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Ditmas Park Tour Trivia & Pub Crawl Round-Up

New Yorkers think they’re too cool to take a tour. They already know everything about where they live, so why pay somebody to show them the same old stuff? Well we proved that notion wrong on Friday night when all four Levys banded together to produce a Ditmas Park Tour, Trivia and Pub Crawl. Co-hosted by the Ditmas Park Blog, we had 40 New Yorkers join us to learn all about their city!

Casa Levy, 2006, as the set for the indie film The Savages

Not only did they learn about the architecture and pop cultural history of Victorian Flatbush, but we Levys’ were bursting at our seams as we talked history and walked about our native neighborhood! Mark bought his beautiful three-story Victorian house on Marlborough road in the 1980’s and raised us three boys there. It still stands as the office for LUNY.

The tour route did not include Mark’s house but did pass by dozens of gorgeous turn-of-the-century homes, most of which were designed by a single architect! John J. Petit used varying Victorian styles – from Japanese to Swiss Chalet to Chicago Horizontal to Neo-Classic Colonial. Most of these breathtaking houses stand  on Buckingham Road, a street unlike any in Brooklyn. Our personal history intertwined nicely with the tour as Matt told the group about hanging out in the Italian Villa-Style mansion of 143 Buckingham with his high school buddy Scott Paris, who grew up there.

See that bell tower on the upper right? Thats where Matt hung out with his pal Scott

The tour got a caffeine jump at the intersection of Albermarle and Buckingham, when Mark pulled up with Irish coffee, served out of the back of his Honda CRV. Jonah began his section of the tour by telling stories about all the film and TV productions that have been shot in the neighborhood, but set elsewhere; Gossip Girl used Ditmas Park as the Hamptons, Law and Order used it as Nyack, NY and the Oscar nominated film The Savages used Mark Levy’s 106 year old house as a stand-in for Buffalo, NY!

Congratulations to the winners of the Trivia Contest!

Enough history and architecture – it was time for the bar crawl! Our first stop was the oldest watering hole in the neighborhood, 773 lounge on Coney Island Avenue.  In operation for almost 80 years, it’s a perfect dive to answer trivia questions and scarf down tacos from our favorite Mexican place, Cinco de Mayo. We admit that some of the questions were pretty tough (Who was Jacque Cortelyou?) but when we concluded the trivia contest at the local whiskey bar / florist down the block, Sycamore, our proud winners took home their prize – a Levys’ Unique New York! t-shirt. Hooray for Ditmas Park!

Whats more, some wonderful tour-takers put together an awesome video of our tour. Enjoy!

Ditmas Park Trivia Tour & Pub Crawl from Joey Azoulai on Vimeo.

By Jonah Levy

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Vintage Holiday Trains & Twas the Strike Before Christmas (in 2005)

Jonah, Matt, Mark and Gideon at Vintage Tea Party 2009!

For the past four years, the MTA has been treating its riders not to reliable subway service, or to low subway fares, but instead to classic subway cars on the F train line, every Sunday in December. While we’d certainly appreciate the first two, the third is a delightful throwback to the early days of fancy NYC mass transit, and so every year we Levys host a Vintage Tea Party on the Vintage New York Subway trains. (Which means we were doing Tea parties long before Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck!)

But five years ago, it was a very different story. That brisk holiday season in 2005, Roger Toussaint of the Transit Workers Union made good on his threat to shut down the subways and buses for three days, in the middle of the holiday shopping season. It was cause to complain, so Matt and I wrote a lovely Christmas-themed poem about the transit-screw-you. Enjoy! Regardless of how many service changes you have to deal with on the weekends!

By Gideon Levy
Photo by Sam Horine

Twas the Strike Before Christmas
By Matt and Gideon Levy
Originally published in NonsenseNYC on 12/23/05

Twas the strike before Christmas, and all through the city
New Yorkers everywhere seethed with self-pity.
The MTA and the Union, tucked in snug at the Hyatt
While 7 million commuters readied to riot.

