In the rapidly changing New York City BOROUGH OF BROOKLYN, a gem of a neighborhood shines.
Every day I walk down South Portland Avenue in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, I feel lucky to live in the dynamic neighborhood known as Fort Greene. The block that begins at DeKalb Avenue has become my favorite. Stately London plane trees tower above classic brownstones, which are lined up like neatly dressed soldiers. It is the best Brooklyn has to offer — so perfect that it should be in television commercials, complete with chirping birds and giggling children.
Movie studios and production companies often set up shoots on the sidewalks of Fort Greene because it is home to some of the most picturesque homes and historic mansions in the city. This dreamy Brooklyn style, however, is not the neighborhood’s only claim to fame. The diverse crowd and the artistic soul of the community set Fort Greene apart and are why it ultimately became my home. I’d been looking for years for a New York City neighborhood that could charm me with its atmosphere and awaken me to the history and diversity of my city.
During the past few decades, Brooklyn has been a borough in transition. More and more Manhattanites are crossing the East River with the hope of finding an alternative to skyrocketing rent and maddening congestion. Areas like Park Slope have a magnetic pull for young professionals and stroller-pushing families, while Williamsburg is a hub for a hipster crowd because of its Bohemian character.
Fort Greene is now one of the most culturally integrated neighborhoods in the city, though the road to success was arduous. Before the designation of the Fort Greene and Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) historic districts in 1978, economic depression hit the area hard. In 1966, the Brooklyn Navy Yard (just north of Fort Greene) was decommissioned, causing widespread job loss. One of the area’s lifelines, the Myrtle Avenue El train, was demolished only three years later. These closures made the area less appealing for commuters and visitors, leading to the shuttering of businesses and bringing an increase in crime and drug use. At night, the streets were empty and dangerous.
Once the historic districts were established, artists, writers and preservationists moved in and helped revive the area. Most notable was the opening of Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. Several of his films highlighted the Fort Greene/Bedford-Stuyvesant area, including She’s Gotta Have It and Mo’ Better Blues. Soon, the neighborhood was welcoming famous residents like Chris Rock and Rosie Perez, who helped define Fort Greene as a new cultural center. Crime numbers began to drop, and new businesses popped up. By the early 2000s, people of all backgrounds were flocking to a flourishing neighborhood. Fort Greene was back on the map of desirable Brooklyn, and the burgeoning ethnic and economic diversity that resulted from decades of struggle is now one of the neighborhood’s biggest draws.
Nothing embodies the diversity more than the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For more than 150 years, artists of all heritages have been performing on the eclectic BAM stages. Though the seasonal repertoire comprises international plays, dance and theater, popular musicians such as Paul Simon, Dr. John and members of Arcade Fire have also appeared here.
With the cinema program and the industrial-chic event space in the BAMcafé — a performance area that has metal archways, starburst lights in the windows and blue and red light accents inside the space — BAM has become a popular gathering place in Fort Greene. That is something Karen Brooks Hopkins has worked hard to achieve. Her goal as president is to make BAM the largest host of contemporary international performing arts in the U.S., and she is dedicated to fostering the neighborhood around her.
“There is room for everyone in Fort Greene,” she says. “It’s one of the great American urban communities.”
BAM is only one of many local art centers. Renowned art college Pratt Institute attracts students from all over the world to study art and creative disciplines. Across Fort Greene Park, the Mark Morris Dance Center presents live music and modern dance while providing rehearsal space and community-outreach programs.
The opening of Barclays Center has resulted in world-class music and entertainment acts and also major sports events being held in the area. But just down the street at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, small bands perform to sold-out crowds of only a few hundred people. That these venues exist in the center of the neighborhood makes it clear that art is at the core of cultural diversity in Fort Greene.