Tag Archives: Bed-Stuy

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


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.


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


Bushwick Avenue


Two pictures of Bond Street



Across from Lynch Park, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard


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


Fort Greene, across from the park.

This is taken on Vanderbilt Avenue but I can’t ascertain exactly here. Perhaps today’s Prospect Heights area.


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



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



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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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.”

A mysterious death at an ice factory, and a headline riddle

This unusual story appeared at the bottom of the front page of the New York World newspaper in July 17, 1913:


Hugo Meissner, assistant engineer of the artificial ice plant at Rochester and Atlantic Avenues, Brooklyn, was found dead today lying on tons of ice in a storage room on the lower floor of the building.  The body was frozen stiff, but an autopsy will be necessary to determine if death was caused by freezing.

The surgeons think he fell and struck on his head at the bottom of the chute and fractured his skull.  In his helpless condition he succumbed from the cold.

Further details from other news sources reveal Meissner to be a machinist for the Atlantic Hygienic Ice Company in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Ice manufacturing was such a relatively new craft in 1913 that what they refer to here as ‘artificial ice’ simply means ice manufactured and processed in a plant vs. naturally occurring ice.  They are obviously not referring to synthetic ice (sometimes called artificial ice), which is used for skating rinks.

In the 19th century, ice was harvested from frozen rivers and stored in northern ice houses.  Artificial ice plants began appearing around the 1880s.  This ad from the 1916 Brooklyn Daily Eagle provides a listing of artificial ice makers in New York City.  There was clearly some concern then of artificial ice not being as clean as ‘real’ ice, as this advertisement stresses its product’s purity:

The ice-making industry was near its end in New York City, as refrigeration techniques were improving, and people would soon have devices in their own homes which could make the product.  It didn’t help that the ice trade had also been subject in prior decades to mass corruption and price fixing.

As to the details of this poor man’s death, the Sun provides further speculation: “Meissner went into the shaft to repair the elevator on Tuesday afternoon……[and] may have been overcome by ammonia** fumes or the change of temperature from that of a warm day to 26 degrees Fahrenheit, thus losing his hold and falling.”

His wife Bertha ended up suing the Atlantic Hygienic Ice Company in 1917.  (The sometimes grisly details of the court case can be found here.)  The jury originally awarded her $5,500.00 in damages — worth almost $100,000 today — but the ruling was appealed.  In the end, the Atlantic Hygienic Ice Company paid Meissner’s widow $750 (or about $13,500 today).

**Ammonia was used in artificial ice making. Early artificial methods sometimes left ammonia residue in ice and led to its less-than-pure reputation.

Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky….

Above: Lena Horne at the Copacabana, October 1948

Lena Horne, the Brooklyn-born entertainer who broke color barriers in the New York nightclub scene as well as in Hollywood, died in a New York hospital yesterday at age 92. She would make history in Harlem, in segregated hotspots like The Cotton Club, where the entertainment was black, the clientele white. And would become the first African-American performer at the legendary Copacabana, shattering the club’s attendance records and playing off and on there for years.

If you’re looking for a pilgramage here in the city, Lena’s childhood home is still standing in Bed-Stuy. Horne was raised by her grandparents in the late 1920s/early 1930s in an iron-gated brownstone at 189 Chauncey Street, part of a small upper-class black community. According to author James Gavin: “An iron fence with sharp black spikes protected 189 Chauncey Street on three sides. That barrier told passersby to keep their distance … it shut out the neighborhood’s seamier elements.”

Among the many great venues of old that Lena performed in was the original Cafe Society at 1 Sheridan Square. Calling it the ‘sweetest job I ever had’ and probably her most important gig in terms of connections made, Horne sang there for over a year starting in 1941. Probably the most integrated club in New York, Lena performed for a largely progressive, largely mixed audience. Two years later, she wowed audiences at the long-gone Savoy-Plaza Hotel. A year later was her debut at the nearby Copacabana.

By 1947, she had become famous enough to warrant her own municipal celebration, Lena Horne Homecoming Day in Brooklyn, on August 21, 1947, accepting a key to the city from Brooklyn’s borough president on the steps of Borough Hall.

Shirley Chisholm: Brooklyn’s best dressed pioneer

Between Obama’s inauguration and Martin Luther King’s birthday, it’s hard not to look back with appreciation at prior figures in African-American history who got us to this moment. Of all of them, the one I’d like to have dinner with the most, on this eve of American history, would have to be the very first black female U.S. Representative, the belle of Bed-Stuy, and the most energetically attired Congresswoman, perhaps ever — Shirley Chisholm.

