New York City

A Return to Willets Point Part 2 by greg brophy

As I wrote in the previous post "A Return to Willets Point" I went back to take some more photos and see how much of the area has changed. While walking through the area I saw a group of men doing body work on a car and spotted this guy covered in Bondo. I asked his name but didn't want to say but let me take his photo. 

Blanco y Rojo

Around the corner we met John who was eating some birthday cake. He was hesitant to have his photo taken but he agreed in the end. On a side note, most people there do not want to have their photo taken. It takes about 3 trips for them to see me and feel comfortable. 

Cake and Eat it Too

Since we came back we also brought prints with us from the last time we were there. We meet up with Frank who is also know as Ponchee. Here is his photo from the first time we met: 

Then known as Frank

Ponchee now

On my first trip I took a photo of two sisters selling drinks. We could not find them again but we meet their brother Ricki. He gave the photo we took of his sisters to them.


A Return to Willets Point by greg brophy

Permits to tear the place down

It’s been a while since I have gone back to Willets Point. Eni and I went to visit a week ago armed with photos we had taken on the last few trips to give back to the people we photographed last time we were there. We were surprised and delighted to see many of the same people we had photographed before. They were really happy that we returned and gave them back something. We were also able to create some more interesting photos.

One thing I noticed was how much the area has change. The first photo below is from my first trip there in 2014 and the photo on the right is what is there now. They are turning this part into a parking lot. Right next-door is a huge parking lot that sits empty most of the time so I am not sure why someone felt compelled to build another one. The car in the photo on the right belonged to the security guard there who told me I was not allowed to take photos there.  In three years of taking photos there, this was the first time I was told that.

Willets Point 2014

Willets Point 2016

While finding and giving out some of the photos, we meet one of the owners of several properties in Willets Point. He owns at last one full block, if not more. He did not want to be photographed, but was more than willing to talk to us. His name is Eli and he bought the property in the 80’s for 1.6 million. He told us his wife thought he was crazy. Now they are offering money in the range of 50 million and he still refuses to sell it. Eli told me that a lot of people depend on him for jobs and for an affordable place to get their cars fixed. Otherwise they would pay double to get it fixed at most garages in the city. After Eli is gone, maybe his kids or wife will sell it, but not while he is still living.  The problem that Willets Point faces now, according to Eli, is that half the building are empty now and the city has done nothing with them leaving it open for drug addicts to use late at night. Business is also down because people are not coming as much. They think that nobody is there anymore working on cars.

Reconnecting and giving photos back to the people who work there.

Across the street from Eli is Ali who has had a business in Willets Point for over 20 years. He ran it with his brother Frank, who has passed away. Ali told us that he rents from someone who also owns a large section of Willets Point. He pays $10,000 a month and is worried that at any moment they could sell he would have to move. We asked where he would go and he was not sure. Ali came from Afghanistan back in the 80’s with his family. He is extremely knowledgeable about cars and has a mental record of every part in his garage.  Ali’s main complaint was the lack of infrastructure in Willets Point. He could not get Verizon out to his place to fix the Internet; he relies on a computer system that he uses to see if other garages have parts his customer needs. There is no sewer system and therefore no bathrooms there. Customers ask all the time and he has to tell them no. The roads have not been paved in ages, even though they pay a lot of money in taxes. 

Ali in front of his Garage 2014

Ali in front of his Garage 2014

Ali in his office. Frank was his brother and was the one to put the money from all over the world on the wall. Sort of a shrine for him.

It was good to be back and take more photos in Willets Point. We talked to a lot of people and heard some interesting stories. I will have some more posted soon.

Sony A7RII Photos by greg brophy

I recently acquired the Sony A7RII and I have not had much time to use it yet, but so far I love the photos. It takes some getting used to a full frame camera. I usually shot APSC or Micro 4/3rds, both great for what they do when you need environmental portraits and want everything in focus (I know, crazy right, but their was a time before the bokeh craze that photographers wanted to have everything in focus). So here are a few test shots while I finish reading the manual.


