Walkabout: Addio, Brooklyn, senza rancor!

In the summer of 1977, fresh from college, I emerged from the GG train at Clinton-Washington and saw Clinton Hill for the first time. It was the Summer of Sam, although we weren’t aware of it at the time. New York City was a broke, dirty, gritty, hot and dangerous place. But it sure looked good to me, as I followed my friend to her third-floor apartment on Washington Avenue, a few doors away from what is known as the Pfizer Mansion. As an old house lover from childhood, I was mesmerized by it all: the city, the neighborhood and its great architecture, and Brooklyn itself. It was the first time I’d ever been in a rowhouse, and I was fascinated with the structure, the layout and the cool details still in the apartment. We walked down Dekalb Avenue to Junior’s and I had my first piece of Brooklyn cheesecake.

My friend was going to Pratt, and was renting one of those now notorious student flats where the landlord did little more than collect rent. Two days later, the ceiling in the room where I was staying collapsed right after I had left the room, covering the bed and floor with heavy plaster chunks. Had I been in there, I would have gotten hurt, or worse. Welcome to Brooklyn, sucker!

I moved to New York that fall, but ended up staying with my grandmother in the Bronx. My mother moved back to New York City, and I moved in with her, in a two-bedroom apartment in a Deco-era building in the North Bronx, the same building my grandmother lived in. We stayed there for two years. We started to look for a house in Harlem. Mom had spent much of her adult life there, and it was where she met and married my father. We spent a lot of time house hunting, at a time when Harlem was not seen as a desirable place by too many people. We fell in love with Convent Avenue, of course, and Hamilton Heights, but even then, house prices were high in the best areas.

So we decided to look in Brooklyn. Unlike today, there was no Internet, and for us, no New York Times Real Estate section. We were looking in an African American neighborhood, so here, as we had in Harlem, we turned to the Amsterdam News, New York’s oldest black newspaper. They always had plenty of listings for rooms, apartments and houses in traditionally black neighborhoods, listings no one else wanted. We saw an ad for an entire brownstone for rent, on Jefferson Avenue, in Bedford Stuyvesant, for $500 a month. We made an appointment, and made the hour-plus journey from the North Bronx to Bed Stuy.

I remember climbing the stairs at the Nostrand Avenue Station, and coming up onto the corner of Fulton and Nostrand. There was loud music playing, nothing but black people in the street, including a lot of dreadlocked Rastas, but it was a different vibe than Harlem, and certainly unlike the North Bronx, which by the ’80s was mostly Puerto Rican. We turned the corner, and there she was: the Alhambra, Montrose Morris’ iconic apartment building. It was run down, half empty and had a Blade Runner sort of decrepitude to it, but it was beautiful. We could see Girls High across the street, which my mother remembered, and streets and streets of brownstones. I knew I was home.

The house turned out to be a gem: a one-family, never-been-altered (or fixed), three-and-a-half-story Neo-Grec, with every original detail still intact. Marble fireplaces, woodwork, etched glass pocket doors, and original sink and clawfoot tub. Even the ceiling medallions and the lighting were still there. It was, in a word, perfect. We tried not to look too excited, and we took it.

Family members worried about us moving to “the worst ghetto in America,” but we never saw it that way. We saw new neighbors on a working-class block, and I don’t think we ever worried about our safety. My mother loved the house until the day she died, two years later. I lived there alone for another fifteen years, and only got a roommate when the rent got too high to handle alone. I loved it, even when the roof leaked, and it leaked a lot, or when my landlady, who turned out to be quite a piece of work, would send substance-abusing handymen to repair things, because they worked cheap. They would then come back for days, begging for money.

I got to know the people on the block. We had teachers, nurses, a mailman, fireman, court clerk, lawyers, plumbers, real estate agents, a retired cop and many more. We had lots of older people, including a famous jazz musician, and one of the sandhogs who built the underground tunnels of our city. We also had our junkies, pushers, petty thieves and pitiful cases. It was Brooklyn, the crack wars, the whole deal, but it was home. My block was peaceful, but the local park a couple of blocks away was often the scene for the latest turf battles, and I have to admit, I could tell the difference between automatic fire and a regular handgun. But no one ever tried to break in, I was never mugged, and life went on, like it does everywhere.

