Category Archives: Brooklyn History

The New Brooklyn: The ups and downs of a very frenetic borough

The subtitle to Kay S. Hymowitz‘s engaging and often provocative new book The New Brooklyn: What It Takes To Bring A City Back is a bit of a misnomer.

Brooklyn is not back in any conventional sense of the word. It has not returned to any kind of sense of normalcy or financial stability. In fact, Brooklyn has never felt more granular, a borough with newly formed and slightly unstable multiple personalities. If it were a person, you might medicate it.

Brooklyn is back — for many, safe, vibrant and livable but it is also beyond. It’s in a category all to its own.

Below: The new Williamsburg

Courtesy John/Flickr

Brooklyn is also my home. I live two blocks from a row of millionaires to the east and two blocks from working class residents in a housing project to the west. Retail options are frayed and deeply unsatisfying to all — expensive boutiques next to drug stores with lines down the block. No grocery stores in sight. A few blocks away lies the Gowanus Canal, a perilously grim body of water that now, in 2017, attracts glassy chemical films on its surface and luxury condos at its banks.

The past two decades in Brooklyn have been transformative in a way that few places in the world have experienced. This is certainly the most tumultuous era for the borough since it was dragged into the embrace of Greater New York — via the Consolidation of 1898. 

It can be one of the greatest places to live in the United States. It can also be a frustrating, hopeless place. Its dysfunctions are legion. The pockets of Brooklyn which foster great cultural changes are never far from others that are (intentionally or otherwise) closed to any sort of change.

Below: Sunset Park

Courtesy Barry Yanowitz/Flickr

Recent shifts began in the early 1990s when younger people, mostly single, began flocking to the industrial neighborhood of Williamsburg after they couldn’t find acceptable space across the river in the East Village and the Lower East Side. This, in itself, was not a new phenomenon; Brooklyn Heights saw a similar ‘bohemian’ gentrification a century ago, as did Park Slope in the 1960s and 70s.

But the Williamsburg migration initiated a widespread lurch of gentrification into Brooklyn — some of it, as Hymowitz notes, with great degrees of population displacement. Gentrification is considered a bad word for many, a sign of Brooklyn becoming deeply homogenized to the detriment of its working-class residents.

The New Brooklyn
What It Takes To Bring A City Back
by Kay S. Hymowitz
Roman & Littlefield

Roman & Littlefield

In The New Brooklyn, Hymowitz looks at the more nuanced effects of gentrification by diving into the histories of seven neighborhoods — Park Slope, Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Sunset Park and Canarsie. (My only objection to this book is that the surveys are so engaging that I would have loved to read her take on other intriguing corners — Red Hook and Brighton Beach, for example.)

Below: Brownsville

Courtesy Nathan Prelaw/Flickr

She notes that gentrification, even of the most well-intentioned kind, is always fated for a rough landing. “When the educated middle class sets up housekeeping amid people from a different culture — whether white working class, poor black or immigrant  Hispanic, Chinese or whoever — tensions are inevitable.”

Gentrification in Brooklyn has come in all forms, with varying degrees of displacement. While sensitive liberal tenancies among current displacers has made gentrification into a bad word, this was not so deeply concerning in the 1960s — in Park Slope, for example — when the city was spiraling towards financial doldrum.  Writes Hymowitz:

“[G]entrification can drive out residents by increasing evictions, demolitions and landlord harassment, and raising rents to heights that existing tenants cannot afford. This kind of displacement has a decades-long history in gentrifying Park Slope. In the early days (and despite their countercultural sympathies), brownstoners made no bones about wanting to evict tenants whom they often inherited with their newly purchased brownstones.”

Below: Park Slope

Courtesy John-Paul Pagano/Flickr

Yet the Williamsburg-into-Bushwick-and-beyond form of gentrification is of an entirely different breed; it became an international model for urban renewal. “Everyone, including people who might have once aspired to the Ritz, whether in Tokyo, Stockholm, Berlin, Philadelphia or Chicago, wants to be cool in a Brooklyn sort of way.

