Ghost of Brownstoners Past – 1970’s The Landlord

Hal Ashby’s 1970 film The Landlord explores the “brownstoner” movement through the eyes of a naive dreamer played by Beau Bridges. Its climax takes place on Columbia Heights as seen in the photo above. While we discuss the brownstoners of yesterday and today at the Brooklyn Bugle, we thought it would be fun to talk about how Columbia Heights looked back in 1970 here. What’s changed?

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  • Jeffrey J Smith

    In 1970 there were Still some very small one and two room apts
    which you could find on Columbia. I’m not sure if there were still
    actuial rooming houses, but there were rooming house like bldns
    and apartments.

    I tell you what, the hill leading up to Columbia Hts was TWO way
    and I Had an Oldsmobile 98 bored out with a 3/8″ or more stroke.
    It pulled like an absolute steam engine.

    I would get at the bottom of the hill at Fulton with my friends watching and Drag Uphill(!) spinning my wheels doing a classic burnout all the way…the BMW and other sports car efite types were very offended at the display of power

    By the time I got to the top of the hill I would be doing something like 70 MPH or more…The car would jump the final crest go briefly airborne and land. I always had a friend with a CB mobile to make sure no one was in the street when I hit the crest over which I couldnt see…

    But one day, I got back to the office and we had hired some Viet
    namese refugees and to help with thier orientation into US society
    we had let them watch our “demonstation” of Americanism on Columbia Hts…all of them also had just arrived and were just being exposed to American TV. Their supervisor who was also Vietnamese was surrounded by his workers who were speaking to him in hushed by a highly energicic manner.

    After the finishedd speaking to #1 Vietnamese as we called him, he came to me wide eyed as if he didnt know how to handle what
    he felt he had to ask me.

    He said “They say that you drive like Duke of Hazzard!!!!!

    But when I spoke to him further, I found that they thought Duke
    of Hazzard was an American who’s first name was Duke middle
    name was of and yes, they thought his family name was Hazzard.

    No matter, they learned about a great feature of American life and culture that day; a burnout delivered by big block power

    Its America folks, you CANT beat it…..

    Yeeee Haaaaawwww-

  • Jorale-man

    Two things stand out in the photo: The most obvious is there’s an abandoned VW bug on the sidewalk with its doors open. Also, looking more closely, the brownstones appear to be pretty worn condition – perhaps they were SROs or rooming houses.

    I imagine 1970 was the start of NY’s dark era – by a decade later it probably looked even worse. Even so, I’m reminded of the scene in Woody Allen’s Manhattan where where he goes to buy the convertible from someone on one of the fruit streets. You can still tell there’s a lot of charm in the streetscape.

  • GHB

    I’m pretty sure that the “abandoned” VW was part of the film…

  • Demonter

    It was seedier along the fringes of the neighborhood…abandoned cars and trash strewn about. Down towards the river was a no-go after dark. Generally not too rough just shabbier in places. I recall Columbia Heights being pretty good in early 70s…the views of the remaining working piers had a work a day grittiness. Alas…all gone. Now we have the tourist helicopter noise as an new form of pollution and environmental degradation.

  • Jorale-man

    @Demonter – interesting points. I always wonder if my block (Joralemon near Clinton) was fairly seedy once. Some of the rental buildings around there still have a slightly more shabby appearance than other blocks in the area.

    I think Homer did a previous post once excerpting a NY Times article from the mid 70s on the deplorable state of an SRO on Pierpont and Hicks. It talked about all the prostitutes and drug addicts who lived there and how it scared all the area residents. Times do change!

