Tag Archives: Williamsburg

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

 

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

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

Landscape

Two pictures of Bond Street

Landscape

Landscape

Across from Lynch Park, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Landscape

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

Landscape

Fort Greene, across from the park.
Landscape

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)

V19891866 V19891847-1

 

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.

MN112215

 

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

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

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

The Dirty Ones, a notorious gang from Williamsburg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Rosh Hashanah! Images of Jewish New Years’ past

Look to the stars children! A vintage Rosh Hashanah card manufactured by the Williamsburg Art Company in the 1920s.

Rosh Hashanah is here — the first of Tishrei, year 5775.  Presented here are a selection of photographs from the Library of Congress depicting Jewish New Yorkers celebrating the new year (or, at least, on their way home to start the festivities).  These images date from 1909-1915, although most are 1912.  As most of these photographs were possibly taken (or labeled) by non-Jewish photographers, some of the meaning is a little lost.  If you have any insights into these images, please leave a comment!

And there’s some detective work to be done here. For instance, anyone recognize this synagogue?

One hundred years ago, Jewish New Year celebrations were especially fraught due to the events in Europe. Ethnics groups from embattled countries, in fear their rituals made them targets for local violence, made doubly sure to distance themselves for the politics of the day, while affirming their continuing connection to their Jewish brethren.

A leader of the reformed Jewish congregation proclaimed, “The conservative and patriotic citizenship of America refrains from endorsing the attitude of any country involved in the horrible European conflict. … [O]ur hearts go out to the 300,000 men in the Russian army who, having bled and suffered at the hands of their country on account of being Jews, are now suffering and dying for their country because as Jews they are loyal to the flag under which they live.” [source]

This one is dated September 1912 although there was not a “Jewish New Year Parade” and this is hardly an image of a parade anyway!

There appear to be a series of old Rosh Hashanah photographs focusing on boot blacks polishing the shoes of young ladies.  I doubt this was an actual custom but more a recognition of the fact that many young boot blacks came from Jewish families. (However, for Passover, people leave their shoes at the door.)

The smile of the girl at center is totally making my day:

Here’s a telling detail from 1914:  New Jersey decided to hold a statewide primary election on the same day as Rosh Hashanah that year, disenfranchising thousands of Jewish voters “who are prohibited from signing their name.” Registering to vote was quite different back in the day; luckily, there was an alternate date provided that fell before the holiday, but no attempts were made to actually move election day.  [source]

Then there’s this captivating image:

So what’s going on in the picture above, taken on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1909?  Per some commentary from a Library of Congress commenter:  “If this was photo was indeed taken around Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) as the notation implies then these people are most likely taking part in a “tashlich” ceremony. The ceremony is when the previous year’s sins are symbolically “cast off” by throwing pieces of bread into a flowing body of water.”

And finally here’s some rather imaginative Jewish New Year postcards that were manufactured by the Williamsburg Art Company sometime in the 1920s.  While the company was located in Brooklyn, all of these were actually manufactured in Germany. 



Where did New Yorkers first buy recorded music?

“Photograph shows a boy and a girl dancing while an Edison Home Phonograph plays in a house in Broad Channel, Queens, New York City.” — taken between 1910-1915

Here’s something many people thought they’d never see again in New York City — the opening of a new record store.  Rough Trade, known for their famous London record shop, will open an awesomely spacious new store in Williamsburg this week, with vinyl-record listening stations, a coffee shop, live performances and a heap of nostalgia on its shoulders.

Remember Tower Records on Broadway?  Virgin Records in Times Square?  The old subway Record Mart? The long-vanished Commodore Record Shop?  The past is littered with the ghosts of music stores long gone.

But where did people first buy recorded music in New York City?  The first recordings came on phonograph cylinders, long tubes with the grooves etched along the front, often made with wax.  Essentially, they looked like — and probably smelled like — big, decorative candles.

They were soon in competition with phonographs in a flat, wax disc form, the musical delivery device which eventually won out and became the standard for decades.