While this has made Brooklyn an overall safer place to live, it’s also created an experience quite out of reach for many. In Hymowitz’s survey, she also visits Brownsville, a neighborhood almost entirely closed off from the so-called “rebirth,” a place where residents, mostly poor and working class African-Americans, are struggling to break free from life in “the permanent ghetto.”

The New Brooklyn is anchored firmly in history with an excellent overview of Brooklyn’s past upfront and startling neighborhood histories beginning each chapter. History explains the reactions to modern changes.

In Bed-Stuy, longtime residents are concerned that rapid gentrification is changing the nature of this historic center of black culture. While in Sunset Park, as Hymowitz notes, “you’d be hard-pressed to find any anti-gentrification protests or activists taking up the cause.”

— By Greg Young

Below: Bedford-Stuyvesant

Courtesy Melissa Felderman/Flickr

 

 

Top picture — Brooklyn 1945, courtesy New York Public Library

 

The Terrible Brooklyn Theater Fire: The Worst Disaster In Brooklyn History — 140 Years Ago Today

It is difficult to discuss calmly the frightful disaster which happened in Brooklyn on Tuesday night. No such awful sacrifice of human life has ever been known in this country, shipwreck and the casualties of war alone being excepted. — New York Times editorial, Dec. 7, 1876 

This is a black-letter day in Brooklyn. The theatre named for and worthy of the city caught fire last night and its interior parts were consumed.  It is a saddening, fearful, most calamitous story which fills the eyes and darkens the homes of the people of Brooklyn, and deposits hundreds of dead within the walls of as many families, whose sorrow becomes, by the right of sympathy, the sorrow of every heart in the town. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 6, 1876

The charred remains of the Brooklyn Theater, courtesy Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper:

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One hundred and forty years this evening, nearly a thousand playgoers entered the Brooklyn Theater, at Washington and Johnson streets near City Hall, to enjoy the well-reviewed (and lengthy) production of N. Hart Jackson’s ‘The Two Orphans’.

The play already had a fateful history at this theater which opened in 1871. The wife of the original owner F.B. Conway died during the first run of The Two Orphans here at the theater. This particular versions of the play had just come from a successful run in New York. (In 1876, Brooklyn was not yet part of the city across the river.) The scenery and most of the cast was from a run at the Union Square Theater.

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During the show’s final act, stage hands discovered that a set piece backstage had caught fire.

From Frank Leslie’s: “Miss Kate Claxton, attired in the ragged raiment of the poor blind girl, and one of the ‘Orphans’, was lying on a pallet of straw with Pierre, Mr. Henry S. Hitchcock leaning over her. She heard whispers from the wings behind her — ‘The theater is on fire!’

The actors onstage attempted gamely to stay in character, for fear of causing a panic, until fiery bits of wood and flaming parts of the set began raining down upon them.

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As the audience leapt to the aisles in terror, the actors tried to calm people to prevent a stampede, to no avail. An usher forced open a rarely used exit door to free audience members, but the rush of December air only fed the flames, turning the once elegant auditorium, built only five years previous, into an inescapable trap of heat and asphyxiation.

 Those in the upper tiers of the theater — the ‘family circle’, or cheap seats, filled with men, women and children — were trapped by smoke within darkened foyers and unnavigable stairwells.
From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

The panic at the stairway was caused by the tide of flying people from the auditorium meeting that rushing from the gallery, and, in the conflict between the two bodies, men fell, women fainted, children were trampled underfoot, and the whole spectacle was that of a solid body with a myriad of heads struggling for its life, retarded by its own great weight. — Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

Some fell from balconies to their deaths. Dozens were crushed heading for doorways, and to some of those who survived, it seemed that all respectability had given way to base animal behavior. Most perished by suffocation or underfoot, while others were lost into the oblivion of belching smoke when weakened floors gave way.

Twenty five minutes after flames were first spotted backstage, one entire wall of the Brooklyn Theater caved backwards into the inferno, the once elegant ceiling fresco nothing but a crumbling scorch now. Flaming projectiles caught in the wind settled upon surrounding structures, and firefighters scrambled to soak the inferno, now in fear of scattering randomly through one of Brooklyn’s oldest neighborhood. Most in danger was the hotel on the corner, where some audience members had found momentary safety.

