Tag Archives: Brooklyn

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


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


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!

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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.



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:




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.
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9


Current residential construction, right along the Gowanus.


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.


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



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.


The history and future of Gowanus: Interview with author Joseph Alexiou

Brooklyn gentrification has reached a curious impasse — the Gowanus Canal.

The neighborhood surrounding it thrives with new housing developments, trendy restaurants and bars, music venues, shuffleboard clubs and even a Whole Foods. Curbed just named it neighborhood of the year. It’s now a destination for foodiesPity about that fetid and uniquely aromatic body of water then, a SuperFund site since 2010 and a problem that has vexed Brooklyn for decades. (Black mayonnaise anyone?)

The Gowanus is also pivotal to the history of Brooklyn — and all of New  York City — as enjoyably laid out by author Joseph Alexiou in his new book Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal.

The shores of Gowanus Creek have been critical to Brooklyn’s growth since the early Dutch days.  Its story is surprisingly thrilling and robust, from the bloody Revolutionary War battle fought on its shores to its transformation into an artery for industry.  Residents  have struggled with the Gowanus’ toxic qualities — both in the water itself and the criminal life it seems to regularly attract — for over a century and a half.

I wish there was a book like this for every foul, troublesome thing in New York.  Gowanus feels like a biography with an engaging protagonist — plucked from innocence and slowly corrupted — that you want to help save by the end.

Given the current situation in the neighborhood — anybody looking for a cheap apartment?Gowanus is an important and urgent read.  Plus the book is nominated for a GANYC Apple Award for outstanding achievement in non-fiction book writing! (Check out the full list of nominees here.) On the eve of the awards ceremony this Monday, I asked Alexiou a few questions about his experiences researching this curious creek:

Greg Young: What’s your particular connection to the Gowanus? How did you decide to develop this as a book subject?

Joseph Alexiou: I lived in Gowanus from 2006–2011, and happened upon the canal quite by accident, but it was love at first sight. I spent  several years  in the neighborhood  before making my foray into freelance writing, when I realized the area was a goldmine of funny stories and and weird characters.
The pollution was also so extreme and kind of surprising, which I learned about thanks to the appearance of Sludgie the Whale in 2007. Eventually, I ended up in journalism school, where my obsessions and nerdish love of history became the subject for a book proposal class.


GY: Since your book is really arranged like a biography of the Gowanus, what would say has been its personality over the decades?

JA: The Gowanus has always been stubborn and dependable, and muddy. Definitely thoughtful— a calm, earthly reminder of the powers of nature with that occasional tendency to overflow. But the beginning it was a lot more crunchy and pastoral, full of wildlife and pleasant breezes. But as industry arrived, the Gowanus became stinky, smelly, exciting and unsavory—perhaps just a little bit dangerous. The foreboding sense of doom was its personality for a long time. But with the dynamic nature of cities and waterways, that grittiness is evolving yet again.


Illustration from The Stone House of Gowanus, Scene of the Battle of Long Island (1909) by Georgia Fraser


GY: Were you surprised to find how important the Gowanus has been to the overall history of Brooklyn? It seems like its story reflects many of the changes that have happening to the city (and borough) over the decades?

JA: When I discovered that the name “Gowanus” appeared in some of the oldest documented history of New York—dating back to 1636—that’s how I knew there was a particular history to be told. It was a surprise, but also a relief when I discovered how often the name “Gowanus” appeared across newspaper pages and old documents, once I had started really researching the book. So many people used it for business, pleasure, crossed its banks, complained about the traffic, fell into it!


It’s a really unique kind of New York waterway—naturally occurring, then industrialized, then neglected. It’s difficult to move and get around, and often caused much trouble because of the flooding. So many people have invested in it, cursed it, pondered its existence, and written about Gowanus throughout history because it was weird and offbeat, a wrinkle in the map. That proved to be quite a boon, and a great vantage point from which to observe the history of Brooklyn.


GY: Is there anything truly ‘natural’ about the Gowanus anymore? I confess to strolling around it sometimes, trying to picture it as a natural body of water. Is there anything about it at all that remotely resembles the creek that you introduce us to at the beginning?

