Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."
I had often walked by the inconspicuous former church at 104 Powers St. near the border of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, yet I never noticed the sole sign that this was a Muslim house of worship. Then last week, I suddenly noticed the crescent moon protruding above the roof and I realized that the building was a mosque, hiding in plain sight. Growing curious, I did some digging and discovered that the building was not only a mosque, but also the first mosque founded in the United States. The Mosque’s faithful, though, are so unobtrusive and the services so infrequent that even longtime local residents are shocked to learn that 104 Powers St. has been a local Muslim house of worship for four generations.
The structure at 104 Powers St. shows that it was once a church. In the 188os Methodists built a house of worship, but like many Christian denominations, the congregation dwindled and the Methodists were forced to merge congregations, abandoning the Powers Street building. The building served as a Democratic Party clubhouse for a few years, but in 1931, the American Mohammedan Society, Inc., a group of Tatar immigrants from Lithuania, Poland and Belarus— bought the property from the 13th Assembly District Realty Company, for the purposes of converting the property into a mosque.
He did not look like a Greenpointer, he did not act like one either and with his eloquent vocabulary and upper-class speech he sure did not sound like one, nevertheless, Supreme Court Chief Justice and former Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes came of age in a home on Milton Street. The Ivy League-educated patrician Robert Moses who built and destroyed so much in New York was certain that Hughes had never lived in Greenpoint and bet Pete McGuinness that the Supreme Court Justice had never lived locally. A letter from Hughes to McGuinness published by New York newspapers confirming that he had in fact actually lived locally won the bet for McGuinness. Hughes is a forgotten figure, even locally, but Hughes’ legacy in Albany and more importantly in Washington is so huge that it should not be forgotten.
Charles Evans Hughes was born in Watkins Glen, New York in 1862 during the Civil War. In 1874, at age 12, he arrived locally when his father, Rev. David Hughes, was ordained minister to the Union Avenue Baptist Church that once stood on Manhattan Avenue, which was then called Union Avenue. Hughes was definitely a minister’s son and he inherited both the positive and negative legacies of having a stern moralistic father. His father was intensely religious; one might even say fanatically religious. He would knock the pipes and cigarettes out of people’s hands on the Greenpoint Ferry because he believed smoking immoral. Charles was raised in an overly strict, gloomy puritanical home, where whatever he did, was never quite good enough. The Puritanism of his upbringing made him a melancholy child who acted more like a young minister than a teenager. Hughes was scrupulously honest, but even as a boy he was self-righteous and gloomy. An only child, he had few friends and was prevented from spending much time with other boys due to his many duties in the church.
If he lacked charisma, then Hughes made up for it with brains. He had a photographic memory and began reading Shakespeare at eight. He took the ferry across to Manhattan where he studied under the famous educator Thomas Hunter at P. S. # 35 where he was so superior to the other smart boys in his class that he graduated at fourteen and went onto college. His parents expected him to study for a ministry, but he chose law instead. He proved to be a brilliant law student who excelled at creating coherent legal arguments and became a partner in a prestigious firm handling corporate law. He married and had children and seemed like he would have a quiet life out of the scrutiny of the public gaze.
In 1903, Albany was investigating corruption by the gas and electric monopolies. Senator Stevens asked Hughes if he would investigate the two firms who dominated gas and electricity. Hughes reluctantly agreed and conducted a brilliant investigation into the two monopolies, showing his genius by demonstrating in very simple terms the complex tricks the two monopolies used to defraud customers and investors. He also exposed massive corruption in the insurance industry in another state investigation. In a state desperately in need of reform, Hughes seemed like a godsend and the perfect choice for governor. With New York State Governor Theodore Roosevelt on his way to Washington to be Vice President, Teddy needed a reformer to replace him and protect his legacy and endorsed Hughes for governor. Hughes won the Republican nomination and then narrowly defeated his opponent for the governorship.
Hughes was elected governor in 1907 and reformers were joyous. Hughes was such a moralist that he could not cut deals to advance the good of the general public. His own party even turned against him and he made little headway. Republicans in Albany taunted him as “ Charles the Baptist” and blocked many of his worthy reforms. Hughes was frustrated in Albany at his inability to carry out reform.
Hughes was offered a position on the Supreme Court in 1910, which he jumped at and resigned as governor. Confirmed by the Senate, Hughes proved to be a brilliant Supreme Court Justice who had an amazing ability to marshal facts into cogent compelling legal briefs. He wrote a number of decisions for regulation of big business that reformers cheered.