The streets were filled with a throng of excited people, who ran hither and thither, calling about the ames of dear ones whose voices could not be heard in answer. Many were hatless and coatless, their garments having been torn from them b the pushing and jesting of the crowd. —  — Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
Below: A map of the interior of the theater, which ran in Frank Leslie’s
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Since 1869, Brooklyn had a paid fire department, and many fought the fire from the streets. But the rudimentary firefighting implements of the day were unable to combat the inferno. The Brooklyn Theater burned for several hours more, dying out by early morning. Throughout the night, most could only watch — what to do, plunge into darkness? — and many did watch. Thousands flocked, some to help, others fascinated, horrified.
The headlines from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the New York Sun:
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Inspectors found an unspeakably grisly sight the next morning, heaps of burned bodies in formless masses — people choked or crushed, their remains almost unrecognizable amid blackened debris. In an eerie parallel to two later disasters (the General Slocum explosion of 1904 and the Triangle Factory Fire of 1911), a make-shift morgue was prepared on nearby Adams Street to accommodate the dozens of unidentifiable corpses.

Below: Families in the horrifying task of identifying the possessions of loved ones who had been killed in the blaze.

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Nobody is sure exactly how many died that evening — some number between 275 to 300 people. It is certainly among the worst disasters in Brooklyn history and one of the most catastrophic fires in American history.

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The place where the theater once stood is now occupied by Cadman Plaza, in the grove of trees just east of the Henry Ward Beecher statue. Many of the bodies (over a hundred) are buried together under a memorial at Green-Wood Cemetery.

At present there is no memorial at the site itself. Nearby a statue to Brooklyn’s great citizen Henry Ward Beecher, placed here in 1959 after the construction of Cadman Plaza


Below: the area of Cadman Plaza where the Brooklyn Theater once stood.

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GOWANUS! Brooklyn’s Troubled Waters

PODCAST The history of the Gowanus Canal, at the heart of a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood today, once used to be quite beautiful and non-toxic.

Brooklyn’s Gowanus — both the creek and the canal — is one of the most mysterious and historically important waterways in New York City. By coincidence, it also happens to be among its most polluted, shrouded in frightening tales of dead animals (and a few unfortunate humans) floating along its canal shores. Its toxic mix is the stuff of urban legends (most of which are actually true).

But this was once the land of delicious oysters. This was the site of an important Revolutionary War battle. This was part of the property of the man who later developed Park Slope.

But, in current times, it ALSO happens to be one of New York City’s hottest neighborhoods for real estate development. How does a neighborhood go from a canal of deadly constitution to a Whole Foods, condos and shuffleboard courts?

With the  Gowanus’ many personalities (and with Tom gone this week) I needed a special guide for this fraught and twisted journey — writer and historian Joseph Alexiou, author of Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal, bringing his expertise to help me wade through the most toxic portion of the show.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #201: GOWANUS! Brooklyn’s Troubled Waters

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The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

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Further to that Lord of the Rings comparison, here’s a map from a 1909 history of the Old Stone House, documenting the moves of British troops in the summer of 1776.

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The view from Gowanus Heights, or the Heights of Guan. Print by Hermann Julius Meyer, 1840.

Courtesy Museum of the city of New York
Courtesy Museum of the city of New York

 

By 1910, the banks of the Gowanus were no more natural than the dankest tenement slum.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

The Carroll Street Bridge, pictured here in 1960, originally built in 1889. It’s one of only two retractable bridges in New York City.

Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society
Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society

 

National Packing Box Factory at Union and Nevins Streets, pictured here in 1960.

courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society
courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society

 

The site of the ‘flushing tunnel’ at Butler Street in 1960.

Brooklyn Historical Society
Brooklyn Historical Society

Here’s the view from the other side, looking south, taken last weekend:

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The Gowanus at Smith and Ninth Street, 1978. (Photograph by Dinanda Nooney

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

 

Some views along the Gowanus from last weekend, admiring the glory of its dingy, busted architecture.
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Current residential construction, right along the Gowanus.

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I wasn’t joking about the doll parts. There’s a whole motley collection of weird junk around the Gowanus. Luckily, no deformed Gowanus rats in sight.

