Brooklyn Heights: A Historic Waterfront Community Minutes From Manhattan

Deborah Hallen first visited Brooklyn Heights as a member of an amateur chamber music group. A year later, she moved there. A year after that, following a performance on Staten Island, she met Paul O. Zelinsky, an illustrator of children’s books, who, it turned out, also lived in Brooklyn Heights, in his art studio.

“I fell in love at first sight,” said Ms. Hallen, 79, of the man she soon married.

That was back in the 1970s. She and Mr. Zelinsky, 70, are now grandparents, but they still live and work in this historic waterfront community, home to many artists and writers. “Back in the day, rents were affordable,” she said. “Everybody was everybody’s friend.”

Ms. Hallen took a job teaching science at P.S. 8, the local public school on Hicks Street, from which she is now retired. She is vice president of Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library, which raises money for programs at the handsome new library on Cadman Plaza West. In addition to many book events, the library hosts groups for knitting, chess and other pursuits. Ms. Hallen also sits on the Youth, Education and Cultural Affairs Committee of Community Board 2, an appointed position. Mr. Zelinsky, who won the Caldecott Medal in 1998 and has sold millions of copies of his most popular book, “Wheels on the Bus,” is part of a circle of illustrators who meet regularly in the neighborhood.

In 1998, the couple and their two daughters left their one-bedroom rental and moved into a two-bedroom, two-bath co-op apartment with views of the harbor and the Brooklyn Bridge, a wood-burning fireplace and a roof deck. They paid $320,000. “It’s worth over a million dollars now,” Ms. Hallen said. “We have no desire to leave. It’s beautiful and quiet here.”

She likes to walk on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which overlooks the harbor, and to walk over the Brooklyn or Manhattan Bridge, or take a subway into Manhattan. “It’s half an hour to a Broadway show,” she said.

Brooklyn Heights has long been known as “New York’s first suburb,” said Gerard Splendore, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Warburg, who has lived in three places in Brooklyn Heights. He remembers “sitting next to Norman Mailer in a Chinese restaurant” in the 1980s, when the writer lived and worked in the neighborhood.

“Brooklyn Heights has an amazing housing stock of postwar and prewar buildings and incredible townhouses,” Mr. Splendore said. And the recently renovated Brooklyn Bridge Park, he added, “is a huge addition to the area on the waterfront, with soccer, swimming, basketball, restaurants and kayaking.”

Among the residents in that area is Doc Dean, 38, a managing director in the corporate investment banking division at Citibank. He and his wife, Amie Dean, 44, a retired executive in the fashion industry, were among the first to move into the Quay condominium in 2020, paying about $3 million for a three-bedroom, three-bath apartment. The couple now have a 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.

“We wanted to be close to my work, and the neighborhood is awesome,” Mr. Dean said. His commute involves riding a ferry from Pier 6, steps from his apartment, for “a couple of minutes” to Lower Manhattan, then walking 15 to 20 minutes. His son plays soccer on Pier 5, and his daughter roller skates on Pier 2, attending P.S. 8 and taking after-school chess and art lessons there, too.

The couple are thrilled to be near a lot of great restaurants, he said: “Charlie Mitchell, the first Black Michelin-starred chef in New York City, has his restaurant, Clover Hill, right behind us. It’s awesome.”

Tom and Kate Gunton, both 33, have been renting on Hicks Street for five years, starting with a one-bedroom and then a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath apartment in the same building, where they now pay about $3,000 a month and live with their 5-month-old daughter and an 85-pound yellow lab.

When they met, Ms. Gunton, who works in health care, was living on the Lower East Side; Mr. Gunton, who works at Salesforce, a software company, had been living abroad. They considered staying on the Lower East Side, but wanted “a bit more space and more amenities,” Mr. Gunton said, like an elevator and laundry in the building. They also wanted to be near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which runs below the Promenade, because Ms. Gunton drives to work, and it provides easy access for visits to his family on Long Island and hers in Pennsylvania.

Ms. Gunton takes their daughter to the Promenade “at least once a day,” she said. “It’s like our backyard.” She is also part of an online neighborhood chat group for new mothers, who give each other tips and “exchange baby things.” Mr. Gunton plays soccer in an intramural league on Pier 5 and takes their dog to a dog park near Pier 6 or another in Cadman Plaza Park.

“This is not a transient neighborhood,” he said. “People want to stay forever.”

Robert A. Levine, a developer who used his initials as the name for his company, RAL, remembers driving past the deteriorating piers and sheds along the Brooklyn Heights waterfront for many years. “They were screaming to me,” he said, but no one had been able to develop what he saw as “a hidden gem.”

