks to In 1894, a third Mack brother, William, joined the company. Allied forces. British soldiers admired their ruggedness and would On Apr. 2, 1900, the Mack brothers started a new business making call for someone to “bring up one of those bulldog trucks.” The firm motor vehicles on Atlantic Avenue and their first sale was to Har- has used the bulldog symbol ever since. ris and McGuire, concessionaires at Prospect Park. They bought a John Mack died in a car crash in Weatherly, Pa. in 1924. 40-horsepower, 11-passenger, open sightseeing bus that took visitors Mack Trucks, Inc. is still doing well (certainly compared to other around the park. Bus No. 1, as it was called, operated for eight years vehicle companies in the news today). It is still headquartered in before being converted into a truck, logging over a million miles in Allentown, though it became a subsidiary of Renault in 1990, then all as it trekked around the park. A sister vehicle was delivered in was bought by Volvo in 2001. 1901 and served uninterrupted until it was retired in 1924. It is now There are several stories about how the Macks came up with the in the Mack Museum in Allentown, Pa. A fancier bus, which had a idea of motorized “trucks.” One is that John, on a fishing trip to Long canopy, seven seats, and held 20 passengers, was built in 1904. The Island, decided that there had to be a faster way to get there than a picture of the 1904 model shown here is from a special set of prints buggy ride that took most of the day. He wanted a vehicle that would enable him to get in plenty of fishing over the weekend and be back Brown Harris stevens at work on Monday. By motor vehicle, he figured he could reach his destination in about an hour (though not on the 100 Seventh Avenue LIE today). So John and Gus set to work. Brooklyn, NY 11215 At first they tried steam-powered and electric motors, but what convinced them to start building gas-powered vehicles was an invitation for a ride in a new 2-cylinder Winton automobile. The Winton was owned by John’s neighbor Theodore Heilbron, captain of William Randolph Hearst’s private yacht, who lived at 33 3rd Ave., a block from the The Mack Brothers’ Bus No. 1 (below) and in a 1904 postcard at Grand Army Plaza (below right) was built in 1900 and was Mack’s first sale of a motorized vehicle. The print (right) of a 20-seat Mack Bus bought for Prospect Park in 1904 was made for the Mack Truck Co.’s 60th anniversary. Libby Ryan Senior Vice President Specializing in civilized and discreet real estate transactions 718.399.4103 firstname.lastname@example.org 4 • Civic News Vol. LXXI No 10 • June/July 2009 Bob Levine Collection Mack shop on Atlantic Avenue. They were impressed by the Winton’s superior performance. Although Mack now only makes trucks, for the company’s first 60 years buses were a major product line, when it often used the advertising slogan “The first Mack was a bus and the first bus was a Mack.” We can add that the first bus was used in Prospect Park. • As summer starts here in Brooklyn, we can still see much of what the sightseers saw in 1900 on their ride on Bus No. 1. Thanks to the Prospect Park Alliance, most of the vistas in the Park have been restored to the way Olmsted and Vaux created them, and they will be preserved for the next generation. As I finish my last column for the publishing year, I want to thank all those who gave me ideas and helped me check the facts. These include Amy Peck, the archivist at the Prospect Park Alliance, Francis Morrone, our local architectural historian, Tom Miskel, who seems to know everyone and everything about the Slope, and such people as Linda Gnat-Mullin, who generously offered to let me use photos from her collection. I have also really appreciated hearing neighbors say, “I read your column — thanks.” One more thing: If you want a photo of your house from 1939- 41, the Department of Finance documented just about every house in the city for tax purposes. It was done again in the mid 1980s (in color). You can order a copy of your house’s photo at:www.nyc.gov/ html/records/html/taxphotos/home.shtml. It will cost from $35 for an 8x10 black and white to $60 for an 11x14 color print. You need to know your block and lot number, but if you don’t they’ll look it up for an additional $5. I have not seen any of the color prints from the ‘80s, but the photos from 1939-41 are worth the price (and make great gifts as well). –Bob Levine, Trustee and PSCC Historian Civic News Vol. LXXI No 10 • June/July 2009 • 5 ...Village, continued from Page 1 ... to the Brooklyn Democratic Party” and Borough President Howard for. It was a real triumph.” Golden. Rentar, builders of the Albee Square Mall on Fulton Street Maria Grimaldi is now an organic farmer in Sullivan County but, (demolished in 2008), drew up plans for a shopping center that would in 1977, she was an employee of the Horticultural Society assigned surround PS133 with a large, regional supermarket, stores, and