By Geoff Cobb

About Geoff Cobb

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."

The Local Purple Heart Recipient Memorialized With a Park

Sergeant William Dougherty Park (courtesy of DOT)

Recently there was a $ 12,000,000 renovation of Sergeant William Dougherty Park, which lies right by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway at the corner of Vandervoort Avenue and Anthony Street. Sergeant Dougherty died in one of the most horrific battles of World War II. He was one of almost 3,000 young Americans who died in the bloody battle. Tragically, the 22-year-old Sergeant Dougherty survived the worst fighting of the battle and died on July 10, 1944, the day after United States Navy Admiral Turner announced that Saipan was officially secured. Dougherty was posthumously awarded two of the highest honors a soldier can receive: The Bronze Star and The Purple Heart.

The Greenpoint park was named in his honor in 1948. Dougherty was born near the park on Hausman Street on November 9, 1921, and as a child, he played in the park. He graduated from high school and was a messenger boy for employment. He was 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 126 pounds when he enlisted in the “ Fighting 69th” New York Irish Regiment that had won fame for its valor in the Civil War and in World War I, and was even the subject of a film made about the famous regiment’s exploits in the Great War. Dougherty enlisted in the National Guard Regiment before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Continue reading

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Legendary Writer Henry Miller Recalls Williamsburg of The 1890s

The NY Times 1971

Henry Miller is not only one of the greatest writers Brooklyn ever produced, but also a chronicler of the now vanished North Brooklyn before the building of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903. Honestly, there are times when I do not like Miller’s writing: it can be macho, self-obsessed, vain and highly egotistical, but when writing about old Williamsburg he approaches literary genius.

Henry Miller (via Carl Van Vechten collection at the Library of Congress)

In 1971, the New York Times (PDF) invited the then 80-year-old Miller back to Williamsburg to recollect on his childhood. Though he had been away for five decades, Miller had a crystal clear memory, recalling many fascinating stories from that vanished world of his childhood. Miller was born of German-American parents in Manhattan in 1891, but moved to the area as an infant, living at 662 Driggs Avenue, a house that still stands.

The Henry Miller House (662 Driggs Avenue vias Google Maps)

His fondest memories, which occupy much of his writing, concern his boyhood friends from the neighborhood. He said, “As I walked the streets the names of my boyhood companions, or better said, my idols, came back to me: Johnny Paul, Eddie Carney, Lester Reardon, Jimmy Short, Tim Buckley; Matt Owen, Gus Fowler, and last but not least, my first real chum, Stanley Borowski. With Stanley I maintained a friendship until I left for France in 1930. Like myself, he wanted to be a writer; I doubt that he ever made it however.”

Reading Miller’s writings, the neighborhood comes into focus through the eyes of a mischievous young lad who would later be censored by the United States Post Office for his shocking prose. Miller recalled first being rebuked for his language at the police station at Bedford Avenue where he was dragged by the arm one afternoon by a babysitter at the age of 6 or 7 years old; the crime he had committed was to use dirty language in her presence – the first of many times Miller would shock people with his language.

Miller’s writing later shocked another, more prominent Williamsburger, Presbyterian Minister John D. Wells. Today John D. Wells Middle School on S. 3rd St. is named for the preacher Miller knew as a child. He recalled, “Later, on some crazy impulse, I sent this rather pompous and aristocratic minister one of my first pieces of writing from Paris. He replied that he had thrown it in the garbage can; he wondered, he said, how one of ‘his boys’ could ever have conceived such filth.” At 7 years of age, Wells had presented Miller with a handsome little New Testament, his name inscribed in gold letters, for reciting by heart the 23rd Psalm. Continue reading

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A Greenpoint Irish Primer for St. Patrick’s Day

Most people associate Greenpoint with the Polish community, but our area has a long and deep connection to Ireland. Let’s answer a few questions to prepare you fully to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day locally.

1) When, how and why did the Irish come to Greenpoint?

Greenpoint really began to be a community in the 1850s, just after the Irish famine devastated the country. Already in 1855 a third of the local residents were Irish. The Irish dominated the local waterfront. The McAllister family from Cushendall, Co. Antrim started a tugboat and lighter fleet and brought over many family members and neighbors from Northern Ireland and many Greenpoint Irish families have Cushendall roots. By the 1880s The Irish were a large and growing presence in the area.

