I had looked at probably 20 brownstones by the time I stumbled onto the perfect gem, on a picture-book block of Henry Street at the border of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens. It wasn’t the oasis-like surroundings or the bones of the building that first caught my eye, but the owners’ shelf of Jonathan Lethem books. I was floored when the wife of the couple opened a copy of Gun, with Occasional Music: his first novel, dedicated to her. Her name was Carmen Fariña—the future chancellor of the New York City school system—and she had taught Mr. Lethem at P.S. 29, the school on the corner.
As I would learn, there were plenty of other surprises on this tucked-away block, once genteel, long notorious and just then, at the turn of the millennium, edging back toward gentrification. My wife and I couldn’t wait for Ms. Fariña and her husband—called “Spanish Tony” by the Italians on the block—to hand over the keys.
As the first winter in our new brownstone gave way to spring, our stretch of Henry Street began to turn leafy. It had been a big selling point: lining the sidewalks were twin rows of patchy-barked plane trees—relatives of the sycamores—facing each other across the street as orderly as dance partners. But out back, things were going jungly.
Over the stockade fence on our north side lived “new people” like us, a novelist and a photo editor who had landscaped their tidy backyard for dinner parties. But the other side was an exuberant scene of mixed agricultural endeavor. The owner was an Italian-born widow of extensive but indeterminate years—she looked like Nosferatu with smile lines—who had let things drift, her garden morphing into a thicket of soaring sunflowers, spiky weeds and feral zucchini.
Her backyard’s most remarkable feature for a city boy like me were the relentless grapevines, vegetable trespassers as thick as the widow’s wrists. While I slept one night, or so it seemed, the vine tendrils had jumped the fence and snaked two stories up into the branches of my cherry tree and plum tree. The shoots conducted themselves with such brute, pushy insistence that I wondered whether on some level they didn’t unsettle that frail, reticent woman.
By this time, 15-plus years ago, our 400 block of Henry Street, between Kane and Degraw Streets, was already coming to be populated by lawyers and French chefs and financial consultants, young Wall Street types and those who serviced them. The Mezzogiorno Italians who had made Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens their distinctive enclave were beginning to age and move on, their children selling to people crossing the East River for the first time and falling under the spell of the place, its row upon row of handsome, landmarked townhouses. (Architect Brendan Coburn, whose CWB Architects is putting up the first new building on our block in probably a hundred years, calls Cobble Hill “the most intact nineteenth-century row house neighborhood in the United States.”) Close enough to the water for passersby to hear foghorns from ships in the harbor, it doesn’t just look like somewhere else when you exit the subway from Manhattan; it is a different temperature here.
Most of the newcomers, arriving with their architects and landscapers, their well-meaning erasures, won’t catch more than a glimmer of the Technicolor life that just preceded them. Our block, and the surrounding neighborhood, possessed a rich, Old World continuity, well represented by the grapevines in my neighbor’s backyard.
Close enough to the water for passersby to hear foghorns from ships in the harbor, it doesn’t just look like somewhere else when you exit the subway from Manhattan; it is a different temperature here.
Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, every household here laid down its own wine. No one in Cobble Hill went thirsty during Prohibition. Crushing, aging and bottling (not to mention drinking) were part if the background cycle of the domestic year through World Wars, the Depression and the come-and-go reigns of precinct captains and politicians. Every autumn, in the musty twilight of the brownstone basements, oak and iron basket presses, Industrial Age antiques riveted like the deck turrets on a dreadnought, would be scrubbed out and made ready. In a festival atmosphere, Cobble Hill’s narrow streets would erupt with the blossomy, candied perfume of mashed fruit—that and swarms of yellow jackets—as the grapes arrived.
There were religious parades through the streets, mystifying to outsiders, with formally dressed crowds bearing palanquins—life-size statues of saints or the Virgin in glass cases—on their shoulders. In one ritual, marchers dropped to their knees on the corner and kissed the sidewalk.
Down these same streets the mobster Joey Gallo, or the functionary he employed for the purpose, would walk his pet lion Cleo. Though Gallo was long gone—and memorialized in a Bob Dylan song—by the time we arrived, his secret criminal world of initiation and omertà was (and possibly still is) very much alive here.
Every once in a while, a curtain would part and you’d catch a glimpse of that Otherness. There was the storefront beauty parlor up the street where it was said you heard the clanging of slot machines behind the false wall. There was the journalist friend embedded with an organized crime strike force who had spent weeks surveilling the restaurant where we ate our penne alla vodka. There was the morning at the shop where I bought fresh-pulled mozzarella, sausages and bread when I, Mr. Smiling Good Neighbor, picked up a pen to sign a petition on the counter. Then I saw what it protested: the Committee of Citizens Concerned for the Violation of the Civil Rights of John Gotti. The shop owner watched me read it. Our eyes locked. I put down the pen. Well…
Down these same streets the mobster Joey Gallo, or the functionary he employed for the purpose, would walk his pet lion Cleo.
Our block had a different, more distant past too, of course. A plaque down at 426 testifies to its founding prosperity: Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill, was born here in 1854, daughter of the up-and-coming financier and, one gathers, spare-time cad Leonard.
