Tag Archives: gentrification

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

 

Jane Jacobs: Saving Greenwich Village

PODCAST The story of Jane Jacobs, the urban activist and writer who changed the way we live in cities and her fights to preserve Greenwich Village in the 1950s and ’60s.

 

Washington Square Park torn in two. The West Village erased and re-written. Soho, Little Italy and the Lower East Side ripped asunder by an elevated highway. This is what would have happened in New York City in the 1950s and 60s if not for enraged residents and community activists, lead and inspired by a woman from Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Jane Jacobs is one of the most important urban thinkers of the 20th century. As a young woman, she fell in love with Greenwich Village (and met her husband there) which contained a unique alchemy of life and culture that one could only find in an urban area. As an adroit and intuitive architectural writer, she formed ideas about urban development that flew in the face of mainstream city planning. As a community activist, she fought for her own neighborhood and set an example for other embattled districts in New York City.

Her legacy is fascinating, often radical and not always positive for cities in 2016. But she is an extraordinary New Yorker, and for our 200th episode, we had to celebrate this remarkable woman on the 100th anniversary of her birth.

FEATURING: Mrs. Jacobs herself in clips interspersed through the show.

PLUS: ROOOOBERT MOOOOSES!

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 #200: JANE JACOBS: SAVING THE VILLAGE

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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!

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Jacobs at the White Horse Tavern, sometime in the 1960s. Jane lived on the block!

Cervin Robinson/New York Times (http://cervinrobinson.com/)
Photography by Cervin Robinson/New York Times. Visit his website for more extraordinary images of New York City (http://cervinrobinson.com/)

 

Jacobs in Washington Square Park (though I believe this is 1963 and not during the 1958 protest).

Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

 

Washington Square Park in 1935. The 1958 activists were so successful in their goal of saving the park that they were able to banish automobile traffic from it entirely.

New York Parks Department
New York Parks Department

 

What Moses had planned for the park:

NYPL
NYPL

Robert Moses, pictured here in Brooklyn in 1956. Although he frequently situated as the arch-nemesis to Jane Jacobs, in fact they were rarely in the same room together.  Their battles were fought in the press and in City Hall.

AP
AP

Jacobs presenting damning evidence about the proposed West Village demolition, taken at their main headquarters the Lion’s  Head, in 1961 at the corner of Hudson and Charles Streets.

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Jane Jacobs and her son Ned in 1961, during the West Village protests.  The Xs were placed on buildings to be condemned. Activists wore sunglasses with Xs on the lenses in protest.

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Photo courtesy Aesthetic Realism

 

The February 21, 1961, article from the New York Times which riled up the West Village. The  East Side project would eventually become Haven Plaza Apartments, but residents would fight off the designation in the West Village.

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January 01, 1963 — Jacobs protests the destruction of Pennsylvania Station with architect Philip Johnson.

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A map of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Although this plan never came to fruition, the stack of buildings near the bridges seems to be coming to pass — on the Brooklyn side!

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Another sketch by Paul Rudolph” of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, showing the new construction from the Holland Tunnel as it enters through Manhattan.

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Jane Jacobs in Toronto, Dec. 21, 1968. She would continue her activism there, helping other community activists in foiling plans to build the Spadina Expressway.

SCANNED FROM THE TORONTO STAR LIBRARY *U42 GRAPHIC Jane Jacobs outside her home on Spadina Road just north of Bloor Street. Photo taken by Frank Lennon/Toronto Star Dec. 21, 1968. Also published 19730425 with caption: Jane Jacobs. Urban affairs expert. Also published 19740520 with caption: Toronto's in good shape, says author Jane Jacobs, but "We've got to be thinking about how we make sure it stays that way." Just being Canadian gives it some advantage, she says, but she fears amalgamation will bring some of the problems of cities like New York.
TORONTO STAR LIBRARY

 

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.
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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
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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)
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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!

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

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

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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!

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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)

MNY323785

 

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)
M3Y44090
Congregation Beth Elohim, pictured here on September 16, 1929, located at Garfield Place and 8th Avenue. (MCNY)

MNY195546

 

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 .

Landscape

 

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

1969-0714-cover-250

 

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.

Landscape

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

Portrait

Bushwick Avenue

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Two pictures of Bond Street

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Landscape

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.

Landscape

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

MN112866

 

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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History In The Making 8/19: White House Down Edition

Above: An engraving the gutted Capitol building by William Strickland (LOC)

Two hundred years ago this week (on August 24, 1814), the British invaded Washington DC and torched not just the White House, but a great many other government buildings. “Of the Senate house, the President’s palace, the barracks, the dockyard, etc., nothing could be seen except heaps of smoking ruins” [Eyewitness To History]

The most recent New York Times’ Streetscapes column by Christopher Gray explores Manhattan’s aerial bridges and mentioned the Bowery Boys website and our recent photo gallery by Alexander Rea of the Gimbels traverse.  [New York Times]

You know what closes next week FOREVER? Kim’s Video. Crank up your DVD players and go visit them one final time before they close on August 25. [Jeremiah’s Vanishing NY]

Help save the Subway Inn, a classic dive bar near Bloomingdale’s that’s being shuttered for — what else — a luxury apartment building. [New York Neon]

Some fascinating history from Cincinnati — a fiery courthouse riot that erupted in 1884 over the course of three bloody days. [Murder By Gaslight]

The Panama Canal opened 100 years ago on August 15, 1914.  The United State maintained a presence in the Canal Zone until 1999. [Smithsonian]

Below: The American steamship SS Ancon makes the first official transit through the locks of the Panama Canal, August 15, 1914:

Recollections of the Electric Circus: “If you remembered much of what happened, you weren’t really there.”