My landlady, who made the Village Voice’s list of 100 Worst Landlords once, would not sell me the building. She never sold her buildings, and her workmen told me she had over 50 brownstones. So when the opportunity to buy in Crown Heights came up, I took it, and moved south, still at the same subway station. Only the name of the neighborhood changed. I still miss that house.

It was here that “Montrose Morris” was born, incorporating an architect who designed in both neighborhoods, all for a handle for a blog I had discovered, a blog about a guy fixing up his house, and living in Brooklyn. Who knew where it would lead? I met people who were involved in getting Crown Heights North landmarked, and I joined up, eventually ending up on the board of the Crown Heights North Association. In the process, I learned about researching properties, and I began taking pictures of all of the marvelous details that I had somehow never really seen before. A new world opened up.

Meanwhile, Brownstoner.com was expanding its horizons, neighborhood-wise. I was learning about Central Brooklyn, and knew a lot about buildings Mr. B. would see in his travels, and after a while he offered me a job. I started out with one short column, then longer columns, then two, and then three columns. Walkabout, which started as “Walkabout with Montrose,” has been on this blog since 2009. That’s a lot of walking about, let me tell you.

I can honestly say it’s saved my life. In 2007, my career disappeared one day, and never came back. I became one of the vast numbers of middle-aged people who couldn’t find work. Resumes sent out never got a single reply. There were no interviews. Changing careers didn’t help either. I had twenty-some years’ experience in an industry that was now looking to hire people to do two people’s jobs at one third of one salary, if they were hiring anyone at all. I even got turned down as Christmas help at William Sonoma, because they said I was overqualified. I began freelancing in anything I could get, and writing for Brownstoner gave me my sanity, as well as a regular income. I was able to get a few other jobs from people who read my pieces, and a new career as a writer/researcher was born. That was cool!

But all of the freelancing wasn’t enough. Living in New York is expensive, and owning a building is ridiculously expensive. The insurance, the taxes, water and heating bills, fees, inspections, repairs; everything, in addition to the mortgage itself, is enormous. I scraped, borrowed, cashed out my 401K and re-negotiated, but it wasn’t enough. I went into foreclosure. Fortunately, I was not alone, there was a moratorium on foreclosures, and I have had time to make plans. My house is in contract, closing next week.

The reason for this piece is a culmination of those plans. In a week, I’m moving out of Brooklyn, and am moving to Troy, N.Y. If you don’t know, Troy is a beautiful little city seven miles north of Albany, on the Hudson. It used to be the second most prosperous city in America, home to a large steel industry and garment factories. Troy was called the “Collar City,” because of all of the factories manufacturing starched, detachable collars and cuffs for shirts at the end of the 19th century. It’s got some fantastic architecture, some by names I’ve mentioned here, and although it has been in the same economic decline as many other small cities upstate, like Brooklyn, it’s on the rise, with a bourgeoning arts scene, markets, music and high-tech manufacturing.

There’s so much more to Troy, including its largest employers, Rensselaer Poly Tech (RPI) and Russell Sage College. It’s on the Hudson, and near the Amtrak Station to New York City. There’s preservation galore going on up there, and in nearby Albany. Much of the city actually looks like parts of Brooklyn, as seen in the photo above of Washington Park. I’m renting a fabulous place, in North Central Troy, owned by a friend, also from Brooklyn. It’s going to be great. Look out, Troy.

I’ll still be writing for Brownstoner. There is so much going on here now, I’m sorry I won’t be around to see it as it happens. Who knew that Crown Heights and Bed Stuy would be hot? I’m sorry I won’t have my piece of the rock here anymore, but it was good to be in the game, while it lasted. I have no regrets over things I can’t control, except I’m still miffed that those people at Lotto never picked the right numbers. I’m going to take three weeks off in order to move, but I won’t leave you without Montrose. I’ve picked some of my early stories and BOTDs to share with you again, and if you are relatively new to the blog, this is all new stuff. Like the Terminator, I’ll be back.

