A Stroll Down Historic Norman Avenue
Things have changed a lot over the years on Norman Avenue, but Scandinavian influence remains. It is highly ironic that two Scandinavian cutting edge entrepreneurs have just opened their modern, ultra trendy, design center-restaurant Norman (29 Norman Ave) on a street named for the first Greenpointer, fellow Scandinavian, Dirck Volckertszen, the Norwegian immigrant who built the area’s first house nearby in 1645, more than three hundred and fifty years ago. Recently opened by Danish restaurateur Claus Meyer and Swedish chef, Fredrick Berselius, Norman is another chapter in Greenpoint’s long Nordic heritage. Volckertszen is too hard a name to pronounce, so the Dutch called him Dirck the Norseman, Dutch for Norwegian, which got shortened to Norman, hence the name of the street.
Norman Avenue was not always called by its present name. It was once Third Street and then Union Street. Volckert Dircksen, the oldest son of Dirck Volckertszen, built his house near Bushwick Creek on Norman Avenue between Manhattan Avenue and Lorimer Street about 1700. The house is long gone, but near where it once stood is one of the prettiest houses in Greenpoint, 61 Norman Avenue, a cute wood- frame house set off the street with a gorgeous garden in its front yard. Before the street was created Norman Avenue was part of the beautiful Meserole Orchard, and the trees remind me of the ancient orchard.
Further up the street on the corner of Manhattan Avenue, there is an entrance to the G train, which was opened in 1931. Across from the G train entrance, is the Triple Decker diner (695 Manhattan Ave), a greasy spoon and one of the oldest continually operated local restaurants. Crossing Manhattan Avenue, my mind drifts back to Carmine’s pizzeria, now closed, but for decades a Greenpoint institution. Across the street from Carmines in the early 1990s, there was a still practicing ninety-year-old lawyer, Mr. Kenney, who was a lifelong Greenpointer and a passionate Yankee fan who had seen Ruth, Gehrig and the great Yankee teams of the twenties. Sadly, I never asked him about Greenpoint history, something I still regret.
Heading East on Norman, now one comes to the building site of the library. The original library, tragically torn down in the 1970s, was a gorgeous Carnegie library from around 1900 that resembled the elegant library on 42nd and fifth. Why did they ever tear down this gem of a building?
Heading further up the block, we come to 119 Norman Avenue, which was once the clubhouse of “The King of Greenpoint” Peter J. McGuinness who was the last old style ward boss in New York City history. In my biography of McGuinness, The King of Greenpoint, I related how hundreds of people used to come to McGuinness during the depression because they had no money for food. McGuinness often reached into his own pocket to help feed his hungry constituent. McGuinness was an enemy of prohibition, which was very unpopular in hard drinking Greenpoint. Under McGuinness’ club was a speak-easy called “ The Trumpet” that was raided during prohibition. McGuinness claimed that he had no knowledge that a speakeasy was operating directly under his clubhouse! A likely story indeed!
At the end of the block, is the city’s oldest continually used school P.S. 34, founded in 1867, and which legend has it, was a hospital during the Civil War. It has the country’s only bi-lingual Polish-English program and is a blue ribbon award winning school.
Crossing McGuinness, one comes to a former firehouse, now a residence, which was once home to the Brooklyn Fire Department, before 1898, when Brooklyn ceased being an independent city. On the south side of the block is a bar that has changed little since I drank there a quarter-century ago, Connie O’s. It is arguably the bar that has least been changed by the gentrification of Greenpoint and is one of the few remaining pieces of working-class Greenpoint.
Heading further East, Norman Avenue becomes more Polish. Near Humboldt is the Syrena bakery (207 Norman Ave), still a popular place for fresh bread with the Polish community. Across the street is a bar that I knew as the Kominek, or fireplace, a former Polish nightclub.
As you head East on Norman, it becomes increasingly industrial. This part of Greenpoint was full of refineries, and it is where the Sone and Flemming refinery was once located. In 1919, the largest fire that Greenpoint ever witnessed burned there for a week. The flames jumped Newtown Creek and were visible twenty-five miles away! Oil refining is long-gone, but a fifteen million gallon, cancer-causing plume of oil still sits beneath the land in that part of Greenpoint, and it’s proof that you cannot escape history.