What once was Mapleton

I visited Mapleton on Wednesday. The N was running along the BMT West End Line, so I took the first thing that came at Atlantic Av/Pacific St: the D. I got off at 62 St, which put me a few long-blocks west of where I needed to be, but that was as good as it was going to get.

I started in the northwest corner along 16 Av, walking over the single-track LIRR Bay Ridge Branch (now rarely used). As I had expected, since it’s right next to Borough Park, there is a heavy Jewish presence in that section.

At the corner of 60th Street and 17th Avenue I came across an abandoned store with a few broken windows. A banner on the front advertised a going-out-of-business sale on June 6-8, 2010. After some Googling, I discovered that this building used to house Vins Motor Service. (Searching was tricky – turns out there are several places in Brooklyn that sell vin.)

On the opposite corner is one of the bearers of the old Mapleton name, the Mapleton Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Most of the users when I was there were Hasids. I asked the girl at the reference desk if she knew where the name came from; she did not, and directed me to the Brooklyn Collection.

Across the street is a large building that takes up the entire block. It’s Yeshivas Novominsk Kol Yehuda, an all-male Jewish high school. In front of it was parked a 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass. This was when I had one of my most fortuitous moments yet.

The owner of the Cutlass was coming to retrieve it, and from across the street he saw me looking at it. He introduced himself as Eddie. Except for a few years in the service in France in the 1950s, he had lived in Mapleton his entire life, and was excited to answer questions. I took him up on his offer.

Here’s a summary: No one calls it Mapleton anymore. His guess as to the name was the same as mine. People used to play baseball on empty lots (why did I think they needed a stadium?). The neighborhood used to be almost exclusively Italian, but now has mostly Hasids in the north and Chinese in the south. His neighbors are Greeks, Hasids, Puerto Ricans, and Italians (as he is). His house is from 1905.

Because Mapleton was built so quickly, many of its blocks are, shall we say, monotonous.

18th Avenue is a major thoroughfare, and there is a large Chinese presence. This must be for the same reasons as Sunset Park — the N train has a stop between 63rd and 64th Streets. I didn’t see any butchers, which was good for my stomach.

There are also many Italians still in the area, and I enjoyed hearing the famous Brooklyn accent. I was intrigued by J&V Pizzeria’s claim that it was Home of “Jo Jo” Sandwich, so I investigated. The Jo Jo ($5.75) is chicken parmesan on garlic bread. Original Pizza now has some competition for Best Thing I’ve Eaten on a visit.

The other Mapleton-named item of interest is The Mapleton School, on 18th Avenue between 60th and 61st. It looks like it would be at home on an Ivy League campus.

Washington Cemetery is a haunting place. Graves upon graves. I walked down a few rows. It feels like they never end.

McDonald Avenue splits the cemetery into two, and the F train runs above it. From the platform of the Bay Parkway stop, you get an even greater sense of the extent of the cemetery – and of your own irrelevance.

Many of the plots were purchased years ago by Jewish associations and families. Some of these associations no longer exist, but there’s little the cemetery can do about the unused space in their areas.

To squeeze every last inch of ground out of the land, the cemetery took an unusual measure in the last few years: it changed all of the roads to sidewalks. They’ve also used up the space in front of the office. Hey, it’s not glamorous, but you’re in.

I saw two common features with which I was unfamiliar. One was an image of five candles, which represent the five levels of the soul. The other was an urn with a cloth partially draped over it. This is supposed to symbolize immortality. From behind, the urns look like they could be ghosts.

I didn’t see too much of excitement in the southeast part of the nabe. I came across another branch of the Brooklyn Public Library – the Ryder Branch. I also found a building trying to stake a claim on the Borough Park/Bensonhurst rivalry on 63rd Street.

The Calko Medical Center is being constructed at Bay Parkway and 60th Street. Reading about permitting process is a reminder how dependent this area is on the private automobile. (Eddie had remarked that difficulty finding a parking space was a recent phenomenon.)

One item of note: within a single block on the commercial 20th Avenue, I saw English, Spanish, Chinese (I don’t know which dialect), Cyrillic (likely Russian), Hebrew, Korean, and Arabic. I admit I was surprised to see this last one.

My last stop was at a Chinese pastry-shop, Family Cafe Inc. In a toss-up between the Egg Pastry and the Pineapple Bun, I selected the latter ($0.70). It was moist and thick, like a king cake, with a flaky pineapple layer on top. I ate it on the platform at the N train’s 20th Avenue stop. It was very good.

This trip was a reminder of how fickle designations can be. Mapleton was well-defined in the early 20th century, but today, very few use it. (Beyond Eddie, I asked five or six persons what neighborhood I was in; one in the south said Bensonhurst, while the others said Borough Park.) I wonder how often the Department of City Planning reviews its list of neighborhoods.

Here’s a map of my route.

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