As President of the Brooklyn Heights Association and a longtime resident, Tom van den Bout’s (@tvdbout) got a whole lotta BH pride. He could wax poetic about the neighborhood, its people, and its prime location for hours. So it was with some reluctance and a sly smile that he divulged his least favorite thing about the Heights.
“The parking and the traffic,” he confessed, giving what is probably the standard reply for anybody who has tried—and failed—to find a spot in the region. A car owner, van den Bout and his wife move it all around, all the time. “Guilty, guilty, guilty,” he said, and sighed.
Tan and healthy looking with his silver hair combed back but slightly askew (it was raining, in his defense), van den Bout, an architect by day, sat in the Henry Street Tazza on a wet weekday evening looking like any other Brooklynite. And rightly so; he’s lived here for more than 20 years. But he’s one of the more integral members of this community, constantly immersed in the highs and lows of life in the Heights.
“It probably takes up a day a week of time,” he said of his role as president of the BHA, the oldest neighborhood association in New York City. As 2010 marks its centennial year, van den Bout and his fellow BHA staffers have been busier than usual planning the events for “Celebrating a Century.”
It has been “a phenomenal amount of work,” said van den Bout, an Austin, Texas native who has retained a small amount of twang. So far, they’ve held a “Hollywood in the Heights” film retrospective, and a photography exhibit called “Brooklyn in Prints.” But their biggest event of any year—the annual spring house tour—is fast approaching.
“We try to have a good variety,” van den Bout said of the handful of houses that hundreds of eager visitors trek through each May. “If they’re all old, traditional houses then it kind of gets to be the same. It’s nice to have a new kind of modern house, and then a really good restoration.”
There are different types of houses too: uncommonly wide brownstones; homes with beautifully lush gardens; row houses with striking views of Manhattan. Whatever their distinguishable characteristic, these noteworthy abodes share at least one trait.
“They’re all historic,” said van den Bout, owing that in Brooklyn Heights, that’s an almost impossible feature to avoid. An architect, he’s got some favorite buildings of his own: the Historical Society, St. Ann’s Church, and the Franklin Building, which was recently converted to condominiums.
The BHA also serves as advocate for Heights residents, equipped to handle everything from complaints about rats and graffiti to more serious issues like crime prevention. In his 11 years or so working with the BHA, van den Bout has witnessed many times over the positive impact just one person can make.
“It’s so abstract to get involved in things that are at a bigger level, in a national organization or something like that,” he said of why he would encourage people to join BHA. “This is like the most sort of intimate involvement you can have, and you can really change things.”
Though they’re emphasizing the Association’s history this year, van den Bout and the BHA staff are also pondering the future of Brooklyn Heights. One imminent concern is how traffic in the area will be affected by plans to begin reconstruction within the next five years on the BQE cantilevers that run below the Promenade.
If the city isn’t “very studied” about how and when they divert cars and trucks during the upgrades, he cautioned, “That traffic will come directly into the Heights.”
As for the neighborhood at present, van den Bout has few complaints. “It’s sort of amazing,” he marveled. “I still haven’t quite figured out why it is the way it is.”
Maybe, he proposed, it’s the Heights’s physical location in the borough: it’s on the edge, with clearly defined borders (the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge, Downtown Brooklyn, and Atlantic Avenue) that reinforce the strong sense of community.
“So many other places you just walk through on your way to things,” van den Bout said, and paused. “But here, you end.”