At first glance, Prospect Avenue between Fifth and Seventh Avenues appears to be doing better than ever. The air is quiet. A few kids from P.S.10 head home after school. Large, shady trees line the sidewalks. Nearby, new bars and restaurants offer endless dining options.
And yet the remaining few old-timers, who’ve spent thirty to fifty years on this block, stand in their doorways and grieve what they see as the slow death of their community. They refer to themselves as “The Last of the Mohicans.”
Among these lifelong residents is a woman named Brenda Aloba, who has lived on Prospect Avenue for thirty years. Aloba says she and her few remaining longtime friends have experienced gentrification as a slow and painful unraveling of the community life they once knew. When Aloba talks about her community thirty years ago, she describes a demographic that was largely Hispanic and Asian, with few white people. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Aloba’s block had more Hispanics than whites as recently as ten years ago. But between 2000 and 2010, Aloba’s street lost twenty-six people of color and gained twenty-five white people.
The map at the top shows Aloba’s block in 2000, when the majority of the population was Hispanic/Latino, and the map below it shows the shift to a majority white population in just ten years. While many of the longtime residents work multiple low-wage jobs, and some receive food stamps and other government assistance, the current median household income for Aloba’s block is $110,625. The average age on the block is 35.6, meaning that several longtime residents have lived on the street longer than the newcomers have even been alive. The “Last of the Mohicans” are officially a minority on their street.
One big difference in the neighborhood, they say, is the way the place sounds. Or rather, doesn’t sound.
Prospect Avenue is relatively quiet, but it hasn’t always been this way. There used to be block parties, they say, loud ones. Gladys Vantassel, who has lived in the South Slope neighborhood since she was nine months old, can trace the first neighborhood noise complaints back to 1993, when the block parties—two per summer—came to an abrupt halt after some neighbors called 911 to complain about the music. “The block parties would be on the side blocks, on this block, or 16th Street. Back then everyone was family and friendly, knew everybody for a long time, and they would go to each other’s block party,” Vantassel recalls. After the complaints in 1993, Vantassel says, “There was never another one again.”
In the years since that final party, old-timers like Vantassel say they have noticed a slow and steady reduction in neighborhood noise tolerance. And there has been a corresponding decrease in daytime and nighttime socializing outdoors, according to residents like Brenda Aloba and Donna Alvarado, who have lived on the street for nearly thirty and fifty years, respectively.
It wasn’t just the block parties or impromptu gatherings that led to complaints, however. The rise in noise complaints in Park Slope and the abrupt halt of summer gatherings on this block came one year after a music section was added to the existing city Disturbing the Peace laws in 1992, according to Al Fierstein, president of Acoustilog, an acoustic consulting company based in Manhattan. And as newcomers moved in and new bars were built on Fifth and Seventh Avenues, increased foot traffic to those bars nearby led to extra noise on the street at night. And increased noise eventually led to increased complaints
Noise complaints to New York City’s 311 hotline have increased so rapidly over the last several years that a design firm called CartoDB decided to map publicly available 311 noise complaint data in 2015. According to this interactive map, Aloba, VanTassel, and Alvarado’s section of Prospect Avenue yielded an extremely high number of 311 noise complaints from sidewalk/street noise in 2015, earning a dark orange square between Fourth and Sixth Avenues. Complaints run so rampant that longtime residents like Frank Diaz say they feel like they can’t sit on their front steps anymore and catch up in a normal talking voice with the few people they still call friends.
As evidenced by the high frequency of 311 noise complaints this past year alone, there are still people making noise outside at night. The difference now is that those noisemakers are newer residents who frequent nearby bars, while longtime residents stay indoors. The “Last of the Mohicans” tend to see this as another kind of slow death—the dissolving of relationships, often nurtured on the street.
At least according to Vantassel and Aloba, the street is a mostly-quiet, rather tense environment lately. They refer to it as “a dead zone.” Vantassel says that, aside from the drinkers who stumble home at various hours of the day and night, “Once it gets dark, you don’t see anybody out, it’s like a deserted neighborhood.” Both say they won’t go out at night or early in the morning because they “don’t know who’s out there.”
