Last weekend's Forgotten New York walking tour took us to the heart of ridiculously historic Flatbush. It had been many years since I'd walked east to what used to be the heart of the village of Flatbush. We peeked in at Albemarle Terrace, and the group ached with real-estate longing, especially when several homeowners stopped to chat about life in this lovely enclave and its neighbor, Kenmore Terrace.
This pre-Civil War gem was the rectory to the Dutch Reformed Church of Flatbush, and porches don't get any better than this.
Behind the house, now used for social programs, an effervescent young lady named Katie leaped out of a pile of leaves to explain composting. Behind us, tombstones in the ancient Dutch cemetery gave mute witness to a different sort of composting.
This crossroads, at Church and Flatbush Avenues, goes back way before George Washington slept anywhere. Above us loomed the steeple of a church built in 1786 for a congregation founded in 1654. Around us flowed the hurly-burly of a working-class Caribbean community, which supplanted a well-off middle-class Jewish community, which took over a fading semi-rural village, which faded from a once-thriving Dutch farm town.
In the churchyard, we met up with Flatbush Gardener Chris Kreussling, a deeply knowledgeable garden coach who showed off the new native plantings in the Church Avenue communal garden. From these modest shady beginnings, he and his fellow volunteers envision a swath of greenery authentic to time and place; plantings include switch grass and one of my favorites, wild ginger. Around the back of the church, Anne Pope of Sustainable Flatbush and another brave soul were coaxing luxuriant crops from containers. (They all welcome helpers, by the way, if you're itching to get your hands dirty this summer.) Here's Chris with Kevin of Forgotten New York--proud to call them friends.
Yes, some of the tombstones are in Dutch, and the names are a who's-who of Brooklyn streets: Lefferts, Martense, Clarkson (he once owned the land our house is built on). The July sun drove all ghosts away, but at night some folks leave voodoo souvenirs scattered around (like a coconut shell we stepped around).
Our last stop was that gothic masterpiece of Flatbush Avenue, the former Erasmus Hall High School, now broken into five smaller "academies" (the currently trendy solution for large failing schools). Erasmus should be the Hogwarts of Brooklyn, but no one seems to have cared enough to save it in its original incarnation (one that counted Barbra Streisand and Beverly Sills as graduates).
The academic decline is depressing; so is the atrocious neglect of its architectural treasure, in a quadrangle that dates back to school founders Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (among others). This original school building is reportedly in near-ruins; students apparently know little of its history. A statue of Erasmus dominates the inaccessible courtyard; behind him, paint flakes off one of Flatbush's ignored treasures.
Gentrification hasn't swept in to transform old Flatbush, but hard-working and passionate people still love it and fight for it to thrive. Its once-storied institutions serve new incarnations of this resilient community through our chronic struggles. (One tour member, Sarah, Kevin's cousin and a Ditmas Park blogger, used to teach at Erasmus and described the beauty of its interior. "And I won't say a word against those kids," she said with a passion that touched me.) Most of the passers-by probably don't know any more about the steeple and the graveyard than the kids know about Erasmus; we got passing funny looks from hurried shoppers for standing around staring at the cornices. But the truth of Forgotten New York is that traces remain, and the curious find out more, and fight to save what's left...while the city morphs relentlessly all around us.