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Here’s a four legged fellow in the Gowanus — a table.

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A couple views of the Gowanus from the Bowery Boys Instagram page:

Out exploring in strange places for next week’s new podcast! #boweryboys

A photo posted by Gregory Young (@boweryboysnyc) on

 

Gowanus alleyway on Nevins Street. #boweryboys

A photo posted by Gregory Young (@boweryboysnyc) on


For more information on the happy, shiny of the Gowanus Canal, check out Alexiou’s new book Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal from NYU Press. Here’s the interview I did with Joseph on the blog a few weeks ago.

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Podcast Rewind: Williamsburg(h) where did you go?

PODCAST Williamsburg used to have an H at the end of its name, not to mention dozens of major industries that once made it the tenth wealthiest place in the world. How did Williamsburgh become a haven for New York’s most well-known factories and then become Williamsburg, home to such wildly diverse communities — Hispanic, Hasidic and hipster? Find out how its history connects with whalebones, baseball, beer, and medicine for intestinal worms. 

This was originally released on January 30, 2009.

NOW WITH BONUS CONTENT: So much has changed about Williamsburg in the past few years that the original show sounds a bit naive now! I’ve included an introduction explaining some of the changes that have recently happened.

A special illustrated version of the podcast on Williamsburg, Brooklyn (Episode #75) is now available on our NYC History Archive feed, via  iTunes or other podcast distribution services.  Chapter headings with images have been embedded in this show, so if your listening device is compatible with AAC/M4A files, just hit play and a variety of pictures should pop up.  The audio is superior than the original as well. (This will work as a normal audio file even if the images don’t appear.)

For this and our older episodes (Episodes #5-#74), subscribe to The Bowery Boys: NYC History Archive feed, on iTunes, directly from our host page, or directly via our RSS feed.

 

South of the Williamsburg Bridge, 1915

Courtesy OSU Special Collections & Archives
Courtesy OSU Special Collections & Archives

 

A map of the cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburg, sometime in the 1850s.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

The corner of Graham and Metropolitan Avenues — aka this intersection — in 1935.

Photo by Berenice Abbott, courtesy NYPL
Photo by Berenice Abbott, courtesy NYPL

 

Powers and Olive Street (look here for the current view)

Photo by Berenice Abbott, courtesy NYPL
Photo by Berenice Abbott, courtesy NYPL

A photomechanical postcard of the Williamsburg Bridge Plaza. You can see the Williamsburg Savings Bank and the bridge in the distance.

Courtesy Museum of City of New York
Courtesy Museum of City of New York

The History of Greenpoint, Brooklyn: An Industrial-Strength Story

PODCAST The history of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint and the oft-polluted Newtown Creek.

Greenpoint, Brooklyn, has a surprising history of both bucolic green pastures and rancid oil patches. Before the 19th century this corner of Brooklyn was owned by only a few families with farms (and the slaves that tended them). But with the future borough of Brooklyn expanding at a great rate, Greenpoint (or Green Point, as they used to call it) could no longer remain private.

Industries like ship building and petroleum completely changed the character of Greenpoint’s waterfront, while its unique, alphabetically-named grid of streets held an extraordinary collection of townhouses. By the late 19th century, Polish immigrants would move on the major avenues, developing a ‘Little Poland’ that still characterizes the neighborhood.

Today big changes are coming to Greenpoint thanks to new housing developments. How will these new arrivals fare next to the notoriously toxic Newtown Creek, a body of water heavily abused by industry?

FEATURING: Charles Pratt, Margaret Wise Brown, Pat Benetar and the alarming smell of cinnamon toast!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #198: GREENPOINT, BROOKLYN: AN INDUSTRIAL-STRENGTH HISTORY

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The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

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A map of Greenpoint from an 1896 survey. A list of industries are marked along the waterfront including tanneries, rope and twine manufacturers, a glue factory, glass works and “Wissel’s Dead Animal Wharf.”

Courtesy New York Public LIbrary
Courtesy New York Public LIbrary

 

Neziah Bliss, the ‘godfather’ of Greenpoint due to his marriage into the Meserole family and subsequent development of their former farm and shoreline property.