The interior of the Electric Circus on St. Mark’s Place. Pic courtesy Christian Montone/flickr

WARNING The article contains a couple light spoilers about last night’s ‘Mad Men’ on AMC.  If you’re a fan of the show, come back once you’re watched the episode.  But these posts are about a specific element of New York history from the 1960s and can be read even by those who don’t watch the show at all.  You can find other articles in this series here

Almost predictably, a couple characters from ‘Mad Men‘ finally interact with a psychedelic temple of Andy Warhol, in this case the nightclub Electric Circus at 19-25 St. Mark’s Place, today the site of a Chipotle and a Supercuts.

As I wrote back in an article from 2007: “It became the East Village fuse box for Warhol’s talents and those of his entourage, in particular the Velvet Underground and Nico.  The dazzling synthesis of psychedelica and glamour, of the Velvet’s strange atmospheric music and Warhol’s performance displays of lights and costumes, immediately attracted the scenesters to this odd little street — according to the New York Times, “everyone from hippies to Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton” — way before St. Marks would make its reputation in the 1970s with the punk scene.”

An original ad from the Electic Circus, summer of 1967 (courtesy butdoesitfloat)

Since I wrote that article, many people have chimed in within the comments section to relive their memories of Electric Circus.  Here are a few of my favorite comments from those who were actually there:

“What memories.  I started working at the E.C. as a ticket taker.  I say working, but in reality we didn’t get paid, we got let in for our work.  Like Woodstock, if you remembered much of what happened at the E.C. you weren’t really there.” – Being the Best

Below: Headline from the Village Voice, July 6, 1967

“I worked at the Electric Circus, 67-68-ish.  I was the fire-eater, and mime/clown, working with another mime named Michael Grando.  Larry Pizoni was the director of the circus show.  We had a trapeze artist named Sandy [Alexander], and security was a biker club called the Aliens (which worked, unlike Altamont).

Everytime I’m in New York, in the East Village, I stop on St Mark’s and bow my head.  I wanted to have someone put up a plaque, but nobody in the stores knew who to call.” – Richard Bluejay

“I was one of 5 or 6 people who worked at Limbo* for number of years across from the Electric Circus.  I was there at the opening night, and then on for a long time I remember we use to give discounts to the Circus employees so we get in free. Can not tell you how many times I was in there but it was a lot!!!!  It was great time back then.  Fillmore East was around the corner and Max’s Kansas City was not far away.  East Village was where it was at back then ” – Anonymous

A freakout-indusing video from Electric Circus, scored to the music of Frank Zappa: 

“I remember two things about the electric circus from my one visit in 1969. One was the fact that the walls were not at a right angle to the floor, which combined with the strobe lights and swirling crowd, made for a delightfully disorienting experience. The other was a dark room off to the side where couples — or even strangers I suppose — could sit and smooch. In addition to all kinds of nooks and crannies for this purpose there was a rotating upholstered carousel in the middle of the room, divided into sections, one per couple.” — Anonymous

Below: A typical crowd on the stairs outside the Electric Circus (pic courtesy Old New York)

“I’m so excited, after all these decades to hear from people who got to experience the the most amazing Electric Circus, as I did.  By far dancing myself into a dazed, psychedelic trance, while absorbing the magical energy of the Chambers Brothers sing ‘Time’, was right up there in my top ten of life altering experiences.  I was a runaway, living with new friends in the Village.

I used to panhandle on St. Marks Place, and spend all my money on clothes at the Limbo, pizza, and tickets to hear my fav bands, except for the times I used to get in for free.” — Sonny

Below: Sonny’s jam from the floor of the Electric Circus:

“I can’t remember exactly how I arrived at St. Marks Place that first night.  I had never been to St Marks Place and I certainly didn’t know about Electic Circus.  I was just following a friend of mine who was interested enough in the new culture to find out where to go and what to do.

There must have been some kind of happening that night because the streets were full of people.  People were hanging all over the stairs leading up to the Circus.  And, you didn’t have to pay.  We just walked in. I still remember it emotionally.

The big room was completely decorated with fabric amorphously draped on walls and spanning corners and cornices.  Projectors behind the fabric ran continuous short loops of films. Of course it was dimly lit so as not to wash out the films.  People were everywhere and moved mysteriously in the smoky dim light.  I was born in Brooklyn and had already lived a few years in Manhattan, but I never saw anything like this before.  The next time I saw EC the decor had changed. I never paid to get in because I was a member of the PABLO Light** show.” — Anonymous

* Limbo was a famed ‘hippie clothing’ boutique where today’s Trash & Vaudeville sits today.

** That would be Lights By Pablo, a leading ‘liquid light show’ exhibitor of the late 1960s, frequently here and at Fillmore East.