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 twenty years and is the author of a history of the area Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past.

Olympian Connie Darnowski: Greenpoint’s Greatest Ever Female Athlete

Connie Darnowski

Hurdler Connie Darnowski represented the United States in the 1952 and 1956 Olympic games and is the greatest female athlete our area ever produced. Her success is all the more amazing because she succeeded at a time before Title IX opened up women’s sports. She competed when there were only two women’s college track teams and Connie never had the chance to compete on the college level. Connie graduated from St John’s University in 1956, but the school had no college women’s teams. It is ironic that Connie is in the St. John’s Athletic Hall of Fame, yet never had the chance to compete for her school. Continue reading

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The Greenpoint Woman Who Ran For President?

Belva Lockwood was an early feminist and one of the first women to ever run for president. She ran twice in 1884 and again in 1888 in the days before women even had the right to vote. While doing research on Greenpoint history I have come across sources, including Memorable Greenpoint by Professor Virginia Felter, stating Lockwood was from Greenpoint, however other sources contradict this claim. At any rate, her story is fascinating.
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Women’s History Month: North Brooklyn’s Great Feminist Classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Author Betty Smith in front of the tree that is the symbol of her novel.

Great literature never grows old or feels dated, and no local novel feels more current to local women than Betty Smith’s enduring 1943 classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which describes the coming of age of the protagonist Francie Nolan in the era before World War I in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The novel sold millions of copies and was made into a hit 1945 film, directed by Elia Kazan, starring James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner, who won a Special Academy Award for Outstanding Child Actress of 1945. Continue reading

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Just In Time For St. Patrick’s Day – A History of the Irish in Greenpoint!

On Friday everyone becomes Irish for a day—at least in the local bars, but Greenpoint actually has a long and colorful Irish history. The first Irish came to Greenpoint way back in the 1850s. Like many of the others who arrived here then, the Irish were lured by jobs in the booming shipbuilding business. An 1855 Greenpoint census revealed that about thirty percent of the locals were Irish born. Other Irish soon followed to work in the many factories and refineries that sprung up locally after the Civil War.

In 1864 Captain James McAllister, from County Antrim, Northern Ireland, started his maritime transport company with a single sail lighter, but it was the perfect time and place to open such a business. McAllister soon got more work than he could handle transporting the oil of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. He brought over many of his family and neighbors from his hometown Cushendall, Co. Antrim and many of the present day Irish families in Greenpoint have Cushendall roots. Quickly the Irish dominated the waterfront and worked the many nautical and longshoremen jobs along the bustling East River and Newtown Creek shorelines. One of these Irish-American longshoremen was the colorful Pete McGuinness, “The King of Greenpoint,” for whom McGuinness Boulevard is named. He later entered politics and ran the area as the last old style Irish ward boss until his death in 1948. Continue reading

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Women’s History Month: Mae West, Feminist and Progressive

Mae West, via Wikipedia

A lot of people know that movie star Mae West was born in 1893 on Herbert Street and that she became a and one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols, but a lot of people do not know that she was an outspoken feminist and a social progressive who successfully challenged bigotry and narrow-minded conventional morality.

West grew up at a time when women’s social roles were changing. She explained, “I was born just at the right time. A little earlier and they would have put a scarlet letter on me and burned me at the stake. A little later and they wouldn’t have been shocked any more.” West came of age at a time when vaudeville was America’s most popular form of entertainment, and Greenpoint had seven vaudeville theaters. West had little formal schooling, but her huge exposure to vaudeville theater shaped many of her avant garde ideas. In a day when most whites were prejudiced, her favorite male vaudeville actor was African American Bert Williams, from whom she took many of the aspects of her stage persona. She copied Williams’s uses of double entendres, innuendo and answers with multiple and conflicting messages where rebelliousness hid just below the surface. Later, when she directed plays, she insisted on racially integrated casts.
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A History of Greenpoint in 25 Buildings: St. Anthony of Padua Church

St Anthony's, illustration by Sara Harvey
St Anthony’s, illustration by Sara Harvey