  • Poldi Tonin

    I lived in the Heights during 1954-1967. It was a great neighborhood. I still call it home. That is why I subscribe to this blog.
    The Heights was safe, clean and populated by good people. Could take walks along the promenade at late hours until the curfew was established. Watched films being made there.
    Lived on Joralemon Street at corner of Garden Place.
    Then lived on Hicks Street at Love Lane. Very convenient to all of the Heights shops. Enjoyed shopping at Meunier’s on Montague which was above the hardware store and across from Hamburger Stop.
    Paul Meunier also taught ballet and tap for many years at the Montague St. place. Began store in front window area and it grew to take up all the space. Dance classes were then held at St. Ann’s.
    It seemed everyone had to drop into Meunier’s to meet and greet and hopefully to shop. The store was later moved to the area of the hardware store.
    Paul was also the best host for Sunday brunches and holiday dinners. Everyone enjoyed his company. He possessed an amazing green-thumb. Many a sick (dead) plant was brought back to life when brought to him for a miracle cure.
    Sam’s used books was the best place in town to spend an afternoon, My extensive library is full of books purchased from Sam. Some still smell of the dust.
    Father Priest (from Holy Trinity on Broadway) and his wife were entertaining couple and folks enjoyed their company.
    Oh my, the fun we had in the Heights as young adults. The Heights was the home to the famous; and soon to be famous such as Charles Kuralt. Egalitarian then.
    Sad to hear that the neighborhood has changed so much and is
    now unsafe, etc.
    Forgive if too long.

  • bornhere

    I’ve lived here all my life, and my “good old days” go about as far back as Poldi’s.
    References to the seedy aspects of the Heights always astound me; although the short-lived SROs did nothing to enhance the neighborhood, the 60s and 70s were generally the best years here, in my opinion (except for the outrageous losses on Fulton and Henry Streets for the Cadman thing).
    In the 50s, the “Big Playground” was not a great place to be, but I remember feeling totally safe there in the 60s, when I would take my babysitting charges down to splash in the sprinklers and swing on the “baby swings.” I also recall loving to roller skate on the northwestern stretches of Columbia Heights, because the Watchtower crowd had installed new sidewalks (clearly, I had a limited sense of the need for preservation then).
    Atlantic Avenue served as a sort of forcefield, but I was never afraid to walk from Friends (then on Schermerhorn) back to my house in the north Heights, even at night.
    The Heights, probably like so much else, was more “constant,” for want of a better word, in the “old days,” and was a wonderful place to grow up. It still is a great area — but it seems to me it is now more “area” than “neighborhood,” with all that the word means.
    The piers were, as Demonter mentions, “gritty,” but they were a great adventure, and there was something simply “authentic” about them. I do suppose the park is an improvement, but it seems more “invented” than “evolved.”
    Yet, I’m still here, memories and all.

  • Demonter

    Brooklyn Heights never suffered the drastic decline and decay that Fort Greene experienced in the middle to late 20th Century. That beautiful community deteriorated to a complete skid row slum by the early 1970s. Brooklyn Heights felt that peripheral pressure but never slipped into absolute urban decay. A genteel shabbiness possibly, with a well worn charm at the lowest ebb.The Heights always was and always will be Brooklyn’s best neighborhood. (To me and many others.)

  • Landlord

    ah, the 70’s. it seems that those who describe the heights as being shabby then are the newbies. they haven’t a clue. all of bklyn have been ruined since their arrival.

  • Demonter

    Many areas of Brooklyn are better now than they were 40 years ago…some are not. (DUMBO in 1970?)

  • Demonter

    Atlantic Avenue was shabby in the 1970’s…the edges of the North Heights were grungy and filthy. A half century of renovation and community concern has had a positive effect on Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Park Slope and Prospect Heights.

  • John Wentling

    The scene from “Manhattan” was shot in front of 55 Cranberry – I was there during filming of “The Landlord”, the mother of a schoolmate was the wardrobe mistress, got to meet Beau and hang out on the set, the VW was definitely a prop. The building on the (SW?) corner of Cranberry and Columbia Heights was the “tenement”, although most of the street scenes in the movie were filmed elsewhere in Brooklyn.

    BH wasn’t shabby in the 70’s – it was just a much more diverse and FAR more interesting, lively neighborhood.

  • epc

    Which house was used for Three Days of the Condor?