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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Photo Wed 012914: Lonely Soldier on Schermerhorn Edition

With scheduled construction of a hotel to the left of it (from this angle) and the largest tower in Brooklyn slated to go up to it's right, this lonely little building is at more than a few interesting intersections on Schermerhorn Street at Downtown's edge.

In Downtown Brooklyn, Schermerhorn Street is a heat sink, to borrow and adjust the term for a computer part who's principal purpose is to suck all the heat to one location. In computers this is useful because heat sinks sit on or next to fans and vents, that allow the heat to be dispersed. Lonely Livingston Avenue, sitting parallel between the active avenues of Fulton Street and Atlantic hadn't been as useful for decades.

In my life time of several decades it's been home to city offices, like the Board of Education (now moved to midtown in an effort to reign in their ranks) and state service offices like medicaid, unemployment and the bureau of child welfare. Other than that, the back side of a municipal parking garage, occasionally wafting with the fragrance of urine, a small sadly neglected city park, and a few other odds and ends were all I could tell you about Schermerhorn  until about ten years ago when the condo boom erupted in downtown Brooklyn. Since then there are a few tony developments. For example the "Be@Schermerhorn" is complete with an anchor retail tent in the style of a whole-foods-esque, which made me laugh because I remember when a hotdog and a person in need of medical attention was much of what you could reliably find on Schermerhorn, and those days weren't long gone when that particular condo and market went up. Which could account for some of the issues they had filling the vacancies before an angel swooped in and saved them.

I found myself downtown this week. "Found" being a disingenuous term for my guilty pilgrimage to Brooklyn's own ShakeShack, which besides staying delicious, stands as in this era as an appropriate if unofficial greeter to the western edge of Fulton Street and the Downtown Brooklyn shopping area.

Travel home by chilly bike (I'm a blogger remember) I came across many freshly vacant lots, (which I've learned from Brownstowner are owned by Steiner Development and slated to be discount hotels) some already deep in the throws of new residential construction. There wasn't much time for me to take in the flurry of new before I can across this lonely outpost.

I also found this sate-photo I've highlighted to be pretty hilarious as you can see where the lonely soldier stands in regard to the development.

This gritty little building shares the block with the mega development "The Hub" as reported on Gothamist (seen below) which as shown in this rendering will not only be a major real estate development but the new largest tower in Brooklyn (It'll be 52 stories) will push the borough's vertical profile further to the stratosphere.

That of course means it'll become a commercial destination. With BAM, "The Theater for a New Audience" on Rockwell as well as the high-rise residential tower 66 Rockwell all one block away it's guaranteed to be a hot spot. And that doesn't even include the Two-Trees mega BAM tower slated to go up across the northern nub of 3rd Avenue and Flatbush, which would add another cultural center, replacement library (there's debate about whether it's a replacement library or not) and residential tower. This area now has potential to be a consistently vibrant and enriching center in the way it hasnt been since the 50's when it was just around the corner from rows of Brooklyn's theater district. All of this development no doubt benefiting from tax exemptions, and the market cultivated by buildings like "Be" and the Barclay Center just (technically) three blocks away.

Personally I'm curious to know how all all this will embrace the African Street Fair that has been part of BAM's spring Dance Africa event for over a decade. Since the Two-Tree's project is aimed at the footprint of the street festival, it would make sense to me that some sort of connective supporting relationship be made.

Other than concern for Dance Africa and the annual street festival, I got no gripes about all this mind you. I don't want massive condos towering over and killing classic city and neighborhood sight-lines in Prospect or Crown Heights and the like, but this is Downtown, it's were massive projects should be. Hopefully since so many are residential the city has plans in the works to address the reality of the thousands new people who will be using nearly century old infrastructure in that area, and new school with all those some of the cash from all those new tax payers would be good too.

Vaguely I recall seeing a few residents on Schermerhorn and my guess (+mischieveous hope) is at some point in the down and out 70's or 80's a resident bought this building, thus ensuring a place in the glistening tomorrows to come. Of course it could be that some speculator came along at the right moment and there's nothing romantic about this building, but eh, in a life less ordinary, I'll vote for the romance.

