Must-See Fort Greene and Clinton Hill

Caitlin Dover

The adjacent Brooklyn neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill contain a sampling of the best the borough has to offer. Historic districts, a hilltop park designed by Olmsted & Vaux, cutting-edge art and up-and-coming chefs, a pedigreed college and a repurposed hub for homegrown industry—all can be found here. And getting to, from and around the area has never been easier: the many subway lines servicing Atlantic Terminal deliver you to BAM's doorstep, and the G and C subway lines make stops in both neighborhoods. Add the more than 20 Citi Bike stations available throughout the area, and you have what may be Brooklyn's ideal day trip.

The two neighborhoods' elegant rows of brownstones are popular with film crews—you may well stumble across a production in progress as you wander along tree-lined Willoughby Avenue or stroll past the boutiques and restaurants on Dekalb Avenue. Spend some time here, and you'll come to see that, along with the area's physical beauty, its charm lies in its offbeat sensibility, a way of being that can be traced back to the many creative thinkers who, over the centuries, have made the spot their home. That spirit lives on among those in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill who are still making themselves heard and starting new ventures. Rich in Brooklyn's history, this is also a place to find people who are dreaming up the borough's future. Read on for things to see and do in these vibrant neighborhoods.

Photo: Alexander Thompson

Fort Greene Park
With its grassy slopes and spreading trees, this welcoming green space could easily be described as the heart of Fort Greene. Or, like Walt Whitman, who was instrumental in the park's creation, you could call it the neighborhood's "lungs." Fort Greene Park certainly gives locals and visitors alike a place to breathe deeply—some do so with yoga on the hilltop, while others opt for a bench and a quiet coffee while taking in the park's soothing vistas.

Those views come courtesy of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed the landscape a couple decades after the space was designated Brooklyn's first park in 1847. The park gets its name from a fort that was in use during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812; the towering monument at the park's apex, designed by seminal Gilded Age architect Stanford White, acts as a beacon to the neighborhood.

In the summer, Fort Greene Park is often host to open-air music: in recent years, the park has echoed to the sounds of Mos Def, Common and Soul Summit's Sunday dance parties. Even without a show, there's plenty to do, whether you feel like hitting the tennis courts or joining a game of soccer. Those on the sidelines who'd like some refreshment should try Fort Grace Ice Cream & Sweet Shop—located just a few blocks away at The General Greene. Stop by for a few scoops of their homemade treat in flavors that range from the traditional to the experimental: "beer chip," anyone?

Higgins Hall. Photo: Rene Perez

History and Architecture
The legacy of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill is one of creativity, diversity and activism: over the years, the area has been home to abolitionists, musicians, writers and outspoken personalities, including Walt Whitman, author Richard Wright (who wrote Native Son while living in Fort Greene), rocker Patti Smith and filmmaker Spike Lee. A thriving African-American community has shaped the area's culture for many years, and some of the nation's foremost black artists live and work here: Lee's production company is headquartered near Fort Greene Park, and visual artist Lorna Simpson's studio on Vanderbilt Avenue, designed by architect David Adjaye, is among the area's most noteworthy modern buildings.

Of course, much of the neighborhoods' appealing architecture was created around the turn of the 20th century. Thanks to the multifarious tastes of the Gilded Age businessmen who settled in what was then called "the Hill," the many stately brownstones are interspersed with a mix of cozy clapboard homes and Romanesque fantasies in red brick, not to mention the Brooklyn Masonic Temple's imposing neoclassical façade. Perhaps the best architectural representative of Clinton Hill's eclecticism and its tendency to bring together the old and new is Pratt Institute's Higgins Hall. After a fire destroyed part of the 19th-century brick structure in 1996, architect Steven Holl created a contemporary addition that connects the building's two older wings. Its translucent walls make this modern bridge glow warmly after dark—today's design casting light on that of yesterday.

