If you’re walking through Crown Heights and come upon a scene like the one we ran into last week, you might think you stumbled onto a movie set with a number of vintage cars parked casually on the street. Films like Wonderstruck and television shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel have all been filmed within these few blocks in recent years, so your hunch might not be far off. But something even more relevant to neighborhood change is happening here.
On Sterling Place just off of Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights is one of the neighborhood cornerstones, the aptly named “Auto Baby Sitters,” a parking garage. The long-time business is going the way of much of the former industrial landscape in Crown Heights and turning into condominiums. As demolition got underway last week, a collection of vintage cars spilled out onto the streets of Sterling Place. As of last Wednesday, you could find a Princess Rolls Royce with right-hand drive like in England and British plates, a Plymouth Special De Luxe Club Coupe, an old VW Bug, a Datsun 280ZX, a Buick Electra, and more.
I know Autobabysitters well because I parked my car there for years and I lived across the street in…a condo called Hello Sterling converted from a former vacant lot that previously had a two-floor industrial building on it. One of the most interesting features of the previous building was the overhang on the building, much like you can still see on some preserved Meatpacking District buildings.
What I loved about Auto Baby Sitters was the community feel. The owner Yves Saint Louis and his sons were always super friendly and we got to know them as neighbors even before we got a car in the first place or parked our car at Auto Baby Sitters. Yves speaks French, so my husband, kids and I would chat with him in French (and English of course). Since they were always moving cars around, they were on the street a lot and were permanent neighborhood fixtures. Yves began working in this garage over forty years ago as an assistant manager and eventually saved up to buy the building and the business, which he has been running ever since.
Over the years, there were also some interesting activations in their building besides car parking. On the second floor for some time there was an art studio and I could see some of the goings on from my apartment across the street. I remember it was exciting when they got a new version of their hand-painted sign in a refreshing bright blue.
Then during the pandemic, the most magical thing happened. Laci Chisholm from Fit 4 Dance, a dance studio which was then on Nostrand, hosted some open-air dance classes on the rooftop. It was truly something to behold in peak pandemic, the energy and pure joy that was radiating from the roof of a parking garage. It was quintessentially New York City and how it came together encapsulates what we love about this city. It was spontaneous and it was because when people live and work and are invested in their neighborhoods, they get to know each other and ideas percolate.
You would always see some fun stuff in the garage, even on the first floor. There might be some kind of food truck or a Covid testing van. There would always be some kind of vintage car. Sometimes when you would get your car, Yves, his sons Chris and William, or a worker at the garage would have to get it from the depths of the basement. One time I had to go with them because all I needed was to grab a car seat out of the back. It was pitch black down there and we’d have to use a flashlight to search for the car. How they got these cars in and out was always impressive and quite a mystery to me. Down there would be more vintage cars.
Yves once told me that some of the vintage cars were just vehicles people had left behind and stopped paying their monthly fees for. But a lot of the cars—somewhere between 70 and 80-belong to Yves who has collected them over the years. In the past, there was also an old New York City Checker taxi, The emptying of the garage has been occurring gradually over the past year but now construction workers are also actively moving debris from the interior to get it ready for demolition.
Already today, you have to look closely to catch the automobile history that was once prevalent in Crown Heights. In the early 1900s, much of the Brooklyn automobile industry was actually clustered in Crown Heights. Major automobile brands—Ford, Chrysler, Buick, General Motors, and Pontiac—all had dealerships and showrooms along Bedford Avenue, with service centers and garages around the neighborhood rounding out the auto-related offerings.
Down the street less than two blocks away from Auto Baby Sitters is the gem of Automobile Row: the Studebaker Building. The landmarked building was built in a neo-Gothic style out of concrete and brick, with a white terra cotta facade. Along the parapets at the top of the building, you can still find the wheel logo of the Studebaker company. The front facade, which once had large windows to showcase cars, has been altered significantly and the building was converted into apartments for low-income, disabled, and homeless families. The building that Auto Baby Sitters is in is nearly a hundred years old and if you look closely, you’ll see some of the etchings common to the auto industry—a wheel with wings. In the 1940s, as you can see in the New York City Municipal Archives tax photographs, the garage was called the Savoy.
We’re sad to see this local business go but also know that this is the direction the whole neighborhood is going in.
Next, check out 10 Lost and Extant Mom-and-Pop Shops