So maybe it's good if there's a hold out relic from the past sticking up like a thumb against the new. Judging from the generic glass-rectangle-rific architectural design of many of these new projects it might be the easiest way for new comers to see what character looks like.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Photo Wednesday 012212 Edition : Snow Day

Yesterday's snow ensured another week of kids sledding, diy sidewalk navigation and our friends on facebook grousing about winter. Eh whaddaya gonna do? The fact that we've had about 7 total inches of snow the last two years has helped collectively toughen us to winter so we'll all just have to summon our inner Yukon explorer, or pretend to at least.

Today's photo for wednesday comes from the winter scape that is Bedford Avenue & Sterling Place and the majestic Studebaker Building.

Be safe out there.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Bklyn's former Fox Savoy Theatre, it's next familar swan song

I can help but imagine Joni Mitchell serenading this post.

In the days of old, when Brooklyn was the world and Bedford Avenue a rich and mighty vein laden  with auto dealerships at it's center and various lush residential neighborhoods emanating out to the ends of the borough, there stood the Fox Savoy Theatre, as seen in the photo above from July 3rd 1929, looking north, downhill on Bedford Avenue. (Photo by George Mann)

A landmark in Brooklyn and New York history, this is the New York Times announcment of the Fox Savoy's then impending debut:

This is how the former Fox Savoy Theatre looked in late 2012:

Like a lot of things in Brooklyn I've witnessed it for decades. At some point in my childhood, I noticed it was inhabited by a church named "Charity Neighborhood Baptist Cathedral" and that's how it remained, until last year. I didn't notice the sign for the church was gone until I saw the dumpsters parked out front last spring. I've been trying to find out what the history and future of the building is since then. I finally found some history:

From the website, "Cinema"

"The Savoy Theatre was the largest theatre that William Fox ever built in Brooklyn prior to the downtown Fox Theatre. Opening publicity claimed 3,500 seats, but that has been debated ever since. Some industry year books say 2,750, but I would guess more like 3,000. The Savoy Theatre has a very large balcony with minimal space between the rows.
The Savoy Theatre was built at the same time as Fox’s Academy of Music in Manhattan, with Thomas W. Lamb as architect of both. The Savoy Theatre’s auditorium is in the Adam style, with boxed seats adjoining the stage and a shallow dome in the center of the ceiling. It first opened on September 1, 1926, with Fox’s “Fig Leaves” on screen, plus six acts of vaudeville. With program changes twice a week, the Savoy Theatre was considered the Fox circuit’s top Brooklyn showcase until the 1928 opening of the downtown Fox Theatre. After that, it became just another neighborhood movie house, but playing first-run for the area.

After William Fox’s bankruptcy, the Savoy Theatre landed under the Randforce Circuit, which, to signify the theatre’s importance, moved its executive HQ to office space in the building. The Savoy Theatre carried on into the 1960’s, despite all the social turbulence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area.
Fortunately, it escaped demolition and became the Charity Neighborhood Baptist Church. Except for removal of the marquee and alterations to the entrance, the Savoy Theatre’s interior is virtually intact, though re-painted in whitewash in most areas. Some of the original stage curtains are still hanging, and I’ve been told that old scenic backdrops are still stored in the lofts."

I don't live far from the building, my grandmother once worked in the daycare center that shares the same block, back when the it was called the "Haitian-American Day Care Center". Considering the renaissance of cultural venues reoccurring in Brooklyn today, and with Bedford still easily accessible as a wide two-way street that literally goes from one end of the borough to the other, I presumed upon seeing the church sign was gone, that the building was going to be reborn as a new mixed used venue.

That seemed plausible to me not only for the revitalization of Franklin Avenue a block west, and the increasing rents that signal old businesses being forced out and new ones welcomed two short blocks east on Nostrand, but because also the Loews Kings Theater starting renovations just last year after being a building completely unused, and destroyed by rain and squatters for decades.

Instead it turns out demolition is what is happening.

The photo I took (above) is how it looks today (Jan/2014)

The first of New York City's Fox Theater's and the last one standing will be demolished without much fanfare, it seems. There has been an effort to landmark this and other streets in the western end of Crown Heights but those efforts are still in consideration. This building wasn't fast tracked, it's going to go and leave memory and important questions in it's wake.