park- to work on the Baltic Street Community Garden. She tells how the ing for 357 cars. (In a bit of uncanny historical parallelism, “Rentar” garden used Astor’s money to buy tools and hire several local teen- is “Ratner” spelled backwards, though there is no obvious connection agers, including a former gang leader named Armando. Armando between the Arthur Ratner who headed Rentar and the Bruce Ratner wasn’t just some mischievous kid, she says, but someone who had who has his own grandiose designs for Brooklyn today.) committed serious crimes and spent time in Attica. Rebecca Reich, FAC’s first director, remembers those days vividly: “At first Armando thought it was a joke, but then he and the other “PSIC members were mostly middle-aged men who had been able kids began to interact with the Puerto Rican families on Baltic Street, to buy houses cheaply and wanted real estate prices to rise. They saw and with some of the black people in the neighborhood who were any work that we did as a threat to the worth of their homes. from the South and knew lots about farming. They showed the kids “They launched ad hominem attacks on me in letters to the news- how to garden. When they got a crop in, they developed a whole papers that would have made Karl Rove proud. Two of their leaders different attitude. were on the Community Board and used that forum to spout these “The police couldn’t believe some of these kids were so into gar- things, too. It was hard not to attack them back, but I was young dening,” says Grimaldi. “They’d sit in their patrol cars and laugh.” and I shrugged it off. I figured it came with the job.” With the help of the local congressman, Fred Richmond, the gar- In her dissertation, Justa quoted from a letter by PSIC vice presi- deners got another major boost: a $12,000 Community Development dent Fred Baer published in the now-defunct Brooklyn Phoenix: “The Grant. They also got the help of Cornell University Argicultural Rebecca Reichs, the Doris Clarks [another FAC founder and a long- Extension Agent John Ameroso. time Civic Council trustee] and the Fran Justas are trying to develop Ameroso tells how Richmond had been placed on the Agriculture an empire of buildings and public funds to ensure the financial base Committee almost as a joke: what less desirable assignment could the that will enable them to pursue the socialist propaganda that will House leadership give a freshman congressman from Brooklyn? But continue to encourage hatred and economic depression.” Richmond used his position to support the community gardening FAC had put together a plan that was radically different from movement, which was just beginning to take off. Thanks to money PSIC’s and Rentar’s. Commercial development would be limited won by Richmond, Ameroso became one of the first extension agents to a small supermarket with a 50-car parking lot. A new PS133, hired to work with community gardeners in the inner city — a job financed with bonds rather than city money, would sit among rows he still holds today. of affordable, owner-occupied townhouses, each with two rental “The first time I saw the lot, I went, ‘Huh? We’re supposed to turn units filled by low-income, Section 8 tenants. this into a garden?’” recalls Ameroso. “It was like a war zone. But it “We spent a year-and-a-half dealing with Mayor Koch and with turned out to be great. It brought the neighborhood together.” the Department of Housing Preservation and Development,” recalls That first garden was on the site now occupied by Key Food on 5th Reich. “Their party line was that the market was going to take care Avenue, slightly softening the moonscape surrounding PS 133. of Park Slope and they were not about to put any investment into Around the same time, neighborhood activists had begun to think the Baltic Street Lot.” about others ways the vacant land might be used to help a struggling Then something remarkable happened, as Reich describes it: neighborhood: housing, shops, a new school. Many of those activ- “We got involved in the National People’s Alliance, a group based ists coalesced in 1978 as the Fifth Avenue Committee. FAC had a in Chicago that was fighting redlining by banks and insurance lengthy and complicated agenda — crime reduction, commercial companies. Insurance companies refused to give policies in certain revitalization, the maintenance of racial and economic diversity — neighborhoods, including parts of Park Slope. but the Baltic Street Lot occupied much of the organization’s time and “They met with us and asked if we were seeking funding for any energy for the next several years. The lot also came close to tearing development projects. The Baltic Street Lot looked like the perfect the organization apart almost before it got started. opportunity. I wrote up a proposal that was like a wish list for ev- There was general agreement within FAC that a supermarket erything we were looking for, then got flown to Chicago, where FAC