It’s great to see distillers like the Greenhook Ginsmiths on Dupont Street distilling high quality gin. It’s equally gratifying to know that Greenpoint is teeming with home brewing aficionados who make their own great beers, but this is actually nothing new to Greenpoint. During the era of Prohibition from 1920 to 1933, there was no place in the city that violated the anti-alcohol laws more often than the thirsty citizens of Greenpoint.
The front page of the September 24, 1926 Greenpoint Weekly Star ran an feature about a massive, three-story-high illegal distillery hidden inside an ash can factory at 245 Manhattan Avenue. Hidden behind a trap door the police found a massive distilling operation, “the likes of which had not been seen since the Volstead Act when into effect in Brooklyn”. The authorities seized more than a quarter million dollars worth of distilling equipment, probably the equivalent of twenty five million dollars in today’s money.
The story about the distillery was no anomaly here. Greenpoint had a well-deserved reputation amongst law enforcement officials as the speakeasy capital of Brooklyn, if not the entire city. One officer said that there were eight hundred speakeasies selling booze in our humble hood. Booze could be had just about anywhere. One of my octogenarian Polish-American neighbors recalled being sent as a child to the candy store and returning not only with chocolate, but also with a suspicious vat of clear liquor. Such errands were commonly run by local kids.
In 1924 Judge Thomas Dale could not contain his anger at the flagrant local violations of Prohibition. He thundered once in court, “There are more speakeasies in the Eastern District, I feel, than any other place in the borough. You can get a drink in candy shops, in cigar stores, hat stores, bootblack parlors, hardware stores and finely appointed apartments. It wouldn’t take me long to get a line on them and if I got busy I would close up every one of these places and put those selling this poison in jail.” The angry magistrate thundered,” If I had the time and could get together twenty-five red blooded men I would clean up the speak-easies in The Eastern District and Greenpoint in twenty four hours.” He never did though.
Greenpoint’s local politician at the time was Peter McGuinness who was a teetotaler, but nevertheless was totally committed to repealing prohibition. He once proclaimed prophetically from the floor of the Council, “America does not want to be a dry country” and “New York will never be arid.” He also proposed distributing alcohol seized by the police to local hospitals saying, “It is a criminal shame to allow whiskey to lie while people who are lying at death’s door could be saved by it.” On New Year’s Eve 1931 a restaurant right below McGuinness political club at 119 Norman Avenue was raided by federal agents and two men were arrested. Amazingly, Alderman McGuinness denied an knowledge of the speakeasy, and that his political club was in any way connected to it. That same year a Veterans’ Club on Greenpoint Avenue—that McGuinness was president of—was raided because bootleggers were using it as a front to sell booze, but again McGuinness claimed he did not know anything about it.