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The Evolving Name and Boundaries of Greenwood Heights

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Some neighborhood names appear to be jokes. Some have stuck around for centuries, despite changing connotations. Some shift with the winds of gentrification. Welcome to Blurred Lines, in which writer Keith Williams of The Weekly Nabe studies New York City's changing neighborhood boundaries.

The area of Brooklyn sometimes called Greenwood Heights is no exception to the trend of renaming neighborhoods to increase real estate sales potential. Located somewhere to the northwest of Green-Wood Cemetery, with tony Park Slope to the north and the ethnic Sunset Park to the south, the name strikes many as a new contrivance of the broker biz.

Yet the term is rooted in history. An 1846 Brooklyn Eagle article touted a new ferry service from Manhattan to the mile-long Great Pier at the nascent burial ground. Among the perks of this route were "facilities for communication with the groves of Greenwood heights, and the lovely bay of Gowanus" (Superfund status not yet included). At the time, Green-Wood rivaled Niagara Falls as the top tourist destination in the United States. The cemetery was one of the few large green spaces available before Olmsted and Vaux went on their park-building bender in the latter half of the century. It was even a hit with residents of that rival to Kings County, Manhattan. By 1866, it was supposedly "the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon the Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in [Central] Park, and to sleep with his fathers in Green-Wood."

Where was Greenwood Heights, though? Ironically, Prospect Park was authorized by the Legislature in 1860 "upon the range of high grounds known as the Prospect or Greenwood Heights," according to the Times. And Greenwood Heights Protestant Union Church, dedicated in 1886, was located at 41st and 7th?on the other end of the cemetery from today's neighborhood, in what is inarguably Sunset Park. (In 1896, renamed Greenwood Heights Reformed Church, it would sell its land and move to 45th and 7th, where it stayed until the 1970s; that building is now home to a Head Start.)

Perhaps, then, Greenwood Heights was the term for the elevated area linking Brooklyn's three highest points: Sunset Park, Battle Hill (site of the Minerva statue), and Mount Prospect (then known as Prospect Hill and home to a reservoir). It's difficult to tell, because in the early 20th century, the name appears at random. In 1907, a "Greenwood Heights League" petitioned for a subway station at 40th Street and Seventh Avenue (it would be built at 38th and 9th). "Greenwood Heights Realty Co." bought a lot at 39th and 8th in 1911. A committee hosted an "Old Home Week" around Thanksgiving 1921, and the Greenwood Heights Nine lost a close baseball match to the Monarch Crown AC at Kings Highway in 1924.

It was in the 1980s that Greenwood picked up some currency among realtors, although it had yet to be disjoined from its neighbor to the north. In 1985, a "Greenwood Heights Association" offered Greenwood Condos in Park Slope South. (A studio was yours for the price of $42,260, with $140 monthly for maintenance.) A 1986 development called Greenwood Terrace billed itself as "Park Slope's Newest Development!" despite its location on 22nd Street, a block from the cemetery.

The Times, perhaps sick of the extrapolation, pilloried the name of Martin Scharf's 1987 development, Villas at Park Slope, insisting that it was located in a "fringe area" called either Park Slope South or Greenwood Heights:

Community officials, however, say the site, on the block between 32d and 33d Streets from Fourth to Fifth Avenues, in fact lies in the Sunset Park section. And a spokesman for Brooklyn's topographical bureau said these sections are all just a ''real-estate thing'' and are not formally delineated on any map.

That's right: a full three-quarters of a mile from what was?and still is?considered Park Slope.

As for the neighborhood's boundaries, some longtime residents have always seen the Prospect Expressway as a natural line of demarcation; a group called Revitalization of the Southern Area of the Slope used the highway as its southern boundary in 1986. Yet exceptions pop up here and there?one active listing tries to push Greenwood Heights north to 16th Street.

But where does Greenwood Heights turn into its forbear, Sunset Park? As recently as 2007, the jury was out. But a 2011 article in the Times and Concerned Citizens of Greenwood Heights agree on 36th Street, flush with the Cemetery. (The Times extends the neighborhood to the water, which doesn't really jibe with the "Heights" part of the name.)

What spurred the growth of this neighborhood? Rezoning and gentrification are top suspects. In 2003, height-restrictions were placed on most blocks of Park Slope down to 15th Street; these were extended through 24th Street in 2005. With demand outstripping supply, newcomers moved even farther south, rolling back Sunset Park with them.

Aaron Brashear, whose 23rd Street building faces the cemetery, started Concerned Citizens of Greenwood Heights in 2004 after a developer purchased several properties on his block. "Our neighborhood owes a lot to Green-Wood's emergence as a cultural destination over the past seven years," he said. Since the second zoning change, the group's focus has shifted to quality-of-life issues and the preservation of the area's diversity.

"We're still a working-class neighborhood," Brashear said. But as the neighborhood has attracted those who before might have picked Park Slope, he feels there's been a trade-off. "Now everyone's getting married and having kids," he told me. "There's a real sense of family here, but there's not so much of a stoop culture anymore."

Another thing the neighborhood lost along the way is the hyphen in its name, which disappeared in the transfer from cemetery to neighborhood. The Times had something to say about this back in in 1868:

"[T]he Trustees of the Cemetery insist upon the public understanding that the ground is not Greenwood, but Green-Wood, meaning what these two words impress the mind with, rather than the more commonplace and unromantic idea furnished by the one word." Perhaps our broker friends should have studied their history before they recycled the name.
· The 1891 Battle Over a Trolley Along Prospect Park West [Curbed]