Tag Archives: Greenpoint

‘Fear City’: The unthinkable tale how New York City almost went bankrupt

Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics, the title of Kim Phillips-Fein’s riveting new book on the 1970s financial catastrophe, isn’t wantonly comparing New York City to the devilish landscape of a horror film.

It’s the actual title of a grim pamphlet the New York Police Department distributed to tourists in 1975, providing insights into staying safe during this period of high crime and government cut-backs. Today it does read a bit like promotional material for an actual horror film The Purge, a fear-mongering document meant to embarrass city officials and galvanize communities.

Its advice included:

  1. Stay off the streets after 6 P.M.
  2. Do not walk.
  3. Avoid public transportation.
  4. Remain in Manhattan.
  5. Protect your property.
  6. Safeguard your handbag.
  7. Conceal property in handbags.
  8. Do not leave valuables in your hotel room and do not deposit them in the hotel vault.
  9. Be aware of fire hazards.

The flyers enraged Mayor Abe Beame, who was scrambling to come up with money to save New York, and he even slapped a restraining order upon the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association who was attempting to distribute the flyers. “Abandoning the notion of leafleting the airports,” writes Phillips-Fein, “police officers instead drove around trucks decked with American flags and red-white-and-blue bunting around the city, blasting out warnings about the threats to public safety.”

How did New York City get itself into this weakened, paralyzing situation? And just as impossibly — how did the city manage to get out of it?

Metropolitan Books
New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics
By Kim Phillips-Fein
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Co.

In Fear City, Phillips-Fein manages to sift through this complicated and seemingly indecipherable story and recount even the most gloomy late-night board meetings with a vital urgency.

In essence, it does have a horror-film quality, as we watch a festering monster grow in size within the corridors of government. New York’s financial woes began in the late 1950s, as the city began taking out large, virtually unchecked loans, playing elaborate games on spreadsheets in order to pay the bills. They were assisted by state government (who at first facilitated such borrowing and even changed laws to allow it) and the eager ratings agencies who considered New York a safe A-rating bet as late as 1973.

Mayor Beame, besieged by reporters outside of Gracie Mansion

Clarence Davis/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

To be fair, under prior mayors, coffers began aching under increased funding of social services, expanded to combat growing threats such as the depopulation of some neighborhoods (due to the growth of suburbs) and the spectre of deteriorating infrastructure.

But by the mid 1970s, the city and its new mayor Abe Beame faced the terrifying possibility of bankruptcy. This would not only be bad for the city, but for the nation as a whole, destabilizing the country’s banking networks. Indeed New York threatened to fall into a hole and pull the entire country in with it.

“Over time,” writes Phillips-Fein, “the fear of bankruptcy took on a life of its own.”

The one person with certain power to bail out the city chose not to. President Gerald Ford would eventually butt heads with his own vice president Nelson Rockefeller over the country’s involvement with New York. “Most of Ford’s advisers believed New York was shamelessly begging for help to prop up its welfare state. The cold light of default … might be the only thing that could compel the city to change its ways.”

We know how that ended up turning out.

But if Ford wouldn’t come to the table to offer assistance, Beame often had a problem admitting there was a problem at all. At times he sounds like an addict, frantically coming up with excuses for his own behavior. “He claimed the city was just running low on cash while it waited for revenues to arrive.”

You may know portions of this story quite well — some of you lived through it — but you may not know the varying and even opposing ways that the city got out of this mess.

On one level, it did so with the help of financiers and CEOs, leading task forces  of great and questionable power.

Empowered by a late-night act hurriedly passed by the state senate, the ominous-sounding Emergency Financial Control Board oversaw all city expenditures, “wrest[ing] control over the city’s finances out of the hands of the mayor and the City Council.” Among those on the board were the CEOs of New York Telephone Company, American Airlines and Colt Industries (the gun manufacturer).

Below: Anger at the EFCB’s actions to close Hostos Community College inspired vigorous protests. Such community action helped save the college.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

But the real bailout came from the citizens of New York themselves who weathered the horrifying notion of “planned shrinkage,” the drastic and detrimental cutbacks to hospitals, schools and public transit, generally speaking, with great resolve. (Events like the Blackout of 1977 notwithstanding.)

But they did not weather them quietly.

Communities were not afraid to push back against aggressive cuts that would have endangered them, such as the efforts by one Greenpoint community to save their fire house from closure and another by a South Bronx residents to stop the shuttering of a unique educational institution — Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College of the City University of New York — aimed at the community’s bilingual residents.

Phillips-Fein, an associate professor at New York University, has crafted one of the best history books of the year out of one of the ugliest periods in New York City history. Aspects of this story reverberate into present dilemmas — on the local, state and national levels — as austerity measures take center stage as possible solutions to deficits and shortfalls. Let’s not hope for any sequels.

Below: New York City 1976

Photo/John VanderHaagen


New York City 1977

Photography by Derzsi Elekes Andor

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!