For much of her childhood, Chisholm called Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn home, a restless neighborhood that for most of the last century was considered second only to Harlem as a cultural center for the city’s black population.

Chisholm won a seat in the New York state legislature in 1964 but always dreamed to represent Brooklyn on a national level, in the U.S House of Representatives. She finally got her wish to represent her neighborhood when redistricting lines were finally redrawn — finally allowing a black candidate to run (and win) in a largely black community — and won her seat in Congress in 1968. Interestingly, one of her opponents was state senator William C. Thompson, father of our current city comptroller.

Politically saavy while remaining outspoken, she announced her candidacy for presidency in 1972: “I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States. I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. I am the candidate of the people.”

She didn’t stand a chance. Not in 1972. But back then, even that the gesture was taken seriously by some people — she received 152 delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention — is something to marvel at today. The days when somebody can be a symbolic ‘black candidate’ or ‘woman candidate’ on the national stage are most likely past us. It’s impossible to observe Obama and the near-success of his closest Democratic competitor Hillary Clinton and not see the path she carefully tread before them.

One of my favorite Chisholm quotes: “I was the first American citizen to be elected to Congress in spite of the double drawbacks of being female and having skin darkened by melanin. When you put it that way, it sounds like a foolish reason for fame. In a just and free society it would be foolish. That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free.”

You can find a few thorough bios on Chisholm all over the internet, but you should first check out the fabulous 2005 documentary on her, named for one of her books — Unbought and Unbossed.

New York’s best film performances – Part Two

My list of New York’s best movie scenes continues with two in Brooklyn — and one that almost gets there….

7. Do The Right Thing (1989)
Mookie throws a trash can

Spike Lee is only one of a few directors who knows how to turn New York City into a character in his films. With ‘Do The Right Thing’, he photographs a typically drab streetcorner in Bedford-Stuyvesant with the sorts of color and pizazz more associated with 1950s musicals. Better to match the residents — everybody from the old men on the corner to the customers at Sal’s Pizzeria — a cross-section of vivid characters and a balance of different races getting along. Until, of course, Mookie throws that trashcan through Sal’s window.

The film is loosely based on a violent 1986 incident that occured in Howard Beach, Queens, involving the death of a black teenager after being harassed with his friends at a pizzeria. Mookie’s act of violence — the “did he do the right thing” moment — sparks a mob scene that greatly parallels many incidents during the New York blackout of 1977.

Not suprisingly, Lee goes back to the motif of the ‘hottest day of the summer’ in another great movie actually set in 1977 — “Summer of Sam” — a film loaded with on-location shots in Queens and the Bronx.

6. The Naked City (1948)
Shootout on the bridge

The Williamsburg Bridge’s best moment ever in a recorded medium is this scene in the Naked City, the climactic chase and shootout in a film already known as one of the best look New York City movies ever made.

Forget the standard issue film noir plot, fun but unspectacular; it’s all about William H. Daniels’ verite cinematography, which won him an Oscar. The Naked City is one of the first film to shoot almost everything on location in New York, 107 on-location scenes in all. The film, and New York, looks better the older it gets.

Among its more famous locales include the ole Roxy Theater, the Whitehall Building, and the City Morgue (!), but its crowning scene is its last, a breathtaking shoot-out literally up in the proverbial rafters of the Williamsburg Bridge. NO film (not even the next on my list) has ever used a bridge to such tangible effect.

5. Saturday Night Fever (1977)
Tony and Stephanie cut a rug

I couldn’t not pick the famous danceoff scene with Tony Manero and Stephanie Mangano. It defines the style of New York nightlife outside the VIP area of the 1970s. But for the record, Saturday Night Fever has two equally beautiful scenes using New York backdrops that are utterly fabulous — Tony strutting down the street with paintcans and, of course, the tragic encounter at the Verrazano-Narrows bridge. I can probably go on record and say ‘Fever’ is the coolest movie about New York City ever filmed.

I’ll save myself some typing and direct you to my writeup a few months ago on Saturday Night Fever and the club where it was filmed 2001 Odyssey, which also includes a report the fate of that sacred dance floor.

By the way, the original name of the movie was ‘Tribal Rights of Saturday Night’, as the film itself is based on a magazine article called ‘Tribal Rights of a New Saturday Night.’