Victorian Flatbush, Brooklyn

Time Out New York magazine listed our popular tour of Victorian Flatbush, in Brooklyn, as one of “10 fascinating architecture tours in NYC”. We were honored to be included there, and hope you will join us sometime to see why it was spotlighted as a unique NYC experience.

Flatbush itself is one of the original six towns of the formerly-independent city of Brooklyn, dating back to the Dutch colonial era. Remnants of this heritage are seen on the tour, including one of the city’s oldest cemeteries. After Prospect Park was built in the 1860s (back when much of Flatbush was still farmland), developers took notice of the potential for new neighborhoods in Flatbush. Just south of the park, starting the 1880s, several developers worked to build a wealthy suburb that would be different from the brownstone & row-house trend of the rest of Brooklyn. Instead, they aimed to build a more suburban neighborhood, filled with huge homes and mansions, private sporting clubs, all within walking distance of this new park (and a short train ride away from the beaches of southern Brooklyn). Thus was born “Victorian Flatbush”.

Half of these developments across the area were destroyed in the 1930s to make way for middle-class apartment complexes, but several historic districts preserve its more picturesque and historic parts.

Recently, the Brooklyn real estate blog Brownstoner published some unique, birds-eye view photos of the area as it had grown, circa 1907. These are great shots, and experts on this neighborhood’s history will spot some unique finds in the photo, which I’ll spotlight here.

Albemarle.jpg

In this large, panorama shot, on the upper right, I’ve circled a pedestrian bridge across the railroad tracks (today the tracks are used by the NYC subway). This bridge was placed along the most scenic road— Albemarle— to connect one end of the Victorian neighborhood to the other. Today, the rail tracks largely (with a few exceptions) mark the dividing line between the preserved section of the neighborhood and the post-1930s section. The bridge was demolished about 40 years ago, to meet the angry demands of the wealthy mansion-dwellers to better separate themselves from the working-class populations starting one block over. You can read the fascinating history of this rail line, and the forgotten bridge here.

The Brownstoner article also includes a close-up of the area near that bridge, the intersection of Albermarle and Buckingham Roads:

Albemarle2.jpg

Circled by me there is a mansion that no longer exists. It was built by developer Dean Alvord as his personal new home. He had decreed that, after his death, the home be razed and the land donated to the community for common use. Today, the lot is the home of the Flatbush CommUNITY Garden. If you look at the site today, the driveway and the foundation of the home are still intact, but otherwise it remains a (now membership-only) community garden.

Flatbush CommUNITY Garden

Flatbush CommUNITY Garden

Want to see all of these sites, and the larger neighborhood, as they look today? Take a look at the slideshow of images on our listing page for our Victorian Flatbush tour, and see our calendar of public tour dates. We can also do this as a private tour on many other dates.

Come see gorgeous suburban blocks, Victorian-style mansions, and history in central Brooklyn!

Finding Your Roots

Here at Custom NYC Tours, designing & leading custom-created walking tours is obviously our specialty. My bragging point is that I know all aspects of this city so well, if you can think of an idea for a tour, I can create it for you, and lead it. We’ve done fun ones recently… a historic overview of Brooklyn neighborhoods, street art with themes about gender or politics, movie & TV locations in Central Park, and more.

But my favorite type of custom requests involve helping families trace their roots back in historic parts of the city.

Kids hanging out by the ice cream parlour, Brooklyn 1944.

Kids hanging out by the ice cream parlour, Brooklyn 1944.

I had first done one of these in 2016, when I helped a man trace his childhood roots in Bensonhurst.

Earlier this year, I designed another walking tour for a woman from England who had ancestors that moved to Brooklyn in the very early 20th century. She was curious to learn about this side of her family, and what their life in America had been like. She had a few addresses of where they lived around the historic Park Slope neighborhood, and knowledge of their burial in nearby Green-Wood Cemetery. With this information, I crafted a tour of their former neighborhood (Brooklyn being so historically well-preserved, most of their homes still stood). Finally, we journeyed into the cemetery to tour this historic site, and visit her family members’ plot. Seeing how much the tour meant to her was a humbling experience for me in turn.

