As Brownstone Money Rushes into Carroll Gardens, Families Fall Apart

Old-guard Italians, once the neighborhood lifeblood, now 'leftovers.'

Gino DiMeo, a lifetime Carroll Gardens resident and real estate broker, says the rush to sell longtime family homes leaves siblings locked in bitter standoffs. (Photo: Arman Dzidzovic/The New York Observer)
Gino DiMeo, a lifelong Carroll Gardens resident and broker, on the steps of his grandmother’s President Street brownstone, which was just sold to an Upper East Side buyer. (Photo: Arman Dzidzovic)

Anthony’s mother wasn’t yet cold in the grave before the topic was broached. He and his siblings had just returned from the funeral dinner at the Red Rose in Carroll Gardens—the lone old-school red-sauce joint remaining on bistro-jammed Smith Street—when his brother wanted to talk about the house.

In the 1960s and ’70s they’d grown up together in the four-story brownstone, packed into a single floor with their parents. Their grandmother lived down the street. Anthony’s siblings eventually married and left Brooklyn for quieter climes. But Anthony stayed behind, spending more than two decades caring for their chronically ill mother.

At 51, it was the only home the former hairdresser and dockworker had ever known, and he and his mother each occupied a lower floor, with renters above. That’s what his brother wanted to talk about: He wanted Anthony to move to a smaller apartment upstairs so they could maximize the income from the house.

Reeling from his mother’s death, Anthony found that jarring enough, but it wasn’t long before the ante was raised. “They wanted me out,” he says. “Basically she passed away and they wanted me out the next day.”

The two years of heated squabbling and maneuvering that followed produced two results. The house will soon hit the market, with a price tag near $4 million. And Anthony’s family has been torn apart; he expects he and his siblings will never speak again.

“I don’t talk to them. No one talks to me,” says Anthony, who asked not to be identified by his real name for fear of making things worse. “I honestly didn’t think it was going to get that bad.”

It’s a sorry tale, but in Carroll Gardens, it’s also an increasingly common one. For longtime residents, the tidal waves of cash and transplanted Manhattanites that have rolled over the leafy streets of this onetime blue-collar Italian neighborhood have altered the landscape in ways that extend beyond the hordes of narrow-hipped moms pushing Stokke strollers and sipping cold-pressed vegetable juice. As the prices of Carroll Gardens’ brownstones have hurtled into the stratosphere, there’s been a parallel spike in bitter warfare among the heirs of the merchants and laborers who bought their homes with five-figure sums and handshake deals.

“People see this incredible windfall, and it causes all kinds of friction,” says Ira Levine, a Court Street lawyer who has seen many such cases. “For many of these people, this is their home run. And money can do terrible things to people.”

“It’s happening all over the neighborhood, and it’s literally tearing families apart,” says Gino DiMeo, a lifelong resident and a broker with Realty Collective. “These are folks who for the rest of their lives, I believe, will not ever speak to one another again. People who have not gone to major family events of their siblings—childbirth, weddings. It’s very common at the moment.”

And the higher house prices have climbed, the more common it’s become. Having a share in a row house that might easily fetch $3 million in a frenzied market may represent the American Dream for many, but such sums can incite a flood of greed, conflict and recrimination.

“People see this incredible windfall, and it causes all kinds of friction,” says Ira Levine, a lawyer who’s had an office on Court Street since 1972, and has lately seen many such cases. “For many of these people, this is their home run. And money can do terrible things to people.”

And, Mr. Levine adds, in many cases “these are families that are very close-knit. Family means a lot to Italians, and they’re breaking up because there’s money involved—a lot of money.”

Ask a longtime resident and they can point to the homes on their street where warfare has broken out. In a neighborhood once characterized by extended multigenerational families living under one roof, having those homes become battlegrounds makes for a profound shift, notes Katia Kelly, who’s lived in Carroll Gardens for three decades, and writes the neighborhood blog Pardon Me For Asking.

“It has very deep ramifications in a neighborhood like Carroll Gardens. It changes the dynamic of a neighborhood,” she says. “And it causes some real heartache.”

