In a New York Times real estate section piece last week, Alison Gregor spotlighted beautiful Brooklyn Heights. While I enjoyed the photos of this picturesque, historic neighborhood, what caused me to sit up straight were the real estate prices:
Depending on their size and the number of bathrooms they have, studio co-ops go for around $350,000 to $400,000; one-bedrooms for $450,000 to $750,000; two-bedrooms for $950,000 to $1.35 million; and three-bedrooms for $2.3 million to $3.2 million . . . .
. . . Rentals range from $2,000 to $4,000 a month for one-bedroom apartments; $2,500 to $6,500 for two-bedrooms; and $5,000 to $10,000 for three-bedrooms . . . .
Good grief. Brooklyn Heights has long been considered the borough’s jewel in the crown, thanks to its first-rate housing stock, wonderful urban vistas, and close proximity to Manhattan. But those housing numbers are staggering.
The price tags sent me into a nostalgic spin, recalling when I moved to Brooklyn in 1985, days after graduating from law school. . . .
Park Slope, here I come
With law school coming to a close in the spring of 1985, my days in the NYU residence hall were numbered. Late that semester, I was apprised of a possible apartment share in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.
The Slope, as it was known (and probably still is), was a neighborhood “in transition” during an early period of gentrification in Brooklyn that seemed inevitable as Manhattan housing prices climbed steeply. I had accepted a position as a Legal Aid lawyer in lower Manhattan, starting at the princely salary of $20,000. Brooklyn was the most viable option in terms of convenience and price.
I agreed to join two others in renting a three-bedroom apartment in the top half of a brownstone owned by a young couple. Our monthly rent, to be split three ways, was $1,000. Yup, $1,000, split three ways.
Of course, the low monthly rent didn’t exactly make me Legal Aid’s version of Donald Trump (who, by the way, was coming into prominence right around then). The overall cost of living was high, and I was paying back student loans to boot.
Rough around the edges, but still good
Today Park Slope is home to well-to-do professionals and a fair share of celebrities, but back then it was a mix of long-time locals, farsighted buyers and speculators, and younger non-profit types priced out of Manhattan.
Overall, the streets closer to Prospect Park (another New York showpiece by Frederick Law Olmstead) were fancier and safer. Away from the park, the dicier things could get. I was mugged twice in Park Slope during my nine years there, and lots of other Slope denizens shared similar tales of criminal victimhood.
But no matter, this was during the heart of my love affair with New York. I enjoyed it on a shoestring, while dealing with its occasional hazards. And after three years of being a Manhattanite during law school, I explored parts of the wondrous Borough of Brooklyn, a place with as rich a history and variety of humanity as any in America.
My neighborhood’s in-transition status also meant that affordable eateries could still be found, albeit varying greatly in quality. I recall one diner on now-fancy Seventh Avenue, doors from the subway station, that served a thoroughly mediocre meatloaf platter, replete with imitation mashed potatoes and canned green beans. Taste aside, it was a filling match for my public interest lawyer’s budget, and so I ate there often after work.
Although the draw of Manhattan remained strong, I spent a fair share of my time in the Slope and its environs. Among other things, the area featured a neat little bookshop, a popular video store, and a dumpy but serviceable movie theatre. Soon after I moved there, I became active in a local reform Democratic club and volunteered for several campaigns.
Of course, the aforementioned Prospect Park was a wonderful draw. From the late spring through the early fall, lawyers and staff from our Legal Aid office would play weekly softball games there. It also was a great place for a walk with a friend or a slow afternoon with a book in hand.
The photo above shows the hardcover edition of Thomas Boyle’s Only the Dead Know Brooklyn (1985). It is the first entry in an entertaining crime trilogy featuring police detective Francis DeSales.
The real star of the book and the series, however, is the changing nature of Brooklyn, circa 1980s. I devoured Only the Dead when it first came out, and it helped me to understand the culture(s) of the borough, wrapped around a well-told story. It was also a fun read that nailed some of the details of living there, such as the view from the F train as it passed over the mega-polluted Gowanus Canal.
It has now been over 20 years since I’ve lived in Brooklyn. That chapter of my life seems like that of another epoch, no small milestone for someone whose nostalgic instincts can make events of decades ago feel like yesterday. Maybe it’s time to pull Only the Dead off the shelf and see how it reads many years later.
I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies, so each month I’m devoting an entry to how I’m doing with it. This month’s selections have a distinctly Austrian flavor to them, inspired by a week-long visit to Vienna this month to participate in a conference on law and mental health.
The Third Man (1949) (4 stars out of 4)
This is widely recognized as one of the all-time best movies, a story set in postwar Vienna, with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, and Alida Valli in starring roles. IMDb neatly sums up the plot without giving anything away:
Pulp novelist Holly Martins travels to shadowy, postwar Vienna, only to find himself investigating the mysterious death of an old friend, black-market opportunist Harry Lime.
