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Neighborhoods New York Project: Ditmas Park, Beverly Square and Victorian Flatbush

Growing up in New England, I got used to towns having a “Victorian House district” – those were the big fancy houses up on the hill, big gingerbread-trimmed houses with three stories and towers and gables and front porches and shutters and all sorts of foofaraw.  They were where the rich folks lived back in days when much of New England was filled with textile mills, while the workers lived in the little buildings down by the mill itself.  Rich folks were more likely to live in them today as well – unless they’d been renovated as separate apartments, with slapdash renovations dividing them up into studio apartments with bathtubs shoved into weird corners and walls that didn’t quite fit.

So apparently New York has at least one Victorian House district in Brooklyn.

The houses in Ditmas Park are much closer together than in small-town Victorian Districts. Each one has only the tiniest of lawns, with the houses taking up nearly the whole lot.  They crowd much closer together on each block as well. But they’re still small-town Victorian enough that you feel like you’ve stepped out into some sort of twee surburban soundstage.  And…actually, you’re okay with that, because the houses are all gorgeous.  And they’re all different – this isn’t the kind of suburbia where everyone’s house looks exactly the same; here is a Mission-Spanish style house, right near a mock Swiss Chalet.  Near that is a house that looks a lot like the Addams Family Mansion.  Everyone’s yard is kept up, but there isn’t the regimented sense of everyone…having to keep their lawn up to please a block association.  Everyone’s house is kept up because everyone likes where they live, dammit.

I stopped in on a warmish fall day, good for wandering. And it is a good place for a wander, and a good time of year for it – a bit before Halloween, when some of the more gothic-looking houses had already begun to decorate their windows and lawns with fake tombstones and spiderwebs.  The neighborhood is right bang between two major thoroughfares in Brooklyn, but there was practically no traffic at all on the streets, so I could hop back and forth from one side of the street to the other as I wanted, trying to get a better look at one or another house.  Someone was leading a small crowd on a walking tour that same afternoon, and I passed by them twice, in two completely different parts of the neighborhood.

The really ritzy-looking part of the neighborhood was up towards the north end, a single block on the gracefully-named Buckingham Road. I did see an apartment building on the block – most likely something built on the footprint of something knocked down years ago – but all the other houses had slightly bigger yards, slightly more decor.  One house had a silo on the side; I read that it had once belonged to King C. “I invented the Safety Razor so I’m massively loaded” Gillette.  I actually preferred the house next door – the Japanese House, built in 1903 by a developer trying to capitalize on a national craze for Chinoiserie.  Every fashionable house had an “Oriental room”, he figured, so why not go whole-hog and build an entire Oriental house?  It went unsold for a year; the well-to-do no doubt thought it was a bit much.

I actually loved it. I spent most of my walk fantasizing about buying one or another of the houses and turning it into a bed-and-breakfast, or if it was especially big, a youth hostel.  The Japanese House would have been perfect – a short walk from a few subways, a block from Prospect Park, and still on a quiet enough street to give the peace-lovers some solitude.  There was even a town green on the block – the road inexplicably split into two lanes, with a big grassy lawn in between them running the length of the block – big enough for some ambitious block association to hold picnics and concerts and for kids to have pickup games of baseball or tag.

I didn’t see many kids, though, until I got further south – down by one of the few “main drags” in Ditmas Park.  The first shops or restaurants I saw were huddled on a two-block stretch in the middle of the neighborhood, on Cortelyou Road; crowds of kids played on the monkey bars in the schoolyard, while their parents shopped at a farmers’ market on the block.  Here was where everyone had gathered, to do all their shopping and socializing.  There were coffee shops and little restaurants scattered across the couple blocks in either direction, some of them with clusters of people outside debating whether to put their names on reservation lists.   A chalkboard outside of one spot announced, “You made it out of bed! Now come have brunch!”

I’d heard about another spot further south, though, and walked further on, into the Beverly Squares neighborhood. The houses were a little smaller here – unlike Ditmas Park to the north, Beverly Squares hasn’t been named a historic district yet.  But they’re trying – a lot of the houses were especially polished-looking, with fresh landscaping and spotless paint in artfully-chosen period colors (except for the one that was a technicolor combination of yellows, turquoise, and purple). I counted three with prominent Victorian-era-flag bunting on their porches.  Several had very prominent medallions on their sides proclaiming the year they were built. But the feel was similar; quiet streets, few people about.  Pretty much the only people I ran into were a pair of kids who were going door to door, shoving flyers advertising a pilates studio into everyone’s mailboxes.

The biggest change in Beverley Squares, though – the blocks had far more trees.  Ditmas Parks’ trees were all things carefully landscaped by the homeowners, most of them shorter than the houses themselves; maybe sometime you’d find someone who’d let the trees grow taller than the house, but mostly it was the houses towering over everyone, and I found myself shielding my eyes from the sun a few times.  But in Beverley Squares, the yard trees all towered over the houses, and street trees also lined each block.  One block in particular actually made me stop and stare at it a few seconds – the entire block was lined with birches, arcing gracefully over the neat Victorian houses and gently scattering their first lost leaves of the autumn on the sun-dappled sidewalks below.  By far, it is one of the most beautiful blocks I have ever seen in this city

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