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Brooklyn Heights: Lena Dunham's reported neighborhood marks 50 years as NYC's first historic district

"Girls" creator Lena Dunham may be the most famous artist reported to be living in Brooklyn Heights in recent years, but the neighborhood has a rich cultural legacy.

Over the decades, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Carson McCullers and Hart Crane all lived in the prestigious neighborhood that is famed for its pre-Civil War homes and a promenade overlooking the East River. Truman Capote, who wrote the best-seller, "In Cold Blood," while living in a basement apartment, later famously began his memoir with "I live in Brooklyn. By choice."

Today, those bygone writers might find a lot familiar about Dunham's neighborhood, thanks to a fight to preserve its architecture and character that culminated 50 years ago in its designation as the city's first historic district.

A colorful history

The struggle to designate Brooklyn Heights a historic
Photo Credit: Brooklyn Historical Society

The struggle to designate Brooklyn Heights a historic district is the subject of a commemorative installation at the Brooklyn Historical Society. The society and the Brooklyn Heights Association have also reissued the seminal book about the neighborhood's architecture, Clay Lancaster's "Old Brooklyn Heights, New York's First Suburb," that helped make the case for its historic district designation. In his survey, he counted more than 600 buildings that were erected before the Civil War in the neighborhood, and more than 1,000 that had been built before the 20th century. A map of the proposed district, pictured here, was drawn up by hand.

Deborah Schwartz, president of the Historical Society, said the designation was "a very big deal."

"It is kind of a monumental, pivotal moment changing forever the possibility of New York City having communities being close to what they were when they were built," she said.

Since then, more than 100 neighborhoods throughout the city have been designated historic districts, and the fight to preserve more neighborhoods continues apace as residents work to contain development.

Need to preserve

The original model for preserving city neighborhoods, arguably,
Photo Credit: Newsday / Sheehan

The original model for preserving city neighborhoods, arguably, is the one that took place in the mid-1950s for Brooklyn Heights.

Otis Pearsall was among the Brooklyn Heights residents who led the movement to preserve the neighborhood. It was during those years, he recalled, that young people began to move into the neighborhood because of the "tranquil aesthetics" and what were then affordable prices.

As a new resident, though, he said he realized the "community was in big trouble."

Threatened by demolition

Photo Credit: Newsday / Jonathan Fine

"There were a number of sources of demolition, destruction and real threat," Pearsall added.

Robert Moses, known as the "master builder" of New York, whom neighborhood activists had successfully rebuffed over a plan to bisect Brooklyn Heights with the BQE, was by the late 1950s steering a plan to clear several acres in downtown Brooklyn to make way for a new apartment building and shops. There were also proposals to expand Cadman Plaza and revamp the Civic Center. Some homes in the Heights were also being demolished or deteriorating and being replaced by buildings that didn't fit with the existing low-level structures. All of these trends were eating away at the neighborhood's integrity.

A book details neighborhood

In the face of these threats, Pearsall, who
Photo Credit: Brooklyn Historical Society

In the face of these threats, Pearsall, who was a lawyer at the time, and other young lawyers, bankers and architects banned together as the Community Conservation and Improvement Council. The group also learned of the existence of the state Bard Act that allowed localities to pass laws to protect landmarks. "It was the passport to creating a Brooklyn Heights historic district," Pearsall said. The group also asked Lancaster, an expert in American architecture who lived in the neighborhood, to help out by doing a survey of the neighborhood, something Lancaster had been considering, Pearsall said.

It took nearly a decade for their work to pay off. In April 1965, Mayor Robert Wagner signed into law the landmarks law and, on Nov. 23 of that year, Brooklyn Heights was designated a historic district by the newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission. Although residents of other neighborhoods were also looking to establish historic districts, it was Lancaster's detailed book that helped to support the Brooklyn Heights' residents claims that the commission ultimately used to make its decision.

Success

Pearsall, who still lives in the Heights, calls
Photo Credit: Brooklyn Historical Society

Pearsall, who still lives in the Heights, calls it "the finest surviving microcosm of old New York."

It's a low-rise community, he said, "where people walking down the street tend to know each other" and, with the promenade, overlooks "the finest man-made view of the world."

"The change that has taken place in terms of popularity of the Heights is totally remarkable," he said. "Everyone wants to live here. And for good reason."

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