The “Mystery of Montague Street” Featured on Curbed

Curbed published an interesting article on “The Mystery of Montague Street” — why does it suck? There are the usual reasons given — business owners blame the high rent, landlords blame the high taxes, the BHA and the Montague BID don’t want to blame anyone. Incoming city council member (and neighborhood son!) Lincoln Restler puts his support behind a vacancy tax. Of course, 112 Montague Street, and its totally normal, not at all out of touch with reality landlord (who may or may not be named Nathan Silverstein), are featured as well, and seem to provide a case for why a vacancy tax might not be such a bad idea:

He said he is asking $15,000 a month for the second-floor space and “more than double that for the ground floor.”

“When Starbucks first closed, I had all the restaurants call, like Armando’s. But I’m holding out for a triple-mint tenant.”

But there’s a quote I would like to highlight, from Lassen & Hennigs co-owner Thomas Calfa:

This is a bedroom community for Manhattan, and it always has been. That’s never changed. People around here will basically stay in Manhattan and do their clothing shopping and go to restaurants. It’s maybe shifting a little bit, but it’s always been like that since the 1970s.

Do Brooklyn Heights residents still feel this way about their neighborhood, 40 years later? Or do residents “stay in Manhattan” because the local options are so mediocre and bleak? And how much has that changed since the pandemic struck? Is it odd that this argument is made concerning Montague Street, but doesn’t seem to apply to more bustling “commercial” streets in the area (Henry Street, Atlantic Avenue), or Cobble Hill?

Be sure to read the Curbed article before answering!

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  • AEB

    The problem with capitalism is that it lacks a built-in alarm that would go off when people are trying to make more money than they reasonably need, to the detriment of everyone else. I would decide what the cut off figure is, case-by-case. Of course, if such a thing existed it wouldn’t be capitalism, would it?

  • Alex

    And even with all its flaws, capitalism is still the best among all other economic systems.

  • Son of Jazz

    Sounds like Lassen is afraid of a little competition in the “mediocre sandwiches from the 70s” category.

  • Alex

    I don’t go to Manhattan to eat or do quick shopping. It is a little frustrating though that if I want to eat at a great restaurant or grocery store I have to take a Citibike to Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens.

    I moved to Brooklyn Heights 2 years ago and it’s always been a dream neighborhood for me, but man I was so disappointed with how depressing and strange Montague St is. As a single 30-something, Henry St for me is definitely the only hint of a bustling restaurant area.

  • Remsen Street Dweller

    Not when greed and corruption are destroying democracy.

  • Alex

    Greed and corruption happen in both socialism and communism as well. Even more so on the latter.

  • Remsen Street Dweller

    My point is for a well-regulated capitalism.

  • AEB

    Maybe we should just accept the fact that Montague has become, and will doubtlessly continue be, a kind of decoratively dressed, occasionally vacant mall. Accept that we oughtn’t expect it to house interesting shops and good restaurants, or useful services like a butcher, which are more likely to appear and thrive in other, less expensive parts of the nabe.

    I know it seems a waste to consign Montague to mediocrity, but it seems a losing battle to continue to press for better amenities (or even certain basic necessities) when economic realities–not to mention greed–are what they are.

  • Jorale-man

    I also don’t go to Manhattan to eat or shop. The options in the surrounding neighborhoods are just as good, if not better, than those in the Financial District, Tribeca or Battery Park City (the closest Manhattan ‘hoods).

    Three other observations from the article:
    – I’ve never heard of half of the people the writer is name-dropping in his introduction but I’m guessing they’re important.
    – Silverstein sounds like a major jerk with zero regard for the neighborhood (sorry, but true).
    – We all need to support the *good* places on Montague, such as the incoming new French bakery. You vote with your wallet.

  • A neighbor

    Lincoln Restler is right to suggest exploring a ‘vacancy tax’ to combat people like the owner of the former Starbucks building, who keep stores vacant to reap tax benefits. Vacancy taxes have been very effective in combatting the problem in cities in California and elsewhere.

  • StudioBrooklyn

    It’s not even close to being the best. It is, however, the only one most of us have experienced, and when we’ve learned about other economic systems there has been much conflation with—and emphasis on—corrupt/incompetent/outright malevolent governments that merely figureheaded economies with those systems.