She also notes that it’s one more thing that fuels resentment between the neighborhood’s longtime residents and newcomers—some of whom have taken to calling the old-guard Italians “leftovers.”


 The Italian influence on Smith Street has waned as the neighborhood has changed. (Photo: Arman Dzvidovic)

The Italian influence on Smith Street has waned as the neighborhood has changed. (Photo: Arman Dzvidovic)

Certainly there’s been a lot of change for long timers to absorb. For most of the 20th century, Carroll Gardens was dominated by the Italians who flocked here beginning in the late 1800s. Social clubs, Catholic parishes, pork stores and laticcini hummed with activity; Italian could be heard on the street and September’s Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows procession was a major neighborhood event.

Change came slowly at first, beginning in the 1980s, as young Manhattanites and other outsiders arrived, drawn by the neighborhood’s quaint charm, mom-and-pop shops and stately brownstones, especially those on the front-garden blocks that gave the neighborhood its name.

Housing prices took a jump in the 1990s; the following decade brownstones began cracking the $1 million mark, and since then they’ve been on a dizzying climb with no end in sight. Signs of aggressive change are everywhere, like the gleaming seven-story condo tower that rose on the site of the former longshoreman’s union medical clinic, or the 311 calls complaining about the smell of coffee beans roasting at 66-year-old D’Amico Foods on Court Street.

The typical conflict involves a home where a group of siblings grew up together, with most eventually marrying off and decamping for Staten Island, New Jersey or farther flung locales. Meanwhile, one sibling stays behind to care for the aging matriarch or patriarch, or both. Once the parent dies, “the whole thing can crumble very quickly,” says Ms. Kelly.

Like Anthony, the sibling who stayed, his or her caretaking duties done, is now an obstacle to putting the house on the market, as their siblings—who from a distance have been clocking the ever-rising seven-figure sums being fetched by neighborhood homes—are often in a sweat to do. So leverage is applied, and not always gently.

“That person is considered a liability, because they’re sitting on a goldmine and they won’t leave it,” says Maria Pagano, the president of the Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Association, who says she’s seen “many, many of these types of stories.”

With prices in the multimillions, buying one’s siblings out is rarely an option. And in any case, “often they don’t make enough to take out a mortgage,” notes Mr. Levine. So they’ve got no choice but to leave, cut off not only from their lifelong home, but also from the family that forced them out.

In fairness, the desire to get one’s piece of a $3 million asset is easy to understand. But what’s striking is the extent to which flashing dollar signs seem to blind people to familial considerations.

“The thing that surprises me most about how this all goes down is that family members don’t seem to cut each other slack,” says Sal Cappi, a fourth-generation Carroll Gardens resident and a longtime broker for Fillmore. “If I was in a situation where my sister wanted to have a house that my parents left to us and we had a 50-50 split on it, I think I might give her a discount so she could keep that. But that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. People want to get their top market dollar out of their share.”

Even when siblings don’t have any legal leverage, the pressure can be intense. Mr. DiMeo worked with one heir who was bequeathed the family home outright, but broke down and sold because her relatives were always asking for money. “She said, ‘I had to get them off my back,’ ” he says. “‘They were calling me. Their kids were calling me, saying Aunt Frances, I’m going to camp, I’m going to college,’ whatever it was.”

In other cases it’s the parents themselves who are pressured to leave their homes by children who are salivating at the potential payday. Anthony speaks of a friend’s grandmother who put her house in her kids’ names, “and now they’re making her sign papers to move out because they want to sell the house,” he says. “She’s old,” he notes, “but nobody wants to wait until you drop dead.” (This goes both ways, notes Ms. Kelly, who speaks of parents pushing their kids out the door so they can replace them with high-paying tenants.)

Mr. DiMeo cites other cases where siblings who live elsewhere have quietly taken out mortgages on family homes where their brother or sister lives, spending the money and then defaulting on the loan. “There’s a lot of ways this surfaces,” he says.

What takes him aback, he says, is not only the “greed,” but the intensity of the fighting.