McGolrick Park, photo by Megan Penmann
McGolrick Park, photo by Megan Penmann

2) What local places have Irish associations?

Perhaps it is better to ask what places do not? McGolrick Park was named for local parish priest Monseigneur Edward McGolrick who was born in Donegal and rebuilt St. Cecelia’s Church. McCarren Park was named for Irish-American State Senator Patrick McCarren. McGuinness Boulevard was named for Peter J. McGuinness the politician who popularized Greenpoint’s nickname “ The Garden Spot” and brought the area the McCarren Park pool and the G Train.

McCarren Park
Connie O’s (via Google Maps)

3) What local Irish pub are around to celebrate in?

Sadly we lost Shayz Lounge, which was run by two Dubliners. Connie O’s on Norman Avenue is the last real Irish-American Greenpoint bar. The Capri Lounge, once known as Murphy’s, resurrects its Irish past and throws a great party with many locally born Irish- Americans. The Palace bar was for many years run by an Irish-American family. Derry man Stevie Howlett at Lake Street gives an Irish aura to the Minnesota bar on Manhattan Avenue.

4) Did Any Irish Greenpointers affect Ireland?

Yes and how! Thomas Clarke who lived at 175 Russell St. returned to Ireland and took part in the Easter Rising. He formally declared the existence of the Irish Republic before he was captured and shot by the British. He and his wife are honored heroes in Ireland.

Pete McGuinness

5) Which Irish Greenpointer became a local icon? Continue reading

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The Irish Revolutionary and First Female Mayor of Dublin Who Lived in Greenpoint

Kathleen Daly Clarke -Dublin’s first female Mayor (courtesy of Women’s Museum of Ireland/ Dublin archives)

It’s both Women’s History Month and the week before St. Patrick’s Day so it is totally fitting that we honor the most famous Irish woman who ever lived in Greenpoint- Kathleen Daly Clarke, who lived for many years on Russell Street and operated a candy shop on Nassau Avenue.

Like many women deserving of recognition, Kathleen is often overshadowed by her famous husband, the man who proclaimed the Irish Republic and was shot by the British after the failed Dublin rising of 1916, Thomas Clarke. Although Thomas Clarke was a dedicated revolutionary, he was only able to achieve what he did thanks to the emotional, intellectual, moral and financial support that Kathleen gave him.

Thomas J. Clarke (courtesy of South Dublin County Libraries)

Thomas Clarke arrived locally in the early 1880s from Dungannon, Co. Tyrone where he had become a fiery advocate of Irish political freedom and an enemy of British colonial rule of Ireland. He became involved in a local plot to bomb the British mainland led by Doctor Thomas Gallagher who practiced medicine on Manhattan Avenue. Clarke was arrested and sentenced to serve life for his crimes. He served fifteen years and the harsh conditions and psychological abuse broke Gallagher who lost his mind in prison.

While Clarke was in prison he befriended a County Limerick Irish Republican fighter named John Daly who would also be shot for his role in the 1916 revolt. Following his release in 1898, Clarke visited Daly and became enamored of Daly’s niece Kathleen who was twenty-one years his junior. Impressed more by his character and commitment to Irish freedom than his looks, Daly agreed to marry Clarke and in 1898 they moved to the United States.

Continue reading

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A History of Greenpoint Piers

 

Aerial view of Bushwick Inlet and Greenpoint 1982 (courtesy of NYCEDC)

There is no more important geographical feature of Greenpoint than our waterfront defined by piers, wharves and docks, so let us take a moment and examine in more detail the history of our local docks.

In 1845, David Provost, a scion of one of the five ancestral families that farmed Greenpoint, built the first pier at the foot of Freeman Street. Around 1850, the Federal Government also built a dock and a gunpowder storage facility at the foot of Milton Street that was used more for swimming than anything else.

In the 1850s, 12 shipyards lined the East River shore, building wooden clipper ships. Shipbuilding combined with the demand for wooden barrels for the sugar and oil refineries required huge amounts of wood, so Greenpoint became New York’s center for lumberyards. Lumber often arrived on three-masted ships where it was unloaded by brawny Irish-American longshoremen like Peter J. McGuinness who was the head stevedore at Orr’s lumber yard at the foot of Green Street.

The first pier was built at the foot of Greenpoint Avenue for the local ferry in the early 1850s, which made two stops in Manhattan- one at 10th Street and the other at 23rd Street. A fleet of ferries ran the East River until 1931 when the ferry service was closed in the money-strapped Great Depression.