JA: Well, the rise and fall of the tide is one of the remaining original aspects of the canal. There’s no real wetland left around the canal, although if the walls were knocked down it would start to rebuild itself. Perhaps I should give a nod to little snippets of nature that pop up at street ends (Second Avenue comes to mind) that sort of mimic the original landscape. But imagination is helpful!


View from Gowanus Heights, Brooklyn, 1840, painted by Herrmann Julius Meyer (courtesy Museum of the City of New York)


GY: The community has a fondness and love for the Gowanus, even considering the health concerns that have vexed it for decades. What do you think is the specific appeal to living near here?

JA: For a very long time it was simply that it didn’t cost very much. But lately, for the more visually-minded, the neighborhood has a unique shape apart from the grid. The industrial architecture, bridges, funny signs, graffiti—all of this gives the neighborhood great character and personality. A soaring warehouse building or an unusual edifice gives a break from the monotony of endless streets. It’s very Jane Jacobsian, but strange breaks in the city grid, or old buildings repurposed, allow for newly creative use and exploration. This particular appeal has long existed in contemporary Gowanus.

 Gowanus Canal from Second Street, 1986, Randy Dudley, from the Brooklyn Museum collection1

GY: Your book explores the struggles to clean up the Gowanus over the decades. There’s obviously a great urgency now due to the residential boom in the neighborhood.  Do you think it’s really possible to rehabilitate the Gowanus at this point, at least in a cost effective way? Do you think it will ever be considered ‘safe’ in our lifetimes?

JA: “Safe” is a relative term, and within the next two decades I do believe it will become much cleaner, and safer. I don’t know if the canal will ever be swimmable though, as raw sewage will always be in danger of spilling into the water (albeit much less than now, if the EPA plans go accordingly)—some problems are just too immense to totally solve.


GY: And, out of concern for your safety – just how much time did you actually have to spend near the Gowanus itself? God forbid you didn’t actually go anywhere close to the water?!

JA: I’ve been down to the Gowanus quite a bit, and gone out on a boat, no less than three times! I can’t say I felt totally safe during any of the voyages, but it was exhilarating! It’s a fantastic and totally unique way of seeing Brooklyn, and the city!

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: 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!


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.


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

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


Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society
Courtesy Brooklyn Historical Society


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.



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



NYC history in pop culture: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”

It was a pretty spectacular year for history lovers in pop culture this year as the year’s best film, television and theater all seemed to take inspiration from the New York City of old.  Here are ten moments that I particularly loved that expressed the unending bounty of ideas from the people, places and events of this big ole city:

Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn

“I wish that I could stop feeling that I want to be an Irish girl in Ireland.”


A rich and appealing look at one of New York’s greatest resources — its immigrants. A young Irish woman (Saoirsie Ronan) leaves behind her family to find work in a Brooklyn department store. She is quickly torn between an engaging Italian boyfriend (Emory Cohen) and obligations back home. This is not a story merely about the struggles of foreign transplants but relates to pretty much anybody who’s ever been stuck between two worlds. My favorite movie of the year.


Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

“I may not live to see our glory! But I will gladly join the fight! And when our children tell our story, they’ll tell the story of tonight.”


The sound and the fury of the world’s hottest musical, from the genius mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda, changed not only the fate of Broadway, but the perception of the Founding Fathers and even the notion of biography itself. Can you stay true to a person’s memory and core beliefs while making a clear and ambitious statement on his time period with a multi-cultural cast, an innovative music style and pop cultural references? Yes you can.

NOTE: This is not number one on my list because I actually haven’t seen it. (Hey, don’t judge; we were busy writing a book this year!)



“I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past. I’m not able to do that. I remember things as they were.”


By the end, the deck had been reshuffled, but Don Draper was somehow still king. A beautiful ending for the irritable drunks and stiffs we’ve come to love over the years.  And who knew it would be Betty Draper that would get the most beautiful most perfectly heartfelt send off?



“Just when it can’t get any worse, you run out of cigarettes.”


This romance between a shop girl (Rooney Mara) and an older woman (Cate Blanchett) in a broken marriage meticulously recreates 1950s Brooklyn.  (I suspect that Ronan’s character from Brooklyn works in another department.) Everything has a graceful, considered touch, less bright than Brooklyn perhaps but perfectly in place. New York in this movie curiously represents the status quo here, middle America being the place for exploration and personal discovery.

Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances in DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 PIctures' dramatic thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg.
Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances in DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 PIctures’ dramatic thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg.


“Standing there like that you reminded me of the man that used to come to our house when I was young. My father used to say: “watch this man”, so I did, every time he came. And never once did he do anything remarkable.”


This is the year for 1950s Brooklyn in amazing films! In this case the year is 1957, and James Donovan, the Brooklyn insurance attorney played by Tom Hanks, is assigned to represent a captured KGB spy in a case that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the first third of the film uses Brooklyn Heights in some of the best location shooting of the year.  This one of Steven Spielberg’s best films in years.


“There’s no point in going through all my wrongs. Besides, God’s already seen them.”


Everything perfectly wicked and bad about 1901 came roaring into the lives of the staff of Knickerbocker Hospital.  Dr William Thackery (Clive Owen) both battled and studied his own addictions, Dr Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) further attempted to negotiate through the racism inside the hospital rank-and-file, and Cornelia Robinson (Juliet Rylance) does a little detective work and uncovered some political corruption close to home.


“I wanted to write a whole book about New York that would never appear in the history books.”


What is Kenneth Goldsmith’s Capital you ask? Almost four pounds, for one.  It’s also a mysterious, rambling look at New York City history from the pauses and discards, bits and pieces of recollections, wisdom and kitsch all tossed together like a salad.  It’s endlessly fascinating and annoying all once. Yet I can’t help love it not as a book, but as a terrific experiment in evaluating history (well, mostly counter-culture 20th century history) through a visual representation of information overload.

Jamie Bell as Abe Woodhull - TURN: Washington's Spies _ Season 2, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC
Jamie Bell as Abe Woodhull – TURN: Washington’s Spies _ Season 2, Episode 4 – Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC



The Revolutionary War as a messy game of cat-and-mouse, cloak-and-dagger intrigue with more bodice ripping sexual intrigue than you were taught in high school. Turn continues to do a great job weaving the actual events of the Revolution into an imagined parallel dramas of Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell).  Thankfully it had no problem presenting a real George Washington, situated far from the iconic image later generations would render him.

Public Morals

“I don’t want our kids walking home from school and talking about the different street corners where this one was killed and that one was stabbed.”


Well, it got cancelled so we’ll never see the 1960s New York Public Morals division tackle encroaching Times Square prostitution or the events of Stonewall. But for what it’s worth, Edward Burns’ well-acted look at crime fighting against the ethnic backdrop of Hell’s Kitchen had some of the best looking cars I’ve ever seen in a TV show. And unlike most depictions of old New York City (namely, almost everything on this list) it actually filmed on the streets of New York.



“The map of Sapokanikan is sanded and beveled, the land lone and leveled”

And finally Joanna Newsom takes inspiration from the Lenape Indians with a song title that named for an old Lenape village, meaning ‘where the tobacco grows’.





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.


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


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:


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


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

Haunted Hipsters: Four Ghost Stories of Brooklyn

Dark skies over the Brooklyn Bridge, from a 1905 postcard (courtesy MCNY)

PODCAST  Brooklyn is the setting for this quartet of classic ghost stories, all set before the independent city was an official borough of New York City.  This is a Brooklyn of old stately mansions and farms, with railroad tracks laid through forests and large tracks of land carved up, awaiting development.  These stories also have another curious resemblance — they all come from local newspapers of the day, reporting on ghost stories with amusement and more than a little skepticism.

1)  The Coney Island and Sea Beach Railroad took passengers to and from Brooklyn’s amusement district.  But nobody was particularly amused one evening to be stopped by a horrific, gangly ghost upon the tracks near Mapleton.

2)  In Clinton Hill, a plantation-style house built in the early years of the Brooklyn Navy Yard has survived hundreds of unusual tenants over the years, but certainly the scariest days in this historic home occurred in 1878 with a relentless, invisible hand that would not stop knocking.