In 1916, Hughes resigned from the Supreme Court to run for president against Woodrow Wilson whose campaign slogan related to the Great War, which was raging across Europe. It read,” he kept us out of war.” Hughes was an interventionist who believed America should be in the war and he said so, losing Hughes millions of votes. He was also a boring speaker who could not connect with the common man. Hughes lost a close election and believed falsely that his days of service to America were done.
Echo Glass Works at 253 Greenpoint Ave. offers a dazzling variety of one-of-a-kind custom glass jewelry, kiln cast glass, along with blown glass vessels that simply stun. However, this is not the first time that beautiful glass has been created in Greenpoint, which has a history of glass blowing dating back to the Civil War. One of the best-known glass factories in America in the 19th century was the Greenpoint Flint Glass Works located on Commercial Street.
The founder of the Greenpoint Flint Glass Works was an immigrant from Alsace, France Christian Dorflinger who set up his first glass blowing plants in downtown Brooklyn in 1852. Benefiting from growing demand for glass between 1856 and 1860, Dorflinger, looking to expand, constructed a new factory on the then undeveloped Newtown Creek at Commercial Street in Greenpoint. This factory was larger than his other two and also enjoyed a waterfront location with docking facilities. Because this area of Greenpoint was sparsely developed, Dorflinger also built housing near the factory for his workers, many of whom were also French immigrants.
Quickly, Dorflinger’s annual output reached $300,000, a huge sum for that era, and the quality of his glass was so highly regarded that Mary Todd Lincoln commissioned the Greenpoint firm to produce table settings for the White House. It helped to establish his company’s reputation for fine cut and engraved lead crystal. Many pieces of the Lincoln pattern glassware still remain in the White House collection today. Continue reading →
Ben Shahn’s name today is obscure, but Shahn was perhaps one of the greatest artists ever to come out of Williamsburg. Born in Lithuania, Shahn grew up in the Southside in real poverty (1898-1969). Recognized during his lifetime as one of the greatest American painters of his generation, he was also a highly talented photographer, graphic artist, and lithographer.
Like many other Williamsburg celebrities, Shahn’s parents were Orthodox Jews who fled the poverty and Anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe. His father was a leftist political activist whom The Tsar’s forces arrested, imprisoned and sent to Siberia. In 1906, when Shahn was eight years old, his family immigrated to New York where they were reunited with Shahn’s father.
His artistic talent soon manifested itself. In Williamsburg, his fifth-grade teacher first noticed and encouraged his artistic development. The family, however, was very poor and despite his obvious talent, Shahn’s mother made him drop out of school at the end of the eighth-grade to work and help support the family. Shahn got a job as an apprentice in his uncle’s lithography shop, where he continued to develop his artistic ability. By age 19, Shahn had become a professional lithographer, but he was determined to learn even more, so he also started to study at New York University, the College of the City of New York, and the National Academy of Design.
He toured Europe as a young man and was deeply impressed with European painting, especially Cezanne and Matisse, whom he mimicked in his early work, but Shahn thankfully realized that he was an American artist, soon developing a uniquely American style of art. Later in life he called himself “the most American of all American painters.” His art, though, was highly critical of American life, often depicting American poverty and injustice. His first fame came with his series of paintings surrounding the extremely controversial execution of the Italian immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts. Shahn, like many people around the world, believed that the two men were framed for their anarchism, and he created twenty-three protests images of the trial. Many of these, including the gouache Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco became famous amongst leftists around the world. One of those leftists was Diego Rivera, the celebrated Mexican muralist, invited him to assist him in creating his famed murals for Rockefeller Center. Under Rivera’s tutelage, Shahn mastered the demanding art of fresco or painting with dry pigments on wet plaster.
Looking for a great local trivia question? Which two men associated with Greenpoint ran for president of the United States? The answer: Samuel Tilden who was cheated in the election of 1876 and Charles Evans Hughes, who lived on Milton Street, who lost in 1916.
If you are a Brooklynite you might have heard of Tilden High School, but few people know anything about this important figure in local and state history. Although he is a forgotten figure today, few men did more to help New York State. Tilden was first elected to the New York State Assembly in 1846, and few legislators in state history did more good. He used his position to expose corruption in state government, most notably through the impeachment of New York State Supreme Court Justices George G. Barnard, Albert Cardozo, and John H. McCunn.