Sony A7RII with the Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA Lens

Sony A7RII with the Sony Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA Lens

Behold Blog by greg brophy

The Persistence of Steel

This past Sunday, I was honored to have a piece about "The Iron Triangle" series posted on the Behold blog on Slate by David Rosenberg. Check it out here.

Check Out the Long Beard on This Guy by greg brophy

Some of you may know that I work as a designer for B&H Photo and one of the benefits is I get to borrow all kinds of cameras and lenses. This week I borrowed the Nikon D610. I usually use a Panasonic GX7 micro 4/3rd camera and I forgot how big and bulky DSLRs are. I have also shot with the new Sony A7 II and I will write about that as well. 

Eni and I went for a walk today through our neighborhood of Crown Heights. We walked past this guy who I think was selling fragrant oils. I asked if I could take his photo and he was a bit shocked that I would want to. I told him he has an interesting face. As I got ready to take the photo he said to wait one second and he pulled his really long beard out of his shirt.  I couldn't believe it.

Tips on Buying a House in Brooklyn Part 5 by greg brophy

We had not really packed anything until the final contract was signed and we had keys in our hands just in case something happened or we would jinx it by packing before we signed. I started to look around for some moving companies, I have heard of some horror stories. Most won’t tell you on their website and you have to call. When you do call they ask how many rooms and give you a price of about $1500 for a one bedroom. 

Read More

Tips on Buying a House in Brooklyn Part 4 by greg brophy

When it was time to get a mortgage, our agent suggested the company we used for the mortgage. It was The Federal Savings Bank. The Broker was a little pushy, reminded me of Joe Pesci, and we went to his office to start the paper work. We had talked to him many times before that, but had never seen him in person. The office is so far out there in Queens, I thought I would be flying back home via JFK. It was a small dingy office from the 80’s, just like you would see in movies.

Read More

Tips on Buying a house in Brooklyn part 3 by greg brophy

How do You Say FU in Brooklyn or Learning the Local Vernacular

It a cold winter night and our broker shows us a few houses in Bedstuy and Crown Heights. The first two house we really no good and the Agent turned to us and said “I have a house, it’s still being renovated and is not on the market yet but will be soon.” They key to finding a good place in Brooklyn is having an agent with connections in the neighborhood. Our Agent went to the same synagogue as the seller of the house. We pull up to the house and it was promising, three stories with a basement. The outside was in ok condition but we were told they would be redoing the outside of the house as well. It was a fake red brick. We walked into the second floor where the master bedroom would be. It was covered in a pink shag carpet and looked pretty bad. Eni gave me this look like she wanted to just leave, but I said wait, lets see. We walked through the house and saw 3 bedrooms upstairs and a huge open living room and kitchen downstairs. There was very little there, just a large empty hole. Next we went to the basement, which was a little short but had cool brick walls and we were told they were going to finish the ceiling with sheet rock. It can be very helpful to see a house in this stage before they are able to hide all the problems. I looked at the beam and it seemed like it was in pretty good shape. I could see the pipes, but it did not mean much to me at the time. We finally went upstairs and saw the two-bedroom apartment. It was a pretty good size and very nice, or at least better than what we were currently living in. 

I managed to get a minute alone with Eni to ask her what she thought. She was not very impressed with the place, but I told her to wait and lets see what it would look like done. I could visualize what it would look like and saw the potential based on all the other places we had seen. The next day, the agent took us to a place the seller had also renovated in Bushwick and it was ok compared to the other houses we saw, usually they use the cheapest appliances and cabinets from Home Depot. To give you an idea, if we were to do the kitchen ourselves, we would spend $25,000-30,000 at least. Most renovated houses look like they spent $10,000.