Kalikow and Toussaint clashed over wages
Over long negotiations and through several stages.
The Authority said finding more money is hard;
We blew $50 million on Holiday fare cards!

TWU yelled “benefits!” MTA shrieked “budget!”
And at midnight on Monday, they both cried out “Fudge it!”
The subways shut down, the buses were parked
The engines cut off, and the stations went dark.

And all through the city, from Rockaway to the Bronx
New Yorkers listened to the shouts and the honks
Of cars caught in gridlock and road-rage galore
And piece-mealing carpools so as to reach four.

Then over at the Hyatt, interrupting the fights
Was a whoosh of the wind, and out went the lights,
When a monstrous vision that was both awed and was feared,
Some Victorian figure, an apparition appeared.

But it was no demon, no beast and no hellion
It was none other than the ghost of old George C. McClellan!
He cried: “I am the great mayor, from New York in ‘Ought Four
The year that this subway first opened its doors

“And I drove that first train from City Hall headed north
I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop! Such was the force
Of this marvelous creation, our underground railway delight
So for the sake of New York, will you stop this damn fight?!

“You must quit these squabbles and come to a deal
So the buses and trains can return with true zeal!
On A train! On B train! On N train and Q!
On 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 train, too!”

With a whoosh and a gurgle and a clang and a sigh
The old Mayor went up to his City Hall in the sky,
Which freed up the meeting, and the fate of our home
When both sides agreed and threw us a bone.

So the strike ended there with an uneasy pact
But no one believed the other would clean up their act
And when the Post stopped shouting and you listened real close
You could hear the faint words of our benevolent ghost:

“To all those stuck in taxis and frozen on bikes
A Transit Strike to you all, and you can all take a hike!”

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Car Owner, New Yorker

One of the many tow jobs that Le Aubergine Machine's required.

One of the most common questions we get from our suburban tour groups is: Where do NYers park their cars? Short answer – we dont, because we dont have any! Various statistics have car ownership in Manhattan hover around 25% (of 1.4 million people) and for the outer-boroughs, at a 50-50 split of car owners vs non. Thanks to the most extraordinary public transit system in the world, the New York City Subway, we don’t need cars. I didn’t get my driver’s license til I was 20, and that was thanks to living in Boston with a car-owning girlfriend.

I was looking up at the steel spandrels of the QBB and not at the road.

Even still, upon returning to my hometown of Brooklyn in 2003, I never expected to own a car. I would simply ride the bus, the subway or my bicycle. When feeling particularly flush, I hopped a cab. When push came to shove and I had to transport furniture, I could always borrow Dad’s trusty green Honda CRV. Dad’s CRV was known as “the Ghost 3″, because it’s his 3rd identical green CRV; the first got wrapped around a lamppost a few blocks from Casa Levy by a larcenous (and uninvited) teen party guest and the second got totaled on the Queensboro Bridge by yours truly.

That's a proud Brooklynite and his first car!

Then, in 2008, the economic recession hit and fellow tour guide Jonathan Turer decided he had to sell his extra car – a sweet little 1998 Hyundai Elantra Station Wagon. Painted a deep purple, I fell in love with the four-wheeled Eggplant Express (my name choice,) and at the low, low price of $1000, I couldn’t say no. How many miles were on my decade old, thousand-dollar, shaggin’ wagon? 71,000. Keep in mind this was not just a friend’s city car, but his second car to boot. The thing wasn’t used nearly as much as it would have been in the ‘burbs.

100,000 miles, logged in Brooklyn, baby!

Short answer long: I love my car. It’s a dream machine. I cant believe I’ve gone 28 years without one.  The Eggplant’s been used to move furniture, deliver cases of beer, party-hop, grocery shop, all the things that regular Americans who live in not-NYC do. Le Aubergine Machine (its sometimes-name, courtesy of good buddy Jean Barberis) has taken road trips near and far – from apple picking upstate to Obama’s Inaguration in DC to Christmas in VA to Oyster Roasts in NC. Car insurance in Brooklyn is expensive – some of the highest in the nation, so we have a car-coop with friends to share the monthly cost. And the clicker just clicked 100 Ks. I wasn’t there to witness it, as it happened on a friend’s return trip from Boston. But the 100,000 moment occurred between his place and mine, which means it happened in Brooklyn, baby.

