The saying “You can’t go home again” isn’t true in the age of Airbnb and VRBO. Feeling nostalgic? You just might be able to stay in your old home and take a trip down memory lane. That’s what I did last summer.
I grew up in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood of Brooklyn, right next to Park Slope. It’s a trendy area that was anything but trendy back in the 1970’s when I was little.
My father was born in the 1920’s on the same block where I grew up. He lived in a three-story house, with his parents and four siblings, that had been subdivided into separate apartments. His cousins, aunts and uncles lived in the other apartments, and my great-grandparents lived across the street.
In the 1950’s, my father bought a house down the block and moved in with his wife. I was born there. When I was a teenager 30 years later, he sold it and bought another house on the block, two doors away. Without any help, he began restoring the home and, a year later, we moved in. This was the home listed on Airbnb.
For decades, much of our extended family lived within a two-block radius. As a child, I could name everyone who lived in every house on our street. In Brooklyn at that time, this was normal.
Over the years, my cousins grew up and moved away, aunts and uncles died, and eventually there were no more Bowens left in Brooklyn.
As an adult I’ve lived in 13 different houses, 10 cities, and 4 countries. I’ve worked my way around the world with my husband and our three daughters. Early in the millennium, we moved back to Brooklyn to live in the house my father restored. My mother had moved to Connecticut and wanted family to stay in the house. I loved the idea of my daughters growing up on the same street as my father and me, going to P.S. 154, playing in the same Prospect Park playground.
But I didn’t love it enough to buy the house or stay put. Instead, we moved to Abu Dhabi and later settled in Virginia. Meanwhile, my mother sold the house.
We still try to get back to Brooklyn once a year. We rarely do anything touristy, preferring to revisit favorite restaurants, fill up on New York pizza, visit friends, go to Central Park, and shop. We usually stay in Park Slope but, while planning our most recent trip, I saw my childhood home listed on Airbnb and contacted the owner immediately.
The online pictures showed many updates, but I was pleased to see that most of the home’s charming features (pocket doors, tin ceilings, built-in cabinets) were still intact.
The owner wasn’t there to show us around, but I didn’t mind. I felt instantly at ease. The home, a wood frame rowhouse, is still gray with white trim but the door is now a brighter blue. Wood floors have been added throughout the house. Though I guess added is the wrong word. They’ve been restored. Although the kitchen has been updated, they’ve kept the same floorplan. It’s my old home, only better.
As I walked around the house during the next few days, memories kept popping into my head. My father reading a book, sipping wine on the back porch. My mother hosting poker nights in the dining room. My girls playing in the backyard, coming in covered in mosquito bites. My husband proposing in the dining room, getting down on one knee. Catching lightning bugs on summer evenings. I saw the dinner parties I hosted as a young adult, Christmas mornings when my girls were young, my father carving intricate furniture in the basement workshop, a hint of sawdust lingering in the air.
Up early that first morning, I sat in the kitchen having breakfast by myself. Looking out at the trees in the backyard made me feel at peace. I sat there for the longest time, drinking coffee, enjoying where I was in that moment. Everyone else was sleeping and I could just let my mind wander.
While so many things have stayed the same, so much has changed. The video store is now a hip bar called The Adirondack. Laura’s Italian restaurant, a neighborhood institution where my husband and I ate the night he proposed, is now a chic French bistro. The playground in Prospect Park has been completely updated. There’s a water sprinkler that kids run through on hot summer days. Our girls would have loved that when we lived here. The heavy wooden see-saws are gone, which is a shame, but at least now you can walk through the park after dark, safely.
Regina Bakery, up the hill, is mostly unchanged. The same family has been running it since 1970 and they still have the most incredible cannoli and Italian cookies, especially their sesame seed “Regina” cookies. And Terrace Bagel is still around, although it’s expanded to include a café. So much of the neighborhood seems scrubbed clean, almost sterile in its gentrification. Young families priced out of Park Slope have snatched up houses in Windsor Terrace and Kensington, pushing real estate prices ever higher. My father would be amazed at what the old house is worth today. On the other hand, Farrell’s is still standing, a working-class Irish bar that’s been around since the 1930’s.
My father died in 1996, but staying in our old house, which he refurbished with his own hands, made him feel close again. I could see his handiwork in the stained-glass transoms, the built-in dining room cabinets, and the plaque in front of the house that reads circa 1853. Everything he restored so lovingly 30 year ago has remained untouched.
When our stay ended, I was a little sad. I loved revisiting the past. Part of me regretted ever leaving and I played the “what if” game with myself. What if we’d never left Brooklyn? What would my life be like now? It’s hard to say. Would I be happier? Sadder? I’d have missed out on so many places, friends and experiences.
In the end, I’m glad we moved on, but at the same time I can’t wait for our next trip to Brooklyn.
– Maura Bowen Madigan is a librarian and travel writer from Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Oasis Living, Escape from America, School Library Journal, Live & Invest Overseas and other magazines. She’s lived in Okinawa, Abu Dhabi, New York, St. Louis, Korea, Virginia, Tokyo, Dubai and Northwest Ohio.