BAM. Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)and BRIC House
Since it was founded in 1861, BAM has been Fort Greene's cultural hub. Its stunning Beaux Arts hall on Lafayette Avenue has hosted performances by some of the 20th century's leading lights, including Isadora Duncan, Paul Robeson and Laurie Anderson. Now a multi-venue institution, with stages in the nearby Harvey Theater and Fisher Building, BAM is one of New York's premier locales for groundbreaking performance, drawing a loyal neighborhood audience and international fans. Even staunch Manhattanites have been known to make the journey across the river to see Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire, be mesmerized by the choreography of Bill T. Jones or take in some jazz at BAM's upstairs café space. Locals looking for a night at the movies turn to BAM's slate of film classics, avant-garde gems and first-run features.

A welcome newcomer to the blocks near BAM is veteran Brooklyn arts organization BRIC, whose arts and media center, BRIC House, opened its doors in this month. With a multipurpose performance space, gallery and classroom space and a range of classes open to the community, BRIC's arrival solidifies Fort Greene's status as a comprehensive cultural destination.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

Brooklyn Flea
Sure, Fort Greene has BAM and Clinton Hill has Pratt Institute, but the most famous institution in the area today may well be the Brooklyn Flea. The weekly market, which launched in 2008 in the playground of Fort Greene's Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School, now has multiple locations and has been featured everywhere from The New York Times to The Martha Stewart Show. The original site is still a summer mainstay; every Saturday, from April to Thanksgiving, you can join throngs of happy browsers seeking that just-right vintage purse, streamlined cocktail shaker or handcrafted bracelet. Visitors also flock for the food. From wood-fired pizza to kimchi-laced hot dogs, the Flea's vendors provide enough treats to keep any true foodie sampling for hours. With a watermelon agua fresca in hand from one of the famed Latin American stands, you'll be ready to make the most of a hot July afternoon. The Flea has a way of making chilly winter days better too: between Thanksgiving and March, the market heads indoors (location to be announced), making for a natural place to get some holiday shopping done—and maybe have a hot drink and a doughnut along the way.

Photo: Bob Handelman

Pratt Institute
On bright summer days, it's a common sight to see families strolling by Pratt Institute's green lawns and rose gardens, toddlers in tow. The renowned art school's elegant turn-of-the-century buildings and graciously arranged grounds certainly lend themselves to an afternoon in the sun; a revolving, campus-wide display of some 60 sculptures by leading artists are an added attraction.

Opened for classes in 1887, Pratt Institute was founded by oil baron Charles Pratt to provide education and trade skills to people from all walks of life. Known today for its art and design programs and its architecture school, the institute has also become active in the realm of sustainable design, promoting green, socially responsible entrepreneurship through its Pratt Design Incubator program.

Pratt's enclosed campus, open to the public (with some restrictions), is a designated Historic District in its own right; its many architectural gems include the Romanesque Revival library and Memorial Hall. If you're lucky enough to be nearby on New Year's Eve, stop by Pratt for a unique celebration: each year, the college's chief engineer brings out vintage steam whistles (such as the one from the scrapped luxury liner SS Normandie) from his collection. Seeing the massive steam clouds blowing through the cold night air and hearing the whistles' penetrating sounds herald the New Year is an experience unlike any other.

Photo: Tom Olcott

BLDG 92: Brooklyn Navy Yard Center
A short walk downhill from Pratt Institute is another locale rich in the area's history: the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Stretching along Flushing Avenue, the now 300-acre site was established in 1801 as one of the US Navy's first shipyards; it witnessed the building of the USS Maine and contributed largely to the nation's effort during World War II. The site is now home to an industrial park, where small companies produce everything from innovative new products like energy delivery device Solar Ivy to scenery for Saturday Night Live.

The area's remarkable story is now being told in style in BLDG 92, a museum quartered in an imposing 1858 home with a beautifully designed contemporary addition. The museum's three-floor permanent exhibition on the Navy Yard's history features an interactive, touch-enabled timeline of the Yard that visually tracks the site's metamorphosis, starting in 1600. Other exhibits offer insights on the Maine and other battleships, along with such oddities as a Navy Yard mustard bottle and a 19th-century photograph of sailors on deck playing with the ship's cats.

To get a view of the Yard—and some refreshments—head upstairs to the museum's inviting, sunlit café and grab a sandwich to eat on the roof deck. Want to get a closer look at the Yard and its doings? Take a tour, by bus or bike, and learn about the Yard's industry, its history and its dedication to sustainability through BLDG 92 as well as through Turnstile Tours.

