North Dakota is the New Brooklyn

Around 1976 I bought an old brick carriage house in downtown Brooklyn. The seller held the mortgage, a balloon due in 10 years. He sold all his Brooklyn property that year. “Nobody is ever going to move to Brooklyn ever again,” he said. 

Carriage House fence instalation 3

c.1984 = Getting an iron fence put up in front

The interest rates were 9% and went up to 11% a month later. Thank you Jimmy Carter. Also the year of rationed gas. But I didn’t have a car.

No bank went near downtown Brooklyn.  On pretty and hazardous tree-lined streets around us were the famous old Brooklyn Brownstones,    three stories, back yards, selling for about $35,000, and in terrible shape.  The neighborhood was built in the 1860’s chiefly to house the engineers and workers on the Brooklyn Bridge.

The old homesteads fell on hard times at the turn of the century. Families moved out, houses got divided into rooms for rent. Sailors and tailors and upholsterers and shopkeeps moved in.  Some of the mafia boys from the adjacent Italian blocks. Light manufacturing. Couple of small groceries. Then in the 60’s the hippies, painting over the original mahogany paneling and marble fireplaces in psychedelic pinks and greens. And in the 70’s, me.  Young couples, small families. And me. 

We increased slightly in number, and spent every waking minute sharing renovation tales and paint remover recipes and talked with amazement about the parlors with 14 foot ceilings that had hidden pockets alongside the floor-to-ceiling windows containing hand-made shutters.                                   And walls hiding marble fireplaces, hand made plaster ceiling medalions and cornices, and pure mahogany three story banisters and sculpted chair rails, wainscoting, and 2 foot baseboards around original wide pine and oak floors. The scale of everything was fine. You live with 10 foot 100 year old, 4 inch thick oak doors that open into rooms with floor to ceiling windows, you feel good about yourself.  We bloody well worked our butts off. 

The real national fever of renovation hadn’t started and there was no Home Depot and rare instruction manuals.  The first one I read said, Make sure when you remove a wall it is not a supporting wall.

DSCF2236My old carriage house (about 1700 square feet in two floors plus a full basement and flat roof with an inside staircase to it) didn’t have much fancy stuff. But the downstairs, which I used for a bedroom and studio had 13 foot ceilings, 14 inch thick brick walls true as a ruler, and back windows facing a row of gardens.  The tin ceiling was some chore to dislodge.DSCF2239 I was chewing 100 year old dirt for a month. But I exposed huge beautiful beams. Eventually replaced a plasterboard front wall with a brick arch and carriage doors with antique hinges; replaced the floor and 12 basement beams; installed 11 new windows upstairs and put in three skylights (dragged home from the fabulous dump) and a new roof (myself) and opened up two of the five chimneys and fireplaces.  None of it done brilliantly, but damn, what an education.Sparhawk girls room carriage house

When the first brownstone down the block had been two years in the fix-up and brand new kitchen and plumbing installed, well it sold for $60,000 and nobody, I mean nobody, could believe it.  Which changed things. In the 20 years I lived there, every house in my neighborhood, (newly designated ‘Boerum Hill’ after the old Dutch farmers who got there first), was transformed.  The last estimate I read for the current worth of my old carriage house is $1.8 million.


Somebody Else’s Carriage House Now, Fancied Up, recent photo

I had started working for CBS News in Manhattan about four years after I bought the place.  I stopped telling anybody where I lived.  They’d get this blank dopey look on their faces and say, “Where?” followed by ,     “You mean, the OTHER side of the Brooklyn Bridge?”

That sure changed but it took 15 years and absurd Manhattan rents.  Now movie stars have moved to Brooklyn, brownstones sell for $3-4-5 million bucks. Incredible. 

Me and my fellow pioneers back in the day saved all those old houses from falling down and never got much more than blisters and house proud from the incredible sweat equity.

About a week ago I read about North Dakota. The whole state’s turned into boom country. They have more jobs than they can fill.  Bigger salaries than you can spend. Great pioneer types and more men than women and it sounds a helluvalot like the old wild fabulous west and the gold rush. 

They’re pumping a million gallons of good USA oil a day out of the froze-up North Dakota ground, and feeling like kings and queens and having a good time, and feeling like Americans. 

Which set me to thinking that if the dumb rules and sinking economy of city really pissed off the occupants enough with their skyrocket rents and miserable commutes and high crime and no Big Gulps and no salt in restaurants and smokes costing 12 bucks a pack…..well suppose the pissed off populace just vacated, left their miserable showy empty lives and headed to about anywhere in America and plunked themselves down and built their own economy with rules and housing people could actually live with. And have some fun. 

Which led me to thinking that North Dakota, and maybe a lot of other un-tainted states might be today what Brooklyn meant for all those pioneers, me among them, forty years ago.

When I was about 14 years old and meeting my wild, sea-faring runaway red-headed Grandpa Alfred for the first and last time, he told me, “You don’t have to put up with anything in life you don’t like, little girl.”   I still believe him.


Grandpa Alfred as a Young Buckaroo, 1912


4 thoughts on “North Dakota is the New Brooklyn

    • It is! Could I wield a crowbar!! My good neighbor and Brooklyn cop Steve, had a house two blocks away and we helped out with each other’s houses (he still has his brownstone!) I look largeish in those pictures but I was wirey thin muscle, just off the billboards. The picture with me next to the hole in the wall (my 2 German shepherds Bambi and Skooter there you can’t really see) was to break through the downstairs which had two outside entrance doors, one leading up one down. And turned out NOT to be a retaining wall. Totally fabulous to have exposed the beams but oh my God! weeks of work and a filthy mess. And hands and arms cut to bits with the old rusty sharp tin, nails to pull out every six inches and about 10-12 feet to reach the ceiling. I may be making this up but I think we both got tetnus shots. What a time. Thanks, John. Glad you liked seeing this.

  1. A wonderful story that tells as much about you as about the times-they-are-a-changing all the time, the American spirit is alive, what freedom of action really is, moving-on to better places, and following those old dreams. Youth! Pioneers are very much needed these days. It is good to know that this country still has room for them.
    Here in Idaho that wave has just about passed, Industry and high-tech have established themselves, people have started to fall into complacency – but the neurotics and congestion of the masses have not arrived yet. And like the Dakotas, much of this land is still wild. It does pay to live in a very big country, so big that it is a continent. Please write more : it is American history that you recount. Thank you.

    • Still amazes me that I can have SO MUCH history! Thank you, Vera, for your encouragement. I think the world goes through constant renovation, pushed by the people in it. We try something new and old and futuristic simultaneously, looking for wonderland til we find it. America’s still very good at re-inventing itself.

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