The trunk could even fit a small-sized human being!

Lord knows Ive had to get some work done on the Eggplant. Luckily I’ve got the most honest crooks in Brooklyn – the good car guys at Superior Care. They’ve replaced the driver belt, timing belt, muffler, tires, engine block, wipers, you get the picture. Its been an expensive ride, for wheels so cheap. Eventually the transmission’s gonna fall right out of the thing, and I will once again be a car-free New Yorker. Truth is, the car I’ve got is quite a luxury. But I don’t need it. Because I’m a New Yorker.

By Matt Levy

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Lunch Break! = History Break!

During a lunch break in NYC, the possibilities are endless. One could go for a leisurely stroll, sit in a park and read a book or snooze under the desk, George-Costanza-style. But when a tour guide thirsty for knowledge gets cut from the job an hour early, it’s more than your basic break. Courtesy of my fav Deal of the Day site TheSkint.com, I hunted down free Schnitzel at Park Avenue and 26th street. The Shnitzel and Things food truck was handing out bite-sized portions of chicken shnitzel and german potato salad. Dankeshone! Taking a seat under the statue President Chester Alan Arthur in the Northeast corner of Madison Square Park, I devoured my free treat.

"Chet Arthur, President of the United States?" said his friends. "Good God!"

The history of C.A. Arthur is important to NYC  not just because he studied law here as an abolitionist in the 1850s, or because he served as customs collector of the Port of New York, but because he was sworn into the Presidency just five blocks from where his statue stands. After James Garfield was shot, his assassin, Charles Guiteau calmly stated “I am a Stalwart, and Arthur is now President of the United States!” Arthur was sworn in shortly at his home on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 28th street.

Appellate Court Building. Check out that marble! Hubba hubba!

My next stop was the Appellate Court of New York at Mad & 25, which, according to the Landmark Preservation Commission, is an interior landmarked building – not as common in NYC as you’d expect. The architect, James Lord Brown, spent over one-third of the $600,000 budget on decorations – a ton of money in 1902. Inside you’ll find a bronze and glass chandelier, Siena marble, a stained-glass dome set into a gilded coffered ceiling and law-themed murals abounding. The exterior’s adorned with Corinthian columns and marble sculptures by Daniel Chester French. You may find one sculpture missing though; in the 1950’s, Muslim countries asked that the statue of Mohamed be taken down.

Lest you believe that the neighborhood’s institutions are exclusively for the upper crust, I bring the story of the Hurricane Club, courtesy of a historical plaque on Park and 26, where the new Tiki Bar of the same name stands. In the mid-19th century, Captain Drake “Goldbelly” Stillman and his first mate, Delilah “Little Rose” Netherlander were sailing on The Junebug from the South Pacific to the US. Their cargo included tons of exotic South Pacific food, hundreds of cases of wine courtesy of a royal French depository, and a fair share of gold bouillon.

Suddenly, without warning, they were struck by a hurricane and crash-landed on the island of Lokoko. Warily guarding their prized cargo, the crew was approached by natives and brought before the court of King Pappu and Queen Ludellah. Goldbelly and Little Rose would have been executed, if it weren’t for the tons of food and drink which had survived the storm. A grand feast took place and the King ordered a new ship built, dubbed The Junebug II. Golbelly and Little Rose made it to New York and every year, in celebration of their survival, a feast called “The Hurricane Club” was thrown in King Lokoko’s honor.

Eisenberg's - since 1929. Stick with the tongue and pastrami.

