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A Walk Around Brooklyn: the year 2000 seems like a different era

The acclaimed two-hour public television documentary A Walk Around Brooklyn was released in 2000, but a recent re-viewing shows it illustrating a different era, before Brooklyn crossed the rubicon of a red-hot real estate market (and, of course, before the 2003 announcement of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, much less the opening of the developer's Atlantic Terminal mall, which came in 2004).

It's not just the lingering view of the Twin Towers from Fulton Ferry or that fact that the former fireboat house in that scene had yet to be turned into the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. Or that opening shots from the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower (below) date from when the building contained dentists' office rather than luxury condos.

It's also that, among the relatively few talking heads, some are now deceased: comedian Alan King, who grew up in Williamsburg, and Weeksville preservationist Joan Maynard. (Others interviewed on camera include the Brooklyn Brewery's Steve Hindy and the Rosen brothers who run Junior's restaurant.)

And the landmark restaurant Gage & Tollner, in an increasingly incongruous location on the Fulton Mall, has since closed, was briefly resurrected as a T.G.I. Fridays, and soon will be reincarnated as an offshoot of the Harlem-based Amy Ruth's.

The Golden era

The film was produced with the assistance of the office of Howard Golden, Brooklyn Borough President from 1977 through 2001, and it is very much a sign of a borough striving for recognition and getting some of its due.

The concept, of course, was a bit of a fudge, because no one can actually "walk" around Brooklyn in a couple of hours, but the point was to affirm Brooklyn's burgeoning mosaic. The web site description states:
So it's no wonder that when [actor/host] David Hartman and [Brooklyn-born architectural historian] Barry Lewis set out across the East River to make the latest episode in their series of video walking tours of New York communities for Thirteen -- a follow-up to their acclaimed specials on Harlem, 42nd Street, and Broadway -- they found not one Brooklyn, but a vast patchwork of neighborhoods steeped in 400 years of history.

Under Golden's administration, from 1985 through 2001, the Borough President's Office sponsored the annual Welcome Back to Brooklyn Festival, honoring Brooklyn-born celebrities and enshrining on the Celebrity Path in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. (In 1985, those inaugurated included Aaron Copland, Moss Hart, Gil Hodges, Danny Kaye, Phil Silvers, Mae West, and Walt Whitman. Whew.) The last Celebrity Path installment was in 2001.

The Markowitz era

Then Borough President Marty Markowitz took over and, though hardly one to eschew nostalgia, Markowitz's office has sponsored some more forward-looking celebrations, notably the Brooklyn Book Festival.

But that was launched in 2005 and as late as 2003, after the Atlantic Yards project was announced, Markowitz sounded almost abjectly thankful that a major developer would propose such an ambitious arena-plus-towers plan in Brooklyn. He said in a December 2003 radio interview, "Y’know, it wasn’t that many years ago that no one wanted to invest a dime in our borough. We should be celebrating it..."

Instead, it might have been more fruitful for Markowitz to see himself, and city administrators, as negotiators with a strong hand.

Dodgers: Brooklyn heart?

The documentary does a decent, if understandably swift, job traversing the past and present of several Brooklyn neighborhoods, and inevitably lands at the site of Ebbets Field, with accompanying nostalgic photos. A dialogue ensues.

DH: Do you realize, this team, when Mr. [Walter] O'Malley moved the team, in the late 50s to Los Angeles, the people of Brooklyn, of course, thought he was evil, the devil, he took the heart, the soul, the guts, the identity of Brooklyn, to Los Angeles.

Lewis: Y'know, I hated O'Malley too, but--when you look back in retrospect, I think he really knew what he was doing. In those days, in 1957, L.A. looked like the future, Brooklyn was the past. And isn't it ironic that, today, L.A. is more of a symbol of the past and Brooklyn is the symbol of the future.

Hints of the market

There are only a few hints, some indirect, of the hot real estate market that had begun, and was to heat up even more. Neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill are described as affordable alternatives for those who can no longer afford Brooklyn Heights, rather than destinations of their own that now even attract celebrities.

A stop in Bedford-Stuyvesant, clearly an attempt to dispel stereotypes that the entire neighborhood is poor and drab, takes us to a spectacular row house and points out the stunning architectural stock in the neighborhood's southern segment. A few years later, the real estate market there took off.

And a visit to DUMBO focuses not on the development efforts of the unnamed developer David Walentas, who owned a good number of old loft buildings and was strategizing a way forward, but the role of artists and galleries, many of them in fact nurtured by Walentas.

BL: You look around and think, well, who would want these buildings anyway. You have not just the artists, you've got manufacturers who are also leaving Manhattan. This could be their last stand in New York if they don't get these buildings. And then, in back of everybody, you have these upscale developers who are hoping to take these buildings and turn this entire waterfront into a new SoHo.

DH: So the prices are going to shoot up.

BL: Million dollar lofts, lots of coffee bars.


At Coney Island

The documentary ends appropriately at the raffish, rundown, but still-vibrant Coney Island beach, where Lewis takes a stab at predicting the future.

DH: This is now, what about the future?

BL: Well, y'know, it's New York, you never know what the future is. Hey, we we were at the Gowanus Canal. And for all we know, it's going to be a wonderful sightseeing journey through old, industrial New York.

Actually, in perhaps even more of a surprise to a time-traveler from 2000, the Gowanus neighborhood will be the home of numerous luxury developments.

Lewis predicted more accessibility:
Coney Island--well, for one thing, it's still the magnificent South Shore Long Island beach it always was. It's the front door to the Atlantic Ocean for seven and a half million New Yorkers. I can almost picture hydrofoil boats coming down from Manhattan around Gravesend Bay and landing people here on Coney Island in the future.

The melting pot

Lewis continued with a tribute to Brooklyn's setting:
Y'know, Elliot Willensky wrote a wonderful book When Brooklyn Was The World. And he said, "Where land and water meet, wonderful things happen. And y'know, it's still where land and water meet.

And it's a place where developer Joe Sitt proposed housing near the beach, the city resisted, and has instead suggested a land swap as part of a very ambitious housing and amusement development project still under serious debate.

In conclusion

The film ends with our two guides tuckered out at the beach.

DH: Hey Barry, good job, we've done Brooklyn.

BL: Isn't a great city? I mean, this is one of the great cities of the United States. It's had its trials, it's now coming back, and it's coming back into its own, and in its own way, and that's what I love around Brooklyn.

This city is a city of 50,000 acres. Y'know, in Texas, it would just be a mid-size ranch. In Brooklyn, it's the world.

And a very attractive area, it turned out, for housing as the real estate market soon crested.

Seven years later, a "Walk Around Brooklyn" would generate a very different documentary. After all, the latest promotional video for Downtown Brooklyn is narrated by an actor with a plummy British accent.


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