A Stroll Down Historic Guernsey Street
Perhaps other blocks in Greenpoint have more elegant houses or more imposing churches, but no block has more beautiful trees than Guernsey Street, which runs parallel to the river between McCarren Park, on its southern end, and Oak Street at its northern tip. The block between Meserole and Norman Avenues has the most dramatic tree canopy in our area. The street is towered over by forest-scaled locust trees that create a leafy roof – a delightful respite from the blazing sun on steamy summer days.
The area was once home to the Meserole orchard, where fruit trees thrived in the rich wet soil that has also allowed these atmospheric locusts to create a tunnel of leaves, whose shade makes entering the block feel like stepping indoors from outdoors. The green ceiling of the locusts alters the light and tricks you into believing that you have stepped indoors. The west side of the street in particular, with its high flat brick buildings, creates the perfect backdrop for the magic of the subdued light, which gives the block its surreal, indoor quality.
In March of 2003, a New York Times reporter filed a story on the residents of the street and perfectly captured the block’s unique verdant beauty:
“In a landscape of warehouses and factories, this block of Brooklyn seems to appear out of nowhere like a magical wood in a fairytale. Graceful 19th-century apartment buildings, some with bay windows are guarded by towering honey locust trees that in a few weeks will form a lush green canopy.”
The trees are so atmospheric that it is hard to imagine that they were not always there, but people who grew up in the 1960s on the block and returned decades later are often shocked by the change the locusts have made. Artist Tim Doyle perfectly captured the feel of the green shade trees in the painting below:
The Times correspondent also called Guernsey Street “the archetypical American block,” but I disagree because there is nothing else locally quite like it and the street also has a unique history. The Southside of the street was a for many years open land, known to locals as “Paddy Floods lots.” The Eckford baseball team practiced there for a time before the Civil War, but the area’s development forced them out. When Grover Cleveland ran for president, his likeness was outlined in fireworks and ignited, much to the delight of local Democrats. A trestle once ran from these lots to the Southside, but it was long ago demolished. Around the 1920s, tawdry clapboard wood-frame four-story apartments were built, their flimsiness standing in marked contrast to the solid brick structures just across the street.
The street has not always been romantic and has seen its share of crime. Pete McGuinness, the “King of Greenpoint” named it as a play street, closing it to traffic, because it once teemed with large families whose kids who risked their lives playing stickball in the street. But at later time muggings were so common that older locals feared to walk on the shady street, even in daytime. In 1947, Virginia Clark, a kind of Greenpoint Fagan, taught her four teenage daughters to rob apartments and hundreds of places in Williamsburg and Greenpoint were robbed before she and her daughters were brought to justice. The police found a $40,000 stash in her place, a huge amount of money in postwar Greenpoint.
The street was named for Dr. Guernsey who started a North Brooklyn newspaper in the 1850s. He also went on to become a famous doctor and an expert on homeopathic medicines. Many years ago, near where Guernsey meets Norman, an old German kept a blacksmith shop whose forge had a novel power supply. Dogs had been trained to run on a treadmill, which was connected to a bellows that pumped air into the forge. Earlier, around 1800, at this intersection John Meserole built a house that was once surrounded by apple trees.
Guernsey Street was once longer, stretching to Driggs, but around 1900. It was shortened to open McCarren Park. One of the victims of the creation of the park was the workshop of Charles Loof, who built many carousels that are today national landmarks. A triangular park was created at the end of Guernsey, which in the 1980s was dedicated to Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a Catholic priest martyred for his anti-Communism. A statue in the priest’s honor was desecrated in the 1990s but subsequently repaired.
The block between Nassau Avenue and Norman has changed dramatically in the last few years. Spritzehaus on the corner has become one of the most popular beer places in the area. Beacon’s closet, the super vintage clothing locale, sits opposite it and attracts hordes fashion seekers. New sleek condos rise on the block where not long ago modest, narrow frame houses once stood.
The post office moved to Meserole and Guernsey in 1953. Across the street rises the elegant P.S 31 whose dramatic façade has recently been getting a face life. Until 2016, a 90-year-old World War II veteran named Leo sat on his stoop. He regaled me with stories of guarding German prisoners in Mississippi during World War II or stories of how he bought moonshine for his father at a local candy store during prohibition.
The most beautiful houses on the block are at its north end. On the south side of the block between Meserole and Calyer, a squat row of landmark red brick houses, dating from the 1860s graces the street, yet it is on the other side of Calyer where Guernsey reaches its height of beauty. There are three elegant old wood frame houses that date from the 19th century. At the very end of the street where it meets Oak Street, stands the majestic, if slightly spooky, Greenpoint home for the Aged, which I describe as Greenpoint’s haunted house. Millionaire real estate developer Samuel Tilden commissioned the elegant redbrick building as a home for the many destitute females of the area. In the late 1880s, Tilden hired the great German-American architect Theobald Engelhart to build a home for these local indigent women and the creepy old landmark creates the most dramatic corner in the whole area. Standing in the shade of the yard’s huge maple trees, it is hard to imagine that you really are in a teeming 21st-century city, Guernsey Street ends at the foot of this antique architectural gem forming a corner that is a throwback to a quieter, graceful era of local history.
On September 11, 2001, a Polish couple opened the Juhas delicatessen on the corner of Norman and on their first day of business they watched in horror as the terrorist attacks claimed the lives of thousands across the river. Later, they sold their Polish deli to a corporation and a little of the magic of Polish Greenpoint died with it.