The other star is Vienna itself, largely shorn of its glorious beauty and instead portrayed as city of intrigue and recovery in the years following the Second World War.
My first sightseeing visit in Vienna was not to an art museum or classical music venue, but rather the small Third Man Museum, dedicated to the movie and life in postwar Vienna. It was time very well spent. Here are some photos from the museum:
The Sound of Music (1965) (4 stars)
This beloved, iconic movie musical, set in pre-war Salzburg, is about as wide a contrast from The Third Man‘s depiction of Austria as one could imagine. Starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, the renowned classic is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its release. In addition to offering songs that are firmly embedded in our popular culture, the film makes maximum use of the beauties of Salzburg.
Back in 1981, after finishing a semester abroad program in England, I made a quick tour of the European continent, and Salzburg was one of my stops. Even though at the time I had never seen the movie, I allowed myself to get dragged onto The Sound of Music bus tour by one of my traveling companions. While she was thrilled at every recognizable location from the movie, I just kept taking pictures, figuring that someday I’d watch the movie and then flip back to my photos to compare. I’m glad I did.
Here are some of those old snapshots.
Photos: Third Man Museum (DY, 2015); Salzburg (DY, 1981).
As a young grade schooler, I really wanted a camera. Already being an independent type, I was drawn to the Polaroid cameras that produced more-or-less instantaneous photos, as opposed to the Kodak-brand models that required you to take or mail your film to a photo lab to be developed. Unfortunately, the Polaroids also cost a mint, and so I assumed it would never happen.
But in 1965, TV commercials for a new model, the Polaroid Swinger, started airing, with catchy lyrics that hyped its (barely) under $20 price point: [Trivia questions: (1) Who is the leggy brunette featured in the commercial? (2) Who wrote and sang the jingle? Answers below!]
In case you want to sing along:
Hey, meet the swinger
meet the swinger
It’s more than a camera
it’s almost alive
it’s only nineteen dollars
Swing it up (yeah yeah)
it says yes (yeah yeah)
take the shot (yeah yeah)
count it down (yeah yeah)
zip it off
Don’t get me wrong; $19.95 was a lot of money back in that day. But it made it under the line for a Big Gift, and so for Christmas 1965, the Swinger made its way under the tree.
I was ecstatic. I probably took a full roll on Christmas Day alone, all 12 shots. And while I didn’t exactly become a serious photographer, I used it often and at one point had quite a stack of prints. I remember being especially proud when my Uncle Kenny asked me to take his picture so he could use it for his next U.S. government employee I.D. photo!
I also was a perfect example of the emerging power of television advertising. That darn jingle got into my head and stayed there, both before and after I received the camera as a gift.
You can read more about the Polaroid Swinger in this piece recently published on Boston.com, marking the camera’s 50th anniversary.
Trivia question answers: (1) Ali McGraw; (2) Barry Manilow. Yup!
I just reread a book that I first encountered some 20 years ago, Don Winslow’s A Cool Breeze on the Underground (1991). Winslow has established himself as an entertaining, edgy writer of crime and mystery novels, and this was his very first.
The protagonist is a young private detective named Neal Carey. Early in the book, we learn how Neal’s hardscrabble upbringing during the 60s and early 70s New York City led him to become part of a secretive detective agency that achieves difficult results for high powered clients. Although not expressly stated in the novel, the primary story is set in the summer of 1976, and there’s a connection to that year’s Presidential campaign.
I found Neal to be an endearing character when I read the book 20 years ago, and I felt even more so this time around. In addition to becoming a savvy P.I. at a young age, he’s a scholar in the making, enrolled in an English literature graduate program at Columbia University. Some of the implausibilities of this scenario are overcome by the charming way it fits into the main plot, which eventually takes him to London.
I love the book’s uses of New York and London. The more familiar the reader is with these cities, the more vivid the story becomes, whether it’s grabbing a burger at the legendary Burger Joint in Manhattan, or navigating the labyrinths of London’s Underground subway system.
Winslow’s references to specific places send me off on my own journeys in those cities, today with more nostalgia than my during first reading. For example, one scene puts Neal at London’s Embankment along the River Thames:
Neal paid the cabbie and started across the pedestrian walkway on the bridge. The view up and down the Thames was one of his favorites. It might be the best spot to see London, he thought, and he stopped about halfway across to take it in.
This vista includes “a postcard view” of “Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament,” as well as the “stretched Victoria Embankment.”
I have to put the book down to drink in this passage. That’s my own favorite view of London, and I’ve made a point of crossing that footbridge during every one of my visits there!