“When brothers and sisters fight, it’s at a different level,” he marvels. “It becomes so personal. And they go right for the throat; they don’t fool around. Especially the Italians.”

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” Mr. DiMeo says. “I’m close to these people and I’m so involved. I see it tear friends apart. It takes an emotional toll on me.”

Sitting in his Smith Street office, Mr. DiMeo, a burly Vietnam veteran with swept back silver hair and a bluff charisma, speaks of his weariness at being caught up in family dramas. Longtime friends in a pinch seek his counsel. Others he literally grew up with won’t speak to him because they perceive him as being on the wrong side of a dispute.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” he says. “I’m close to these people and I’m so involved. I see it tear friends apart. It takes an emotional toll on me.”

Now 62, Mr. DiMeo arrived in Carroll Gardens at the age of 5, when his parents immigrated from outside Naples, landing in a one-bedroom on Union Street. The neighborhood was a “wonderful” place to grow up, he recalls. His father worked on the waterfront, unloading sugar and bananas with a steel hook; he and his friends “were in and out of each other’s houses, depending on whose mother was cooking.”

Things took a downturn in the ’60s, then reached a nadir in the early ’70s, when heroin became a scourge. Residents started leaving en masse, to Bay Ridge, Staten Island and New Jersey. His brothers left, but he stayed, working odd jobs after his stint in the service, then going to work for Verizon and marrying a woman whose family owned a house on Sackett Street where they live today.

As it happens, Mr. DiMeo has just sold his own family’s longtime home, a narrow President Street brownstone his parents bought for $21,000 with a handwritten deal. His mother lived there until she died last year, and at the moment he’s cleaning the house out—on the bed sit piles of his mother’s handmade lace and other heirlooms, each marked with a family member’s name.

He and his brothers put it up for sale (amicably) at $2.65 million, and “one open house, boom,” it sold for $2.72 million. The buyer was an Upper East Side financier who after a gut renovation “will spend $4 million to live here when all is said and done. And that’s the way the neighborhood is going. There’s two on my block going the same way.”


Mark Scotto recommends breaking up houses into condos so some siblings can stay.  (Photo: Arman Dzidzovic/The New York Observer)
Broker Mark Scotto recommends breaking up houses into condos when some siblings want to stay. (Photo: Arman Dzidzovic)

Mark Scotto, a fourth-generation neighborhood resident who co-owns Viceroy Properties on First Place, is promoting another model that he hopes will allow some of the longtime residents getting displaced from family homes to stay. In cases where families are divided over the sale of a home, the answer is to take the building condo, he says. It fetches a higher price per square foot overall, he says, and some can stay while others cash out.

Mr. Scotto doesn’t shy away from calling it a business opportunity—he’s the one selling the unclaimed condos—but as a lifelong resident he says he’s also motivated by wanting to help old family friends who he sees landing in the same trap. He cites a woman on First Place who “used to babysit for me 46 years ago,” who was distraught when her siblings were pushing to sell the building where she’d spent her entire life. He brokered a condo deal and the woman and her sister both got to keep an apartment while three other units were sold for hefty prices.

“These people feel they can now literally die in the place where they were born,” says Mr. Scotto.

Such a peaceable outcome has eluded Anthony, who’s not sure where he’ll live after his home is sold. “I’m 52, and I feel like, where am I gonna go? I don’t want to go to Florida or New Jersey. This is my home,” he says.

He’s likely to get a major windfall out of the deal, but after taxes take a bite he doesn’t expect there will be enough left to stay in a neighborhood where “a condo across the street from me just went for $1.6 million.” Meanwhile, having no children of his own, he’s especially haunted by the estrangement of his nieces and nephews. “They used to love me, and now they don’t speak to me,” he says quietly.

With prices only climbing for the foreseeable future, observers say more such rifts are as inescapable as pigeons in Carroll Park.

Looking around the neighborhood at homes occupied by elderly residents, Mr. DiMeo says he can see the trouble spots on the horizon.

“I just look at them and I see it coming.”

As Brownstone Money Rushes into Carroll Gardens, Families Fall Apart