I used to be an aspiring opera singer, so the title of my piece is a reference to that part of my life. It’s from Puccini’s La Boheme: “Addio, senza rancor.” That’s “Farewell, without bitterness, or regret.” I’ll always be a Brooklynite, whether in Brooklyn, or not. Addio!

(Photo of Washington Park, Troy, N.Y.: Rootsweb.com)

69 Comment

  • Best wishes to you, MM, and thanks for all the knowledge you’ve shared with us. We will miss you!

  • Best wishes to you, MM, and thanks for all the knowledge you’ve shared with us. We will miss you!

  • You will be very much missed in Brooklyn! I am so glad I got to meet you at a Christmas gathering a few years ago. Please give serious consideration to getting some of your columns into book form.

  • Good luck! And presumbably a good choice architecture-wise – there’s so much great architecture upstate. And it often hasn’t been renovated.

    What cheers me here is your approach to life and demeanor. I see so many posters on blogs all bitter and angered up because of what they see as unfairness, what life has thrown at them, but you just seem to be taking foreclosure in your stride and getting on with a decent plan for a satisfying life. And one with less litter by the looks of it.

  • Good luck! And presumbably a good choice architecture-wise – there’s so much great architecture upstate. And it often hasn’t been renovated.

    What cheers me here is your approach to life and demeanor. I see so many posters on blogs all bitter and angered up because of what they see as unfairness, what life has thrown at them, but you just seem to be taking foreclosure in your stride and getting on with a decent plan for a satisfying life. And one with less litter by the looks of it.

  • Thank you for your wonderful articles. Wishing you much happiness and good fortune in Troy.

  • She’s not gone, guys. She’ll still be writing for brownstoner.

    Good luck with the move. I’m sure we’ll all see a lot of ech other even after you are in Troy.

  • Strange, perhaps, but it makes me misty-eyed to learn that you’re leaving Crown Heights. And all I know of you is what you’ve written here on Brownstoner.

  • Strange, perhaps, but it makes me misty-eyed to learn that you’re leaving Crown Heights. And all I know of you is what you’ve written here on Brownstoner.

  • Can’t wait to read the new stuff from Troy! Best of luck, Montrose! I’ve made moves myself that at the time seemed emotionally wrenching, only to start another chapter of my life that was one of the best. I bet that’s what happens to you too! You have spirit and talent.

  • What a terrific entry! I am glad for Troy that you’ve landed there – it’s a terrific little city and I hope we can find out more about rowhouses and brownstones up there.

  • Oh, MM! Troy is lovely, but come back often.

  • Oh, MM! Troy is lovely, but come back often.

  • I really like Troy too.
    Great old houses and the views of the Hudson are great.
    Bring your snow shoes.

  • Your posts are the best thing on this site. I love the history and color you’ve been researching and sharing. Best wishes to you and for your new home — may you live there in good health and happiness.

  • I’m really sorry you’re leaving Brooklyn, but it’s an understandable move and it sounds like a good one. Looking forward to hearing more about your columns from upstate.

  • Brooklyn’s loss is Troy’s gain! I do hope you continue to be a prolific Brownstoner columnist, since your contributions are currently the best thing about this blog. Maybe you can help Brownstoner expand its coverage of “upstate” as well, while you work on your book — even a self-published compilation of your Walkabout columns would be worth the effort, methinks! Best of luck!

  • Good luck upstate. Funnily enough, as Brooklyn has gotten more and more expensive and precious, my friends and I often find ourselves saying, “Well, we could always move to Troy.” Really!

  • Best of luck MM! Troy is lucky to have you.
    BTW, I thought you were a shoe-in to succeed Christopher Gray when the time came.

  • I have to honestly say that Brownstoner.com is one of my favorite afternoon reads. During lunchtime as I sit at my desk dreaming of the brownstone my wife and I hope to one day own. I know it’s mostly owners that comment on the forum but the information provide here is also of good value to those who still have hopes to live the American Dream here in Brooklyn. This site has also helped me prepare of issues and challenges one might face in owning in Brooklyn. You guys really go at it sometimes with the back and forth regarding things like if a particular new development will add value to a given neighborhood. I always find the comments from Montrose Morris the most thoughtful and representative of all reasonable points of view.

