Last month marked the hundredth anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, a war which had many profound effects on Greenpoint. A hundred and fifty local men lost their lives in the war and many more were wounded. One of the fallen has always intrigued me. Frank Baliszewski, who lived in my house at two Clifford Place, died on October 4th, 1918 from wounds he suffered in battle in France. I know little else about him, but I have often wondered about him. His name still stands on a monument outside his parish church, St. Stanislaw Kostka on Driggs Avenue. There were also two brothers, the McVeighs from Hausman Street, who fell within a day of each other in different parts of France.
The war stirred a huge wave of local patriotism. Twenty-nine year old Pete McGuinness would capitalize on this local patriotism by becoming the embodiment of the local war effort. Without World War I, Pete McGuinness never would have risen to become the “boss of Greenpoint” and its most famous citizen. He skillfully used the patriotism the war aroused to demonstrate his leadership skills and the patriotic organization that he formed during the war helped elect him to grasp political power. In 1917, when the United States entered the war, his organization, the xenophobic “Native Borns” was transformed into “The Greenpoint Patriotic League” under his leadership. McGuinness astutely presented himself as Greenpoint’s most ardent patriot. His childhood friend, John MacCrate, ran the local draft board and gave Pete the names of local boys who were to be sent away. McGuinness then sat down with the draftee and the soldier’s family to calm their apprehensions.
During the war, local draftees marched off together for basic training. Whenever a batch of Greenpoint boys left, they received a heroic send-off by McGuinness and his partisans, carrying the banners of McGuinness’ organizations, along with music by the Full Military Brass Band of Professor William J. Connolly, a musician, who was one of McGuinness’s most important political allies. McGuinness often borrowed a white horse from Orr’s Lumberyard, where he worked and rode regally at the head of the farewell parade. Pete said of his farewell parades, “Lets send ‘em off with a smile,” and he certainly did.
McGuinness also used the Patriotic League to attack the ineffective local political machine headed by James McQuade. McGuinness claimed that Democratic Party’s district leader, James McQuade, was doing little to boost the morale of Greenpoint’s soldiers. He ordered his followers to canvass the neighborhood for money to buy presents for the men going off to war. Naturally, this was a popular cause and merchants and other Greenpointers gave generously. McGuinness presented each draftee with a bon voyage package containing food, cigarettes, soap, razor blades and an inspirational leaflet by McGuinness himself. The Patriotic League even continued sending soldiers packages in France and many grateful soldiers wrote letters home thanking the Patriotic League, casting McGuinness’ work in a positive light. One local boy who claimed to be the first soldier from Greenpoint to reach German soil wrote home a letter that was prominently displayed in The Weekly Star:
I was thinking of Greenpoint through every minute of it…. In the last few months I’ve seen a lot of Greenpoint boys over here…. I find that most of the boys feel about the way I do. They think that Peter J. McGuinness is doing very good work for Greenpoint. We sure hope he keeps it up and that Greenpoint appreciates him.
Many a morning the citizens of Greenpoint were awakened by the brass notes from Connolly’s band and the sound of marching feet as the local inductees paraded off to war. The parade route led down Manhattan Avenue, then over the bridge to the train station in Long Island City. Hundreds of flag-waving citizens would come out to enjoy the spectacle, and McGuinness gained greatly in stature. After the War, McGuinness helped returning doughboys find jobs and many of the grateful veterans helped elect him as the local Alderman in 1919.
The huge loss of local lives also demanded a fitting monument, and McGuinness led the efforts to build one. He helped fundraise for the striking bronze-winged victory figure in McGolrick Park, which was created by Carl Augustus Heber (1875–1956) and dates to 1923. The statue depicts a female allegorical figure, holding aloft a modified laurel, the symbol of victory, and in her right hand supporting a large palm frond, symbol of peace. The granite pedestal is inscribed with the names of where local soldiers fought in France. The elegant statue is an enduring tribute to all the local men who died in the Great War.