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Healing a Gash Among the Brownstones


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Healing a Gash Among the Brownstones

By MICHAEL BRICK March 27, 2004

In New York City, even the empty places are already full.

This one is called Block 945, Lot 39, a vacant patch of ground where an angular and narrow street called Sterling Place intersects a boulevard called Seventh Avenue in the Borough of Brooklyn, County of Kings. Dolly Williams, who bought the lot a decade ago for $250,000, knows it differently, as a canvas of sorts.

"You can actually put your own dreams into anything that's vacant," Ms. Williams said.

For a vacant lot, though, this place is awfully crowded, with haunting memories and other unruly things.

Here, decades ago, the sky opened up and conjured a rain of metal and fire; a crashed airliner killed scores, ruining all that came before. Since then, people have projected their own dreams all around this lot, often at cross-purposes, and have provoked questions grander than those that the numbers of a catalog system can address.


-United Press International

Wreckage of an airliner crash in 1960 at Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

And so far Ms. Williams, like others before her for four decades, has been unable to complete something new in this empty place.

"I don't know what is wrong with this corner," said Ms. Williams, who counts among her accomplishments an appointment to the City Planning Commission. "Maybe it is jinxed or something."

There are rumors of such places in New York. One is 18 West 11th Street in Manhattan, where the Weathermen blew up a house in a bomb-making accident. Nearly a decade passed before the resulting vacant lot was filled. And there, the only homage to the past came in the form of a stark departure from it, modernist architecture with wild angles and open spaces.

Here in Brooklyn, the history is more gruesome still. But to truly know what fills this empty place, first look anew at the familiar and obvious sights around it. The crossing of Sterling Place and Seventh Avenue sits near the northern terminus of Park Slope, a leafy and bustling neighborhood peopled in the main by handsomely paid editors, lawyers and copywriters, and families with children and Manhattan money. The buildings are uniform three-, four- and five-story brownstones, done in dark colors with evenly situated windows and straight cuts, topped by carved details that draw the eye from one to the next, an urban sameness, like architectural toy soldiers.

And then look back in time to the way this ground came to be a jarring, hollow break in that continuity of form. There are photographs of an airliner that tore through the brownstone that stood here in December 1960 after a midair collision with another plane. Captured on film, lying in the slush on this corner, staring out battered and dazed, Stephen Baltz, 11 years old, embodied the worst disaster in the history of aviation to that time, with 134 killed. He was the plane's sole survivor, and he lived only a night.

It was into a decaying neighborhood that the airplane fell, and the blow struck hard. Jimmy Moy, owner of the laundry in the basement of the brownstone, left and never came back.

Those two images from past and present are hard to square, and what is more, jinxes are a suspect explanation for anything.

So, last, sit in a parlor inside one of these ornate and proud park-side brownstones and listen to Everett Ortner, 84, describe his version of the events that brought Park Slope to its present condition.

Mr. Ortner, a science editor, found what would become his own brownstone during a 15-minute stopover in May 1963 on the way to do some research on scuba diving.

"On Seventh Avenue, a quarter of the storefronts were empty," Mr. Ortner said. "There wasn't a restaurant. The local A.&P., which was the only supermarket, was filthy. You could have walked down our street and not seen a child."

Mr. Ortner volunteered to serve as public relations man for the neighborhood, and he set out to promote it with walking tours, block parties and open houses. The point of all this exertion, Mr. Ortner said, was to make a living monument to the beauty of the brownstones and the sense of community they can nurture.

"Never again, never again, never again will houses of this quality be built for the middle class of the city," he said. The beauty of the Park Slope brownstones, he said, is an abstract thing. "I suppose it's agelessness. There's a feeling of security in knowing it will look like this in the future, and there's a connection to the past, which I'm very sensitive to."

A generation later, that sensitivity has been codified, and it is into this place, hardly vacant at all in figurative terms, that Ms. Williams is trying to put something new. She is not the first.

In 1988, one Margaret O. Walker filed plans for a four-story building of two-bedroom apartments topped with a penthouse. Over the next few years, she sought to satisfy objections from the City Buildings and Environmental Protection Departments as well as from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. By 1991, she was missing deadlines from one agency while waiting for approvals from another, city records show. Ms. Walker ultimately gave up.

Later, Ms. Williams sought to impart her own vision onto this ground, still empty. In August 2001, she won the city's approval for her proposed departures from Ms. Walker's design, including eliminating the penthouse, installing lantern-style fixtures and painting the metal panels a color called Formal Garden SW1455.

But she did not get far. The Buildings Department issued a stop work order in February 2003 for failure to protect the neighboring buildings during excavation. The order was lifted the next month. In August, the Landmarks Preservation Commission ordered another halt, objecting to the placement of window openings in the shell Ms. Williams had constructed. That, too, was lifted.

All the while, the neighbors campaigned to have the shell torn down.

Judging by the framework, said Carmi Bee, an architect who lives nearby, the building appears poorly designed and hastily constructed. "First of all, it's on Seventh Avenue, and everyone knows that corner because of the plane crash," he said. "What's at stake here is that they can't let a precedent like this happen."

In a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, another neighbor, Robert W. Ohlerking, raised an objection particular to this lot. "It offers no acknowledgment of the building that was there before or the tragic historic events that caused its destruction," Mr. Ohlerking wrote. "Aren't historic districts meant to also include historic events as well?"

As if in reply, a marker hangs from a lamppost directly in front of the lot. It says:

Principally built between the mid-1880's and World War I, Park Slope retains its 19th Century profile of three- and four-story buildings, punctuated by church steeples, recalling Brooklyn's character as the city of homes and churches.

The sign goes on to mention the Victorian Gothic, Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival architectural styles, but says not a word about any airplane crash, and certainly nothing about any walking tours, block parties or friends that Old Man Ortner can recall.

In the daytime now, nannies and young mothers walk by the lot pushing empty strollers, accompanied by young girls who push toy-sized empty strollers of their own.

"It's become a fertile place," Mr. Ortner said of Park Slope. "I'm amazed at the number of young people we have, too. Good looking. Well dressed."

And the blank space in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Kings County, New York City, will be filled come Christmastime if Ms. Williams has her way.

"Everybody knows the history," she said. "Being vacant doesn't serve any purpose."

From The New York Times

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