    Good luck on your move and I’m happy to know that you will continue to contribute your valuable insight to this forum.

  • I’ll miss seeing you on the PLG house tour MM and really hope that the CHNA finds a replacement for you to re-start their wonderful fall tours.

    I hope there’s not to much lingering damage from Irene in your new town. When we slowly made our way home from Southern Vermont last September, on the long detour that lead through Troy, people there told us of houses sliding down hillsides.

  • Your nostalgic perspective of your life is Brooklyn is charming and personal. That’s the reason why your articles are interesting to read!

    As one door closes, another opens. Your readers, your fans, your friends will carry you across the threshold.

  • I have an affinity for Troy, as my mother was from there and is buried there.

  • Best of luck in the new digs, and thanking the good lord you won’t stop writing for Brownstoner. I also agree with Boerumbiddy (you should partner with an excellent photographer to do justice to your columns though) – I’d buy the book for myself and relatives if you put them to print.

  • Best of luck in the new digs, and thanking the good lord you won’t stop writing for Brownstoner. I also agree with Boerumbiddy (you should partner with an excellent photographer to do justice to your columns though) – I’d buy the book for myself and relatives if you put them to print.

  • I always enjoy reading your stuff on this blog. Best of wishes!

  • I always enjoy reading your stuff on this blog. Best of wishes!

  • Montrose:

    I’m devastated! What a loss for New York City! And although I do admire you for “rolling with the punches,” the punches seem totally unfair! As we undergo massive economic changes, you and other good people I know are making choices they shouldn’t have to make — not at a “certain age” — and didn’t have to make until the recent past.

    Believe it or not, knowing that you were on Pacific Street was deeply important to me. I don’t get to the old block very often, so having you there (in a house where my little brother and I played on the stoop) provided continuity with my Brooklyn boyhood, exchanging stories with you about Crown Heights — then and now — always a pleasure.

    Your piece above is one of the best you’ve ever written. Please take the time to sit and write the story of Brooklyn’s changes between the time of your arrival and now. Such a memoir, produced with your unique combination of empathy and critical eye, would be a welcomed addition to New York’s literature and valuable to students of the city well into the future. (Think of Philip Hone’s diary or Henry James’ reminiscences of New York in “American Scene.”)

    My best wishes to you,

    With affection and respect,

    NOP

  • Montrose:

    I’m devastated! What a loss for New York City! And although I do admire you for “rolling with the punches,” the punches seem totally unfair! As we undergo massive economic changes, you and other good people I know are making choices they shouldn’t have to make — not at a “certain age” — and didn’t have to make until the recent past.

    Believe it or not, knowing that you were on Pacific Street was deeply important to me. I don’t get to the old block very often, so having you there (in a house where my little brother and I played on the stoop) provided continuity with my Brooklyn boyhood, exchanging stories with you about Crown Heights — then and now — always a pleasure.

    Your piece above is one of the best you’ve ever written. Please take the time to sit and write the story of Brooklyn’s changes between the time of your arrival and now. Such a memoir, produced with your unique combination of empathy and critical eye, would be a welcomed addition to New York’s literature and valuable to students of the city well into the future. (Think of Philip Hone’s diary or Henry James’ reminiscences of New York in “American Scene.”)

    My best wishes to you,

    With affection and respect,

    NOP

    • Yes! Here’s the best book idea for you yet: a personal memoir, from arrival as a fresh-faced college grad with opera singer ambitions, to self-taught expert on Brownstone Brooklyn architecture and neighborhoods, to personal witness to, and victim of, the devastation of the economic crash — with the changes you saw in Brooklyn chronicled in the way that only you can do. Please, MM, write that book!

  • Even your geographic farewell is a wonderful and informative read. That Brooklyn could not find a way to keep you is a sad tale of what is happening here.

  • By the end of this article I was misty eyed. Ok ok, truth is, there were tears running down my cheeks.

    I’m so sorry to hear (read) you’re leaving Brooklyn (NYC). Crown Heights (and Bed Stuy) is losing one of its greatest advocates. Troy is gaining a wonderful individual passionate about preservation and community.

    Your cherished memories of Brooklyn will always be with you. You’ll set roots in your new home and create more wonderful experiences that you will apprize in later years.