(As an aside, if you ever have the chance to tour Green-Wood Cemetery, it is highly recommended. Opened in 1838, it was New York’s first rural cemetery. Its tombstones and crypts are works of art in their own right, and there are monuments to the Revolutionary War, as its largest battle was fought on this site in 1776. The cemetery’s popularity as a pastoral retreat helped inspire the demand for New York’s Central Park.)

Green-Wood Cemetery, as it would have looked in the 19th-century.

Green-Wood Cemetery, as it would have looked in the 19th-century.

And, earlier this Autumn, I did a similar tour in historic Brooklyn, albeit with a more local group. The group— now living around the various suburbs of the region— knew that their grandparents had grown up, and started their family, in Brooklyn, and were curious to match locations to family photos and stories. Similar to the woman from England, family records provided them with specific addresses. I created the tour from there.

We visited three historic, but very distinct, Brooklyn neighborhoods. First, Williamsburg. Today, better known for its “hipster” reputation, Brooklyn grew from a 19th-century industrial hub to a thriving immigrant residential neighborhood after the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, when many growing Jewish families moved there from the overcrowded tenements of the Manhattan’s Lower East Side. A few blocks from the bridge’s exit, we found the beautiful apartment house where their family once lived. This section also included looks at the gorgeous buildings along Broadway, once the thriving Wall Street of old Brooklyn. After WWII, even as the orthodox segment of the population grew, new immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic moved in, creating a rich new cultural blend in the neighborhood fabric. From there, we traveled down to Crown Heights, with its vibrant mix of orthodox Jewish population and Caribbean immigrant families. There, we saw a second home that the growing family once inhabited. Finally, we traveled past Prospect Park to visit historic Flatbush, near the “Victorian” sub-section, to see a pre-war apartment complex the family once called home. The eldest member of the group had grown up as a young girl in that building and recognized its steps and lobby. We ended by recreating an old family photo.

All together, three very different neighborhoods, all tied together by family history. In many ways, that is the story of New York.

The locations of the families’ roots, in Brooklyn historic neighborhoods.

The locations of the families’ roots, in Brooklyn historic neighborhoods.

If you, or anyone you know, is looking for a similar tour, I am happy to assist in creating this unique experience. New York’s story is about its neighborhoods and its people, and I would love to help you discover where your family fits into this ongoing history.

Brooklyn Roads

I was contacted by someone today about the possibility of doing a Neil Diamond-themed tour in Brooklyn. This was a fun request, as I currently live in the same Brooklyn neighborhood where Diamond grew up. I often walk by his old apartment, as well as the historic high school from which he graduated. Planning this tour will be a treat.

On some initial research, I came across this video from 2010 in which Diamond came back to tour his old neighborhood, and ended up chatting with some local teenagers on his old corner. It's actually kind of sweet to watch a) him reminisce, and b) the local kids have no idea who this old man is. Enjoy!

Industrial Brooklyn

One of my more popular tours-- and a favorite of mine to do!-- is my Industrial Brooklyn tour.

This is a great 3-hour walking tour through the two key neighborhoods to Brooklyn's industrial past. Both Gowanus and Red Hook were settled by the Dutch colonists of New Amsterdam/New Netherlands in 1636. The latter community, basis for numerous works on the shipping industry such as "On The Waterfront", once housed the busiest shipping port in the entire United States. The Battle of Brooklyn (aka, the Battle of Long Island) took place in this region during the Revolutionary War.

In the 1840s, the deepening of Gowanus Creek to build the Gowanus Canal, and the formal street layout in Red Hook by the then-independent City of Brooklyn transformed these neighborhoods into high-industrial, working-class communities. The decline of American industry a little over 100 years later saw slow declines for these areas in turn. By 1990, Red Hook had turned so downward, Life magazine called it one of the worst neighborhoods in the country and the "crack capital of the United States". Over in Gowanus, the waste disposal of the industry there (gas plants, tanneries, chemical plants, paint factories, sulfur producers, & more) had rendered the Gowanus Canal into a toxic mess. In 2010, the EPA had declared the canal a Superfund cleanup site.


