Good prospect | Personal tour

From architectural landmarks to a growing foodie scene, the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Prospect Heights — home to Trinidad-born architect Roxanne Ryce-Paul — may be rapidly gentrifying, but it still holds on to elements of its history

  • The Brooklyn Museum has the second-largest collection of artworks in New York City. Photo by Stuart Monk/Shutterstock.com
  • The sculpture Martinique Woman, by Malvina Hoffman. Photo courtesy The Brooklyn Museum
  • The monumental Art Deco entrance of the Brooklyn Central Library. Photo by Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock.com
  • The bronze sculptures on the triumphal arch in Grand Army Plaza include a depiction of an African-American soldier. Photo by Felix Lipov/Shuterstock.com
  • Springtime in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden: cherry trees in bloom. Photo by NattyC/Shutterstock.com

Like the rest of Brooklyn, the neighbourhood known today as Prospect Heights was once the territory of the indigenous Lenape, and then a landscape of Dutch colonial farms. In the mid nineteenth century, as Brooklyn — still an independent city — began to sprawl inland from its harbour, the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted laid out 526-acre Prospect Park, and the Brooklyn city fathers established a series of cultural institutions nearby, to rival Manhattan’s. The neighbourhood of brownstone townhouses and grand apartment buildings on the slope immediately north of the park soon became known as Prospect Heights.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the traditionally Irish, Italian, and Jewish residents of Prospect Heights were largely replaced by African-Americans and migrants from the Caribbean. The Caribbean influence is still obvious in the neighbourhood’s streets, with Jamaican and Trinidadian accents never out of earshot, soca music blasting from the occasional passing car, and the annual Labour Day Carnival parade route running along Eastern Parkway.

But, as with most New York City neighbourhoods with good housing stock and subway access, the past fifteen years have seen another major demographic shift. Priced out of Manhattan, young and mostly white professionals have flocked to the neighbourhood, and all the characteristics of gentrification have followed.

When Trinidad-born architect Roxanne Ryce-Paul and her partner, artist Nicolas Touron, moved to Prospect Heights in 2001, it was still very much a Caribbean-feeling place. Specialising in urban planning, historic preservation, and sustainable architecture, Ryce-Paul currently works at the NYC Department of Design and Construction, which means a daily commute north to Queens. But on weekends she enjoys spending time in her home neighbourhood, learning more about its architectural history and little-known Caribbean connections, and sharing them with visiting friends. Her personal tour of Prospect Heights leans heavily on its cultural riches — and its diverse culinary scene.

Start with the Prospect Heights landmarks

Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights’ southern boundary, is where you’ll find some of Brooklyn’s grandest public buildings. The Brooklyn Museum of Art, says Ryce-Paul, “is the NYC public museum where you can see yourself represented as artist and as subject, regardless of who you are and from where you have come.” She singles out two favourite artworks among the museum’s collection (the second largest in New York City): Martinique Woman (1928), a sculpture by the American artist Malvina Hoffmann, and A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt Rosalie (1866), a monumentally scaled landscape painting by Albert Bierstadt.

A short walk away, the Art Deco headquarters of the Brooklyn Central Library is “one of the most magnificent buildings in the city,” says Ryce-Paul. “The gold leaf relief at the entrance beckons, the plaza receives, and the curved façade embraces the book lover. It also excels by hosting a diverse and compelling range of services and programming for the community. I like to walk through the building on my way home just to feel Brooklyn.”

The library faces right onto Grand Army Plaza, the vast oval-shaped entrance to Prospect Park that also serves as a memorial to the Union Army in the US Civil War. It includes a triumphal arch of stone with bronze sculptures. Ryce-Paul tells visitors to look closely at the group of soldiers depicted on the arch’s right-hand side: in the foreground you can see an African-American soldier, rarely depicted in Civil War memorials.