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The USS Monitor, made at an iron works in Greenpoint, pictured  here July 9, 1862, by Union photographer James F. Gibson.

monitorofficersondeck
Courtesy Library of Congress

An ad for Eberhard Faber pencils from the 1905 journal Architect and Engineer.

Internet Book Archive
Internet Book Archive

Employees at the Eberhard Faber pencil company in Greenpoint, circa 1915, courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society

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Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society
Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society

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Your standard view of Newtown Creek in the early 20th century.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

One unusual house at 112 Milton Street. The house is still there but, as part of the Greenpoint Historic District, it’s no longer blue.

Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society
Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society

 

The old Meserole house at 1000 Lorimer Street

Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society
Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society

 

A very fanciful ‘place mat’ map of Greenpoint Brooklyn. I’m not sure what the original source for this is, but it’s courtesy the Box Hotel.

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A rather ghastly look at Newtown Creek in 1960, from Apollo Street looking towards the East River.

Courtesy Newtown Creek Alliance
Courtesy Newtown Creek Alliance

 

Picture at top: Manhattan Avenue and Bedford Avenue

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The mysterious death of Calvert Vaux

On November 19, 1895,  Calvert Vaux went for a morning walk from his son’s home in Brooklyn. He never returned.

The 70 year old architect had helped create New York City. His landscape collaborations with Frederick Law Olmsted had given Manhattan its Central Park and Brooklyn its Prospect Park and Fort Greene Park. His own architectural work could be seen at Jefferson Market Courthouse, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1895 he still retained an honorary role as the parks department’s landscape adviser, although he had mostly retired from public life.

Calvert Vaux, circa 1865-1871

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

His son Calvert Bowyer Vaux lived in a house on Twentieth Avenue between Bath and Benson Avenues in today’s neighborhood of Bath Beach. The elder Vaux often stayed with his son was known for taking morning walks along the waterfront

On November 19, 1895, it was gray and foggy on the morning that Vaux departed his son’s home, leaving behind “a gold watch and chain and his vest” with about two dollars in his pocket.

Below: The New York Tribune made a brief mention of Vaux’s vanishing in the following one-sentence bulletin:

Trib Nov 21

At some point during the day he was spotted by a “Captain Ditmar” — possibly Captain Walter Earl Ditmar — on a pier near the water, and the two briefly spoke. Vaux is reported to have said to the captain, “I’m admiring the improvements you’ve made hereabouts.” The two briefly talked about methods in which to make the beach area more amenable  to visitors before Vaux proceeded to walk the piers by himself.

Ditmar was the last person to see Vaux alive.

The architect must have been known for taking very long walks for he was only discovered missing in the late afternoon.   By the evening his family became worried; the police were called the following morning. All the local hospitals and hotels were checked. While it was well-known that Vaux was a frail man, he was often known to walk up to Prospect Park, several miles from his son’s home.  But the fear that he may have fallen into the bay were already present.

Below:  An 1889 map of the district Vaux’s son lived in. The elder Vaux was last seen along the shoreline depicted here.

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The following day the body of Calvert Vaux was indeed found in Gravesend Bay at the foot of Bay 17th Street, very close to the site of today’s Bath Beach Park.

As described by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“A workman on Fry’s coal dock [later identified as Benjamin Butler] first saw the body being tossed about in the rough water, but when he rushed to the shore to secure the corpse it disappeared. It was some minutes later before Mr. Fry himself saw it drifting alongside the bulkhead out to sea again. With a boat hook he succeeded in bringing it close to shore.”

Below: Headline from the New York Sun

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The police were called, bringing Vaux’s son down to the shore to identify the body. He could scarcely bring himself to look into his father’s face, recognizing his father’s well-worn suit before looking away.

“There was a bruise on the head, a slight cut over the eye, and the hat, spectacles and left shoe were missing,” reported the Times.

Given the circumstantial evidence, it seems clear as to what may have happened to Mr. Vaux. While on a walk along the shore, he may have fainted or tripped, falling into the water and drowning in the waves.