For me, therein lies the appeal of so many crime novels, espionage thrillers, and mysteries: They take me back to places I know and enjoy, sometimes even prompting me see them in a different way, with scenes woven into plots full of suspense and intrigue.
In fact, the right location can lift a so-so plot for me. If a story is set in a place I don’t know, it better be a compelling tale to keep my attention!
In the U.S., New York is my favorite setting for mystery and suspense tales. Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, Hawaii, and Washington D.C. also appear on my list. When it comes to international intrigue, give me London, Cambridge and Oxford, Paris, and major cities in Austria and Germany, the latter especially if we’re talking about historical stories.
When it comes to fiction, I confess that I’m not a devotee of serious literature. Rather, this is my favorite genre, and when good stories are placed in cities I’ve come to know and love, it’s an added treat.
On Thursday evening, I’ll be hopping on a plane for Vienna, Austria, for the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, a week-long event that draws some 1,000 people from around the world. I’ll be presenting a paper on continuing legal education, attending plenty of panels, and enjoying the company of friends and colleagues who are immersed in research and practice related to law and psychology.
Traveling to Vienna pushes my nostalgia buttons. In May 1981, it was a stop on a brisk trip through parts of western Europe, following completion of a semester abroad in England via my college, Valparaiso University. The grainy photo above was taken from the famous Prater Wheel, a giant Ferris wheel built in 1897. If I recall correctly, I spent three days in Vienna with one of my traveling pals from the VU group.
That European jaunt was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Traveling alternately on my own and with members of our group, I visited Paris; several towns in Switzerland; Innsbruck, Salzberg, and Vienna; and finally Munich and Berlin.
The semester abroad also happened to be the final term of my senior year, and I was full of excitement and uncertainty as to what would come next. But even with all of my heady aspirations for the road ahead, I had the good sense to drink in a lot of this overseas opportunity. Although my cultural immaturity caused me to pass on some pretty significant sights during this sojourn abroad, those five months made a lifelong imprint on me.
Back to today: As usual, I find myself packing and planning at the last minute. However, I know that I’ll get a lot out of this trip. I’ll do so as a much more grounded person than the anxious young man who first saw Vienna several decades ago. The march of time brings its blessings.
As a little sidebar to this post, click and enjoy Billy Joel’s “Vienna” (1977). And to learn how the famous singer/songwriter did his homework about Vienna in writing this number, check out this interesting Wikipedia entry.
Some 12 years ago, when I was in the market to buy a condo in Boston, perhaps my biggest priority was that my new home had to accommodate bookshelves, as in every room save the bathroom and kitchen. My broker was amused. She had facilitated many sales in Greater Boston, but never before had she worked with someone who was so attentive to wall space for placing bookshelves.
During every one of my several moves over the years, more and more books seem to come along. Although I’ve given away many hundreds of books, the number of volumes in my personal library inevitably grows.
Concededly, I can’t keep up with my new treasures. My rate of acquisition outpaces my ability to read. As I wrote a few months ago, if I suddenly had to stop buying books, I would have enough unread volumes to keep me happily engaged for years.
Ken Kalfus and the laments of book buyers
In last week’s New Yorker, writer Ken Kalfus reflects upon the thoughts that swirl in the minds of mature book shoppers, including that mound of unread volumes at home:
I want to buy a book—perhaps it’s a specific book, identified in a review or mentioned by a friend, or perhaps simple intellectual restlessness has put me in the mood to browse a bookstore shelf and find something new. As I descend to the streets of the city where I live, I recall that many fine unread books remain on my overstocked shelves at home. I’m aware of them every hour of the day, even when I look up from the book I’m currently reading. They remind me of promises made to read them when they were bought; some of these promises are now decades old. My shelves also hold certain already-read volumes that deserve a careful, more mature rereading. I should turn back.
I sometimes wish I had that capacity to feel the smallest twinge of conscience about buying another book. But like a favorite dog or cat when it comes to food, I seem to be missing an “off” switch when I walk into a bookstore or shop online. I consider it an act of supreme willpower to walk away (or log off) empty-handed.
Returning to the question
Okay, so let’s get back to the question. Can you own too many books?
In terms of pure physics, I suppose the answer is yes. I mean, if you’re trying to fit 800 square feet of books into a 750 square foot apartment, then you’ve got a problem.
I’ve also read of apartment dwellers so loaded up with books that they’ve had to pay contractors to reinforce the floors, lest their library cause a collapse of epic and life-threatening proportions. Maybe it’s time to ease the burdens on the infrastructure instead.
Otherwise, well, umm, er…I’m not sure.
Ken Kalfus may feel some unease over his neglected purchases, but I find comfort in gazing at my bookshelves and seeing volumes both read and unread. They gently suggest that many old and new adventures await, and all I have to do is pull one off the shelf and open the cover.