In the life cycle of neighborhoods, Flatbush has almost come full circle. What began as a series of swanky developments in the early 1900s, luring white, upper class residents from Brooklyn Heights, is now attracting professionals and ex-Park Slopers to the stately homes of “Victorian Flatbush” — a term that’s only 30 years old.
Yet as early as the 20s, Flatbush has attracted wave upon wave of immigrants — first Jews and Italians, followed by Caribbeans, and most recently Southeast Asians and Pakistanis. Today it’s the most diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn. It’s also the most confusing, geographically.
The boundaries differ depending on who you speak to (or interview), but roughly, Flatbush begins at Parkside and Ocean Avenues at the southwest entrance of Prospect Park, includes some of Coney Island Avenue, spans east to Nostrand Avenue, and either “The Junction” — the intersection of Flatbush and Nostrand Aves. — or Kings Highway and Flatbush, or Avenue H mark its southern edge.
To add to the confusion, 12 small communities including Prospect Park South, Ditmas Park, Fiske Terrace, Wingate, South Midwood, Midwood Park and West Midwood are considered part of Flatbush proper, too (and yet Midwood itself is not).
Rather than quibble over borders, though, we wanted a sense of the neighborhood from real-life residents. As part of our ongoing “What’s it Like There?” series, we interviewed three — a couple who has lived in Flatbush for over 12 years, and a more recent transplant. Not one of their perspectives is meant to be the final word on life in Flatbush. But they all echo how much it’s changed.
We begin with Scherrie Williams, a 29-year-old public school teacher, and her beau Courtnay Herman, a 34-year-old comedian and social activist.
How long have you lived in Flatbush?
SW: I was born in Freeport, Grand Bahama. Came to Brooklyn when I was ten. I used to live on Marlboro and Newkirk, then Newkirk and Coney Island. Then I moved here, Ocean and Beverly in 2003.
I like Flatbush, it’s convenient to everything I need and the apartment is big and affordable.
CH: My parents came to Flatbush from Trinidad for education and financial betterment. I was born here — it’s my home. I like the Caribbean Diaspora’s representation here. To be able to go outside and buy a ‘double’ — a small breakfast roti with curry chickpeas and potatoes. You can’t get that in Arizona. They have no idea what curry is!
What if you don’t want curry?
SW: We walk to Kensington for non-Caribbean food, but there’s a Japanese restaurant [Sushi Tatsu III] up the block and there’s Tex Mex [Tex Mex Fresco] and there’s a Spanish spot [La Cabana Rodriguez Restaurant] that you can sit and eat, maybe have drinks.
What changes have you noticed in the last five years?
CH: I’m starting to see different people in the neighborhood. For the first time in life, my neighbors are Caucasian. You see them jogging, skateboarding, food shopping, with children in strollers, walking their dogs. This building got equipped with security cameras — [the] paranoid Caucasians [are] moving in.
SW: I don’t think we would have cameras in the building if there weren’t a larger percentage of white people moving in.
News Flash: White people have always lived in Flatbush.
SW: Yeah, but before it was like ‘Oh my God, did you see that white person?’ They weren’t living in my building.
CH: A lot of people I know are being squeezed out. Property owners and building management have stopped renting. Now they’re going co-op or condo and raising rents to an exorbitant rate.
How much is a one bedroom in Flatbush?
SW: My niece is looking and the going rate is $1000. The apartment next to me has been renovated with a dishwasher and microwave. I don’t know, but I’m guessing it’s probably $1400.
How much is your rent?
SW: When I first moved in it was $750, now we pay $856.
Do you have any gripes, besides gentrification? Is the neighborhood safe?
SH: I don’t feel unsafe. Even when I was bartending coming home at 4am from work. But what I don’t like is the crowdedness of Flatbush Avenue. And it’s loud. I hate the noise.
CH: I dislike crime — any crime, any violent crime. Growing up, I’d hear stories, but it hadn’t happened to me. I’d like to think what happened was random.
CH: I got jumped coming home from work. I was walking from Eastern Parkway and Nostrand Avenue, coming down Nostrand. I got to Fennimore, minding my business when one dude ran up behind me and that was itâ€¦ my face broken in three places. I believe it was a gang initiation. It was random.
Why do you think it was random?
CH: They didn’t ask for money. They didn’t say ‘remember us.’ They just kept punching me in my face. I had a broken cheekbone, had surgeryâ€¦ staples, cut face, wasn’t pretty.
Glad you’re okay. You know, that incident didn’t occur in Flatbush. It was in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.
CH: It’s Flatbush, its all Flatbush. Anything after Crown Heights south is Flatbush ending at ‘the Junction’ going from Ocean to maybe New York or Brooklyn Avenues.
Do you have any advice for people thinking of moving into the neighborhood?
CH: Open your mind, take a trip hereâ€¦ you won’t wanna go back.
SW: Flatbush is up and coming — it’s the place to be. It’s expanding. Every train and busses galore stop in walking distance to my apartment. The multiplicity of landmarks means you can’t get lost — maybe turned around but not lost. You can shop for clothes, appliances — it really is a very tucked in community, but it’s loaded with riches.
Sustainable Flatbush’s Anne Pope shares her take on the hood in Part II>>
Interview by Jacci Leslie. All photos by Jacci except Newkirk Ave (jump rope) photo courtesy Sustainable Flatbush.