In 1888, the Noble Street pier was built by the city for the use of the many industrial concerns that covered Greenpoint, but it was not alone. Piers also stretched out from Quay, Oak, Kent, Java, India and Huron.

Greenpoint Weekly Star archives

As Greenpoint industrialized, the swimming holes that once served as pools for kids were filled up and kids began to use the piers to swim in the East River, despite the fact that raw sewage was dumped right into the river. A number of local boys drowned in the swift river currents until the 1930s when Peter McGuinness succeeded in opening the McCarren Park pool, thus providing local kids with a far safer way of cooling off.

Greenpoint never had a commercial railroad that could supply local factories, so the local docks and wharfs played a central role in the local economy. Tugboats like the McAlister fleet also left from local docks, so hundreds of local families were dependent on the longshoremen who worked the East River shoreline.

Aerial view of Newtown Creek looking east over Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Queens 1982 (Courtesy of NYCEDC)

Continue reading

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The Williamsburg Roots of the Adler Acting Dynasty

 

Stella Adler (Courtesy of PBS)

American theater and film acting owes a huge debt to Stella Adler who is perhaps the most influential teacher of the dramatic method in American theater history. Adler’s method went on to dominate American acting for more than half-a-century and is still the dominant acting method now. The roots of Adler’s success in teaching acting go back to her mother Sara Adler who founded The Novelty Yiddish Theater that once packed in audiences at 778 Driggs Avenue.

Those of you who know local history well might be familiar with 778 Driggs Avenue. It is the same building where Detective Frank Serpico was shot and nearly killed in the 1960s. Before the building was converted into an apartment house it was an entertainment venue for the huge Yiddish speaking community that called Williamsburg home.

The former building at 778 Driggs Avenue (via cinematreasures.org)

The Adlers were the royalty of the Yiddish theater. Sara Adler was born in the Russian Empire in 1853 and became a star of the Yiddish theater there until Yiddish performances were banned in 1883. She and her husband left for New York where they continued to act in the Yiddish theater. Sara divorced her first husband and re-married famous actor Jacob Adler in 1891 and they had six children. Continue reading

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Maria Stewart: America’s ‘First Black Woman Political Writer’ Who Taught in Williamsburg

Maria Stewart

As we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month its time to recall that one of the early giants of both the Abolitionist movement and the women’s movement lived for many years in Williamsburg. Maria Stewart, who taught in Colored School #3 on Union Avenue, can claim a number of amazing firsts.

Colored School #3 where Stewart taught

Stewart had a brief, but an extremely controversial career as a public orator in Boston where she became the first black American female to address a racially mixed audience. She also has the honor of being the first black American woman to lecture about women’s rights and black women’s rights. Stewart is even credited as being the first known American woman to lecture in public on political issues. As if these accomplishments were not enough Stewart also can claim to be the first black American woman to make public anti-slavery speeches. Speaking up also got her in a lot of trouble and that is part of the reason Stewart ended up here in North Brooklyn.

Maria Stewart was unique from her childhood. She was born free as Maria Miller in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut, during a period when the state still practiced slavery. All that is known about her parents is their surname: Miller. At the age of five, her parents passed away and she was forced to become a servant in the household of a white clergyman where she lived for 10 years.

Although Stewart received no formal education, she taught herself literacy by reading books from the extensive family library. After leaving the family at the age of 15, she continued to work as a domestic servant while continuing her education at Sabbath schools.

The young Stewart moved to Boston where on August 10, 1826, she married James W. Stewart, a 44-year-old veteran of the War of 1812 who earned a good living by fitting out whaling and fishing vessels. At the time, African Americans made up only three percent of Boston’s population, and the Stewarts were part of an even smaller minority: Boston’s black middle class.

In 1829, Stewart died. Although Stewart left his wife with a substantial inheritance, the white executors of the will cheated her out of it after a court battle. Once again, Maria was forced to turn to domestic service to make ends meet. Continue reading

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Brooklyn Label: Rediscovering the Astral’s Legacy

The Astral (Pratt Institute archives)

A lot of local history is quickly disappearing, but one place that is holding strong is Brooklyn Label (180 Franklin St.) and the historic building it calls home. French Greenpointer Robert Arbor, proprietor of Le Gamin (108 Franklin St.) re-opened Brooklyn Label in the historic Astral Building. The former management did little to recognize the amazing history of the space, something that Arbor has dedicated himself to changing.