Around 2003, he said, “things were percolating,” and he began working with the city and state to build or convert a few new residential buildings — mostly luxury, but some affordable — that would contribute some of the funds for the transformation of the piers that has made Brooklyn Bridge Park into a buzzing recreational area. Park construction started in 2008, and the nonprofit Brooklyn Bridge Park Conservancy now organizes the area’s extensive programs.

The new construction represents a small portion of the neighborhood’s overall space. The community’s northern boundary is Old Fulton Street; its southern boundary is Atlantic Avenue. To the east, Cadman Plaza West curves around, and then Court Street takes over for a short distance. Overlooking the park and the East River, on the west, is the Promenade, a beloved public space that delineates the Heights part of the neighborhood’s name. Dumbo is to the north, Cobble Hill to the south and Downtown Brooklyn to the east. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway runs under the Promenade. (The expressway’s cantilevered construction has become a cause for concern in recent years, with proposals for short- and long-term repairs unresolved.)

Many streets are lined with leafy trees, handsome townhouses, beautiful churches and other stately buildings, thanks to a 1965 historical designation for nearly all of the neighborhood — New York City’s first such designation. The 1987 movie “Moonstruck” and several others have been filmed there. Many houses were built in the 19th century, and most buildings are low-rise.

“Some people see this as a middle ground between suburbia and New York City,” said Ravi Kantha, an associate broker with Leslie J. Garfield.

Montague Street is the main commercial hub.

The median price of the 221 homes that sold this year through September was $1.19 million, said John Walkup, a founder of UrbanDigs, a real estate data-analytics company. That was close to the median sale price of $1.2 million during the same period in 2020, when about the same number of homes sold.

But during the first couple of years of the pandemic, when people wanted more space than Manhattan could offer, “we were off to the races,” Mr. Walkup said. In 2021, sales more than doubled, to 485, with a median price of $1.45 million; in 2022, there were 408 sales at a median price of $1.3 million.

Since then the market has slowed, in part because of higher interest rates. As of mid-November, there were 126 homes for sale on StreetEasy, from a one-bedroom, one-bath co-op on the third floor of a 1950 elevator building at 100 Remsen Street, listed for $370,000, to a three-family brownstone built in 1899 at 126 Pierrepont Street, listed for $15 million. About 130 rentals were available, from a studio in a walk-up building on State Street, listed for $2,195 a month, to a five-bedroom, five-and-a-half-bath townhouse on Remsen Street listed for $27,500 a month.

“Community members care a great deal about their history,” said Lara Birnback, the executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association. “But at the same time, this is a very vibrant and striving community.”

She added: “People are excited that our main street, Montague, has a new energy,” with new restaurants, bakeries and other stores — some of which, like the bookstore Books Are Magic and the bakery L’Appartement 4F, were convinced by the association to open up on Montague Street. The group also played a role in attracting Poppy’s, a cafe on Henry Street, and Inga’s Bar, which was an NYT Critic’s Pick in May 2022.

P.S. 8 The Emily Warren Roebling School, at 37 Hicks Street, is the only public school in Brooklyn Heights. It serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and had an enrollment of 575 in the school year 2021-22. In 2018-19 (the last year for which ratings are available because of the pandemic), when it was known as the Robert Fulton School and included seventh and eighth grades, 76 percent of students met state standards on the English test, compared with 47 percent citywide, and 71 percent met state stands in math, compared with 46 percent citywide.

In the fall of 2019, students in sixth through eighth grades were moved to a school in Downtown Brooklyn called Bridges MS 915.

Brooklyn Heights is also home to several highly rated private schools, including St. Ann’s School, the Packer Collegiate Institute and Brooklyn Heights Montessori School.

The 2, 3, 4, 5, A, C and R subway lines all run through the neighborhood. Ferries shuttle people to Manhattan, and many ride bicycles — or walk — across the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Brooklyn Heights Association, founded in 1910, is the city’s oldest neighborhood association, according to its website. In 1935, the group’s advocacy led to the creation of Cadman Plaza Park on the site where the city had demolished the elevated tracks and transit station at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. In 1945, the association opposed a proposed route for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that would have run through the middle of the neighborhood; instead, a triple cantilever was built at the edge of Brooklyn Heights and topped by the now-popular Brooklyn Heights Promenade. In 1960, the association was on the front lines again, helping to defeat Robert Moses’s urban renewal plan to build luxury one-bedroom rentals on Cadman Plaza. Instead, narrower buildings and affordable, family-size co-ops took their place.

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