The Fall and Rise of Prospect Heights

Since the 1960s, Prospect Heights has seen its share of lows and highs, and blogger Jerry Walsh was there for it all.

Italians love being Italian. The Irish think that everyone wishes they were Irish themselves. People of color are proud to be Black, Asian or Hispanic. When asking a person what their ethnic background is they will usually give you a two word answer such as; Italian-American, Irish-American, Black-American or Asian American, etc.

Prospect Heights is also two words. And those of us who call this neighborhood home are just as proud as an ethnic group. We may not refer to ourselves as Prospect Heighters or Prospect Heightonians or even Prospect Height-Americans yet we are equally proud to announce to anyone who asks that we are indeed from Prospect Heights. It wasn't always like that around here.

I grew up in this neighborhood as a young boy through my adolesence. I was an altar server at Saint Teresa of Avila R.C. Church on Sterling Place and graduated their boys' grammar school. My family didn't move out of this neighborhood until after I graduated from Saint Augustine Diocesan High School on Park Place in 1969. It was during that summer that my mother looked down the barrel of a hand gun as she was being robbed while standing on the stoop of the Sterling Place apartment house where we lived until that time.

During my college years I continued working in the Washington Avenue hardware store () that I had worked in since I was 12 years old. I continued moonlighting there while I was employed at Merrill Lynch. I finally bought the place in 1976.

I can tell you that this was a pretty tough neighborhood in the mid 1960's through the second major NYC blackout in 1977. That was the final devastating blow for Prospect Heights.

For a decade and a half our country was dealing with the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. There were race riots in Watts, Los Angeles. The police beating of Rodney King created more civil unrest which reached the streets of Prospect Heights. Crime in Prospect Heights was rampant. Conflicts were racially motivated.

The 1977 blackout sparked looting in Prospect Heights which seems to have capped a period known as "White Flight." For a decade and a half, white residents and businesses left the area by the droves. Many apartment houses were abandoned. It wasn't safe to walk the streets. Neighborhood pride went out the window and the windows were getting boarded up.

But then an interesting phenomenon took place. Savvy businessmen began to quietly buy those boarded up and abandoned properties. Another new Prospect Heights term arose, "Real Estate Warehousing." The properties remained boarded up waiting for better economic times. Some of the properties were even renovated but still left boarded up as in a "warehoused" condition. This condition lasted nearly a decade until the Stock Market crash on Black Monday in October 1987. That was when the real estate renovations of the warehoused properties went full force in Prospect Heights. It made better sense at that moment in time to invest in bricks rather than stocks.

When Mayor Giuliani took office in 1994 the crime statistics in Prospect Heights took a turn for the better. With the close proximity and easy access to Manhattan and the mayor touting how safe the city is, the newly renovated, formerly warehoused properties became very attractive. It suddenly was "smart" to live in Prospect Heights. We have been on an up-tic ever since.

Yes, you can be proud to come from Prospect Heights. Neighborhood pride is a good thing.

What's your view?

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Adam Rabiner May 24, 2011 at 05:26 PM
Thanks for the history lesson. I'm proud to have lived her for 6 years. With the imminent opening of Ample Hills the neighborhood just keeps getting better!
Ian M McGrath May 24, 2011 at 06:12 PM
Very interesting. I hope those warehousers got full value when they sold to Ratner (for those who did)! It's unfortunate that some of the PH renaissance was trampled on by Marty & Bruce's NBAspirations. My impression had always been that Prospect Heights was for awhile kind of no-man's land between Fort Greene/Crown Heights and Park Slope. That's at least how it felt living on Dean Street and 6th avenue in the late 90s (in a building now demolished by Ratner!) but that was right on the edge of the tracks, a little different from the areas that have continuity with Crown Heights.
Chris Owens June 13, 2011 at 08:37 PM
My parents bought the house on Prospect Place where I was raised in 1959. It's still "the white house" with no fence in front; it's still in the family. With the exception of college and a few years in other parts of Brooklyn, I have lived in Prospect Heights all my life. I am a graduate of P.S. 9 where I had the best music teachers ever, but I didn't stay in District 13 for middle school -- as the options were pretty bad back then (Rothschild JHS ...) There were all kind of efforts to sever PH from Crown Heights and attach it to Park Slope and Community Board 6. Looking back, I have mixed feelings about those efforts. I've seen alot of changes, but, the late 1980s (post-market crash) saw the resurgence of the neighborhood as "desirable." At that time there was a demand to have the old 80th Precinct building on Washington Avenue become an annex for the 77th Precinct operations. In the early 1990s, before COMP-STAT, neighbor Francis Byrd (also P.S. 9) and I started a newsletter that analyzed crime statistics within the Prospect Heights sectors of the 77th Precinct. Published by our fledgling political club, the Paul Robeson Independent Democrats (PRIDE), the newsletter infuriated some, but was loved by many more. Every month we would easily distribute 5,000 copies at the 7th Avenue, GAP, Bergen Street and Eastern Parkway stations. People were nervous about crime, but they also planned to stay in PH so they wanted to be empowered. We need more of that today.
owen joyner June 22, 2011 at 08:05 AM
fascinating - i got slapped around by the brothers at st teresa's when i went there for religious instruction from ps 241- left ny 4 good during the lindsay days - wound up in new orleans, another great old port city- botanic gardens are what i miss most - also would love to see an old menu from michel's - do you sell them at the hardware store ? owen joyner


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