Below: An engraving from the New York Tribune:

tribune

The Sun further speculated: “As he was interested in the construction of the pier, it may be that he leaned over the stringpiece to examine the foundation piles. In doing so he may have fallen into the water, as he was ill and feeble, being 70 years old.”

Most press reports of the day made it clear no foul play was suspected. Vaux Jr. brushed away any suggestions of suicide on his father’s part. “The theory of suicide has been disclaimed by his relatives who said that [Vaux] had been cheerful and mentally able the evening before he disappeared.” [source]

But not everybody was convinced, and the Tribune reported that the “theory [of suicide] prevails with some people.”

Weeks earlier Vaux had told his daughter that he wanted to live long enough to see the completion of his plans in Central Park. “If I can only manage to live until 1898, my plans for the improvement of Central Park will be completed, and I won’t worry about any other work.”

Sadly Vaux’s death did have a certain impact on Central Park. Without the dutiful eye of its co-creator, maintenance on the park gradually deteriorated, and it would not be until the installation of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses that the condition of the park would be improved.

Today, nearby the place where Vaux’s body was discovered, you may enjoy a picnic and a sunset at Calvert Vaux Park in Gravesend.

Below: Calvert Vaux Park (the former Dreier-Offerman Park) has greatly improved since the 1960s when it was essentially an undeveloped mess, linked by a pedestrian bridge. Picture courtesy the New York City Parks Archives

1968

It was once called Dreier-Offerman Park for the former home for unwed mothers which once sat here. It was changed to honor the architect in 1998 when it was radically re-landscaped and improved. Knowing that he died close to here, I kind of think being named after an unwed mother’s home is the less depressing name.

 

 

Picture at top: A forlorn pier from 1890, located at West Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

Photograph by Robert Bracklow. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Photograph by Robert Bracklow. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Park Slope and the Story of Brownstone Brooklyn

PODCAST  Park Slope – or simply the park slope, as they used to say – is best known for its spectacular Victorian-era mansions and brownstones, one of the most romantic neighborhoods in all of Brooklyn. It’s also a leading example of the gentrifying forces that are currently changing the make-up of the borough of Brooklyn to this day.

During the 18th century this sloping land was subject to one of the most demoralizing battles of the Revolutionary War, embodied today by the Old Stone House, an anchor of this changing neighborhood. In the 1850s, the railroad baron Edwin Clark Litchfield brought the first real estate development to this area in the form of his fabulous villa on the hill. By the 1890s the blocks were stacked with charming house, mostly for occupancy by wealthy families.

Circumstances during the Great Depression and World War II reconfigured most of these old (and old fashioned) homes into boarding houses and working-class housing. Then a funny thing happens, something of a surprising development in the 1960s: the arrival of the brownstoners, self-proclaimed ‘pioneers’ who refurbished deteriorating homes.

The revitalization of Park Slope has been a mixed blessing as later waves of gentrification and rising prices threaten to push out both older residents and original gentrifiers alike.

PLUS: The terrifying details of one of the worst plane crashes in American history, a disaster that almost took out one of the oldest corners of the neighborhood.

And a special thanks to our guests on this show — Kim Maier from the Old Stone House;  Julie Golia, Director of Public History, Brooklyn Historical Society; and  John Casson and Michael Cairl, both of Park Slope Civic Council.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #181: Park Slope and the Story of Brownstone Brooklyn

___________________________________________________________________________

The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

Starting this month, we are doubling our number of episodes per month. Now you’ll hear a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

________________________________________________________________________

The Vechte Cortelyou House (aka the Old Stone House) depicted as it looked in 1699 (from a hand colored lithograph by the firm of Nathaniel Currier, MCNY)

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A collection of classified ads from the December 1, 1912 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, offering several living options in the park slope area.

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The stark Fourteenth Street Armory, located in the South Slope, depicted here as it looked in 1906 —  “a pretty place” (MCNY)
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Congregation Beth Elohim, pictured here on September 16, 1929, located at Garfield Place and 8th Avenue. (MCNY)

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The horrific place crash of December 16, 1960 — United Airlines Flight 826, bound for Idlewild Airport, colliding with Trans World Airlines Flight 266, heading to LaGuardia Airport. 128 passengers were killed, along with six people on the ground. (Top picture courtesy New York Daily News; the two after are from the New York Fire Deparment. You can find further images here)

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Some images from 1961 by John Morrell from the archives of the Brooklyn Historical Society:

A view along Prospect Park West at and 16th Street and Windsor Place.

