Originally known as Crown Hill by the Lenape Indians that lived there, Crown Heights has evolved into a diverse neighborhood, occupied primarily by Hasidic Jews and one of the largest Caribbean populations to be found anywhere outside of the West Indies.
Head over to Nostrand Avenue, one of the main West Indian commercial areas in the neighborhood, which is lined with stores that have been in those exact same places for generations, providing their goods and services to area residents. Kingston Avenue has similar commercial activities that support the Jewish community, and Franklin Avenue shows the most signs of change and gentrification, with an ever-expanding mix of yoga studios, coffee shops, and organic grocery stores that serve the influx of young professionals. No matter which of these areas you visit, you will find an interesting mix of businesses that you wouldn’t normally picture as existing side-by-side. It is all part of the cultural diversity of Crown Heights.
The neighborhood is bisected, from east to west, by Eastern Parkway, which is a beautiful, 3-mile-long boulevard lined with mature trees. This leafy oasis was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, famed designer of Central Park, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, and the U. S. Capitol in Washington, D. C.
You will find a mix of low-rise apartment buildings, large middle-class elevator buildings, brownstones, and some luxury buildings. Century-old architecture stands next to modern residential developments in a visually interesting mix of styles, much as the diversity of the residents exists. People who would not normally meet and mix are forging new pathways to cultural understanding by working, living, and playing together in the same neighborhood.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden. A peaceful oasis that is worth a visit any time of year. In the spring, cherry trees put on a dazzling display. In the winter, step into the warmth of the Bonsai Museum and marvel at these tiny, often ancient, miniature trees. Although the entire collection of 350 or so trees is not available to view, they rotate 30 of them at a time, to present an ever-changing display. Located at 990 Washington Avenue.
Weeksville Heritage Center. Weeksville was one of the country’s first free black communities, established before the Civil War. There is a modern museum and three of the original wood-frame homes in this community. In 1838, James Weeks, the founder of Weeksville, started buying up property in the area. The little village soon grew to be the home to hundreds, and had its own school, hospital, and newspaper. It is rumored to have been an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Today, the museum hosts tours, performances and community gardening activities. Located at 158 Buffalo Avenue.
Brooklyn Children's Museum. The museum offers programs and exhibits that highlight music and performing arts, natural science, visual arts, and world cultures. This museum brings over 300,000 visitors every year. Located at 145 Brooklyn Avenue.
Clove Road. This tiny street, running on a diagonal in the middle of a block, has a very rich, storied history. It started as a Native American trail and became a road in colonial times. You can still see some of the Belgian blocks that paved the road from those days. Belgian blocks - which are not to be confused with cobblestones - are rectangular granite blocks that were originally used as ballast for ships to help keep them balanced in the water. Clove Road was important during the Revolutionary War, when American troops used it as an avenue of retreat to get back to the safety of Brooklyn Heights during the Battle of Brooklyn. Runs between Nostrand Avenue and Empire Boulevard.
Brooklyn Museum. The site of Georgia O'Keeffe's first solo exhibition in 1927, this large museum (third largest in NYC) houses over 1.5 million works of art and sculpture. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Public Library are all found in the same area, so you can make a day of visiting these cultural sites. Located at 200 Eastern Parkway.
What You Might See
If you are in Crown Heights on Labor Day, you might see the Labor Day Carnival and the West Indian American Day Parade that takes place every year. The parade makes its way along Eastern Parkway all the way to Grand Army Plaza. The Carnival is a celebration of Caribbean culture, with live music, tasty food, and brightly colored, elaborate costumes. This event attracts between one and three million spectators and participants, making it the biggest parade in the country.
What’s In The Future
The Crown Heights neighborhood is seeing new development in the form of condos and rental apartments. As lots become vacant, developers are snapping them up and starting ground-up development projects to keep up with the influx of new residents seeking affordable housing in an authentic neighborhood. There is also a significant amount of renovation taking place in older buildings. Commercial properties are in high demand, as new cafes, bars, and restaurants seek to gain a toehold in the area. As in many NYC neighborhoods, gentrification is an issue. The influx of new residents is changing the demographics and rents are on the rise, which has resulted in the displacement of some of the long-time neighborhood residents.
What You Might Not Know
There’s gold hidden away underground, but it’s not exactly what you might expect to be stored in secret vaults. This “gold” is cheese! What? Yes, it’s true - there’s a State-licensed dairy plant that is aging cheeses from all over the world in the old, nearly forgotten lagering tunnels that are dozens of feet under the site of the old Nassau Brewery, right next to the popular Berg’n beer hall. These tunnels date from the 1850s, and are the perfect temperature (52 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity (92%) for aging cheese. It can take anywhere from weeks to years for the moist “green” cheese to dry, maturing into its final taste profile. Crown Finish Caves started its underground operations there in 2014.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Brooklyn had a thriving auto industry, centered in Crown Heights. Not only were there the usual service centers and repair shops, but there were also dealerships with impressive showrooms along Bedford Avenue. A striking remnant of that era is the Studebaker Building, located at the corner of Bedford and Sterling. It is now a landmarked building, built in the neo-Gothic style using concrete and brick, but featuring a dazzling white terra cotta facade. When the building was constructed, there were large windows that were used to display the cars. Over the years, these windows have been replaced. The building now contains apartments for the low-income, disabled and homeless residents of the area. If you crane your neck, you can still see the Studebaker wheel logo proudly displayed high on the parapets of the building.
What We Love
Easy access to Manhattan, affordable housing, many restaurants, a walkable neighborhood, beautiful historic architecture, tree-lined streets, museums, botanical gardens, the neighborly feel of diverse people coming together to create a better community, grocery stores with healthy food choices, such as fruits and veggies, and a lively nightlife on Franklin Avenue make Crown Heights an interesting and affordable place to live, offering a real slice-of-New-York experience in a culturally rich neighborhood.