A glance at the currentmenu proved enticing but a bit out of my price range for Wednesday lunch, so I moved on. Where did I end up? A sandwich shop, of course! Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, since 1929, on Fifth and 22nd. This Jewish greasy-spoon diner lives immediately across from the Flatiron building and is know for their tongue and pastrami as well as their tuna salad sandwiches. My sandwich sources advised that I get the tuna melt; what resulted was, unfortunately, one of my biggest disappointments in my citywide sandwich crusade. Not only was the tuna fishy and bland, but the American cheese wasn’t even melted and the sandwich went cold despite a hot minute under the press. Chalk it up to irony that a jam-packed lunch break ended in an extremely unsatisfying sandwich experience. Sometimes you have to be fed by the history.

By Jonah Levy

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Making it up on Myrtle Avenue

Jonah leading his "un-tour" to a bunch of naive neighborhooders.

One of the best things about being a tour guide is the ability to say anything you want and people will take it as truth. However, the Tour Guide Credo prevents us from just making everything up. So when Christine Vassallo was hired by the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership to find artists for a street fair in Fort Greene called Move About Myrtle, she had thought back to an “un-tour” of Flux Factory that my brother Matt had led. Matt was gone to Toronto during the Move About Myrtle weekend, so he asked me to lead this “un-tour.” As soon as I began to research the history of “Murder Avenue,” I found some awesome history and some examples of great stories that were close enough to the truth. Can YOU separate fact from fabrication?

How pastoral and simple life mustve been back then.

The tour started on Hall Street, which is named after the City of Brooklyn’s first mayor, George Hall, circa 1834. A self-made tradesman in a sleepy town of twenty thousand, he was quite proud of Brooklyn and “sixteen of its streets lighted with public lamps.” Mindful of the intersection of commerce and morality, the tee-totalling Hall cracked down on unlicensed rum shops as well as the common method of street-cleaning of the era —letting garbage-eating pigs roam the streets.

OMG! Myrtle Avenue Collapse!

The tour continued on, to 493 Myrtle Avenue, where a building collapsed in the spring of 2009. According to the owner, the building had a crack that ran down the east exterior wall from the ground to the roof. When the Buildings Department inspected it in May of 2009, they gave it an OK. About six weeks later, bricks were seen falling from the roof. An hour after that, the eastern wall collapsed. The roof and ceilings sheared down into the street at a 60-degree angle. One tenant left for a ride on his skateboard and on return found his home in ruin. “I’m in shock,” he said “It’s not going to hit me right away that everyone I own is gone.”

Good lookin guy, that Walt Whitman. The boys sure thought so.

Passing Ryerson Street, I talked about Walt Whitman, who contained multitudes at number 99, which may or may not be the last remaining house in Brooklyn that he occupied. Editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, major advocate for Fort Greene Park and the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, he completed the first draft of his most celebrated work Leaves of Grass while living here.

So what stories did I make up? None of the above. Although Charles Pratt did make his fortune in lamp oil, he never embarked on an Arctic expedition. The twenty people listening to that story believed every word of it, told in the shadow of a new Pratt building. There was never a rapper by the name of Lil Skeezy living in the new condo on the corner of Myrtle and Stueben Street. And he absolutely never sat down for lunch with Biggie Smalls at the White Castle across the way.

Sun Man. Defender of the Children.

The funniest part about the “un-tour” were my efforts to string along ideas that were totally beside the point. I claimed that this meeting between Lil’ Skeezy and Biggie was documented by a receipt that Skeezy kept. Y’know, to write off on his taxes. At Roberta’s, a neighborhood soul food spot, I skipped reviewing most of my interview with the owner in order to wax poetic on the socially responsible and totally ludicrous story of Sun Man, an action figure kept at their front counter.

But finally, my research got the best of me as I finished at 206 Classon Avenue AKA the R.H. Renken Building. Through an outstanding article, I found that the story of this building is a wonderful microcosm of Brooklyn, New York City, as well as the rest of urban America from the early 1900’s to today. It’s a good thing that trusting the journalist is a lot easier than trusting the tour guide!

By Jonah Levy

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