    I wish you the best in the next chapter.

  • And I’m still blaming you (and Amzi) for propping up real estate values in Crown Heights and Bed Stuy :-)

  • And I’m still blaming you (and Amzi) for propping up real estate values in Crown Heights and Bed Stuy :-)

  • Thank you all, I’m flattered, touched, and moved by the comments. It’s been a rough couple of years, but as the saying goes, “when one door closes, another opens.” I’m looking forward to what the future brings. I will miss friends most of all, but thank goodness for the internet, which can bridge the miles with the press of a button. And it’s not like I’m moving to the other side of the world.

    Troy’s not all that far, so when I need to come back, it’s going to be possible. The Amtrak ride down to NY is just beautiful. I’ve already developed a great love for the Hudson River that I never had before. Another silver lining!

  • I should leave more often. I’ve never had so many comments on a Walkabout! Again, many thanks.

    • Tears for sure. I lamented the other day about this era feeling a bit like a “golden-age” for Brooklyn. Lamenting because of all the built-up passion, energy, and creative original talent is in crescendo and we know the finale is on its way. Your column, and you by extension, embody all that is special about this place we love. To lose you is to lose a bit of ourselves. I thank you and wish you the best. I know there are lots of great people and ideas and money coming our way but I can’t help thinking “there goes the neighborhood!”

      Best to you!

  • I should leave more often. I’ve never had so many comments on a Walkabout! Again, many thanks.

  • Talk about not knowing where things will lead you. I would have never thought that one day there would be this public square in cyberspace called Brownstoner. Nor that I would eventually develop a habit of coming to this public square on a daily basis- heck, sometimes several times a day — just to hear the latest words of wisdom delivered by this cool cyber citizen known as CrownHeightsProud. Of course, I had no idea back then that CrownHeightsProud would morph her online identity into that of Montrose Morris. Or that this incredibly warm and wise, always eloquent, often humorous and consistently insightful MM person would succeed in enrolling me, and countless others, in this wonderful online adult education course about so many things, but most especially about Brooklyn’s architecture, people and history.

    Thank you, MM! And, although I sigh over this goodbye, I trust you 100% when you say you will always be a Brooklynite and that you’ll continue to Walkabout Brooklyn,sharing your research and pearls of wisdom with us here in this place. Thank goodness! Meanwhile, I also know that goodbye in one place does not have to mean goodbye all over. That said, just add to me to your list of buds who are sure follow you up the Hudson to Troy, New York — both online and by way of IRL visits– for a whole new chapter of MM walkabouts. :-)

    Addio e Dio vi benedica!

  • I wish you well MM…you will truly be missed in Crown Heights North. You are definitely a gem! Muah!!!

  • How many of us nowadays are Brooklyn ex-pats? MM, DIBS, lechacal, moi.

  • Listen MM, there is nothing wrong with cashing out on a brilliant investment that you bought low and sold high.
    hope you made out well in the profits department.
    You will love Troy. There are many like-minded people there.
    You’re gonna need a car though.

  • Our collective loss is Troy’s great gain. Do not be a stranger.
    And:
    Write your book, please.

  • Thanks, MM, for all the history — the obscure corners of Bklyn you’ve brought to light over the years, and today, your own story. Onward to new upstate adventures! Troy will be great, and I join everybody in wishing you the very best.

  • Ah mon Dieu MM, we are gonna miss you profoundly. Your story is really touching and even though we’ve never met we think you are a great person. Good luck with everything and really sorry to see you leave Brooklyn….adieu ma chere MM :(

  • Could the last one out please remember to turn out the lights? TIA

    Good luck, MM – onward and upward! Have loved your posts, and glad you’re not leaving us virtually.

  • This is good luck; not goodbye, my friend.
    It is “see you soon”, not “see you later.”

    Thank you for another wonderful article.

  • So well written; thank you for reminding me to appreciate the hard times, too.

  • Troy is nice but …. Brooklyn has been so very, very lucky to have you on scene.

