“Baltic Street, between Fourth and Fifth Avenues.” It’s what I tell the pizza delivery people or the car service people when I’m giving directions. But it’s not strictly true. I actually live on Baltic Street between Fourth Avenue and Gregory Place. If I told people that, of course, no one would ever be able to find me. So “between Fourth and Fifth” it is. But there’s still an interesting story behind this anomaly in the street grid.
One of the topics of this blog is going to be the block I live in. If you examine the history of Baltic Street between Fourth and Fifth, you can see all the history of New York City. Of course, you could say that about most blocks in the city. But this one is mine.
I’ve actually researched a lot of the history of this block already. I found a story about a man who, distraught over a lost love, committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid. I’ve seen a photo from the late 1940s that shows a tiny sliver of the block—every building it shows is gone now. I’ve seen demographic reports that span decades.
I will talk about all of that in later posts. What I want to discuss right now is the current state of the block, and how it got that way.
The north side of the block is pretty typical brownstone Brooklyn, although the empty lots here and there make it look like the mouth of a hockey player that stayed in the game perhaps a little too long. A few years back, one of the brownstone’s façades started to slip down and the building had to be demolished. A spectacular fire on the northeast corner led to the building there being demolished as well. Other brownstone-shaped empty lots have stories that are unknown to me. But most of the block is occupied.
The south side of the street—well, it’s strange. It sort of looks like row houses, or rather like someone made a plastic mold of row houses and poured concrete into it. It’s clear that these buildings were built quickly and cheaply, and a look at PropertyShark reveals that they were built in the 1980s—not a good era for architecture or quality-built housing.
There’s a story here, and I think it’s a story of what’s happened to a lot of Brooklyn.
Once, this stretch of Baltic Street was much like the next block over—warehouses, factories, small tenement buildings. A schoolyard on the southeast corner made the block unique—but it also made the block a target.
As happened a lot during the 1960s, someone somewhere thought the school needed to be improved. And that the best way to improve the school would be to buy up all the warehouses, factories, and tenements on the block, demolish them, and build an enormous school building and schoolyard taking up the whole block.
Maybe it was a good idea on paper, but they only got as far as buying the buildings and demolishing them. The lot remained empty for over a decade—I can’t find any pictures but apparently it was covered in rubble, “like postwar Berlin,” as a neighbor put it. (The New York Times article there, behind the paywall alas, is also the source for most of this information.)
In the mid-80s, the project to build these odd cookie-cutter “row houses” began. They were meant to sell to middle-income families at $137,500 (roughly $310,000 in today’s dollars). Butler Street was cut off at Fourth Avenue, and Gregory Place was built to give Butler Street residents a way to get to their homes.
Things have changed a little bit since then. During the last housing boom, my landlord said he had been offered a million and a quarter dollars for the building. (He decided not to sell, because it “seemed like a hassle” and “housing prices never go down.”) Rents in the area go for around $1500 a bedroom. Not quite middle-income anymore. I’m lucky that my landlord hasn’t raised my rent to market value—yet.
Gentrification in action, I suppose. But also a story of good intentions gone awry, and there are many stories like this all over the city.