Telescopes and Kaleidoscopes, or Blocks I’ve (Re)Discovered While Running

The best thing about marathon training — and long runs, generally — is that distance becomes a feature instead of a deterrent. And with that distance, comes the thrill of chance discovery. I run the same general outline but at some point the lights or a thickety glimpse propel me one or two or ten blocks over and I find myself someplace new, and stunningly enchanting. A place like Albemarle Terrace, which dangles like a pocket fob off an otherwise architecturally unassuming strip of 21st Street in Flatbush.

albemarle-terrace

Listen, I like brownstones and regular ole brickstones just fine. I live in one; I’m surrounded by them; they are sturdy and, with greenery, charming, and plenty of them have at least a few endearing furbelows. But sometimes, a girl just wants to pretend she lives in Notting Hill-crossed-with-Georgetown, and when she does, Albemarle Terrace cheerily solidifies that fantasy. The street is hobbit-sized, and so are its residences: a few dozen chubby brick row homes with pedimented dormers and arched doorways with beautiful leaded windows. The doors are painted cherry or black; the second-floor shutters are robin’s egg or forest green. The windows and doors and shutters take up most of the homes’ exteriors, which adds to their Bagginsy charm.

Albemarle Terrace

According to StreetEasy, The Americans uses Albemarle Terrace as a stand-in for Georgetown (SO I WAS RIGHT!), and the terrace’s origins are cinematic as well: it was built, in the late nineteen teens, by a silent film production company, who rented it out to visiting Hollywood stars. Albemarle has a sibling called Kenmore, but I have not explored it and StreetEasy tells me its stock is English Garden City, which are not my aesthetic jam. (Too Tudor-y — and not in the Jonathan Rhys Meyers vein). Sorry English Garden City!
The first time I found Albermarle, it was winter, or the dregs of it; my soul had been warmed by the gleaming red door and scrubbed schist belfry of the old Flatbush Reformed Church, and then Albermarle snuck in before the coffee snow and shreds of chip bags could chill it back down. I marveled, but quickly, without noting the street’s name or precise location. And then I forgot all about it until a few weeks ago, and the second sighting was more thrilling than the first. The street’s bower in full dapple and the starring ivy and geranium boxes lent the doors a dishy bit of femininity and a couple of kids were drawing their own pastel city in chalk. I left them to it and got back on Bedford and clanged it through Ocean and onto Church, where I experienced a thrill not of discovery but of a sort of kaleidoscopic reacquaintance.

I lived at the intersection of Church and Ocean the summer after I graduated college. I chose the apartment because it was cheap — $900 for a large studio, in a building that had once been grand, or had the bones of being so. It was my first foray out of brownstone Brooklyn, and I have vivid memories of walking down Church the morning after I moved in. Church Avenue was all discount home and garden stores and wig shops and Crown Fried Chicken and cavernous wet markets selling foreign vegetables and deflating fruit for a song. As I walked, my dismay percolated. The Chinese takeaway had bulletproof glass protecting its counterman, as did the liquor store. There was a Western Union and a payday loanshark. All of the signage was plastic, and garishly colored. THE FONTS WERE UGLY. My coffee options were limited to bodegas and a Baskin Robbins-Dunkin Donuts. The spinach was limp, the mangos wore flies; everything appeared sticky or smeared or dirty. Great was my relief when I turned onto Rugby Street and caught my first glimpse of Ditmas hedgerow.

I would like to say that as the summer wore on, I grew to love Flatbush, but I did not. My grip on real adulthood was tenuous; I craved visual testaments to its legitimacy, and the neighborhood offered none. I turned instead to Ditmas; staked Cortelyou as my Main Street, drank gin fizzes in the twinkle-lit backyard of The Farm on Adderly, ate warm hummus with ground lamb at Mimi’s and schlepped half a paycheck’s worth of produce and bulk-bin grains from the Co-Op back to my studio apartment.
Eight years have passed since that summer. This time, when I threaded down Church I saw life being lived, vibrantly, outside. There were at least 10 tropical fruit carts and almost all of them had customers. Two big women in floral shifts played cards in the on-sale outdoor recliners. Spanish drifted into Jamaican-inflected English (is anything warmer?). Little kids pooled, as ever, in front of the ice cream truck. Thanks to Robert Sullivan’s wonderful, moving article about the privatization of public space in Downtown Brooklyn, the plastic-signed storefronts struck me as testaments to small business and true entrepreneurship: exempting the payday loan places, they filled the needs of their community, and cheaply.
After Church, I did dip into Ditmas, and Albermarle, with its allee of oaks and oblong, utterly unnecessary — and thus delightful — grassy medians — was a rejuvenating rebuke to the 90+ heat index. But then I came back to Church. One of the outdoor chairs was empty, but I didn’t sit in it. Instead, I ate sliced mango with lime and hot sauce and drank a paper cup of sugarcane juice. Then I got on the B and was home in twenty minutes.

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