At right: Death will not deter this Brooklynite from ordering a great craft beer. (courtesy Powerhouse Museum)

3)  The Oceanic Hotel was one of Coney Island’s first great hotels, an accommodation for almost 500 near the increasingly popular beaches of Brighton Beach.  But in 1894, the hotel was virtually emptied out and reportedly haunted.  Did it have something to do with the murder upstairs in Room 30?

4) And finally, the area of Bushwick nearest the Queens border are populated with various burial grounds like the Evergreens Cemetery, borne of the rural cemetery movement which transplanted thousands of previously buried bodies from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

In 1894, with Bushwick prepared for a spate of new development, the sudden appearance of an oddly dressed spirit threatens to disrupt the entire neighborhood.  During one evening, a drunken party of 300 ghost hunters, brandishing swords and revolvers, come across one terror that proved to be very real indeed.

ALSO: Secrets of The Sentinel, a 1977 horror film set in an old house along the Brooklyn Promenade.

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

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Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #172: Ghost Stories of Brooklyn

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10 Montague Terrace, setting for the 1970s horror film The Sentinel, sits at the end of this elegant block on the Brooklyn Promenade.

[Looking west from Brooklyn Bridge Park to the houses on Montague Terrace.]

The theatrical trailer to The Sentinel

Phenomena reported August 1894 in several publications, including the New York Evening World

The incident in question occurred near the Mapleton station along the Coney Island and Sea Beach Railroad (Map of Brooklyn railroad lines courtesy The Weekly Nabe who has more information on the early days of Mapleton.)
Phenomena reported December 1878 in several publications, including the New York Sun
A view of Wallabout Bay and the land which became the Brooklyn Navy Yard, circa 1830s.  That would appear to 136 Clinton Avenue (the oldest house in the area) however the general proportion of the region looks a bit off.  Below it, two pictures of the house on Clinton Avenue, including a close-up of the infamous door. (Pics courtesy Flickr/sjcny and Long Island Historical Society)

Phenomena reported August 1892 in several publications, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The haunted Oceanic Hotel, located at Neptune Avenue and W. 6th Street. Perhaps this looks surprising for a 500-room hotel, but out of frame are bungalows and other adjoined buildings.  But you can see how this sort of accommodation went out of fashion rather quickly.

[First hotel at Coney Island, Oceanic Hotel.]

Phenomena reported November 1894 in several publications, including the New York Times

1924 — A view of the tracks which separate Bushwick from a cluster of cemeteries. Buildings to the left sit in the vacant lots which were mentioned in this story.  The cemetery nearest this photograph is Most Holy Trinity Cemetery.  You may remember the name Most Holy Trinity for it was this Bushwick congregation that was featured in a ghost story a couple years ago in the show ‘Haunted Histories of New York.’

Opposite Trinity Cemetery.

The horror of moving to Brooklyn — from a 1905 comic strip

Above: Food can do strange things to you at night: an excerpt from McCay’s January 7, 1905 strip, published two days after the one printed in full below.

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was one of America’s first great comic strips and easily one of the weirdest. Each eight-panel or nine-panel strip featured an individual trapped within a situation nightmarish for its day, only to be woken up in the final panel.  The cause for the dream was almost always the same — a meal of rarebit the night before.

Written by Winsor McCay (of Little Nemo fame), this extraordinary oddity ran in various New York newspapers starting in 1904, with various spin-offs and revivals well into the 1920s.  McCay was a favorite of publisher William Randolph Hearst, who often stifled the illustrator’s unrelated endeavors to keep the popular artist loyal to Hearst’s publications.

You can find the entire collection of these fascinating little adventures here.

Rarebit — a hot cheesy sauce poured over toasted bread — seems to have had profound effects on the subconscious.  It was able to vividly extract the fears of New Yorkers at night.  While most were magnificently surreal, others touched on modern issues like crowded trains, uncontrollable automobiles and fast streetcars.

Another such fear, according an entry from January 5, 1905, was the disgrace of moving to Brooklyn.

You can read this particular strip below with the panels broken out.  Read the strip in its original form here.


I found this comic thanks to the guidance of Gawker commenter raincoaster. Thanks for the inspiration!

Why are there so many Henry Streets in New York City?