Work up an appetite

Grand Army Plaza is also a good place to start a foodie’s exploration of Prospect Heights, thanks to the popular Saturday Farmer’s Market. “Provisions are priced higher than neighbourhood food and drink,” says Ryce-Paul, “but the produce are just-picked fresh — eggs, bakery goods, meat, pickles all arrive that morning from upstate New York and rural New Jersey. GrowNYC’s Food Scrap Composting then collects your farmer’s market food waste to replenish the earth and grow more food. Closed loop!”

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Ryce-Paul and Touron (who’s a former chef) enjoy cooking at home, with organic produce from the farmer’s market and the nearby Park Slope Food Co-op. But when they’re in the mood to eat out, there’s no shortage of options within a few blocks of their apartment.

“Cheryl’s Global Soul [on Underhill Avenue] is where you must be first thing on Sunday morning — only to discover as you turn the corner that all of Prospect Heights is there before you for brunch, no joke.” When she’s in the mood for Caribbean food? “When you can’t be in Trinidad, you eat at Sugarcane [on Flatbush Avenue].” And Japanese is a longtime favourite. “Geido [Flatbush Avenue] does much more than excellent sushi. There is Japanese home-style donburi, ramen, soba, izakaya — and the pickled vegetables and ginger are some of the best ever.” A few blocks away, “Chuko [Vanderbilt Avenue] is radicalising vintage Japanese. No sushi here, but you can do a side-by-side tasting test of traditional versus avant-garde Japanese culinary delights.”

When the weather is hot? Ryce-Paul strolls over to nearby Crown Heights and Island Pops [Nostrand Avenue], run by Trinis Khalid and Shelly Hamid. “Boozy lollies, snowcone, Mackeson chocolate or orange bitters ice-cream . . . The other day, in a Guinness caramel ice-cream delirium, I dreamed pennacool on the menu.”

Green days

Manhattan’s Central Park is world-famous, but true Brooklynites will tell you that was merely Olmsted’s warm-up for his true masterpiece, Prospect Park, with its rolling Long Meadow, a rugged forested section called The Ravine, and lake and boathouse. That’s the place to “make friends with the greedy swans and wild geese,” says Ryce-Paul, while in the summertime Breezy Hill is where you’ll find the collection of trendy food trucks called Smorgasburg.

But her number-one spot for relaxing outdoors is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, tucked between Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Museum. Founded in 1910, it boasts a celebrated Japanese Garden, a collection of plants inspired by Shakespeare’s plays and poems, and an esplanade of cherry trees that turns into a rioting froth of pink blossoms in the spring. When it’s cold, the tropical greenhouse — with cocoa and coffee trees, heliconias, and even a mango tree — remind Ryce-Paul of home. “Then there is the racoon tree, where we have, over many years, seen new little families emerge from a hole in the trunk.”

Culture-hopping

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (or BAM) in Fort Greene — a short journey north from Prospect Heights by subway or even on foot — is one of NYC’s most innovative performing arts venues, with a year-round programme including theatre, opera, and film. “A prominent start to the summer is Dance Africa,” says Ryce-Paul, “which is as much a community celebration as a presentation of the dance arts of the African diaspora. In the autumn, there is the Next Wave Festival” — twelve weeks of groundbreaking performances — “and the BAM Rose Cinema screens new and emerging films.”

Prospect Heights is also home to two small but beloved independent bookshops — “thriving despite the relentless charge from characterless retail that sells everything and leaves you empty.” Café con Libros [on Prospect Place] is a feminist community bookstore, “really just an extension of home, when you invite friends over. Warm, intellectually stimulating, human.” Three blocks over, Unnameable Books [Vanderbilt Avenue] “passes under the radar until you know it and it knows you — then there is no reason to buy a book from Amazon, ever again.” One friend who visits Brooklyn annually is notorious for leaving Unnameable with a stack of at least a dozen books, every time.

Caribbean Airlines operates several flights daily to New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport from Trinidad, Guyana, and Jamaica, with connections to other Caribbean destinations