In the beginning, recorded music was played in exhibition halls, not available for home use.  By the 1890s, the first musical devices were available for purchase, and phonographs were sold in establishments that offered instruments, music boxes or early electronics — Broadway piano stores (like the one above, in 1910) or the places down on the soon-to-be-named Radio Row which offered New Yorkers the latest technology.

Naturally, the first records were made to play on Edison machines, pricey novelties in the late 1890s.  Here, in 1898, you could put a down-payment on the purchase of a phonograph machine and a bicycle — a real hipster double-play today!

Another advertisement from 1898 presents Edison records at just “$5.00 a dozen”, found at the St. James Building at Broadway and 26th Street.  Of course, a great many of these records were spoken word, not music;  after all, they were nicknamed ‘talking machines’ at this time.

I was able to find a few other early photographer retailers in old newspaper advertisements.  For instance, Douglas & Co., at 10 West 22nd Street, appears to be one of New York’s earliest retailers specializing in recorded sound.  From Dec 16, 1900:

By 1903, Douglas & Co. had moved downtown, closer to the electronic retailers that would later specialize in radio and televisions:

Another early phonograph retailer I was able to locate was A.B Barkelew & Kent.  “Call and hear them. They talk themselves.”  They would eventually move to Vesey Street and, in 1902, claim “the largest stock in New York.”

As early in 1899, Barkelew & Kent could claim to be one of New York’s first used record stores.  From a trade ad: “We exchange records you tire of and do not like.”

Interestingly, early record stores were listed alongside advertisements for sporting goods.  This ad is from May 1902:

And since we’re celebrating the opening of a new record store in Brooklyn, I should add that one of Brooklyn’s first major record stores was at A.D. Matthews Department Store on Fulton Street.

From an April 1900 advertisement:

Sugar high: Yonkers boys, up to no good

A band of junior ruffians, gathered around the detritus of a sugar plant in Yonkers, on the Hudson River, c. 1906. I can’t quite make out what they’re doing, and I possibly don’t wanna know. This is very possibly an old plant located in same area as the present corporate headquarters of American Sugar Refining, just a couple miles north of the Bronx border.

American Sugar owns the Domino Sugar brand name today. Domino, of course, grew to sweet prominence in the late 19th century along the Williamsburg waterfront.

Photo by Lewis Wicks Hine

Holidays on Ice 1861: Skaters flock to Brooklyn’s icy ponds

Williamsburg(h)’s Union Pond, one of the finest destinations for ice skating in the city, 1863. It later became America’s first enclosed baseball field.

The nation was at war one hundred and fifty years ago, but that didn’t stop the austere celebrations in the ‘borough of churches’. But while thousands of Brooklyn residents attended church that morning in 1861, many participated in a more whimsical holiday celebration — wild and uncontrollable ice skating.

So famous was the city of Brooklyn’s famed ponds — which reliably froze each winter — that New Yorkers by the boatloads crammed into ferries across the East River to join in the icy merriment. On really cold days, of course, it was often the East River itself that froze solid. But in 1861, an unseasonable warmth kept the river disappointingly liquid, forcing thousands of skaters upon Brooklyn’s small ponds where the ice quickly melted.

For instance, Washington Pond (at right), at 5th Avenue and 6th Street — then considered Gowanus, today it’s Park Slope — was normally ideal for skating. Horse-drawn streetcars took crowds right from the Fulton Ferry to the door of the nearby old stone house, built in 1699 and famous for its role in the Revolutionary War. (It’s why the pond is named for Washington, after all.) But on Christmas 1861, “the ice was unpleasantly rough” there.

Skaters may have found more success at other Brooklyn skating destinations. The Capitoline Skating Lake, near the train station in the former independent village of Bedford, was known as the “principle pond of the Western District.” In Williamsburg, the versatile ‘world-renown‘ Union Pond drew thousands during the winter and thousands more in the summer — as the nation’s first enclosed baseball field. On this particular day, the newly opened pond in its ‘gay and brilliant appearance’ was crammed with skaters laughing and caroling, in various states of sobriety.

By the afternoon of Christmas 1861, most of the closest ponds were mushy and nearly dangerous. At a pond on Third Avenue, “a gentlemen with two ladies fell trough the ice and took their Christmas immersion without any material damage save a very decided shivering,” according to the Brooklyn Eagle.

