Expat lives: Park life in Brooklyn

Leigh Blake in Ansonia Court’s communal courtyard

Long before settling in the US, Leigh Blake was a south London girl with a local twang and a passion for politics. Today, neither the accent nor passion have softened, despite decades of living in both California and New York. Tireless and fiery-willed, Blake lives in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Park Slope, 20 minutes by subway from lower Manhattan. Here, along the edge of Prospect Park, Blake is raising her 14-year-old son while demanding social justice for HIV patients and almost anyone else she fears is falling through the cracks.

With its elegant brownstones, weekly farmers market and extensive cultural offerings, Park Slope is a quintessentially upper middle-class New York neighbourhood. But it was Park Slope’s similarities to Britain that lured Blake to Brooklyn in 2003. “I had just returned from living in Los Angeles and I didn’t even know where Park Slope was,” she recalls. “But when I arrived, it just reminded me of a lovely little English village; with a proper high street, New York’s most beautiful park and lots of grass for my dogs to run around.”

Within months of that initial visit, Blake bought a two-bedroom apartment that she now shares with her son, as well as a Rhodesian ridgeback and a pit bull. The apartment is located in a 70-unit building known as Ansonia Court, which began life as the Ansonia Clock Company factory in 1881. A century later, the factory was converted into co-op apartments, including Blake’s 1,600 sq ft home. She recalls falling hard and fast for the apartment, whose large windows, exposed brick walls and high ceilings are a Park Slope rarity. “I didn’t really negotiate the price,” she says. “I paid around $500,000 back then; today the place is easily worth a million.”

Although Park Slope is best known for its restored townhouses, Blake likes Ansonia Court’s communal qualities – particularly its inner courtyard, which feels much like the council flat where she was raised in London. Yet as Park Slope continues to gentrify – and townhouses pass the $4m mark – she laments the neighbourhood’s increasing homogeneity and exclusivity. “Ansonia Court is far whiter and less economically diverse than when I moved in,” says Blake, who first came to New York in the mid-1980s to follow punk music bands such as the Ramones and artists like Andy Warhol. “But it’s still filled with an incredible group of people whose collective power could easily change the world.”

A similar spirit of idealism has guided Blake’s career for much of the past 25 years. Back in 1990, Blake founded the Red Hot Organisation, best known for the Red Hot + Blue compilation album that featured musicians such as U2, David Byrne and Deborah Harry. Red Hot was a high-profile, philanthropic response to the Aids crisis that was taking its toll on both New York’s creative community and Blake’s own friends and collaborators. Based on the music of composer Cole Porter, the Red Hot series expanded into Brazilian, country and hip-hop versions and raised more than $10m for HIV treatment and education organisations worldwide. Its accompanying message – “Safe Sex = Hot Sex” – became an invaluable education device during a period of rampant HIV stigma and misinformation.

Since then, Blake has gone on to establish two more HIV organisations, the treatment-focused Keep a Child Alive foundation and, more recently, Act V, which focuses on prevention. Since it was founded in 2011, Act V has lobbied both the state department and the White House to help fund wide-scale HIV medication schemes across the globe. On a more personal level, Blake also advocates for neighbourhood families facing poverty or homelessness.

With its lucrative financial sector and tradition of philanthropy, Blake says New York is a fitting location for the non-profit work to which she has dedicated her adult life. Yet it’s America’s relative lack of public social service schemes that makes her long for England. “There’s no safety net here in the US; when people become homeless they’re placed in a shelter and treated like criminals,” says Blake, who is also a film-maker and was associate producer of the 1995 independent film Kids. “People often complain about Britain, but I find it a much kinder society than America – and I miss that sense of kindness.”

Nonetheless, America is where Blake has chosen to raise her son – helped by her South African ex-husband and Park Slope’s multi­cultural locals. For now, her son attends a state middle school, “a lovely place where kids of every race and class come together.” It’s the classic American “melting pot” with enough veteran Americans to help her son form a strong national identity. “My ex-husband and I can teach him about culture and humanitarianism,” she says, “but we’re both immigrants and we haven’t got a clue about things like baseball.”

Ten years after getting lost on the subway during her first trip to Brooklyn, Blake loves the safety and quiet of her adopted borough and her Ansonia Court community. Although Manhattan remains the location for much of her professional and activist work, “it would be hard to live there now,” she says. “There’s a familiarity to Brooklyn, a rich and storied past and, thanks to Prospect Park, an incredible bond with nature.”

In spite of Park Slope’s relative tranquillity, Blake cannot fully escape the complexities of urban American life. For instance, guns are now commonplace in New York’s state high schools. “Parents ask whether schools have metal detectors when choosing where to send their kids,” she says. “This is something that would never happen in Europe, but America is a very violent society.” Will Blake send her son to a state high school? “My politics demand I keep him in public [state] school,” she says. “But, well ... who knows if I will?”

Buying guide:

• While crime is still a concern in Park Slope, the neighbourhood’s overall crime rate dropped 83 per cent from 2003 to 2010.

• Median Park Slope sales prices increased 12.7 per cent to $975,000 during the fourth quarter of 2012. Park Slope was ranked as New York City’s most desirable neighbourhood by New York Magazine in 2010.

• “South Slope” – the neighbourhood’s southern end bordering Prospect Park West – has traditionally offered Park Slope’s most modestly-priced residences.

What you can buy for ...

$500,000 ... A one-bedroom/one-bathroom apartment in an eight-story condominium building ($529,000).

$1m ... Two-bedroom/two-bathroom 1,219 sq ft apartment with loft-like alcove ($1,099,000).

$5 million ... An eight-bedroom/six-bathroom, 6,000 sq ft Victorian- style, brick-and-limestone townhouse built back in 1896 and overlooking Prospect Park ($4.75 million).

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