But today, these neighborhoods have seen a massive resurgence. Rents are rising and development is growing. Both communities have seen an influx of artists, craftsmen, and families. In Gowanus, adventurers canoe the canal, old warehouses give way to high-rise luxury rentals, and a Whole Foods has arrived, with a rooftop greenhouse and specialized local goods. In Red Hook, the old warehouses have found new life: a Tesla showroom, chocolate factories, small-batch wineries and whiskey distilleries, glass-blowers, metalworks, and numerous artist co-working spaces. Fantastic restaurants are growing in both neighborhoods. Red Hook's waterfront park also marks the closest point of land in all of NYC to the Statue of Liberty, and is beloved for is sweeping views of New York harbor and downtown Manhattan.

Touring these neighborhoods is a journey into Brooklyn's past and a great peek into how manufacturing in America hasn't disappeared; it's just gone local.

I love these communities dearly, and I would love to pass on that passion to you.

Street Art

One of the top walking tours I have listed on my site is dedicated to street art. "Street art" is a term, however, that I realize is foreign or vague to many people outside of major urban areas. What defines "street art"? How is it different than graffiti or vandalism? That's subjective, but here's my take, and my thoughts on why I am passionate for it.

To me, the main thing that differentiates street art from graffiti/vandalism is the level of craft. The stereotypical graffiti-- someone's "tag" scribbled with a spraypaint can on a wall-- takes no effort or time. It's the artistic version of a smashed window. True street art takes time & artistry. One other differentiation is, more and more, street art is being legitimized. Many street artists now work with business & buildings owners to gain access to walls/spaces for their art... it is a good exchange: the artist gets a canvas, and the property owners get new eyes on their space.

Take for example this piece I saw in Brooklyn:
 

This meets both of the above criteria: it was done with permission (as part of the community-wide 'Bushwick Collective') and took days to complete. It is a true piece of art... only the canvas here is a wall.

It's really wonderful to wander around a neighborhood like Bushwick and see the new pieces artists have spread around, and to see the joy and attention this art is bring to visitors.

A major project just completed on Manhattan's Lower East Side is the 100 Gates Project, an effort connecting businesses with artists to create murals on their roll-down gates. Much like Bushwick's collective, this was a win for businesses, artists, and the community.


The most famous example in NYC of popular (and sanctioned) street art is the now-defunct 5Pointz project in Queens, NY. Immortalized in pop culture, the owner of large, industrial warehouse let a street art collective use the entire building exterior as a showcase for artists. The regularly-changing art drew visitors from all over the world.
 

(The building was, sadly, sold and demolished a couple of years ago)

Some street art, however, can be both legitimate and anarchic. Some great examples of this are the unsanctioned works of Banksy, who has gained international acclaim for his guerilla art. Also, the Berlin Wall became covered in street art and graffiti by the end (mostly the western side), as Germans expressed their frustrations with the wall through this art. One section of this wall-- and its art!-- is preserved in a midtown Manhattan office plaza. A surprising example of legitimate, but originally unsanctioned, street art is the famous Wall St bull statue. Contrary to popular belief, this famous sculpture was not sanctioned by the city. Italian-born artist Arturo Di Modica spent $360,000 of his own money to create it, as a gift to the people of New York, and installed it without permission in front of the New York Stock Exchange in December 1989. The city planned to remove the 'vandalism', but kept it (and moved it to its long-standing location by Bowling Green) due to popular outcry. And what would the Financial District be without this beloved icon?


Street art is, to me, a living and breathing sign of a city's creative heart. It takes drab walls and squares and adds color to them. It draws you to neighborhoods and communities you might otherwise not have discovered. This is why I am so passionate about it.

I hope that, by offering these tours, I can pass on this passion to visitors... and help them see parts of the city that are vibrant and alive. And, of course, to continue the discussion of how we define this evolving art form.