    Christopher Gray

  • Although I am a lifelong Albany resident, I have, for many years, traveled to the City for Municipal Art Society-sponsored (and, until a couple of years ago, Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment-sponsored) tours of Brooklyn. After discovering Brownstoner a year or two ago, I have become a faithful follower of the site and of your contributions to it. With open arms we welcome you to the Capital District. Both Albany and Troy have spectacular architecture, much of it still awaiting “discovery” and renewal at truly reasonable (particularly as compared to Brooklyn) prices. Historic Albany Foundation sponsors great tours; take advantage of them to get to know all the neighborhoods of your new home. It’s a great place to live, and we are glad to have you. Again, welcome!

  • Thanks for all the wonderful, hard work MM. You reminded me of that “Do the right thing” (step on my sneaker) scene, with your Bed Stuy narrative. Best of luck to you.

  • Thanks for all the wonderful, hard work MM. You reminded me of that “Do the right thing” (step on my sneaker) scene, with your Bed Stuy narrative. Best of luck to you.

  • MM- best of luck to you!

    Although I rarely post, I’ve been a very regular reader of Brownstoner since it was only a ‘renovation blog’ before you came on board. I wanted to let you know that your posts have been very thoughtful and inspiring. Although I am a modernist at heart, I also have a big appreciation of older buildings that you are such an expert on. Your strong voice for keeping the integrity of neighborhoods and the importance of landmarking, etc was heard loud and clear over here and definitely helped shape my overall feelings about those issues as well as help appreciate the beautiful neighborhoods and archiecture we are so fortunate to have in.

    Best of luck in Troy.. I’m sure with all the fans / admirers you have on this site, we’d be open to expanding our horizons outside of Brooklyn and learn more with you as our guide..

    Cheers–

  • Thank you, MM, for years of delightful and lyrical erudition. You really have been the soul of this site, and a frequent reminder of the rich and fascinating history of this city. Best of luck with everything.

  • Gosh, this is just devastating news. You are such a big part of Brownstoner (I’m glad you will be continuing to write for the site) and of Crown Heights (I have loved getting to know — and admire — your neighborhood via the house tours), it’s hard to imagine Brooklyn without you. Thanks for all your great sharing of architectural, political and domestic local history and for your community activism. Thanks also for being such a voice of reason on many, many posting threads. If American cities are to retain their vibrancy, they need more people like you! Good luck in Troy and don’t forget to visit.

  • Thank you for the wonderful article with your memories of coming to Brooklyn, and living here. The way you’ve handled diversity is an inspiration. Best of luck and please visit us often!

  • Very sad. Your writing brightened this place immeasurably, and helped popularize the New Brooklyn Renaissance (for better or worse.)

    I lived in Schenectady and environs for about seven years when I was first making my way in the world, and we used to look down our noses at Troy — for good reason. As I see the relative progress of the two cities over the last decade or so, though, it’s reasonable to ask: Who’s laughing now, monkey boy?

    You’ll have a blast. Enjoy the Music Hall, a not-so-hidden treasure.

    But lord, we’ll miss you here in Brooklyn.

  • The way you’ve handled adversity has been an inspiration, as well as how you’ve handled diversity (right wing nuts)!

  • The way you’ve handled adversity has been an inspiration, as well as how you’ve handled diversity (right wing nuts)!

  • MM – thank you so much for the years of thoughtful, enlightening and incredibly entertaining entries. We will miss you. Are you sure you haven’t moved to Troy Avenue – my old street? Anyway – I will be waiting for the Pigtown piece…..Au revoir

  • We will miss you, MM!! Good luck getting your footing in Troy and I look forward to much more great writing about two great old cities, the one you are leaving and the one that should now be receiving you with open arms.

  • Yes, best wishes to you. You will be very missed. Loved your walk thru Stuyvesant Heights on the MAS tour..

  • I for one will not miss you. Your departure is good news for Brooklyn and if your contributions to this blog become less frequent, that is good news for the Brownstoner. You were really never anything but a troll on this blog. The What was worth at least a hundred of you, as was the so-called “Brownstoner Troll”. Good riddance. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

  • I don’t check Brownstoner as much as I did in the old days. I’m very sorry you lost your house in Crown Heights, MM, but I too have heard good things about Troy. Save your shekels and buy a better house in Troy (or somewhere else) when the opportunity arises.