    The same may be said of capitalism, but if that’s the case then we should be careful to distinguish between a defense of capitalism in some hypothetical vacuum and a defense of the whole status quo paradigm that we are all enjoying *so much* when we *all* have *so many* options for things like high speed internet, affordable housing/healthcare/education, accessible healthy food, and of course childcare. (Sarcasm very much intended!)

    Communism and socialism, meanwhile, have actually been tested and found successful, and when capitalism stans start popping off about “Communist Russia!” and “Communist China!” they’re engaging in propagandist misdirection away from relative (to capitalism) successes such as kibbutzim and the Shakers, which of course have fallen by the wayside, but not because of their economic systems.

    But sure, if whatever *all this* is working well for you, that’s great. Most of us are not as lucky or privileged.

  • Heightsguy77

    Communism was tested and found successful? Where was this? Were these any of examples of “tested and successful”:

    Also, forgive me for bringing up family, but you referred to yourself at the end of the paragraph as not being “lucky or privileged.” Didn’t you live in Brooklyn Heights for sometime? Also, I thought I remember you stating that one of your children went to St. Ann’s school… Living in brooklyn heights and/or sending your kids to one of the most sought after schools (PS 8 is also sought after, btw) seems pretty “lucky and privileged” to me.

  • Andrew Porter

    I worked from home since the mid-1970s (and am now semi-retired), but never had the income or inclination to patronize many of the places on Montague. For instance, don’t drink, only went to a few of the restaurants there. The ones I favored all closed (the latest and most beloved being Teresa’s).

    The office supply place on Court is now a Cannabis dispensary; the bakeries I liked are all gone, as are the bookstores (including BookCourt on Court). Also, as I get older, I find myself more limited in how far I can walk. Primarily shop for food at Trader Joe’s, Sahadi’s, Key Food, a few other places. Bank on Montague, go to CVS a lot.

    Medical conditions limit what I can eat. Increasingly, I’m aware that I was never of the demographic that is optimal for a possible Montague Street customer.

    Courtesy the Municipal Archives, here’s a 1940 photo of a Montague Street that’s literally not there any more:

  • Alex

    Actually I survived communism/socialism so I wasn’t privileged. The privilege I have now is having granted asylum in the US, a country where I can make use of my talent and live a better life. As a Hispanic immigrant, I worked my way up and went from making 15k/year to 96k.

    The only privileged one here is you, defending communism while sipping artisanal coffee and living in Brooklyn Heights. Please get educated and talk to real survivors of shitty economic systems.

  • StudioBrooklyn

    This isn’t about our individual experiences with capitalism— though I’ll respond to that as well, also for HeightsGuy. Whatever capitalistic status quo we’re seeing here in the States falls so incredibly far short of the aspirations collectively stated by its citizens, including those with even worse experiences elsewhere. We could house, feed, educate, provide healthcare for, and even provide meaningful opportunities to be productive for every person in this country—the resources exist in overabundance—but capitalism fundamentally disincentivizes any of this.

    That you were able to immigrate here and become successful is a welcome exception to rules that prevent many, many others from experiencing what is colloquially known as the American dream (which apparently includes taking Ubers to the ER after a serious injury so as to avoid the $1700 bill?). Sorry but hard work in this country simply does not translate like a baseline formula to a better quality of life without some serious motivating factors. If it did, the wealth in the United States would be concentrated around nurses, preschool teachers, apartment building custodians, and the people who work in restaurants.

    You know nothing about my situation, and this isn’t about me, so it’s probably best if you refrain from presumptuousness there. ;)

  • StudioBrooklyn

    I’ll refer you to my earlier comments: when political parties kill people it’s not because of an economic philosophy of sharing the means and fruits of production. You might want to dig through that Wikipedia article and see if you can find the place where it states otherwise. Meanwhile, we could probably find a few neighbors in Brooklyn who died because they couldn’t afford housing or healthcare, even though we’ve got this great economic system (whose default mode is to vertically integrate the military with global corporate interests, which never incentivizes wars such as the longest one the United States has ever been in or anything).

    I’ll forgive you for bringing up family after I clarify a few points: living in Brooklyn Heights did indeed indicate that I, too, enjoyed a certain amount of privilege. I would never deny it, and even individuals with privilege can advocate for the many without. In fact some believe they should.