His exposure of corruption within the U.S. Customs House was soon overshadowed by his most famous political achievement: the exposure and prosecution of the Tweed Ring, led by William M. “Boss” Tweed whose name lives down through the ages as a symbol of Tammany Hall Corruption. Tweed introduced a new city charter, which would further consolidate his corrupt hold on power, but Tilden, as chairman of the Democratic State Committee, denounced him and began a pitched battle to disable the Ring and end Tweed’s corrupt practices. Tilden’s successful prosecution of the Tweed Ring paved the way for his election as Governor in 1874. Two years later, Tilden became the Democratic nominee for president and probably won the election, but his own party sold him out in the corrupt bargain of 1876 that ended Reconstruction.
In the 1850s Tilden became one of the most successful corporate lawyers in America and a rich man. He also invested in Greenpoint real estate. The piece of land Tilden bought covered an area from Oak Street to Noble Street and ran from the river to Leonard Street. Tilden helped Greenpoint and increased the value of his real estate through his efforts in Albany supporting the bill allowing Neziah Bliss to open a ferry to Manhattan. Tilden sold off his holdings piece by piece in the 1870s and he must have profited massively from these sales. He sold a piece at the top of Milton Street to Thomas Smith, the millionaire ceramicist whose home became the Greenpoint Reformed Church.
However, today we remember Tilden more for his charity than for his wealth. He was one of the founders of the New York Public Library System, but his charity had many positive local effects too. He believed that Greenpoint should have churches. He gave a cut-rate price to the congregation of the Noble Street Baptist Church (known as Union Baptist Church), allowing them in 1860 to build their landmarked red brick home. He also owned the land on which St. Anthony of Padua sits. Although not a Catholic himself, he gave Bishop Loughlin a sweetheart deal, charging the church for only one of five lots they purchased on Manhattan Avenue and Leonard Street. The stately church was built in 1874.
North Brooklyn’s Hispanic community is mourning one of its most beloved members, Luis Garden Acosta, who passed away yesterday. A towering community leader with a deep concern for social justice, Acosta was the founder and president of El Puente, a nationally celebrated, Brooklyn based, community/youth development organization. A man of great passion, Acosta was so active in a variety of fields that he defied easy identification. The community organizer and advocate for the disadvantaged, was also an environmental leader, a housing activist, and an educator, but he was something even bigger than these various roles. Acosta embodied the fighting spirit of the Hispanic community in North Brooklyn and his death leaves a massive void.
Perhaps his greatest legacy is the founding of the community organization El Puente, which means ‘the bridge’ in Spanish. As the name implies, ‘bridges’ connect people to major initiatives in health, the environment, education, and the arts. One of Luis’ ideas, the “Green Light District”, a 10-year project that has taken El Puente’s message door to door, engaging, virtually, every family in transforming the Southside of Williamsburg, from a crime infested underserved community to America’s model neighborhood for community health and environmental wellness.
His biography is worthy of being made into a film. Born locally in 1945, Acosta grew up in a poor mixed Dominican-Puerto Rican family. Entering St. Mary’s Seminary in Pennsylvania at age 15, he earned a college degree before starting to prepare himself to serve as a Catholic priest. Acosta’s plans changed, however, when he heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a speech on social justice. Instead of becoming a priest, Acosta became a political activist. A pacifist, he left the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer without taking his final vows as a priest, becoming a Catholic antiwar organizer in Brooklyn.
It is almost inconceivable today, but in the 1920s Greenpoint had as many as eight Vaudeville theaters. Some of the buildings still survive, but with other uses.
In the days before most homes had a radio, Vaudeville theaters provided cheap non-stop entertainment with shows lasting for up to 15-hour stretches. In those days families were often larger in size with people crammed into their tiny dwellings like sardines. Vaudeville theaters provided an escape from these overcrowded apartments.
By 1911, records show a theatre at 153 Green St. It shows up in later records as a 400-seat theater either called the Arcade Theater or The Greenpoint Arcade Theater, but it did not last.
Starting in 1927 with the arrival of the first talkie moving pictures, many of the Vaudeville theaters also served as movie houses. The largest theater was the RKO Greenpoint Theater on the corner of Calyer and Manhattan Avenue, which seated more than 1600 people and resembled an opera house with boxes, arches murals and terracotta designs on the ceilings. There were three levels of boxed seats on either side of the stage, and two balconies. The RKO hosted first-run double features after becoming a movie house.
Manhattan Avenue retail is in the midst of a rapid transition and very soon the avenue will be completely transformed into something totally different. Although there are some stores that have been on the avenue for my entire quarter-century in Greenpoint, a new breed of business is emerging, pushing out older established businesses and giving the avenue a new feel. As we reach the end of 2018, it is good to reflect on both what has remained unchanged, what has disappeared and what new businesses have taken root on the avenue.