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View of east side of 8th Avenue between 15th and 16th Streets looking north. n.e. cor. 16th Street (right) & 8th Avenue.

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Prospect Park West looking south toward Prospect Park/branch, U.S. Post Office (at northeast corner of Prospect Park W. & 16th Street).

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By the 1970s so mansions and brownstones close to the park were getting renovated by ‘pioneers’ with the means to restore these homes to their original splendor .

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In 1969, New York Magazine touted the ‘radical’ alternative of moving to Brooklyn in an article by Pete Hamill:

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TOP PHOTOGRAPH by Luci West from Moving Postcard

Ungentrified: Brooklyn in the 1970s

The new Bowery Boys podcast that comes out this Friday will be about Brooklyn. So let’s get in the mood with some pre-Instagram tinted photography from the U.S. National Archives, most of them taken in 1974 by Danny Lyon. followed by some black and white images by Edmund V Gillon.

You might have seen many of these photographs before (perhaps even here on this blog), but it’s striking to revisit them in context of Brooklyn current gentrification patterns.  The homes of Brooklyn Heights began seeing the arrival of ‘bohemians’ as early as the 1910s, and brownstone revivalists (the so-called ‘pioneers’) discovered the neighborhood after World War II.

But a noticeable trend of Brooklyn gentrification happened in earnest in the late 1950s, with wealthy escapees from Manhattan (fending off the urge to suburbanize) moving into South Brooklyn brownstones and row houses and giving enclaves attractive new names like Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens.

The most successful example occurred up on the park slope as a movement of urban activists and historical preservations refurbished and brought to life one of Brooklyn’s original Gold Coasts. Its official name became, of course, Park Slope.

While the ‘brownstone Brooklyn’ movement was well at hand in 1974-5 — the date of most of these photographs — much of the borough was still facing blight and deterioration then.  Most of the neighborhoods pictured below are today considered ‘hot’, trendy places with incredibly high rents.

DUMBO, a name invented in the late 1970s, Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.

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The RKO Bushwick Theater, at the Bushwick/Bed-Stuy border.

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Bushwick Avenue

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Two pictures of Bond Street

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Across from Lynch Park, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard

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There’s no location listed in the caption but probably Park Slope?

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Fort Greene, across from the park.
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This is taken on Vanderbilt Avenue but I can’t ascertain exactly here. Perhaps today’s Prospect Heights area.

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Images of the Fulton Ferry area in 1975 (courtesy the Brooklyn Historical Society)

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And a couple images from the Museum of the City of New York archives, all from 1975, taken by Edmund V Gillon. You can find many more of astounding photographs here:

397 Dean Street, considered part of Park Slope today

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Williamsburg, looking east on Broadway from Bedford Avenue and South 6th Street.

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Boarded-up buildings and the Bedford Avenue façade of the Smith Building, 123 South 8th Street

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Clinton Hill: Row houses on the eastern side of Washington Avenue between Dekalb and Lafayette Avenues

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Screaming Phantoms, Tomahawks, Phantom Lords, Dirty Ones and other gangs of 1970s Williamsburg, Brooklyn

The Dirty Ones, a notorious gang from Williamsburg.

My new column for A24 Films (a tie-in to the new movie A Most Violent Year) is up on their site devoted to culture and events from 1981.

For this article, I look at what some of the dangerous undercurrents to life in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1981. “By the 1970s, Williamsburg was best known for its steeply rising crime rate, harboring both violent street-gang activity and organized crime.” You can read the whole article here.

During my research for this piece, I found this rather startling map in the New York Times, August 1, 1974, charting out the various turfs of northern Brooklyn street gangs.  This is not a souvenir from the film The Warriors, but an actual list of the many violent gangs which kept Brooklyn a very dangerous place to walk around in during the 1970s.

Gang activity was so especially vicious at this time — particularly gang-vs-gang violence — that Luis Garten Acosta, the founder of El Puente youth outreach program, called northern Brooklyn ‘the killing fields’ in 1981.

