The Tiny Doors of Dennett Place

Plus a house that isn't a house.

When I left my apartment there were reports that it was going to rain, but as I walked down Prospect Hill the sky was clear and the sun was shining large and bright. The air still had a morning crispness to it, which I breathed in deep as I stopped to admire my neighbors’ blossoming spring flowers that covered their stoops, small front yards, and gardens.

As my feet followed the hill down into Gowanus, the flowered front yards gave way to a more industrial kind of beauty. Back before I lived in New York City, when I was in my early twenties, here as a visitor, not a resident, I would crash on the couch of my friend Clams Rockefeller. A graffiti artist and photographer, he would take us skateboarding in the big empty lots down by the Gowanus Canal, breaking into abandoned buildings and climbing high above Brooklyn, looking down at the rolling hills of the borough.

The Gowanus has changed a lot since my NYC visits all those years ago, in that NYC way where it's changed, but not that much at all. I guess what I'm saying is there's a Whole Foods there now. But even the Gowanus Canal is charming when it's spring in New York City. As I crossed the Ninth Street Bridge I paused to take in the Superfund site in all of its splendor. 

I hear they're drudging the canal these days. I respect that. Something being a mess for so long trying to get its act together.

On the other side of the bridge I head up hill instead of down. Carroll Gardens comes quickly, the neighborhood’s cherry blossoms on full display, as if showing off one last time before the promised rain showers arrive to shake them from their branches.

An Italian flag flies high in the sky as I meander up and down Court Street, taking in a few more front yards and gardens, along with some catholic imagery for good measure.

Finally I pick up an extremely strong iced coffee at Court Street Grocers and proceeded down to my destination: Dennett Place.

It was my friend Clams who first introduced me to the tiny doors on Dennett Place, a quaint one-block street in Carroll Gardens. Almost every house on the block has one, a door that any adult walking into standing up would bump their head on.

Why they're there, nobody is quite sure. Once, back in my visiting days, I remember Clams and I talking with a man named Rocco who sat outside his house in a lawn chair. Rocco shared theories (the small doors were for the kids in the neighborhood, or maybe they were used to bring coal into the basements of the houses), but when I texted Clams to ask if he remembered he said he was pretty sure the real reason was as simple as "allowing single-family homes to be split into multiple units." I did a little research and couldn't find much else.

I hoped to catch Rocco at his post, but he wasn't there, maybe worried about the rain, so I walked the small street one more time and then made my way off Dennett Place.

"Wait, are you there now?" Clams texts me, and tells me that he's actually on his way to the neighborhood. Turns out despite having left Carroll Gardens over 5 years ago, Clams still comes by most mornings to get his coffee. It's Clams who tells me that a fire escape scene from Spider-Man 3 (Tobey Maguire era) was shot at the end of Dennett Place, and who continues to point out different spots that were in the movie Goodfellas. At this point we'd wandered about ten blocks north on Court Street and Clams says, "I hope they're fresh" and walks toward what can only be described as the cutest little French grocery store I've ever seen. 

Inside the store is packed full of French grocery items and freshly baked treats. Beignets and croissants and colorful macarons packed so tightly together as if someone were playing a very complex and devastatingly delicious game of Tetris. 

The "they" that Clams was referring to were the chocolate croissants, which luckily for us were indeed fresh from the oven, almost melting in the paper bag they came in before we popped them into our mouths.

Across the street we got delectable coffee from D'Amico, Clams picking up a pound of beans (Carroll Gardens Blend), but it's next door at Sal's Pizzeria that I have a truly transcendent experience. 

I'll be the first to admit that I'm no pizza snob. Your boy still orders from Domino's more often than is acceptable. I've lived in New York City for almost a decade, but I love pizza from all over. It's pizza! What's not to love? And that's always been how I felt, that is until I ordered a single slice of pepperoni pizza from Sal's Pizzeria on Court Street. It was perfect, like Plato's chair but in pizza form. I didn't know a slice of pizza could be that ideal. The slice had those lil' pepperonis, you know, the kind that turn up at the end? I love those lil' pep boys. Absolutely delicious.

Clams had to leave, heading to Staten Island to get his second vaccination shot. We said our goodbyes, and I drank a frozen piña colada from Sal's that was almost a perfect Italian Ice but with booze in it, because at this point I'm not sure where supporting local businesses stops and worrying about my day drinking begins. I stood up and continued on, leaving the little local triangle of perfect pastry, perfect pizza, and perfect coffee that can be found at the intersection of Degraw and Court Street behind me.

Before he left, Clams mentioned a "fake brownstone" that he thought would be worth checking out. "I think it's on Clinton." It wasn't. But I was over-caffeinated and wanted to find this house that wasn't a house. After taking a few wrong turns I was walking the wrong way under an overpass, eventually making it as fas as the Hamilton Avenue Marine Transfer Station, before my phone died.

I realized the mistake I'd made, and headed back in the right direction, and again experienced freeways and autoshops slowly blending into brownstones and cobbled streets. I charged my phone at a LinkNYC public outlet, and made my way to 58 Joralemon Street.

A townhouse that you’d want to live in, were it actually habitable. Valued in 2010 at 2.8 million dollars, the home isn’t a home at all. The windows are blacked out, and the front is just a facade to keep the beauty of this historical neighborhood. Behind the veneer is a giant shaft, from which the home gets its nickname: The Shaft House. The shaft and building are maintained by the New York City Transit Department, providing ventilation and an escape exit if needed from the subway tunnels below.

A man stopped and asked me, "what is this place?" I told him all that I knew, encouraging him to Google the address to learn more. He smiled, introduced himself as Shawn and thanked me for helping him solve this little neighborhood mystery that had been bothering him.

I followed the cobblestones of Joralemon Street down to the water, where I stumbled upon an honest to goodness beach.

As I sat in the sand, I noticed a text from Clams that read:

I grinned, stood up, situated myself using the bridges as my phone died again, and made my way along the promenade into DUMBO. I stopped at Washington and Water Street and helped a tourist couple take a photo. We laughed for no particular reason other than it felt good to laugh. The rain clouds that had been holding off all day finally showed up and, as I stepped underneath an awning it began to pour. The air was still warm, though. I ordered a cold Bud in a bottle from a man named Joe who took my phone to charge it behind the bar, and watched as the rain fell from the sky, waiting to walk home.