Manhattan’s Henry Street looking south, 1935, photo by Berenice Abbott (NYPL)

Since Manhattan and Brooklyn developed as two separate cities before they were intertwined within consolidated New York City in 1898, it’s not surprising to see similar street names in both boroughs, deriving from different origins.  But the Henrys being honored in these street names are quite different:

Henry Street (Manhattan) is named for Henry Rutgers, the Revolutionary War hero and the financial savior of Queen’s College in New Jersey, who thanked him by renaming themselves Rutgers College (later University).  You’ll find a Rutgers Street in the Lower East Side too; in fact, it intersects with Henry Street. I wonder if he had a middle name?

This of course the Henry Street of  Henry Street Settlement, the pivotal health and social services provider which opened on this street in 1895.

Henry Street (Brooklyn), however, is named for Dr. Thomas W. Henry, a prominent physician in the 1820s who treated the early aristocracy of Brooklyn Heights.  Although Henry was president of the Medical Society of the County of Kings from 1831-32, it doesn’t seem like he was a name for the annals of medical history.  The reason he got his own street has to do with one of the families he treated — the Middaghs.

Lady Middagh, as legend has it, wanted more colorful names for her neighborhood and led a movement to rename certain streets for pieces of fruit — which is why Brooklyn Heights has a Cranberry Street, an Orange Street and a Pineapple Street.

Despite her aversion to pompous street names, one street is actually named for her own family (Middagh Street) and, of course, one for her beloved doctor.

North Henry Street (Brooklyn) was just regular Henry Street in the independent town of Greenpoint.  But that changed in 1855, when Greenpoint — and its neighbors Williamsburg(h) and Bushwick — were annexed into the city of Brooklyn.  Dozens of old street names were changed when the annexation took place. Here’s a lengthy list of other altered names.  Since the southern Henry Street was the ‘original’ Henry Street of Brooklyn, this one got a North stuck to it.

It’s not clear to me which Henry this is named after, but it’s possible that it took its name from Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry.  If so, it would have shared this trait with one of Brooklyn’s greatest politicians, Patrick Henry McCarren, who represented the Williamsburg(h) and Greenpoint areas during the years of the Gilded Age.

Interestingly, none of these Brooklyn Henry Streets are named after Henry Ward Beecher, although his pulpit at Plymouth Church sits near the ‘original’ Henry Street.

Henry Place (Staten Island) is in the neighborhood of South Beach.  I’m not sure of the origin of the name, but one possibility could be a farmer named Henry Bedell, whose mill gives its name to Mill Creek, or even Henry Hudson, who landed here in 1609 before heading over to Mannahatta.

But according to this census report from 1930, Staten Island had a great many more streets named for Henry!  As this borough was a collection of small villages — and still feels that way in some areas there today — there were various Henrys that had to be eliminated for the ease of mail delivery and mapping.

If you have any information on the more unknown Henry Streets, any speculation, or if I missed any Henry Streets, please leave a comment below or email me at boweryboysnyc@earthlink.net.

Consolidation! The tale of five boroughs and one big city

PODCAST Our 150th episode! Here’s the story of how two very big cities and a whole bunch of small towns and villages — completely different in nature, from farmland to skyscraper — became the greatest city in the world.

 This is the tale of Greater New York, the forming of the five boroughs into one metropolis, a consolidation of massive civic interests which became official on January 1, 1898. But this is not a story of interested parties, united in a common goal.

In fact, Manhattan (comprising, with some areas north of the Harlem River, the city of New York) was in a bit of a battle with anti-consolidation forces, mostly in Brooklyn, who saw the merging of two biggest cities in America as the end of the noble autonomy for that former Dutch city on the western shore of Long Island. You’ll be stunned to hear how easily it could have all fallen apart!

 In this podcast is the story of Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island (or Richmond, if you will) and their journey to become one. And how, rather recently in fact, one of those boroughs would grow uncomfortable with the arrangement.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed 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 straight from here:
The Bowery Boys: Consolidation 1898: Five Boroughs, One Great City

The hero of our story — Andrew Haswell Green

Below the prize-winning anti-Consolidation song mentioned in the podcast (courtesy NYPL):

A map of Richmond from 1874