The Astral Apartments are not only landmarked, but the building is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Arbor and his manager, Alex Russell, are determined to honor the building’s rich history and its patron philanthropist Charles Pratt, the oil baron and the richest man in 19th century Brooklyn.

Completed in 1883, the Astral Apartments were unique in their day: Unlike the flimsy tenement buildings that sprang up all around the city without basic amenities, the Astral was a kind of gift to the Greenpoint community and a solidly built showcase.

In contrast to tenements, Pratt’s building had plenty of natural light, air and even indoor plumbing, unheard of luxuries for most tenement dwellers. And the building was stunningly beautiful too!

The philanthropist hired famed architects Hugh Lamb and Charles A. Rich who also designed his stately Pratt Institute campus. Pratt commissioned them to design the Astral as a model for worker housing. Lamb & Rich based the Astral design on innovative tenement housing built by American philanthropist George Peabody in London who was a personal friend of Pratt’s.

Astral Kindergarten (Pratt Institute archives)
(Pratt Institute archives)

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Honoring Greenpoint’s Pioneering Female Factory Workers

(Photo via Turnstile tours)

The iconic industries of North Brooklyn were staffed by females who were underpaid and often worked in dangerous conditions. It’s high time we honor these anonymous, but heroic local workers. Some local industries preferred female workers.

Why? Well, there are a number of reasons, but more often than not factory owners could underpay female workers, especially immigrant women who often lacked the language skills and awareness to demand their fair wage and better conditions.

The American Manufacturing Company

Some local female workers, however, were anything but docile. They fought for better wages and better conditions in strikes that often became violent. The American Manufacturing Company centered on West Street employed thousands of women, with many from Poland and Lithuanian. They were superior workers to men because the work making ropes required great manual dexterity and female hands outperformed men in making ropes.

The women worked long hours for poor pay, however, in 1910, the women organized a sit-down strike and engaged in a full-fledged street battle with the local police who tried to prevent them from taking over the sprawling factory. Polish women were also arrested when they violently confronted Italian immigrant workers hired to replace them. Later Puerto Rican women were brought from their native island to work in the plant, establishing a Puerto Rican presence in our area that lasts until today.

Another famous strike occurred at the Leviton plant on Greenpoint Avenue. Leviton manufactured pull-chain lamp holders for Thomas Edison’s newly developed light bulb, and in 1922 the company moved to Greenpoint. The massive factory took up two city blocks between Newel and Jewel Streets and produced over 600 other electrical items, from fuses to socket covers to outlets and switches.

(The Brooklyn Eagle Archives 06/1941)

The Leviton plant employed numerous women doing piecework. When inspectors came they saw guards on the machinery that protected the workers’ hands, but when the inspectors left the guards were removed because they slowed down assembly of the devices. Women at the plant lost fingers due to the lack of guards, which led to a demand for increased safety and union recognition in a long and bitter 1940 strike. The strikers were visited by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the first time in American history the First Lady addressed striking workers. The women won the long bitter strike achieving better pay and safe conditions. Continue reading

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New York City’s First Black Principal Sarah Tompkins Garnet Began Her Career in Williamsburg

 

“Colored School #3” where Sarah Tompkins Garnet began. It still survives at 270 Union Avenue

March is Women’s History Month when we celebrate the achievements of North Brooklyn’s greatest women. Sarah Tompkins Garnet was not only the first black woman to serve as a principal in New York City, but she was also a fighter for women’s suffrage and for racial equality. She began her illustrious career locally in what was named “Colored School #3” right here in Williamsburg.

Sarah was born in the free black community of Weeksville in Bedford Stuyvesant, some buildings of which have survived and today form the basis of the Weeksville museum, a fascinating relic of Brooklyn’s 19th-century history. Her father, Sylvanus Smith, was one of Weeksville’s founders and one of the very few black Americans who were able to cast a vote in 1820 when New York State still had slavery.

African-Americans were only allowed to vote if they owned $250 worth of property- no small sum in 1820, but Sarah’s father was rich enough to meet the qualification. Her father was a strong advocate of black voting rights and Tompkins Garnet would continue his legacy, fighting against racial discrimination and for expanded voting rights. He also stressed that his daughters get educated. Garnet’s sister Susan McKinney Steward became the first black woman in New York State to earn a medical degree, and only the third in the United States. Continue reading

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