    And no, I did not ever have a child at St. Ann’s, but you must be aware that the private schools around there offer scholarships to kids who can’t afford tuition. That’s how we got to experience two years of having our kid at a private preschool, and even that was pretty difficult for us, financially. But worth it! Would be nice if every kid got such a preschool education, but capitalism really doesn’t incentivize such nonsense.

  • StudioBrooklyn

    *oops that should be “mitigating factors”, not “motivating”. Disqus won’t let me edit on my phone.

  • TeddyNYC

    I think too many flaws are starting to be exposed and some appear to be detrimental to the greater good of this country.

  • aeshtron

    IMHO, capitalism is the only economic system that is compatible with human nature. Attempts at widespread adoption of other economic systems will be sidestepped by the black market which is capitalism at it’s best and worst. Capitalism is and will continue to destroy the eARTh and it’s inhabitants but it is unavoidable because I want more.

  • TeddyNYC

    I’ve heard that many times over the years from other people who recently moved to the Heights. In the beginning, they vent their frustration that not all of their needs can be fulfilled by staying within the confines of the Heights, but eventually they adapt to the realization that you need to utilize other neighborhoods to do that. The silver lining there is it’s good for your health as you walk or bike more than you normally would. You also get to interact with more different people which is always good (except during a pandemic perhaps).

    I think some of us actually appreciate that the neighborhood is quieter than other neighborhoods and not a evening/night destination which would be the case if our restaurants were better/more popular. Let’s leave that to neighborhoods which are within walking distance from here. As for better quality grocery stores/shopping options, okay that would be nice.

  • nomcebo manzini

    It’s an interesting, seemingly well-researched article. I have some questions, however…. Much is made about “the lawyers” and their employees (presumably on Court St.) once keeping more and better eateries afloat.

    I’ve lived in the Heights a LONG time…. Long business lunches were, I think, even longer ago than that; I don’t think that most landlords are stupid, so this strikes me as a loser in terms of how we got here/what the future holds.

    (And that’s making an increasingly untenable assumption that people – in large numbers – will EVER head back to buildings that surely are at best half empty at this point.)

    The article makes only ONE reference to internet shopping and NONE to what seems to be “flavor of the year” – most food coming out of restaurant kitchens is delivered by Grubhub and a couple of others. (I think I’ve heard that the restaurant is lucky if it keeps 60% of “the check” under that circumstance.)

    I have to guess that the Curbed reporter is 30-something AT MOST. Has he ever worked on Wall St. in an office? Not very likely. I did, and the Heights as “America’s first suburb” was definitely the norm. Very few bankers knocked off at 5 PM and shopped at Century 21 or even Brooks Brothers after work. They seldom worked on weekends, so that “story line” is also creative (but fact-free) writing.

    The “new guys,” “the future??” – A “head shop” and a “maternity clinic” and a bakery – even Jack the Horse wasn’t so venal as to raise $65K from people who so very much want a bakery close by that they’ll bankroll one.

  • CassieVonMontague

    Could be worse. See New York Times, March 25, 1932


    Montague Street, one of the oldest and best known thoroughfares in Brooklyn, is technically unknown to the city of New York. It may be very much a public street to 2,600,000 inhabitants of Brooklyn, but to the city officially it is just a private right-of-way.

    The city had said, in effect, that it knew of no such public street as Montague Street. An old map of the Hezekaih Pierrepont holdings showed that Montague Street was part of the Pierrepont property in 1855.

    Luckily for us, a street reverts to the city if devoted for public use for more than twenty years.

  • William Gilbert

    I’m a new resident of the Heights having only lived here for 32 years, but I am SO, SO tired of constantly hearing about the Manhattan connection crap and how Heights residents want to shop there. If I wanted to live and shop in Manhattan, I would move there. Two of three decades ago one could find some interesting places to eat and shop in the Heights, but at some point, and with the approval of the Heights Association, it was decided that Montague Street needed “clean” tenants that didn’t produce much garbage and refuse, you know sort of like real estate places and banks and phone stores, nail shops etc. Landlords loved it – chain stores, high rents and no food. This made the street a wasteland where no one wanted to go except the workers and jurors who were here from 9 to 5.