should occupy some portion of the lot, but there were widely di- was one of six groups from all over the country making presentations vergent opinions about how the rest of the land should be used. to AETNA, which was then the largest home insurer in the country, One faction argued for subsidized housing to counter the creeping and which had been a major target of the anti-redlining effort. gentrification that was displacing large numbers of the Slope’s lower “The next thing I knew, AETNA had agreed to provide below- income residents. Another faction wanted the site used for com- market-rate financing for buyers of homes on Baltic Street,” says mercial development and market-rate housing. Reich, pointing out that mortgage rates were then in the mid teens. The arguments grew so bitter that a faction broke away to form “We went almost overnight from wish list to ‘Here’s the money.’” a new group, the Park Slope Improvement Committee, which The saga did not end, however, with AETNA’s largesse. FAC launched a full-bore offensive against FAC. Justa quotes from a continued to fight for affordable housing; the city, adopting the letter PSIC President David Brennan sent to 10,000 area residents: PSIC line, continued to resist. FAC and PSIC argued their cases in “Those of us trying to revitalize the portion of the slope in great- heated meetings of the Community Board and the Civic Council, est need (the Fifth Avenue corridor) are appalled that anyone can whose trustees included members of both groups. (Justa writes encourage these [subsidized housing] projects which will only serve that PSIC tried but failed to get several more members elected as to downgrade the vicinity.” Civic Council trustees.) Finally, on March 1, 1981, the city issued A 1980 article in City Limits magazine describes how PSIC brought an RFP — a request for proposals — for a mixed-use development in the Rentar Development Corporation, a company with “close ties of a supermarket and 56 townhouses. Rentar did not respond to 6 • Civic News Vol. LXXI No 10 • June/July 2009 Mike Stein/www.photomike.com In 1982, 10 years after an urban renewal project went sour, ground was finally broken for the first new building: the Key Food Supermarket on the 5th Avenue side of the six-acre site. This photo is from an exhibit at the Central Library of photos taken by Mike Stein for the Prospect Press, a neighborhood paper published from 1982-87. the RFP; FAC’s one small victory had been the city’s rejection of the Rentar plan for a shop- ping center. But the townhouses were to be sold at market value and the rental units would not qualify as Section 8 housing — both huge victories for FAC’s opponents. Also, the city suddenly found money to re- furbish PS133; funding a new school had been the gaping hole in PSIC’s plans. FAC felt betrayed and considered walking away from the project. Justa quoted one angry FAC member arguing at a community meeting: “Ten years ago, people didn’t ask the city to tear down housing, and we have a right to ask the city to put back the same housing for the same kind of people who trying to decide whether to take the gamble, the school was the only still live in the neighborhood.” building on the block, a big beacon. It added solidity and perma- In the end, FAC decided to salvage what it could from a bad situ- nence. We glommed onto it, architecturally, emotionally. Almost ation: It would develop the townhouses while another developer all of us can see it from one of our windows. I can’t think of anyone would build a large supermarket and 107-car parking lot. AETNA’s who doesn’t love it.” money would bring down the interest rates, making the townhouses The Department of Education’s School Construction Authority slightly more affordable. Each townhouse would include two rental wants to tear down the 264-student PS133 this fall and construct a units, which would help the new owners pay the mortgage. The building three times as large accommodating 950 students in two houses had to be owner-occupied to qualify for AETNA’s assistance, schools, one in District 13 to replace PS133 and a second in District which would contribute to neighborhood stability. 15 to accommodate the anticipated student growth from the high Ground was broken for the supermarket in 1982, and work began rises that have sprouted along 4th Avenue. The SCA, which is largely on the houses in 1983. The community garden moved from the Key exempt from city laws regarding zoning and public review, has few Food site to a large plot at the corner of Baltic and 4th Avenue. (“We hurdles to jump before it begins construction, but it must win ap- were told the new site would be the garden’s permanent home,” proval from the City Council and that’s where people like Avery and recalls Ameroso, “but it was an Italian handshake agreement — noth- Conway are making a last stand. They want the SCA to consider an ing in writing — which is too bad.”) The houses, while still under