Questions like the ones Brownstoner commentator "Melrose Morris" wrote about in May 2013 (which I missed) (
"The church needed money to do extensive repairs, and of course, being a shrinking economically disadvantaged congregation, they didn’t have it, and there was a lis pendens on the building, as well. So they sold the building for tear down, with the developer promising that members of the congregation would be able to have a preferential standard in renting an affordable apartment there when the new housing was completed. I hope Charity got that in writing. 

I’m angry for a couple of reasons. First of all, this building should be saved and landmarked. It is a cultural icon of a movie age of old, a big part of the history of Crown Heights, the history of Fox and movie theaters in Brooklyn and America, and an important part of Thomas Lamb’s shrinking number of contributions to architecture. America has been shaped by the movies in myriad ways, and large movie houses like this are a part of that legacy.

We blew this one, from a preservation and community standpoint. We didn’t know it was endangered, the congregation didn’t reach out to the community, or to any kind of preservation entities with a cry for help, and now that’s it’s been gutted, and has a permit for demo dated last year, it’s too late to do anything but take photographs, and maybe grab a terra-cotta chunk of debris from the pile of rubble when it’s all over. Where was the community on this? No one drove, or walked by and noticed anything? And beyond that, realistically speaking, what would happen to the building had it been individually landmarked? There’s not a big demand for enormous theaters that need a lot of work. Could it have been converted to housing, or bought by nearby Medgar Evers College for their use? Would landmarking have been the right move, given all the circumstances?

I’m also angry because it seems from the numbers presented, the church got royally screwed. If they had to sell, they could have held out for much more. You can’t buy a two story run down house in Crown Heights for $575K. How can anyone justify that price for that enormous building that takes up literally half the block? I can’t help but think that the developer took advantage of a cash strapped group of poor black people who were not real estate savvy, and thought they were making a lot of money. Where were their lawyers? Where was the Community Board? Wasn’t there anyone in their congregation, or friends or family who said, “Whoa, that price is not high enough. Crown Heights is gentrifying and real estate is going up faster than the temperature on a hot day. We need to buy a new church, we have to get more than a piddley $575,000.

They are still going to get an enormous footprint to work with, and there will be a lot of units in any kind of building they do. Will some of them be affordable? Will some of the parishioners of Charity Baptist be living there? Or will it be another cool luxury condo building marketed towards the “New Crown Heights” that is straining to move east of Franklin Avenue, which is only a block from here? I guess we have no choice but to wait and see."
It seems despite the positive aspects of gentrified Crown Heights, namely an increase in community organizing and activism, no one from the neighborhood or active residents had enough of a relationship with the Charity Neighborhood Baptist Cathedral to be aware they were selling, no, essentially giving the building away. And no one from the Church apparently reached out to neighborhood thus allowed this historic building to be sold for the unfathomable price of less than $600,000.

In my opinion, everyone in Brooklyn who cares to develop over destroying significant history of the City takes a collective "L" for this one.

It's amazing how the bonds of neighborhood and community that were weaken and in some cases broken, back in the 60's, 70's & 80's still resonate today.

Despite all that has been left to ruin or otherwise lost, there are still gems and iconic elements in Brooklyn. I believe we need to be more active unless we want to keep saying goodbye to things that shouldn't go, and singing this song:

"Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot"
-Joni Mitchell

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Snowboard Saturday Throwback

Everytime since I saw this video I think back to it when the first big Brooklyn snow falls.

It's basically about the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, albeit not in that order, and how it all revolved around snowboarding in Fort Greene Park.

Friday, January 3, 2014

1st Snow of 2014

I was scoffing all night this snow storm. 6 inches of snow? Closed schools? C'mon… I said. I walked through 26 inches of snow to get to the 7th grade I said. Well I was wrong. If you've gone out in it you know it's not the snow, its the air temps which are hovering around 0ยบ. If you're  hyper-active kid you might be okay but otherwise don't be outside long.

Here's some fun pics from Prospect Park, I especially commend the body sledder.