WHERE I LIVE: For Brenda Gambol, home is a ‘railroad apartment’ in Carroll Gardens

Brenda loves to sing and play the guitar. Here she is in the  dining area.

Brenda loves to sing and play the guitar. Here she is in the dining area.

By Cristina DC Pastor

Marriage to a New Yorker with Irish roots led Brenda Gambol to Carroll Gardens known for its charming brownstones and leafy streets.

Brenda, a doctoral candidate in Sociology at CUNY, lives in a “railroad apartment” which her husband, Ian Gavigan, inherited from his parents. A railroad apartment is a housing unit where the rooms are built in a row like coaches in a train. Brenda and Ian’s house has five connected rooms, and one has to pass through a narrow hall to get from one room to another. There are no doors, she said. “The house is one open floor plan.”

Ian, whose father is Irish and whose mother is Puerto Rican, grew up in this apartment on Court Street. It is now home to Brenda and Ian and their two rescue dogs, Cody and Sammi.

Because he has construction experience and skills, Ian renovated the apartment to give it a contemporary look more appropriate for their lifestyle: bigger kitchen, new tiles for the bathroom, and a backyard deck overlooking the garden. For a remodeling job that would have cost the young couple $10K, the Gavigans spent only $3K.

They would entertain for small groups of friends and family in their railroad home where Ian cooks and Brenda occasionally plays the guitar.

It hasn’t always been this warm and lovely in this part of South Brooklyn. Residents speak of a time when the Mob was a terrifying presence, and the Gowanus Canal was where the cops found a stack of bodies. Today, Carroll Garden’s yuppies gather at the Gowanus for some relaxing summer picnic and kayaking. The blue-collar community once populated by Italian and Irish laborers has given way to more middle-class residents and affluent professionals.

Stories of celebrity sightings are common: Mike Bloomberg spotted at his favorite table at Frankie’s when he was still mayor, Ted Danson dining at Prime Meats, and Jake Gyllenhaal just visiting, etc.

Brenda and Ian have their favorite: Vinny’s on Smith Street for its stuffed lobster with oregano sauce. When they have a craving for Asian food, there’s Vekslers on Hicks Street which serves General Tso’s fried chicken, ramen, and lumpia in their Asian fusion menu.

There are not too many Filipinos where Brenda lives. There’s one in her building who works in a sporting goods store. “We’re friends,” she said.

There is a pronounced French population when immigrants began arriving in big numbers since the early 1990s. Trendy French restaurants and cafes give Carroll Gardens the feel of a sophisticated, old-world neighborhood. Bastille Day is a big celebration here.

There is undeniable tension that is more socio-economic than racial. Wealthy white families moving in and long-time Italian and Irish families with blue-collar backgrounds – also referred to pejoratively as ‘leftovers’ — holding on to their property despite the gentrification engulfing them. It is not yet serious, said Brenda, but the undercurrent is there.

Crime is almost a thing of the past since the decimation of Mafia back in the ‘60s. Since she became a resident about three years ago, Brenda has not heard of any murders, rapes or any serious crimes. There would be the occasional people who are robbed when they go home drunk at night. “That’s it.”

Through her husband’s family, Carroll Gardens gives Brenda a sense of ancestry.

“I feel, as a Filipino American, that I’m not really attached to any physical space because my ancestry is the Philippines. Here, I do like that Ian has that, ancestral roots from both sides of his family. The Irish and Puerto Rican cousins are just around the corner,” she said.

‘Where I Live’ is a new section in The FilAm where Filipinos provide a snapshot of their neighborhoods while giving us a glimpse into their borough or suburban lives. WIL pries open the sprawling maze that is the New York metropolitan area – from NYC to New Jersey, Connecticut and Northern Pennsylvania — where Filipinos find their homes, raise their families and live their ideal of the American Dream.

Ian making his grandmother's delicious stuffing

Ian making his grandmother’s delicious stuffing

The brownstones and the trees of Carroll Gardens

The brownstones and the trees of Carroll Gardens

By the time Ian and Brenda have children, they would have been  fourth-generation Gavigans in this apartment. Ian’s grandmother lived here also.

By the time Ian and Brenda have children, they would have been fourth-generation Gavigans in this apartment. Ian’s grandmother lived here also.

Vinny’s, their favorite Italian restaurant

Vinny’s, their favorite Italian restaurant

One Comment

  1. Peter F wrote:

    This is a really good read for me, thank you!

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