Greenlight Books. Photo: Alex Lopez

Whether you're looking for a gift, a novel, a wardrobe update or a nice bottle of red, Fort Greene and Clinton Hill have you covered. Just a couple blocks from Fort Greene Park, the window of the tiny boutique Feliz draws in passersby with brightly colored textiles, authentic Spanish espadrilles and jewelry gleaming with semiprecious stones. For designer clothes with true Brooklyn flair, head up Dekalb to Thistle & Clover, where you'll find feminine-yet-edgy designer threads, totes, footwear and more. Over on busy Myrtle Avenue, among many enticing homegrown shops is Green in Bklyn. The eco-friendly boutique's friendly owner, Elissa Olin, can speak knowledgably about her carefully chosen wares, which range from sweet-smelling soaps to lovely handmade quilts. Equally approachable and well versed is the staff at Gnarly Vines, also on Myrtle. The budget-conscious wine shop features a shelf of "under $10" bottles near the entrance and regularly holds in-store tastings. If you'd like a good read to go with your glass of wine, Greenlight Books carries a broad but nicely curated selection of titles; the shop often organizes readings and book signings by renowned authors such as Jonathan Lethem, Ann Patchett and Jhumpa Lahiri.

No. 7. Photo: Katharine Pangaro

The restaurant scene in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene reflects the area's eclectic personality, encompassing hot new restaurants, established eateries and a mix of cuisines and prices. Among Fort Greene's brightest recent additions is critical darling No. 7, Chef Tyler Kord's unexpected—and addictive—flavor combinations keep the airy space with its marble-topped bar busy. His broccoli taco, made with feta cheese and peanuts, has practically created its own following, and rightly so. If one were to choose another dish in the area that deserves such a following, it might be the burger at newcomer Lulu & Po—a double patty perfectly paired with goat cheese and pickles, it's cheap at $12. This diminutive spot gets everything right, from its scrumptious small plates to the interior's clean-but-cheerful design. Longtime neighborhood anchor, South African restaurant Madiba, is also big on atmosphere, with its convivial sidewalk dining; and, of course, the satisfying, deeply flavored dishes might just have something to do with the upbeat crowd that keeps the place so busy.

Courtesy, Cochinita

Casual Dining and Takeout
It's easier than ever to find great food on the go in Clinton Hill, thanks to a mix of brand-new casual eateries and some old favorites. Cochinita, a new taqueria with an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients, is a neighborhood hit for takeout. In a taco, burrito or "plate," the pibil (marinated pork) melts in the mouth. But you can also enjoy your tacos in the restaurant's charming backyard, decked with greenery and strings of lights. Two neighborhood standbys, Choice Market and Ruthie's, offer convenient eats that are anything but fast food. In addition to its superlative baked goods, Choice provides tasty sandwiches and prepared foods—their rich, buttery chicken potpie is perfect for cold evenings. And at soul food stalwart Ruthie's, you can pick up succulent fried chicken and a world of home-style sides for a true movable feast.

Hot Bird. Photo: Phil Kline

A night out in Fort Greene or Clinton Hill often comes with two New York City bar scene rarities: elbow room and great eats. Habana Outpost boasts an outdoor courtyard and a menu that includes frozen mojitos and Mexican dishes (the grilled corn on the cob makes an excellent bar snack). Between about mid-April to mid-to-late October, when Outpost is open, its picnic tables are the ideal spot to while away a lazy afternoon; on summer weekends, a party-primed crowd takes in open-air movies projected on the courtyard wall. For more libations in a communal setting, head one block down Fulton Street to Die Stammkneipe/Der Schwarze Kölner. The roomy bar with its long wooden tables is a natural locale for impromptu group celebrations, which are only enhanced by an impressive beer list and German comfort food like weisswurst and soft pretzels. If you'd rather have barbecue with your beer—or your whiskey sour—nab an outdoor table at Hot Bird and order a sandwich and sides from the neighboring Little Brother BBQ. Looking for a quieter night out? The tiny and exquisite bar Mayflower offers a cozy refuge. Settle into the velvet banquette, order a deftly crafted cocktail and retreat from the City's bustle for a while.