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Neighborhoods New York: Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

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In the 1990’s, I remember there being one reason people moved to Prospect Heights –they’d really wanted to live in Park Slope, the neighborhood next door, but were too broke.  

The eastern half of Prospect Heights definitely feels the same.  It’s all graceful brownstones, the kind that you’d have walked through for blocks if you were walking over from Park Slope; leafy, shady blocks, well-tended buildings, the occasional stoop sale.  Not that many people outside – on my last visit, I barely ran into anyone in the eastern half of the neighborhood. Maybe two women running a stoop sale and one older guy sitting on his stoop talking on a cell phone; otherwise the blocks were quiet, and I could study the buildings instead.  And their small lawns – one building boasted a sign proclaiming it had been awarded the “Most Creative” garden from a 2010 Brooklyn Botanic Garden “Greenest Block” contest. The creative element, though, seemed to be a whole lot of lawn ornaments and figurines huddled around the trees – a profusion of ceramic sheep and deer, creepy rubber dolls, and even an old plastic fish.  Another building’s landscaping included the stoop itself – the owners had lined the left half of their building’s stoop with piles of big rocks.  I can only assume they were trying to make it look…rustic? 

Towards the middle of the neighborhood I came upon another collection of trees – but these were street trees, adopted by the students at a Montessori school on the block. They’d been planted on that block as part of a citywide campaign to increase street trees, and the kids had not only adopted five of them – they’d named them, and made a sign for each one, proudly proclaiming each one’s name and posting a poem exhorting passersby not to litter or let their dogs pee in the surrounding dirt.  A different group of about five kids each had signed each poem, and most bore names like “Chloe” or “Princess” or “Precious”; I suspect that each group of kids teamed up to name each tree.  So I had to laugh when I saw one had been named “Superhero Batman”.  

Now, those are kids I wanna hang with. 

The quiet residential section only lasts a couple blocks – then you hit Vanderbilt Avenue, the go-go main strip of Prospect Heights.  Vanderbilt is a fairly busy thoroughfare, with Atlantic Avenue – a huge cross-borough road – at one end, and Prospect Park at the other. At least one bus line runs up Vanderbilt, as does a major bike path, and so it’s row after row of shops and restaurants and bars –some older shops, bodegas and hair salons that have easily been there 20 years or more, but most are fairly new; vintage shops, wine and oyster bars, high-end food shops.  I’ve even seen a store that sells nothing but varieties of artisanal mayonnaise. 

There’s a couple places I hit up on the regular, though – one is Unnameable Books, one of the last used bookstores I’ve seen standing in the city.  They always have a couple of carts of deep-sale items on the sidewalk – everything for a dollar or two – and I always look, even though I’ve not yet once found anything I’d want.  But maybe that’s not the point, because about half the time I still shrug and say “well, I’m here anyway” and step in to check out the latest arrivals, squeezing through the impossibly narrow aisles and swiping the one easy chair in the kids’ section to read through things quick before I decide to make a purchase.  Sometimes I do.  Sometimes not. 

And then across Vanderbilt….there is Ample Hills Creamery

I’m pretty much an ice cream junkie – and these people are my dealers.  It is easily the best ice cream in the city – the flavors are all intense, the ice cream itself is all fresh-made, the portions generous (even a small dish comes with two scoops) and every time I’ve been there, the staff is always sunny and friendly and cheerful, even when they’re coping with huge lines of customers stretching double in the tiny shop and then out the door and down the block.  No matter – they happily pass out samples to help uncertain guests decide on a flavor, they patiently answer questions about each flavor, they kid around with each other while they work.  

They have a lot of fun developing flavors as well – I usually go for peppermint pattie, which is a mint-chip sort of thing only with chopped-up Junior-Mint type of candies in it as well, but they also have something called “Breakfast Trash”, which is made using milk infused with breakfast cereal flavors and with bits of crushed-up Froot Loops and such mixed in; Cotton Candy, a lurid blue concoction which may look like Smurf but really does apparently taste of cotton candy; and “Salted Crack Caramel”, a caramel ice cream with bits of a chocolate-and-caramel-covered-cracker confection shot through.  One time they were out of my usual and I chose a new flavor, “There’s Always Money In the Banana Stand”- a banana ice cream with chocolate flakes and peanut brittle stirred in.  I’m not a huge banana fan, but the chocolate and peanut made for a nice contrast, and I was already sneaking a couple spoons as I approached the register.  They handed me my change after I paid for it, but the clerk stopped me before I walked away.  “Don’t forget,” he said, reaching under the counter and quoting Arrested Development, “There’s always money in the banana stand.”  And then he handed me a small foil-wrapped chocolate coin – they’d been handing one out to everyone who got “Banana Stand”, just for the fun of it. 

West of Vanderbilt things are a tiny bit scruffier.  Still more brownstones, but the shops up and down Washington Avenue, on the western edge, are a little older, a little less polished – and a little more relaxed.  More dive bars than wine bars, more mom-and-pop hardware shops and 99-cent stores than artisanal mustard shops.  A few fancy-pants things have cropped up – a couple coffee bars, a couple organic bakeries.  And one gloriously goofy bar – Way Station, which very quickly found a following among New York’s geek community for its steampunk aesthetic and for a Doctor Who cocktail list.  Their signature cocktails, the “sonic screwdrivers”, are each named after the most recent three Doctors, with  a fourth named after Jack Harkness and a fifth, the “Red Setting”, after River Song.  But the big draw is the door to the bathroom, which has been kitted out to look like the door to the TARDIS, leading a lot of visitors to pose for pictures in front of it on their way back from the loo.  Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor, stopped by once while on a press visit to New York and autographed the bathroom wall, exhorting all future micturaters to “Pee happily!” 

The lines for Way Station can get long on Doctor Who screening events; the lines for Ample Hills get long on weekends.  But they are nothing compared to the lines for Tom’s, an old-school diner from 1938.  I’ve walked past the place on weekends for years, seeing enormous lines stretched out and down the block from would-be brunchgoers; apparently the staff takes pity on them and brings free coffee, water, and orange slices to people while they’re waiting.  Still, I made a point of visiting on a weekday instead. 

And….it’s a diner.  Just a good, honest diner, with the old-school autographed celebrity headshots and newspaper clippings on the walls, fake flowers, a bowl of mints by the register and a woman in a polyester vest waiting to take your bill when you check out.  They’ve got some fancy-pants offerings to appeal to the foodie hipsters – pumpkin-walnut waffles, cornmeal pancakes with cranberries, exotic flavored butters. But the one time I’ve been, I went for the classic Belgian waffle with strawberries and whipped cream; as it was breakfast, I stopped just short of ordering an egg cream as well, going instead for the coffee with the free refills.  Because of course it’s the kind of place that does free refills on the coffee, and where the polyester-vest lady tells you to “have a nice day, dahlink” in some thick and unidentifiable accent when you leave afterward. 

And God bless Tom’s– it’s been there since before Way Station, before Ample Hills and the artisanal mustard places, before the 90’s would-be Slopers and their kids; and you can tell it hasn’t changed one bit.

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