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

Courtesy New York Public LIbrary
Courtesy New York Public LIbrary


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


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



The hole that swallowed Greenpoint and other treasures at Old NYC

The New York Public Library‘s Old NYC interface is pretty much one of the best things to happen to New York City history this year. It selects photographs from their extensive archives and maps them out — all five boroughs and pretty much most major intersections.  It’s like a Google Maps street-view of the past.

It’s been a true delight (and a major distraction) to revisit random avenues and see what things looked like over 75-100 years ago.  Try it out. Pick a street, any street.

While stumbling through Brooklyn history, I can upon a startling sight at Clay Street and Commercial Street in Greenpoint.  According to the caption, the photos show “operations on a W. P. A. sewer project.”

Here’s another view (and check out the others here):



An in-depth plunge through this resource finds all sorts of unusual items from the past. Here are a few more that I discovered but, by all means, go hunt around for yourself!

A spooky cemetery in Woodside, Queens, at 32nd Avenue and the northwest corner of 54th Street (or this intersection):


Back when one could just park your jalopy at the foot of West Street, 1920s. Here’s that view today. [source]


Edison Electric Company wants to encourage you to ‘COOK ELECTRICALLY’ from the vantage of a Ferris Street sign in Red Hook, Brooklyn. [source]


Before Ulysses S. Grant was interred in the monument that bears his name, he was kept in a temporary tomb near the same spot.  This picture is from the 1880s. [source]


A rustic view of the Alice Austin House in Staten Island from 1926. Here’s that same view today:



Graceful and long-gone Zborowski Mansion which once sat in Claremont Park in the Bronx. More information about this house here.




New York Central Railroad cars, just sailing down the street, at the corner of Hudson and Vestry Streets, in Manhattan. [source]




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

The Dirty Ones, a notorious gang from Williamsburg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The original Farmville; or putting the ‘green’ in Greenpoint

Frozen farm: The Eagle Street Rooftop Farm waits out the weather for a better day. (Courtesy Scott Nyerges)

NAME THAT NEIGHBORHOOD Some New York neighborhoods are simply named for their location on a map (East Village, Midtown). Others are given prefabricated designations (SoHo, DUMBO). But a few retain names that link them intimately with their pasts. Other entries in this series can be found here.

NEIGHBORHOOD: Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Last month I took in a terrific exhibition of photography by my old friend Scott Nyerges, documenting a year in the life of the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The farm (all 6,000 square feet of it) sits atop an old warehouse near the mouth of Newtown Creek as it spills into the East River.

Typical farming may not lend itself to photographic opportunity, but add a view from a few stories up, and you get something rather surreal. The rooftop farm, one of several sprouting up on top of New York buildings, offers local restaurants and budding farmers an opportunity to use organically grown produce and even grow their own food.

But the Eagle Street farm actually brings Greenpoint back to its roots. Literally. And nods to the origin of its name.

I’ve always associated Greenpoint with industry, its shores dominated by dockyards and its rows of streets, running in alphabetical order from north to south, defined by factories and warehouses. Its rich Polish community traces its development to immigrants who moved here to work in those very places.

But the original settlers to the area had a very good reason to call it Greenpoint. This was once a vigorous and fertile farming community, with ideal soil conditions and access to a waterway that could get farmers to the thriving markets of New York.

There was even an actual point of green, so to speak, a slender neck of land covered in grass that jutted into the East River at this location. (One source says the point was actually planted with green wheat.) Those travelling along the river in the early days called it as they saw it — Green Point. I’m not sure what happened to this long-gone natural feature, but eventually it lent its name to the entire neighborhood.

Also gone is a third body of water, filled in long ago, that helped define (and segregate) the region — Bushwick Creek (sometimes known as Norman Kill), which ran south, and separated it from the town of Williamsburgh to the south. For some idea of where this creek might have sat, simply erase everything between the Bushwick inlet and McCarren Park and replace it with a marsh.

The region became part of the Dutch town of Boswijck (Bushwick) in 1638 and would not become distinguished by its current name for almost 200 years. During the time, the area was noted for large farms, many in the early days worked by slave labor. One of the first farmers was the Nordic implant Dirck Volckertsen whose nickname, Dirck de Noorman, gave the creek its alternate name. By the age of the Revolutionary War, farmers with familiar names like Meserole, Calyer and Provoost all set up stakes here.

During these years, Greenpoint earned its nickname as the ‘garden spot’ of the region; but with the growth of New York, Brooklyn and Williamsburg in the early 19th century came the industrialization of the shores. The old farms were replaced with factories. Its name became a bit of a farce as oil refineries and shipyards soon defined the area. Bushwick Creek was filled in by the early 20th century.

The Eagle Street Rooftop Farm brings urban agriculture back to the neighborhood after almost 150 years. Too bad it’s the dead of winter here in New York and currently snowing, because a lovely stroll through some tended fields, high in the skyline, sounds like a really good idea right now.

You can see more of Scott’s rooftop photography at his website. The Eagle Street Rooftop Farm reopens in April.

I found the best little ‘old time’ map of Greenpoint history which pinpoints the exact area of this original ‘green point’. But you’re going to want to click into this to see the details (Map courtesy Greenpt):