Looking Back: How Yuppies discovered Park Slope

Oct.October 18, 2007 12:05 PM

This story is a second installment of a three-part series looking at the gentrification of the Upper West Side, Park Slope and Soho more than two decades ago.

Explore Park Slope’s Seventh Avenue on a sunny weekend day and you’ll see mothers with children tucked in strollers, a packed Barnes & Noble and busy restaurants. Turn off the main drag and the tree-lined cross streets are full of tidy brownstones. Fifth Avenue, once shunned as less desirable, is now a strip of trendy restaurants, bars and shops.

Today’s Park Slope, a neighborhood enclave for families and upscale ex-hipsters, began to take visible shape in the 1970s and 1980s, around the same time as the transformation of the Upper West Side and Soho. Manhattan refugees began to discover its brownstones and moved to the neighborhood in search of great deals on more space.

“Park Slope is one of the great recent stories of the outer boroughs, an urban neighborhood that acquired a solid, family-oriented, middle-class identity in the late 1960s and early 1970s and has managed to hold on to that identity in the decade since,” The New York Times said in 1984. “It has not become an enclave of the rich, as so many parts of the Upper West Side of Manhattan have done, but neither has its economic base slipped away.”

Another Times story that year, by columnist Maureen Dowd – then a lowly beat reporter – recounted the tale of a mother of two who moved from Greenwich, Conn., to a Madison Avenue apartment in Manhattan, then to a four-story brownstone in Park Slope.

“What happened?” one of her acquaintances asked her sympathetically.

But what had happened was an up-and-coming neighborhood and good deals to be had. The woman and her husband paid $267,000 for the townhouse on Berkeley Place, the same amount they got for their two-bedroom coop on the East Side.

“There are some nice apartments on Park Avenue that would have the [same amount of room] for $750,000,” the woman was quoted as saying.

New York City planning officials even weighed in with their stamp of approval that year, with a study calling the area a model of “positive” gentrification.

However, there was some backlash about pushy Manhattanites moving in. “Quichefication” was what Robert Acito, district manager of Community Board 6, called the changes in the area, and others noted how pizza shops were moving upscale with then exotic Yuppie-inspired toppings, like broccoli. Community activists complained about the difficulty of finding one-bedroom rentals for under $600 a month.

Before gentrification in the 1980s, Park Slope was home to successive waves of residents. Irish and Italian working class displaced the brownstone gentry before World War II, followed by the transition period of the 1960s, when, block upon block, white ethnic residents moved to the suburbs, and blacks and Hispanics took their place in the ethnic mix.

Today, Park Slope embodies the results of the trends that began gentrification in the 1980s.

Patricia Neinast, senior vice president at the Corcoran Group and a neighborhood native, said one of her current listings, a four-story brownstone, also on Berkeley Place, was priced at $2.6 million. The range for houses above Seventh Avenue, which are closer to Prospect Park, is $2.5 million to $4.5 million.

Mark Gerbush, the owner of 200 Fifth, a restaurant and bar that’s been on the street for 18 years, said residents of the brownstones between Fifth and Sixth tried for years to avoid the pervasive seediness of Fifth Avenue in the early ’80s.

Gerbush, who was born and raised in Bensonhurst, thought his sister was “out of her cotton-picking mind” to buy a house on Degraw between Fourth and Fifth avenues in the mid-1980s. At the time most corners along Fifth were flanked by a drug dealer or two. Homeless people burned fires in trash cans.

“When my sister bought her house there were burnt-out buildings all around her,” Gerbush said. He said out of “stubbornness” he decided to sign a 20-year lease and open the restaurant. The stock market crash of 1987 slowed the neighborhood’s development and crime kept potential customers away. Gerbush eventually bought the building.

Now Fifth Avenue has gentrified so much that the non-profit Fifth Avenue Committee, which worked to prevent landlords from evicting lower income renters, can’t even afford to rent the amount of space it needs on the street. The group has relocated to the other side of Fourth Avenue, according to a recent story in the Times.

While gentrification has been good for business, Gerbush said he misses what he calls the “Brooklyn feel” of the neighborhood and worries that the community has lost some of its diversity. The neighborhood is getting younger.

“It’s been good for my business, so I can’t complain,” said Gerbush, 49. “I feel like an old fart now with all the young people moving in.”

The revitalization of Park Slope has spread to many other Brooklyn neighborhoods, including Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, Williamsburg and Bedford- Stuyvesant. Finding the bargains of the past in those areas is tough, if not impossible, Neinast said. Bargain hunters are moving to areas such as Red Hook, Bushwick and Greenwood Heights – the area between the south end of Park Slope and Sunset Park.

As for Park Slope, Gerbush may put it best:

“Anybody who hasn’t made big money by now is going to be priced out.”

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