Kensington: Downhill from the Slope, interest climbing sharply

By Gabby Warshawer | October 30, 2007 01:38PM

This summer, Jill Schwartzman decided to move out of her shared Williamsburg apartment and find a place of her own. She initially searched in Windsor Terrace, the neighborhood bordering Park Slope, but found it too expensive.

Her broker suggested Kensington, immediately to the south.

“At first I thought it was too far away, but I ended up really liking it,” said Schwartzman, 31, an editor at Random House. “Most importantly, there was no fee.”

Relative affordability, varied housing stock and a burgeoning artistic community make once-overlooked Kensington the Brooklyn neighborhood of the moment.

“Kensington is attracting people priced out of the Slope and also priced out of Windsor Terrace,” said Peter Turner of Turner Structures, a real estate firm that specializes in the area. “There’s diverse housing. It’s not just brownstones; there are apartment buildings and smaller private houses.”

Kensington was built up in the 1920s, and boasts a mixture of rowhouses, medium-sized apartment buildings and Victorian houses.

Tellingly, the area’s popularity is prompting the inevitable expansion of Kensington’s boundaries, bestowing its cachet on a larger area: Ocean Parkway was once the acknowledged western boundary, but brokers have helped shift it six blocks out to Dahill Road; to the south, the traditional boundary of Cortelyou Road now rests at Ditmas Avenue. To the east, businesses setting up shop past Coney Island Avenue consider themselves part of both Kensington and Flatbush.

The F, B and Q subway lines serve the neighborhood. It’s about a 40-minute commute to Manhattan.

One-bedrooms in the area rent for between $1,000 and $1,200, said Turner. By way of comparison, most one-bedrooms in prime Park Slope rent in the $1,500 to $2,000 range.

Adam Pacelli, a vice president at Corcoran, said condo prices in Kensington have been holding steady for a few years at around $475 a square foot. Co-ops sell for between $375 and $400 a square foot.

“The neighborhood has a lot of appeal because it’s a sleepy residential area that’s a couple train stops away from Park Slope,” said Pacelli, who is marketing Hidrock Realty’s new 10-unit condo development at Beverly Road and 7th Street. Sixty-five people showed up for the condo’s first showing in mid-September, he said.

Abraham J. Hidary, president of Hidrock Realty, said Kensington was an attractive place to build because it was an established community. “We felt that it’s an area that’s very mature,” Hidary said. “You’re not building next to a warehouse or an industrial site.”

Several new businesses, however, are making Kensington markedly less sleepy and bringing a dash of cool more frequently associated with former industrial zones like Williamsburg and Red Hook.

Chief among them is Vox Pop, a cafeacute;, bookstore and publishing house that opened on Cortelyou Road almost two years ago. The popular neighborhood hangout — technically on the border of Kensington and Flatbush — frequently hosts author readings, political candidates and musicians. All the store’s employees are members of the Industrial Workers of the World union.

Sander Hicks, Vox Pop’s owner, said he enjoys being a trailblazer in the area.

“We didn’t want to be in Williamsburg. It’s like in ‘The Muppet Movie’ when Gonzo says he wants to go to Bombay, India, to become a movie star. Kermit says he should just come to Hollywood with them and become a movie star there. And Gonzo says, ‘Well, sure, if you want to do it the easy way,'” said Hicks, who is also the president of the Cortelyou Merchants Association. “So we didn’t choose the easy way. There aren’t as many hipsters here as in Williamsburg.”

Other businesses arriving on Cortelyou Road within the last few years include the restaurants Picket Fence and the Farm on Adderley, both of which serve American cuisine and garnered favorable reviews in the New York Times; the Cornerstone Pub, which holds weekly jazz and gypsy guitar performances; and Belle & Maxie, a children’s toy and clothing store.

The new businesses join Kensington’s many ethnic eateries. There are restaurants in the community specializing in Caribbean, Indian and Afghani cuisines.

Kensington’s boosters are currently seeking a delicate balance: While they want to retain the diverse population that spawned such restaurants, they also want the neighborhood to welcome professionals priced out of places like Park Slope and Windsor Terrace, and for Kensington to develop economically.

Turner, the real estate agent, grew up in the neighborhood and said it fell victim to blockbusting in the 1960s.

“I’m happy to see the neighborhood coming up again because a lot of people abandoned it,” he said. “The larger issue, though, is where do people go after the area becomes even more popular? They’re going to be forced out.”

Hicks considers himself a proponent of smart growth, not gentrification.

“I don’t think people should be displaced. This is a neighborhood with a huge working class. I don’t mind the speed at which things change in New York, it’s the quality of the change,” he said. “Part of the mission of Vox Pop is to change things, but to bring about good changes into the community: more books, more literacy, more media education, more voter education, more ferment.”

Artistic ferment bursts from the pages of Kensington Blog Blotter, a self-published ‘zine that’s distributed at Vox Pop. Katie Duncan, an eight-year resident of the neighborhood, produces the ‘zine, which features oral histories, poetry, art and a section where people offer to barter goods and services.

Duncan appreciates Kensington’s diversity and lack of pretension, and sees most recent changes as positive. “The neighborhood is growing and changing, but it’s growing and changing in a diverse way,” she said.

In fact, Duncan only has one gripe about Kensington’s increasing popularity: “In the past couple of years, parking has become much more difficult.”