Urban ice enthusiasts were forced to follow the advice of horsecars festooned with the signs ‘Good Skating in East Brooklyn’. I’m not sure exactly where crowds went that day, but a New York Times article from a three years later lists several ‘free ponds’ that might have been available for ice skating that day, including Seller’s Pond “in Bedford, near the Jamaica Pond Road”, “Dumbleton’s Pond on Myrtle Avenue” and the Suydam’s Pond, “on Atlantic-avenue near the Hunters-Ferry road.”.

All that skating and merriment drove many to more intoxicating holiday spirits, preferring their drinks ‘on the rocks’, or as the 1861 Eagle reports, “the boys will insist that ‘Christmas comes but once a year’ and with it comes a large measure of ‘good cheer’ and so they must get cheerful.” The most serious altercation came with one reveler, tiring of throwing rocks at boys, attempted to pistol whip a police officer.

The more respectable Brooklynites traipsed home at dawn, as the gaslights meet the fading light, casting the wet snow in a bright glare. Many reformed again for choirs of caroling, or else to distribute presents at charity ‘Christmas tree exercises’, where children lined up outside downtown theaters hoping for presents and a gander at the gorgeously trimmed tree, sparkling with candles.

Top pic courtesy NYPL. Second pic courtesy the Old Stone House.

The other Draft Riots: Brooklyn infernos, Queens bonfires

You probably know something about the Civil War draft riots that kept New York paralyzed during the week of July 13, 1863. But New York only meant Manhattan back then. What about the rest of the future boroughs?

The conscription act initiated draft lotteries throughout the area as, by 1863, the Union struggled to fill its quota of volunteers. Many thought the state of New York had contributed enough; hundreds were already dead after two years of bleak and depressing battle.

Then there was that troublesome little exemption clause. Those chosen in the ‘wheel of misfortune’ could either find a substitute or pay a $300 commutation fee. According to the Inflation Calculator, that’s about $5,250.00 today. Look at your bank account. Could you afford to pay that?

People revolted violently when the drafts were held in New York on July 13. There were also seismic reactions in the surrounding counties as well, chain reactions of the anger quelling in New York. In the surrounding regions, local law enforcement were often better prepared to handle disruptions amongst their less concentrated populations. Even still, the horror of New York’s draft riots did spread.

The homes of many black residents on Staten Island were torched. According to historian Richard Bayles, “From its proximity to New York City this county could not help but feel every pulsation of popular emotion that disturbed the bosom of the city.” Mobs attacked black shopowners in Factoryville, surrounded a black church in Stapleton and threatened parishioners inside, and burned down a railroad station owned by Republican and Union supporter Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Residents from the village of Astoria and the farmlands of Sunnyside and Ravenswood could see New York burning across the water. But Queens County caught the loathsome riot fever when the draft commenced in nearby Jamaica, on July 14. Riled crowds gathered at dusk and nearly torched the village but for the intervention of a few Democratic community leaders.

The draft office in Jamaica was eventually destroyed and number of buildings filled with government property were vandalized. Rioters stormed one building and stole piles of garments intended for the battlefield. According to an 1882 history of Queens County, it was an apparel Armageddon, the rioters “taking out some boxes of clothing which they broke open, piled in heaps and set on fire. The largest pile, which they derisively called ‘Mount Vesuvius’ was about ten feet high.”

In Westchester County, towns along the Bronx River reacted similarly to their own draft lotteries, with rioters in Morrisania and West Farms destroying telegraph offices and yanking railroad ties from the ground. However, other local towns, like Yonkers, were successfully insulated from violence, due to better living conditions and the entreaties of an especially popular local leader, the Rev. Edward Lynch. A mass gathering on July 15th in the village of Tremont eventually snuffed out violence in the region.

Although it was one of the country’s largest metropolises, the independent city of Brooklyn never saw the intensity of violence that New York did. Indeed, some black New Yorkers escaping violence in the city fled to the countryside in Kings County, to places like Weeksville. However the county did see a good share of bloodshed and destruction, particularly in the Eastern District (the areas of Williamsburg and Greenpoint).