Eni was convinced and we put in an offer without seeing it fully done. Our agent told us that the seller wanted to wait for the place to be fully done before he accepted any offers. This is a good and a bad idea. Good because sometimes it’s the only way to get a place in a competitive market like Brooklyn. Bad because the seller has not incentive to make any more upgrades to the house and will finish it off as cheap as possible.  The other important thing we learned about biding on houses is that if the seller is asking for $800,000 he really wants $850,000. They hope that by offering it at a low price (I know, the irony is not lost on me) that more people will bid on it and raise the price. When it can time to make an offer, we bid on what the seller asked for, the agent was not very enthused. In the meantime while we waited for the house to finish; approximately two weeks, we looked for other houses. After about 5 more houses, we were still convinced that the one in Crown Heights was for us.

Finally the house is pretty much done and the broker submitted our bid. He came back saying that he really wanted $50,000 more. We were very disappointed because it was out of our budget and we really liked the place. I actually was pretty pissed off that the agent did not tell us this before. He said if he is going to have an open house next weekend and if he doesn’t get any offers he might sell to use. I believe they just suspected that we would say ok. The next day after talking it over with Eni, we told the broker thanks but no thanks. He was also pretty disappointed but I did not like the idea of not being taken seriously and being someone else’s backup plan. So I asked the broker to see more places. The next week we went to see three more places in Bedstuy and Crown Heights, two of which I found myself and forwarded to the broker. We saw all three of them and well surprise; all three were actually pretty good and all in our price range. So while discussing the places we found, the broker told us that the seller of the house we liked in Crown Heights would agree to our offer if we upped it 25,000 more and decided now. He would also not have the open house or accept any other offers. At that price, the place was now again within our reach and we said ok.

The next day I called Zack, the inspector to come and look at the place on Saturday. He gets there a little earlier than us, but I was surprised by the fact that they were still having an open house. Something the seller said he would not do. That should have been my first hint that the seller was less than honorable. Well we can play dirty as well. To begin with the two other real estate agents there were not happy that we had an inspector there during the open house, but they were not the brightest agents I have ever met either. We were upstairs with the inspector when a couple came to look at the house. Eni acted like she had never seen the place before and said to me in a very loud voice “Greg did you see how bad that leak is?” “This place has lots of problems!” and other similar comments when other buyers were around. Eni moved downstairs and heard one of the agents say to the couple ”Well these guys already have an inspector here and the deal is almost done.” What agent says that to people? What a dumbass. The couple was pissed and said to the agent “Why did you have us come here then?” We were all downstairs in the kitchen and the agent was eating fried chicken. The whole place smelled of greasy food. Not the kind of scent you want in a house you are trying to sell. Eni turned to him and said “You should pay me for letting you eat in my Kitchen.” The look on his face was priceless. She said I am going to buy this place and if you sell it to someone else I will kill you. When anther couple came in they had their back to Eni and the Real Estate agent was facing Eni. She made a motion across her neck like slitting a throat. I don’t think he knew what to do with us.

The inspector was finished and we went over his finding. The good news was that there were no termites he could see and no major problems. Most of them were pretty minor and what wasn’t, we asked the seller to fix. He agreed to most of the fixes. The only main problem was that the heating system had not yet been turned on and we would have to come back to check that. Two days later we went back for a final review and signed the papers. I gave him a check and told them that the money is being transferred from one account to the next and to wait a two days before cashing the check. 

This is a pretty long series, but I feel that it is important other people know what is happening so they don't get ripped off too. The other two parts are written and I will post them next week.

Tips on Buying a House in Brooklyn Part 2 by greg brophy

Armed with the knowledge of FHA's and what we can afford we went to see a few places with the broker. Most were around $800,000 in Bedstuy and not exactly the beautiful brownstones we were seeing everywhere. They were crappy wood frame houses. We were basically looking for a place with a full finished basement so I could use it as a darkroom and Eni to sell antique furniture from. We needed at least a two bedroom and a rental apartment above. Eni started calling other realtors and really digging through sites to find places. Eni would call to talk to the broker, but a lot of times they did not take her seriously or were very rude with her. Mostly we think because English is her third language and she is a woman. When I called they were all polite and accommodating. Eventually she made an appointment with a realtor I shall call Samuel. I don't want to use his real name and it will become evident later why. He had 3 places to show us in Bedstuy. When we met with him, I had an uneasy feeling and did not completely trust him and neither did Eni. We looked at what he had and they were much better, but still not right. Sam suggested another place in the Flatbush Ditmas Park area. We were hesitant because we had not really heard much about that area. The next weekend we went and saw two places. The first one was very big, but not the prettiest place I have ever seen so we went to the other place. This house is a Limestone townhouse that when Eni walked into, she fell in love. It had everything we wanted. It was fully renovated and had access to the backyard from outside the house and so we made a bid. The price was $800,000 but put a bid in at $750,000. They countered with $775,000, which was in our budget so we accepted. Then the real fun began.