In fact, while there is a general consensus that the neighborhood has less drug activity than it used to, the longtime residents say they don’t feel any safer. And while Alvarez acknowledges that the neighborhood has changed—and in some ways for the better—she admits that her unease stems from a lack of knowing her neighbors. “I used to know that crackhead and that dope fiend that was in the corner, that would say, even though he or she was high, ‘Hey Donna how are you? You need help with those bags?’ I felt safer with them,” she said. Alvarez says she is not suggesting the neighborhood should have the same drug activity it once did, but that at least when it did, she knew who was living next door.
Less than ten years ago, Aloba and Alvarez say they would hang out in Slope Park, a small playground on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 18th Street, with their friends—sometimes until 11 p.m. in the summer—watching their kids play. Both women describe a different scene today. They say police kick people out after dark and strictly patrol the area. According to the NYC Parks Office, the rules of the park have not changed. But it seems to the longtime residents that the rules are more strictly enforced today than they were, say, ten years ago.
An official at the 78 Precinct office said that people cannot be in the park after dusk, and if they are, they will be issued a summons. Alvarez says her daughter once had to pay a $55 fine for throwing a cup in the trash can in Slope Park in the evening because she was technically in the park after dark. A police officer dressed in plain clothes was standing behind a tree, she says, and pulled out his badge when her daughter approached the trash can. “She had to go to Redhook Visitation Place to pay the fine,” Alvarez says, adding that the officer gave the daughter’s boyfriend, who was with her at the time, a summons also.
Crime is actually down in Park Slope. In fact, according to DNAinfo.com’s most recent Crime and Safety Report, it is down 76% since that final summer block party, from 1993 to 2010. Yet a decrease in crime does not necessarily equate to a sense of personal security for all residents. Gladys Vantassel says she has not felt safe on Prospect Avenue for fifteen years, due to a combination of deserted streets and dark streets—the trees now block most of the lampposts, she points out. She says that, in some sections of the street, “It’s almost pitch black.”
Vantassel’s unease also stems from an incident ten years ago, when a man hit her in the head with a gun and mugged her a few blocks from her home, splitting open her head. In the years before that incident, she says, the neighborhood felt safer to her, despite the statistics: “There were more people out, on the stoop at that hour,” she said. “It was much more like a community, a family, that everyone looked out for each other, stood up for each other. Now, nobody’s out.”
And not all crime is down. Aloba and Alvarez cite a recent surge in attempted assaults: the attempted rape of a 34-year-old woman on June 26 on 16th Street, about a six-minute walk from their apartments on Prospect Avenue; another rape attempt on July 2 was reportedly the fourth attempt of rape within two blocks of Prospect Park since April.
Part of what the “Last of the Mohicans” around Prospect Avenue lament is the decline of products and services they can afford: Alvarez and Aloba cite Bravo Supermarket on Fifth Avenue as the only remaining grocery option for them. And in a changing rental environment, of course, the “Mohicans” also worry about losing their apartments. The fear of being replaced by a tenant who can pay several thousand dollars in rent per month keeps Aloba up at night, she says. “You get sick, I got bags under my eyes.” Alvarez shares a similar fear. She had to get rid of her home phone to cut back on expenses. Since she had to recently start paying a water bill, she conserves as much as she can.
Last Thursday, an elderly woman died in the apartment above Vantassel’s. She was one of the last remaining elders on the block. Each day brings another unraveling of the way things used to be. No more two-for-ten pie specials at Lenny’s. Mimi’s ninety-nine cent store has been replaced by a kickboxing gym. The bird’s eye view of Manhattan at the Fourth of July rooftop parties is now blocked by apartment building 287. Most of the longtime Prospect Avenue people are either dead or in another town by now. Those left say they are scraping by, one day at a time. Still, the “Last of the Mohicans” will always have one thing that urban displacement cannot strip away: The memory of how life used to be.