The Brooklyn Eagle, solidly Democratic and in quiet support of the anti-draft agitators, had this to say in a July 16th article, “We could fill columns of the Eagle with exciting stories of anti-negro demonstrations, threatened outbreaks, etc.. So far no disturbance has occurred in Brooklyn which two or three policemen could not surprise [sic]. There has been nothing like any attempt to get up a mob, or create a riot.”

This is preposterous, but even through the Eagle’s glossy lens, it’s apparent that violence never fomented to the degree that it did in New York. This, of course, would be of cold comfort to the dozens of black Brooklynites who did have to flee their homes and businesses that week.

The most dramatic scene in Brooklyn took place before midnight on Wednesday, July 13, with the destruction of two large grain elevators in the Atlantic Basin, in Red Hook. (Pictured at top.)

The Eagle’s reasoning for the blaze demonstrates the reasonless chaos that typified violence in the latter days of the riots. It had nothing to do with racism or with drafts, but rather “[t]he fire was the work of incendiaries, supposed to be grain shovellers who recently had some trouble about a raise on wages, and who have always looked with feelings of animosity on these elevators because they dispensed with a large amount of manual labor.”

The burning elevators, facing into the East River, made a grim bookend to the burning structures across the water in New York. Luckily, within 24 hours, the riots would be calmed throughout the region.

Patrick Henry McCarren: how a politican became a pool

Patrick Henry McCarren — best known today for leaving his last name to a park and a swimming pool — was a complicated figure, so it makes sense he should be considered a sort of godfather to a rather complicated neighborhood like Williamsburg.

McCarren became the voice of Greenpoint and Williamsburg at a pivotal time of growth for Brooklyn, during the years of consolidation with New York. He worked his way up and, once there, bought himself favor like a good old-fashioned machine Democrat would — one hand outstretched to the working class, the other in the pocket of big industry.

Born in East Cambridge, Massachusetts of Irish parents in 1847, McCarren headed to Brooklyn and worked first in Williamsburg’s thriving sugar refineries, then as a cooper, and finally as a lawyer, the springboard for his real ambitions in local politics. Civic service was his singular objective, entering Kings County’s democratic machine at age 21. In 1881, he was elected a state senator, a vantage he would use in accumulating great influence.

“Far from being offended at being called a politician,” according to a glowing eulogy. “[McCarrin] took pains to emphasize his right to the name and became a power….because of his singleness of aim.”

During 18 years as a state senator, McCarrin rallied for the fortunes of Brooklyn and, in particular, for the East River Bridge to link New York with the factories of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. (And, oh yes, blossoming Brooklyn’s population with the fleeing residents of the Lower East Side.)

There is much truth in the statement, “The bridges, the parks, the improved means of transit, the better paved and lighted streets…by which the Brooklyn of to-day is distinguished….are due more to the legislative efficiency of Senator McCarren than to the influence of any other individual.”

Of course, he did so frequently on behalf of the Eastern District’s big industries, becoming a political marionette for both oil and sugar. He was publicly charged with actually being on the payroll of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. According to one account, “No denial of the charge was ever made by the Senator.” One paper even referred to him as “the Standard Oil serpent of Brooklyn politics.”

Remarkably, with such unabashed connections to corruption, you’d think he’d be a welcome ally to New York’s Tammany Hall. Far from it; as a powerful Brooklyn Democrat, he remained unbought by Tammany, on the outskirts of their most important political objectives. By 1908, the year he thwarted Tammany’s plans to put William Randolph Hearst in the governor’s seat, he was possibly the most powerful man in Brooklyn.

He died the next year, 1909, hated and mocked across the water but beloved by most in Brooklyn, even some of his most fractious enemies. His funeral was purported the biggest in the borough since Henry Ward Beecher’s.

Greenpoint Park, which had opened in 1906, was quickly renamed in his honor. Had he been around, Patrick might have blanched thirty years later when another steadfast politician, Robert Moses, decided to plunk down the biggest of eleven WPA-funded municipal swimming pools here in 1936. Today, the pool is a popular but surprising venue for concerts and is currently being renovated.

Below: McCarren Pool in its heyday, date unknown (Courtesy McCarren Park)