Strolling past the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights is an exercise in envy suppression. What homey perfection hides behind each cornice and gable, bay window and ornate lintel? How much more resplendent are the lives inside those buildings than in our own apartments? For 31 years the Brooklyn Heights Association has provided some answers by offering a tour of private residences in the neighborhood that, for one day, allowed the curious up the stoops and into the living rooms that are often every bit as palatial as imagined…
Strolling past the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights is an exercise in envy suppression. What homey perfection hides behind each cornice and gable, bay window and ornate lintel? How much more resplendent are the lives inside those buildings than in our own apartments? For 31 years the Brooklyn Heights Association has provided some answers by offering a tour of private residences in the neighborhood that, for one day, allowed the curious up the stoops and into the living rooms that are often every bit as palatial as imagined.
But after three decades, the association has called it quits on the tour: a victim, organizers say, of the times — in particular, of Google.
“The people who put their house on the tour, it’s an unbelievable act of generosity, for which they get no credit in a funny way, because it is anonymous” to protect privacy, said Erika Belsey Worth, a vice president of the Brooklyn Heights Association. “Now you look at the address — you look it up, you find out everything,” she said, adding, “It’s just an invasion of privacy in the way that it wasn’t 30 years ago.”
Or as the group’s treasurer, Daniel Watts, put it at the association’s annual meeting in this month, according to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which first reported the tour’s end: “The house tour is a victim of the modern world.”
The issue, in part, is a fear of exposure. The houses, some with stained-glass detailing, parquet flooring, marble countertops and settees with throw pillows arranged just so, could seem too Pinterest-worthy for a visitor to resist taking a photograph, association members said.
The tour, which was usually held in May, typically consisted of five private homes, all volunteered by owners whose names were not published in the tour’s program. Tickets were $40 in recent years — though last year the price was doubled in an effort to keep numbers down. Although the tour was a significant part of its fund-raising strategy, the association says it is currently planning an event to rival the tour.
The organization had rules to protect the homeowners: no photographs and no children except babies, and even then, only in “front packs,” according to its website. Volunteers were stationed in each room and on landings between floors, not only to ward against visitors’ tripping on a rumpled runner, but also to monitor for forbidden photo-taking.
As far as the association knows, photos of the interiors of homes on the tour have not appeared on the Internet.
But with the ubiquity of camera phones, surreptitious photography is harder to spot, Ms. Worth said. “You don’t even have to look through the viewfinder,” she said. It would be impossible to know, for example, whether visitors had their phone aloft beside that wrought-iron mantelpiece because they were innocently composing a text message or because they were posting a photo of the fireplace to Twitter.
So far, the worst thing that has occurred in the tour’s history, according to Judy Stanton, a former executive director of the association who has been involved with the tour for three decades, was when a woman tripped down a staircase and dislocated a shoulder a few years ago. Even after the woman was taken away in an ambulance and the house was removed from the itinerary for the rest of the day’s event, the tour marched on, Ms. Stanton said.
But it is the mere specter of exposure on Instagram and in other corners of the Internet, not whether such a thing has actually happened, that has scared people away from volunteering their homes for the tour.
“It’s a strange kind of privacy concern that people have because on the one hand, they are active in social media, in ways that I don’t think are at all private, and then they don’t want people inside,” said Ms. Stanton, who put her house on the first official tour in 1985, when her children were little.
“I am of the generation that rings the doorbell for a cup of sugar,” she said, adding, “I don’t see that kind of culture prevailing in 2016.”
Real estate websites like StreetEasy and Trulia have made it relatively simple to search for a home’s sale price, floor plans and even its owner’s identity, which may have turned off new participants, said John MacIntosh, who runs an investment bank that serves nonprofits and volunteered his house for the tour in the past. Visitors “see the books you read, and they see the bed you sleep on, and I think that people are fine with that,” he said. “But I guess they are less fine about people knowing who they are in a LinkedIn, Internet, social media sort of world.”
For some homeowners, the possibility of widespread social media exposure prompted concerns that their homes would become easy targets for burglars.
Yet organizers of house tours in other parts of New York City say they have not heard the same concerns raised that led to the demise of the Brooklyn Heights tour, offering explanations with a whiff of neighborhood rivalry.
“They go for the higher-end public, large-scale houses, in terms of celebrities, that sort of thing,” said Gilly Youner, an architect and co-president of the Park Slope Civic Council. In her Brooklyn neighborhood, there has been a house tour for twice as long, she said, which tends to attract older people. “I think that the demographic that comes to see ours is not a social media demographic. And then there’s a lot of local Park Slopers who don’t really feel like they want to tweet or post about our neighbors.”
Gina B. Ramcharan, the president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, says she sometimes has difficulty recruiting homeowners for the home tour in her Harlem neighborhood because of a surplus of modesty, not a fear of being exposed. “A lot of it is, ‘Oh my God, I have to clean up my house!’” she said. “Or, ‘I don’t think my house is worthy for the tour,’ because they’re thinking it has to be Architectural Digest-ready.”
The act of touring a private home seems, by definition, an invasion of privacy, albeit a sanctioned one. For Ms. Ramcharan, a small-business consultant, the tours are an act of sharing.
“If you saw some of the detail, the original mantles, it is really something to stand up and be proud about,” she said. “So I can’t understand someone being apprehensive about taking photos.”
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