Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Lives They Lived, 2006

If you can grab a print copy, or register online with The New York Times, their magazine has their "Lives They Lived" issue out today. This always-fascinating issue takes a look back at 2006 and at some of the lives that passed from our world this year. There are some big names, but a lot of small ones too. For example:

Evelyn Ortner | b. 1924
Mothering Brooklyn
Published: December 31, 2006

It requires a feat of memory to picture gentrified Brooklyn — that haven of stately homes, world-class cultural offerings and overpriced baby boutiques — as it was a mere 40 years ago: a lost borough, Manhattan’s poor, troubled relation. Consider, then, the near-hallucinatory vision it took at the time to imagine the Brooklyn of today. In the mid-’60s, when many of Brooklyn’s brownstones had been carved into decrepit rooming houses, when cabs in Manhattan wouldn’t cross the Manhattan Bridge, when the Brooklyn Academy of Music couldn’t give tickets away, an interior designer named Evelyn Ortner not only had that vision but also believed that by sheer force of will, unpaid and unbidden, she and her husband could conjure it into existence.
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Kevin Cooley

Evelyn and Everett Ortner’s brownstone in nowfashionable Park Slope.

Ortner wasn’t a real estate agent or a developer. She simply wanted to live someplace beautiful and culturally alive, surrounded by people who felt the same way. After moving to the neighborhood of Park Slope when she was 39, drawn there by the splendor of the architecture, she saw potential everywhere: in the park, the museum, the library. “She was proud of Brooklyn when no one else was,” says Alan Fishman, chairman of the board of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Brooklyn Navy Yards. “She saw the assets more clearly than anyone else, at a time when the liabilities were overwhelming the assets.”

While other middle-class residents fled urban blight in the 1960s, Ortner set about replenishing and transforming her community, one family at a time. She systematically wooed young couples she met outside the borough, inviting them back to her exquisitely maintained Victorian brownstone for dinner with her husband and an assortment of other guests — all Brooklynites, all charmingly introduced to the couple by Evelyn. It was a strategy of seduction, and her friends learned to play along. “What is the point of this story?” Ortner, normally soft-spoken, demanded of one friend who was midway through a narrative of a near mugging in the neighborhood. After cocktails with the Ortners, dozens of young couples cut short their house hunts in the suburbs and opted for life in the outer boroughs.

After the families were hooked, Evelyn and her husband, Everett, applied their charms to the problems of finance and infrastructure. Once, they entertained a group of bankers at one of their lively cocktail parties and thereby persuaded them to stop redlining the neighborhood and start handing out mortgages to young buyers. By inviting two executives at the Brooklyn Union Gas Company for drinks, Evelyn and her husband persuaded them to restore and renovate a model brownstone down the street: it would feature the modern gas fixtures the company wanted to sell, and Evelyn would design the rest. From that successful model home blossomed an ambitious brownstone housing fair, attracting 25,000 potential buyers to the community.

The daughter of a mother with high expectations, Ortner was childless herself but mothered Brooklyn fiercely, defending it like a wayward child who just needed a good push, showcasing its strengths, even fussing over it, picking up trash in Prospect Park on her daily walk. While Everett, nicknamed the General, dashed off news releases and did battle at neighborhood meetings, Evelyn, elegant and warm, triumphed in the small details. She never went anywhere without a small black notebook, the kind with a red ribbon, and in it she would jot down the names of people she met at parties or saw at cultural events, along with little notes about each of them. She had deep reservoirs of curiosity and a prodigious memory, so she could approach a guest who looked a bit lonely at a function at BAM or a fund-raiser for the Brooklyn Museum and, even if she had met him only briefly once before, recall the book he had been reading or the brownstone he had been contemplating buying; she asked after friends and family as if she were one of them herself. As a result, when Ortner called to ask for a favor on behalf of one of her many causes — be it the Brooklyn Arts and Culture Association or the Flatbush Avenue Improvement Committee or the Brooklyn Stained Glass Conservation Center — few could say no.

Ortner’s interest in people may have been genuine, but her agenda was always Brooklyn. And with that devotion came a tireless diligence, the energy to traipse the streets of Park Slope and rummage through papers at the Department of Buildings until she had catalogued the history and architecture of some 1,800 buildings in the neighborhood. That effort helped her to procure landmark status for Park Slope. It was a shrewd tactical move — the neighborhood was one of New York’s first to take advantage of the then-little-known landmark laws — and with it she secured what every mother wants for her child: protection in perpetuity.

For the whole issue, start here.

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