It was this era that defined the block’s look, and gave its townhouses their DNA blueprint: the low-ceilinged ground floor, where the servants worked and prepared meals, the soaring, show-stopper parlor floor where the family entertained, and the bedrooms upstairs, with their distinctive alcove rooms, nestled between the stairwell shaft and the front of the building. Many a Cobble Hill child has been raised in those cozy alcoves.
Other traces of the bygone remain, as well, including the steel hatches nearly every house has set into the ground fore and aft. In years past, these hatches would be thrown open and coal poured into the basement via the front hatchway. The coal dust, at least in theory, would float out via the rear opening to the backyard. Indoor plumbing may have been something of a novelty—the bathrooms in our house were apparently retrofitted, wedged at some point into existing closets—and one can only imagine tromping through the coal grime to the privy out back.
Other vestigial features include the slender iron towers that rise to roof-height behind many houses, beckoning children to risk life and limb on a monkey-climb. No visitor I’ve asked has ever guessed their function. Spoiler alert: the towers are for laundry drying. Lines on pulleys would be run from say, a third-floor back window, to the tower at the end of the yard. Back in the ’90s, these laundry lines were still very much in use, Mrs. So-and-So’s billowing undies being run-out overhead, proud as the Union Jack.
By the time we bought in, at the end of 1998, prices in the neighborhood had recovered from the post-1987 crash and begun what we couldn’t know then would be a nearly inexorable climb.
“The bottom was really about 1992,” says Brian Lehner, associate broker at Brown Harris Stevens, who has been selling properties in Cobble Hill for nearly 30 years. “But it has been pretty much nonstop [upward] since then. Even 9/11 seemed to have the opposite effect you’d think—people wanted to be grounded, to commit to a home.”
The four townhouses that have closed on our block of Henry Street in the past year range in price from an estimated $4.6 million for CWB’s new building at 359 to $2.6 million for a 15-foot-wide home, with the other two going for $3.5 million, seemingly the current mean for the block’s standard 21-foot-wide brownstones. The record setter was the $6.75 million paid the year before by rag & bone fashion brand founder Marcus Wainwright for the 1844 Federal-style house at 491, with 150 feet of frontage on Henry and Degraw Streets. (“I love everything about the house,” said Mr. Wainwright, “except when I have to shovel 150 feet of snow.”) His extensive upgrades, on top of the previous owners’ massive renovation—among other things, he removed a staircase and converted the house back to a one-family—are part and parcel of the scene here in 2015, including major work underway on at least four other buildings on the block.
Said Mr. Lehner, “The level of renovations we’re seeing now is something else. The major sums of money being sunk into making these townhouses exactly the way people want them has brought things to another level.”
‘The level of renovations we’re seeing now is something else. The major sums of money being sunk into making these townhouses exactly the way people want them has brought things to another level.’—Brian Lehner, associate broker at Brown Harris Stevens
As our block makes itself over in the prosperous, upgraded twenty-teens, there is still, for the old-timers, a pentimento of the past pressing through. One longtime resident told me, pointing to a house now occupied, as fate would have it, by a prosecutor, “That there, that was our department store. The lady that lived there, she’d have racks of furs, big stacks of stereo equipment, brand new designer suits that fell off the truck. If she didn’t have what you wanted, like you needed a nice tuxedo to go to the prom, you just told her—she’d let you know when she turned it up.”
The old-timer also remembers fondly, maybe a little too fondly, the Hare Krishna war.
The corner lot where CWB is putting up 435 Henry Street, and the two newly renovated, adjacent buildings, at 439 at 441, have a colorful history that might not have made their sales brochures. The buildings were, for many years, a convent for a French order of nuns, the Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor/Congregation of the Infant Jesus; the empty lot was its walled garden.
But in the 1960s, after the nuns departed, it came to be inhabited by a group of Hare Krishnas. This development did not, according to the old-timer, best please the locals. After various taunts, skirmishes and fractious moments there came the day of the annual block party, when the street was closed to traffic and neighbors lounged about, grilling peppers and sausages and what have you. It was the perfect day, the old-timer and his teenaged friends felt, to pull the “light a bag of turds on the doorstep and ring the bell” trick on the Krishnas.
For the Krishnas, this was the final straw. They issued out in force, grabbing the old-timer and another friend before realizing their mistake: “You shoulda seen their faces when they looked up and saw all these tough guys up and down the street jumping outta their lawn chairs and running down the block.”
It’s hard to imagine things getting all Scorsese like this on our serene, dog-and-children-friendly street of today, where the fall block party features a bouncy castle rather than a street brawl. But when we moved in, it would also have been difficult to envision the best-known landmark in the old neighborhood, the nearly century-old Cammareri Brothers Bakery of Moonstruck fame, vanishing overnight. The new poster child, Farmacy, a self-consciously hip, retro soda fountain, possibly suits us better these days.
My wife and I are almost old-timers ourselves here now, sharing stories with the newcomers of back-in-the-day, and upholding a few traditions. On New Year’s Eve, we will still step out back at the stroke of midnight and bang on pots and pans like the old Italians did. Fifteen years ago, it would sound like the Siege of Leningrad in the backyard. And if it’s quieter now, it’s gratifying to still hear some crazy pot whacking here and there, up and down the block, a few echoes in the night.