    Where I go to shop and eat is Cobble Hill, Carrol Gardens or Park Slope. That’s where there are interesting restaurants, shops and Mom and a Pop places. Atlantic Avenue is far more interesting than the millennial newbie places in the Village. Why in heavens name would I want to get on a subway to get a meal or buy something I can get here in Brooklyn. Montague Street needs bakeries, restaurants, bookstores, butchers and not what it currently has. It is on life support and has to really be saved before it is too late.

  • CassieVonMontague

    I’m glad the article pointed out that this has been covered before. I can find NYTimes articles from the 70s bemoaning Montague Street’s conditions.

    Whenever you find yourself asking, “Why isn’t this area cool?” or “Why aren’t there any good places around here?” the answer is usually this place isn’t for you. Most of Montague St isn’t for dads pushing “$1,400 Bugaboo strollers” and “moms wearing Rachel Comey jumpsuits.” It’s for city workers and Court Street lawyers. Walk around Foley Square, and it will start to look familiar. You will see the same stores, same run-down eateries, and even the same empty storefronts. There’s even a Lot-Less Closeouts nearby.

    I can understand why the author is confused. She is Lysandra Ohrstrom. She comes from one of the wealthiest families in Virginia, and was the former best friend of Ivanka Trump.

  • Son of Jazz

    Or maybe the answer is “too many old people invested in keeping things the way they were”. I can find NY Times articles from the 70s for that, too.

  • Jorale-man

    The thing is, don’t city workers also want better food options? There seems to be a working assumption that they’re all people with tastes for the mediocre, regardless of income or socioeconomic status.

    Would they not shop at a branch of Union Market if it moved in? Or a bakery equivalent of Bien Cuit, or a bookstore equivalent of Books are Magic (both found on Smith Street)? I don’t know, but it seems like Montague is just stuck in a rut that transcends a lot of other issues.

  • B.

    Not every neighborhood has within its borders everything we need or want. Admittedly, Montague Street was nicer sixty and fifty years ago, and the new-ish clothing shops do nothing for the area, but surely it’s a better street than most. It has less noise, less grime, it has at least a few eating places and grocery stores. It has a cat cafe and a place to buy cakes and bread. Atlantic Avenue with Sahadi’s and Trader Joe’s is a stroll away. Cheer up. You could be living in Flatbush.

  • TeddyNYC

    Even when I was a kid during the eighties, Montague was better. Anyone else miss the donuts from Sinclars?

  • Mark

    Not sure if that’s the intention or not, but it definitely isn’t for stroller pushing parents since they can’t get into half of the business on Montague because they aren’t easily accessible. As a stroller pushing dad, I’d rather walk to another business district than deal with getting a stroller up and down stairs when running errands…

    Having stores on multiple levels is a charming looks, but it’s quite a pain… that has to affect business at least a little bit.

  • Mike Suko

    You write well, but the thoughts are ??

    OK, I’ll admit that I never heard of either Bugaboo or Rachel Comey, but who ARE these “city workers” and “Court St. lawyers” you reference?

    I’m sure there ARE some, but Shake Shack probably gets 90% of the “city workers” who – do they? – work in the world’s ugliest office building atop the 4 train stop. (Those who don’t eat at their desks – my guess, the large majority!)

    Oh yes, I can see a “Court St. lawyer” hiking to where Teresa’s used to be or where the Thai place is? They’re just rolling in money and want “fine dining” enough to hike for it.

    Face it – if (places like Teresa DID IT) a restaurant on Montague doesn’t get ANY (50 covers a week, minimum) Heights RESIDENTS’ patronage, it’s dead in the water – if it’s West of Clinton St.

    Banks, opticians, fast food & similar chains and 1 or 2 each of stores in other niches. Not pretty, but neither is most of what’s on the internet or streamed by Netflix.

    I blame most if it on etailing and food delivered on mopeds. This must resemble what village life went through somewhere long ago and far away when things like shoes started to be factory-made. Our (smallish) bad luck that we’re living through paradigm change times!

    On the brightest of notes – I had brunch at Vineapple yesterday, and it’s clear that a GOOD business/service (presumably not being extorted for rent) can thrive in Bklyn Heights – and anywhere else! If only the BHA could “tell time!”

    Instead, we have realtors and landlords “buying lottery tickets” – that’s what hoping that Spectrum wants to be on Montague Street and will pay what the clown owning the old Starbucks is asking amounts to.