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What's New Around Historic Fort Greene (Part 1)

Downtown BK: From the 17th century til today, it has been second to Manhattan (nee New Amsterdam) as a place for investors to park cash. We walked the area both to absorb its history and to see what's new.

Our tour guides: New York Historical Tours' Kevin Draper and Eastern Consolidated's Adelaide Polsinelli and Ben Tapper, whom we snapped in Fowler Square. We'll start with a fun urban planning fact. Kevin tells us small building-less plots like this, called fire breaks, prevented the spread of fires like the one that destroyed pre-American Revolution Downtown NYC. This one, once named Lafayette Square, was renamed for Gen. Edward Fowler (whose statue stands guard), who commanded the Fort Greene regiment that played a pivotal role in the Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg. He lived at 178 Fort Greene Place, now part of the Atlantic Terminal parcel.

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All the way back to the region's original European settlements, investors would have bet on Brooklyn, considering the ample land and commercial competition between the Canarsie tribe and Dutch settlers, Kevin says. When the City of Brooklyn pushed for and succeeded in erecting the Brooklyn Bridge (above, as rendered in 1892 by Currier & Ives) in 1883 to encourage Manhattanites to do business across the East River, it backfired. “Everyone went the other way,” Kevin says, and New York City annexed Brooklyn in 1898. But the Roebling-designed bridge was still a monumental achievement. Its 276-foot towers put Manhattan's 50-foot buildings in stark relief.

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But, boy, are people coming back. At the corner of Flatbush and Fulton, we snapped Brooklyn old and new: Dermot's almost-finished apartment building at 66 Rockwell and the Landmarked-both-inside-and-out 1 Hanson Place, historically known as the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, farther down Flatbush. Some also call the property, Brooklyn's tallest, the dentist's building for all the medical tenants that have occupied space there. (Filling the dentist's building shouldn't be hard.) Canyon Johnson has remodeled the interior of the 1929-vintage building into office and medical condos.

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Just behind the Dermot building, work is underway on the 200-key Marriott rising at 95 Rockwell to serve Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the rest of the BAM Cultural District. (Instead of ice dispensers, Marriott might want to give away guitar picks and blank sheet music.)

And one block farther north is the parking lot where the New York Hotel Trades Council & Hotel Association of New York City will build the 180k SF 620 Fulton, including a health center that'll serve 35,000 union members.

And that's where the new construction stops. North and west, the neighborhood looks much like it has this entire century. But that doesn't mean investment has stopped, too. Across Fulton, on the west side of the street, the last details of a renovation at 647 Fulton are taking place. Urban Glass art studio and BRIC Arts/Celebrate Brooklyn (best known as the people who put on summer concerts at the Prospect Park Bandshell) share the 95-year-old property, formerly the Strand Theater Building. They occupied the second and third floors (the first was too deteriorated for use) until last year. After renovation, the entire place reopened in October, including a ground-floor glass showroom, which helps the artistic venture connect with the community.

Do not try this at home. Urban Glass executive director Cybele Maylone tells us only the super well-heeled could operate a glass-blowing studio at home with such intense equipment. So shared, subsidized studio space is a must. Robert Rauschenberg and Kiki Smith have worked here, and Dale Chihuly is on the advisory board. The Brooklyn Cultural District became official just last week, and this year is BAM's 150th anniversary (it's the country's oldest performing arts academy). Other claims to fame for the Broadway of Brooklyn, according to Kevin, are the Movie Palace (one of the first theaters constructed with acoustics for concerts as well as movies and now part of Long Island University); BAM's 2,000-capacity Opera House, which opened in 1908; and the Theater for a New Audience, which opened a new theater in the fall at 262 Ashland Place.

Look for Part 2 of our tour of Fort Greene in two weeks.

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