I dug a little further to find some specific incidents which involved some of these gangs.  I’ve put numbers by the gangs so you can find their dedicated turf on the map above:

September 16, 1972 — A gang altercation among the members of the Young Barons (44) resulted in the death of one young man and another whose nose was cut off. 

— August 21, 1973 — Several members of the Devils Rebels (19) were walking around Bushwick when they were accosted by the Screaming Phantoms (11).  Two boys associated with the Devils Rebels were stabbed and killed.  Police report “the Screaming Phantoms operated out of the Williamsburg area and had been ‘way out of their area’ at the scene of yesterday’s gang fight.”

— February 25, 1974 — The Times reports on the extortion schemes of various northern Brooklyn gangs, mentioning the Outlaws (28,29), the Tomahawks (48), the Jolly Stompers (not listed) and B’Nai Zaken (41).

— October 12, 1973 — Several gangs have been cast as extras in a new film called The Education of Sonny Carson, including the Tomahawks (48), Pure Hell (22) and the Unknown Riders (43).

For Whom The Ghost Tolls: A Haunting in Bedford-Stuyvesant

The corner of Stuyvesant and Jefferson in 1900, looking much the way it does today.  The haunted house in question is a half a block south of this photo. (Courtesy the site Save Bedford Stuyvesant)

More Brooklyn-themed ghost stories coming your way tomorrow.  But here’s an unusual tale I stumbled across while researching for this show.  Brownstone Detectives has also written about this particular event so check out their page for more information. 

The Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant is defined by its architectural character, rows of impressive brownstones and ornate apartment buildings which trace back to the late 19th century.  It was once two separate villages — Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights — combined to appeal to new residents in the ever-expanding city of Brooklyn.  The Bed-Stuy of the 20th century was the heart of African-American residential life; gentrification may alter that definition in the 21st.

Another feature of the neighborhood that may have passed down through the decades are its ghosts.

Simply mix a neighborhood of families full of imaginative children with severe and dramatic old architecture, and voila! You’ve got ghost stories.  Anybody born and raised in Bed-Stuy probably has one story of a purported haunted house, either a structure uninhabited and boarded up or an old home with a single unseen resident, the yard out front overtaken with neglect.

But perhaps one of Bed-Stuy’s most interesting ghost stories comes not from legend but from an actual newspaper report — the haunting of 281 Stuyvesant Avenue in Stuyvesant Heights.

The four-floor building was originally built in 1897 as a small apartment house. Although included in the Stuyvesant Heights Historic District, its modest apperance pales next to its neighbor, Grace Presbyterian Church (today’s Bridge Street AME Church).

Below: Bridge Street AME Church.  The haunted house in question is the white structure to the far right in this photograph. (Courtesy flickr/Matthew X Kiernan)

On October 23, 1901, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on a disturbing and frankly stressful time had by the building’s first-floor newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Griffin.

The school teacher and his wife moved into the flat in July and immediately experienced some truly unusual phenomenon.  At precisely 2 pm every afternoon the new electric doorbell stationed in the vestibule would ring, prompting the lady of the house to open the door.  But nobody would be there.

After a few days of this activity, Joseph naturally assumed it was troublesome kids.  However one day, Griffin stood in the vestibule at precisely 2 pm.  To his astonishment, the bell ring with no human agency present.

This was only the beginning.  The ghost continued to torment the Griffins with “hollow groans, creepy sidesteps on the staircase and unexpected trips from room to room by articles of furniture.”

A haunting so close to Grace Presbyterian were particularly unsettling. “His temerity in operating in a flat, the windows of which look right out on the stained glass panes of a church, is especially startling.”

The Griffins, more irritated than frightened, could not take this disturbing presence in their home any further and immediately moved out.  The skeptical reporter, of course, took note of the fact that nobody else in the building had experienced any particular supernatural phenomenon.

The upstairs neighbor complained of rats and mice and wind gusts with the strength to swing open doors.

The neighbor added, “The pipes groan and the plumbing rattles too, and my husband says its the spookiest house he was ever lived in, but ghosts! — nonsense.”