alternative plan involving restoration of PS133, construction of an construction, went on the market for $137,000, and most of them annex and preservation of the cherished community garden, which, were soon under contract. Ameroso points out, is the only bit of open, green space for dozens There were lots of problems with the contractor and the quality of blocks along 4th Avenue. and timing of his work, recalls Pat Conway, who was a community On June 4, Civic Council trustees passed a resolution “recognizing organizer with FAC back then and is now secretary to the FAC the need for additional seats in District 15 and improved facilities board (and a mainstay in the fight to save PS133). “We’ve learned for PS 133” but asking the City Council to reject the current plan a lot since then about being a partner with a private developer, but “so that the SCA can involve the community in a more meaningful this was our first project.” FAC has gone on to develop many highly fashion, explore alternatives to the demolition of the existing histori- praised affordable housing projects. cally significant school building and provide an adequate accounting Despite everything, says Conway, the project was a net gain for to the community of the analysis it conducted for the site in terms the neighborhood. “It gave moderate- to middle-income folks the of expansion of the school population.” opportunity for home ownership, and it continued the neighborhood “They called it Park Slope Village,” says Avery. “You had your tradition of live-in owner-landlords. It gave stability to an enclave school, your garden, your low-rise houses, your supermarket. They that, for years, had been a eyesore and a point of contention.” say that your sense of place is determined by your sense of the ho- S.J. Avery, who bought one of the new houses and has lived there rizon. The thought of them replacing PS133 with that much mass, a ever since, says bonds developed among the homeowners even be- boxy wall — they want to take out something lovely and treasured fore they moved in, thanks to numerous meetings provoked by the and put a box in its place. It breaks my heart.” –Ezra Goldstein contractor’s missteps. That neighborly feeling has grown over the years, with many homes still occupied by the original owners. You can read arguments for the new school and see renderings in All along, at the center of it all, has been PS133, a classic building the Environmental Impact Statement: http://schools.nyc.gov/Offices/ designed by legendary architect Charles B. J. Snyder, many of whose SCA/Reports/EIS/EIS-PS133.htm. For arguments on the other side, New York City schools have won landmark status. go to http://hdc.org/blog/2009/06/15/park-slope-neighbors-on-ps-133. “The beautiful old building is an anchor to the neighborhood,” To sign a petition against demolition of PS133, go to http://www.ipeti- says Avery. “When we looked at the empty lot, when we were all tions.com/petition/4thAveLandmark. Civic News Vol. LXXI No 10 • June/July 2009 • 7 PERIODICALS Civic News POSTAGE PAID Park Slope Civic Council AT BROOKLYN, NY 357 Ninth Street Brooklyn, NY 11215 Return Service Requested The Park Slope Civic Council Organized as the South Brooklyn Board of Trade in 1896, PSCC is Join Us! one of the oldest civic associations in Brooklyn. We identify and Sign up online at www.parkslopeciviccouncil.org address quality-of-life issues important to the community; create or mail this form and a check to Park Slope Civic Council, 357 9th and support projects geared to improving and protecting the St., Brooklyn, NY 11215-4098 neighborhood; and assist local non-profit organizations that ben- efit those living and working in Park Slope. Our many ongoing pro- Name (s) grams include the Halloween Parade, the Clean Streets campaign, community forums, and a holiday toy drive. Our annual House Tour raises thousands of dollars for neighborhood initiatives. All are welcome to join. To learn more, go to parkslopeciviccouncil.org. 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Civic News: Ezra Goldstein, Editor; Sheila White and Judith Lief, Copy Editors CIVIC NEWS (ISSN 0031-2169) (USPS 114-740) is published monthly from September to June for $40 per year, including membership, by the Park Slope Civic Council Inc (founded April 14, 1896 as the South Brooklyn Board of Trade), 357 9th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215. Periodicals postage paid at Brooklyn, NY. POSTMASTER: Send undeliverable copies to Civic News, c/o Richard White, 357 9th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215. We welcome submissions: deadline is the 10th of each month from August to May. Articles, images, and suggestions submitted become the property of the Park Slope Civic Council upon acceptance for publication. Send unsolicited materials and photos to Editor, Civic News, 357 9th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215, or to firstname.lastname@example.org.