I knew nothing about closing on a house so I asked a few coworkers for recommendations on a lawyer. There is an old joke that goes “What’s the difference between Linda (the lawyer that was recommended) and a junk yard dog? Lipstick.” Well that summed up our Lawyer pretty well and we were pretty confident with her that we would not get screwed. They sent over the first contract and she basically laughed at it. Basically they wanted to sell as is with no warranty or guarantee on anything with the house. This is actually normal with developers who renovate and flip a house in two months. She asked about permits. Their answer basically was “Permits? We don’t need no stinkin permits” this is Brooklyn. Ok what about Certificate of Occupancy? “What you actually want to live there?” What I basically learned was that nobody gets permits in Brooklyn (or at least in places like Flatbush, Bedstuy, Crown Heights or Bushwick) there is no way you could buy renovate and sell within two months and get permits which is what they all basically do. Now when buying a house the two most important sites you can use are: for finding out about permits and violations and for months I lived on these sites researching everything about the house down to who owned it in 1905 by pulling up images of the original contracts. Even my agent was amazed (and pissed) at how much research I had done. The house had a few minor violations but nothing serious that wasn’t going to be cleared by the time we closed. As for the permits, everybody told me not to buy a house without permits, but we could not find a single house under 2 million that had them and wasn’t located in Park Slope. Just to check, I went to the house while another agent had an open house and pretended like I had never seen it before and asked about permits. Same thing, no permits in Brooklyn.


Ok so we said it is a risk we will have to take in order to buy a house, but lets at least get it inspected before we sign anything. I found a good inspector named Zack (real name) and he was great. He spent 3 hours and was very patient. Well while we where there the roof started to leak much to the embarrassment of the agent. Next thing he noticed was termites. They tried to hide it but it was still slightly visible. The biggest problems with these houses that they flip is that if it has a basement and it is sheet rocked, they are not doing it to make it better or more valuable, they are doing it to hide problems with the pipes, beams or termites. We were actually shown a house that had such a bad termite problem that they had eaten through most of the beam and I thought that if I touched it, it would collapse then and there. They wanted 1 million for that house. Armed with the report with the inspector with went back to negotiate. To say they were less than willing to negotiate is a huge understatement. They were so hostile and nasty that they actually cursed out my lawyer for wanting them to fix things like a leaky roof and termites and give a warranty. Two things sellers really hate, warranties and escrows. The real estate agent told us that our lawyer was being too tough. I responded great I don’t want a push over for a lawyer; I want someone who is willing to fight for our own best interests. Eventually the real estate broker offered to fix the roof out of his own pocket to close. Well as we tried to finish up the details our lawyer went on vacation and when she got back their lawyer went on vacation so that was 3 weeks of stress about whether we would close before someone else came along with a better offer. Now they are both back and we are trying to get them to agree on the final contract and the seller’s lawyer stops responding. Not a good sign. They told us eventually that they no longer thought it was worth their time to deal with us and that we were not serious about buying the house. In reality they got a cash offer for $740,000 and they took it. We were livid. I was so angry and sick to my stomach. Eni just keep saying it was not meant to be and we will find something better, but at this point the prices of the houses were going up by $50,000 a month and were quickly going out of our price range. Depression set it and if I heard one more person say you will find something better, I was not only going to punch them in the face but their Grandmother as well.