There are a number of businesses that have deep roots, going back generations. Although the following list is not complete, Cato’s Army and Navy (654 Manhattan Ave.), Peter Pan Donut Shop (727 Manhattan Ave.), the Associated (802 Manhattan ave.) and C Town (953 Manhattan Ave.) supermarkets, McDonalds (904 Manhattan Ave.) and the Triple Decker (695 Manhattan Ave.) come immediately to mind as established institutions. Italy Pizza (788 Manhattan Ave.) and Russ’ Pizza (745 Manhattan Ave.) also have been serving great slices in the area for decades. Kiszka Meat Market (915 Manhattan ave.), Irene’s bar (623 Manhattan Ave.) and the Cafe Riviera (830 Manhattan ave.) are other examples of hardy Polish veterans that have changed little in the past 20 years.
Then, there are those businesses that were once institutions but have vanished. I still miss Cheap Charlie’s (712 Manhattan Ave.) where you could buy just about anything. Gone are Radio Shack (760 Manhattan Ave.) and Off-Track Betting (756 Manhattan Ave.), which were once thriving businesses on the avenue. When I first walked down Manhattan Avenue Corwith Brothers, which had generations of real estate sales in Greenpoint was on the East side of the street and Trunz meat market was across the street from it. For years there was a very popular English language school, I believe called the Greenpoint English School and a popular Polish disco called Europa (now the Good Room) on the corner of Meserole. There seemed to be ubiquitous dollar stores, some of which still survive at least until the lease is up. There were actually very few chain stores and most of the businesses on the avenue were family-owned, mom and pop stores. The Joseph and Sons furniture store comes to mind as does Jam’s stationary, and the Paris Shoe Store. Continue reading →
The name Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) is legendary in urban planning and in the last year of her life, Jacobs had a prescient warning about the future of our waterfront in Brooklyn. Her 2005 letter about plans to develop the local waterfront is so timely that it seems like it could have been written today.Jacobs was a revolutionary urbanist and activist whose groundbreaking writings championed a community-based approach to urban development and renewal. Although She had no formal training as a planner, her seminal 1961 work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is considered something of a bible amongst urbanists. In the book, Jacobs proposed novel ideas about how cities function, evolve and fail, that were groundbreaking then, but today seem obvious to generations of architects, urban planners, politicians and activists. Once a year in May, her contributions to cities are recalled on Jane’s Day when people around the world organize walks in cities.
In 2005, shortly before her own death, the legendary urbanist weighed in on the renewal of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront in a letter addressed to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. She advocated for the adoption of a community-sponsored development plan that was ultimately not adopted. In her letter, she warned that developers outside the community would take advantage of the rezoning of the East River waterfront to serve their own interests by building high rises and by gentrifying the area so that working class people would be pushed out. Jacobs’ letter contrasted the local community’s plan for the area versus the developer-friendly rezoning that ultimately was adopted. 13 years later her warnings have proven valid. It is amazing how timely Jacobs’ letter still feels today. Continue reading →
In a city critically short of both affordable housing and homeless shelters, the long-abandoned former Greenpoint hospital can help alleviate both severe shortages in North Brooklyn. Over a year ago, plans were finalized for the conversion of the site and soon the former hospital will serve the public in these critical areas. The Greenpoint Hospital served the community for 70 years and many locals were born in the hospital. Constructed of brick and limestone, the attractive main building includes elements of Romanesque Revival, Italianate and Neo-Classical architectural styles. After opening in 1914, the hospital closed in 1982 amidst much local anger.
In a plan that includes a new homeless shelter and affordable apartments for low-income residents, the Hudson Companies, St. Nicks Alliance, and Project Renewal were chosen by the city’s Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development to redevelop the former Greenpoint Hospital site at 288 Jackson Street.
Magnusson Architecture and Planning and the firm Architecture Outfit will jointly develop 512 new units of affordable housing that will be housed in four separate buildings. The development will include an attractive campus with 21,500 square feet of communal space with a resident lounge, dining facilities, and a workforce development center. Completion of the project will involve two phases. In the first phase, the existing 200-bed shelter at the site will be moved to the southern portion of the development site in a rehabbed building. The first phase will also include construction of a new building with 267 apartments.
Phase two will redevelop the main hospital building, that will be converted to a senior home with 109 apartments. The building that houses the boiler will be demolished and a 136-unit apartment building is slated to replace it. 30 percent of the total apartments are reserved for the formerly homeless. Continue reading →