Afterwards I said to Eni I need a week to just rest. I had been dealing with constant phone calls between the lawyers and agent and fighting everyday and I was just emotionally exhausted. Three days late my persistent wife arranged to see some more places. I was reluctant to look and we did for months. We even looked out as far as Cypress Hills, which has some beautiful homes, but they are just too far from any meaningful transportation. Then as we were giving up hope of ever finding a place our agent took us too Crown Heights.



Tips on Buying a House in Brooklyn Part 1 by greg brophy

You lookin at ME?!

You lookin at ME?!

Or Don't Do What I Did.

Things have been quiet on the site and social media lately because for the past 8 months my wife and I have been looking to buy a house in Brooklyn and it's a full time job. Well as of the end of December, we got a place and it is great...sort of. I will give you a blow by blow of what happened and what to avoid.

Our goal was to get a place that had at least two bedrooms and a good size basement. We had lived in Inwood, a small community above Washington Heights at the end of Manhattan. I had lived in the same apartment since 2003 and the rent was low but it was a small one bedroom and we were quickly running out of space. We had been looking for years to buy in that area but most places are Co-ops and require at least 20% down which took a while to save. A couple years ago while trying to save, we started to notice men getting off the subway with funny looking mustaches and beards. We looked and thought maybe he missed the L train stop at 14th by about an hour and then we realized "Oh Shit! The neighborhood is about to really change." For a long time Inwood had been a hidden secret. A great little area with lots of wonderful parks. It did not have much in the way of restaurants, (unless you like Dominican food or fast food) but that quickly changed. With Dyckman st. becoming a hotspot with Jay Z and Beyonce at La Marina and people looking for affordable rents (think 1200 for a one bedroom) we were quickly priced out of our beloved Inwood. We watched one bedroom Co-ops go from 300,000 to 600,000 in a couple of years.

While looking for other places to possibly move to, my wife suggested we take a look at Bedstuy. I knew it was close to Bushwick and that area has just exploded, so I agreed. On a Sunday morning we made a 3 hour train ride to the area. We just decided to walk around for a while to get a feel for the area. We walked up Malcolm X Blvd and as we passed people, everyone was very friendly and made it a point to say hello. Sorry, I am a jaded New Yorker and when someone says hello, they usually want something or are in the process of lifting your wallet. This was not the case, and contrary to the stereotypes, people had manners in Brooklyn.

We were walking down the street and  most Real Estate offices were closed, but then we came upon a place that was called Reliable Real Estate. Again my jadedness struck and any place in NYC that has reliable in their name is usually not, but again Eni convinced to go in, she is not good at taking no for an answer. We talked to a young Hispanic guy at the desk and he directed us to one of the agents. I believe his name was Avi and asked us what we were looking for and how much could we afford. We told him $500,000 would be stretching it. He laughed at us and told us that this neighborhood was well beyond that price range. He asked how much we make and we told him. He then pulled out a chart and said well if you make this much you should be able to afford $800,000. We were shocked and I told him I don't have a rich uncle. He said with a FHA loan at 3.5% down you could afford a place like this. We had never heard of an FHA loan. Basically it is a federal loan for first time home owners that allow you to only put 3.5 - 5% down. Great where do I sign!!! Well of course their is a catch, it is NYC and their is always a catch. On top of your Mortgage you have to pay PMI which is Private Mortgage Insurance. For a $800,000 mortgage you will also have to pay about $1,500 a month for PMI. So a $4000 mortgage and $1,500 PMI and well its still a bit much. Then he told us that what most people do in these areas in buy a two family home and rent out the top floor for anywhere between $1500 and $2500. Ok that takes care of the PMI. The other thing he told us is that between 2-5 years most people refinance and get the PMI removed. You can do that when the estimate for the house goes up 20% or you have paid off 20% of the Mortgage. Plus he told us that you will get large tax returns at the end of the year that will help with the Mortgage. So basically we could have a house in Brooklyn and pay anywhere from $1500 to $2000 a month. Ok not bad and it definitely seems doable right? Right! Oh lord help us.

Next - Out of the Lions Den and into the Wolf Pack.