For many Greenpointers there is no more iconic local image than the façade of St. Anthony of Padua church on Manhattan Avenue at Milton Street. The 240-foot-high church steeple is a landmark and the church is angled in so that it commands a sweeping vista of Milton Street. It is one of the most elegant churches in all of Brooklyn, and was built by one of the most prolific church architects in American history, Patrick Keely of Ireland, who designed at least six hundred other churches around North America—but few with the simple elegance of St. Anthony. Many say that the church on Manhattan Avenue is, in fact, his finest creation.
The Manhattan Avenue structure is not the first St. Anthony of Padua. The original church was built on India Street in 1858, but it proved too small for the mushrooming Catholic population and the famous Bishop Loughlin sought to buy a site to construct a much larger church. In 1865 Samuel Tilden sold five lots along Manhattan Avenue to the Catholic Church, generously charging the church for only one lot, even though Tilden was not a Catholic. The church acquired more land on Leonard Street in 1873 and in the same year the cornerstone was laid. Continue reading

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The Unlikely Story of The White Greenpoint Woman Who Co-Founded America’s Most Influential Black Political Organization

Sometimes an unexpected event is a turning point in a person’s life. The story of Mary White Ovington’s trip to Prospect Park was just such a turning point. Ovington was born in 1865, just at the end of the Civil War in Brooklyn Heights. Her defining characteristic was idealism, which she inherited from her parents, who had been upper class Brooklyn abolitionists and taught Mary to fight for social justice. Ovington attended Packer Collegiate Institute, and then went on to Radcliffe, where she was greatly influenced by the ideas of professor William J. Ashley who convinced her to dedicate her life to helping the underprivileged.

Ovington worked for social justice, instead of marrying and raising a family. Ironically, despite the fact that her parents were abolitionists, initially, her work did not focus on African-Americans. Deeply influenced by the ideas of Jane Addams and her charitable Chicago Hull House settlement house, which sought to help the millions of uneducated immigrants, living in dirty, overcrowded tenements, White dedicated herself to aiding poor immigrants. She soon met the millionaire oil refiner Charles Pratt, who built the Astral Building on Franklin Street as affordable model housing for our area’s poor. A vital part of this building was the settlement house, which taught local immigrants important urban survival skills. Ovington impressed Pratt greatly, and he chose her as co-founder of his Greenpoint Settlement House. For four years she taught the immigrant poor of Greenpoint the skills they needed to succeed in New York.

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Women’s History Month: Peter McGuinness and Dangerous Smoking Women

Local lawmaker Peter J. McGuinness began his first term as alderman at the end of World War I when female behavior was rapidly changing, outraging conceptions of proper female behavior. Young women called flappers defied traditional ladylike behavioral expectations by cutting their hair short, wearing pants instead of skirts, and—most shocking for McGuinness—even smoking in public. These rule-breaking new women, like Greenpoint’s Mae West, flouted conventions, shocking traditionalists like McGuinness. Smoking was not just considered unladylike; it was for many a black mark on a woman’s character. A Washington Post editorial in 1914 declared, “A man may take out a woman who smokes for a good time, but he won’t marry her, and if he does, he won’t stay married.”

In 1921, McGuinness, determined to protect public morality, proposed a notorious ordinance in the Board of Aldermen banning women from smoking in public places in New York City. The bill, though was misfiled as a law, although it was never enforced., which only added to the firestorm or controversy around it. McGuinness, asked to explain the smoking ban, answered:

“Young fellows go into our restaurants to find women folks sucking cigarettes. What happens? The young fellows lose all respect for the women, and the next thing you know the young fellows, vampired by these smoking women, desert their homes, their wives and children, rob their employers and even commit murder so that they can get money to lavish on these smoking women.” Continue reading

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The Richest Man Who Ever Lived in Greenpoint: Henry H. Rogers

Mark Twain and Henry H. Rogers in 1908 (via Wikipedia)

Today Henry H. Rogers is a largely forgotten figure in American history, but this self-made tycoon became one of the twenty-five or so richest men ever in the history of the United States. In fact, Rogers was richer in his day than Bill Gates or Warren Buffet area today and he started his road to accumulating his massive wealth right here in Greenpoint. Continue reading

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Greenpoint’s Most Famous Reputed Living Gangster Turns One Hundred Years Old

John “Sonny” Franzese turned 100 in federal prison on February 6, 2017. Franzese, from Leonard Street, is the oldest inmate in the Federal Prison system and was denied compassionate release last year even though he is blind, deaf and in a wheel chair. Today the aged Franzese seems harmless, but that was not always so. In his day he became one of the most feared Mafiosi in New York Franzese is reputed to have killed sixty men. A ruthless man, franzese, Federal Prosecutors allege, once recommended that the best way to dispose of body parts was to dry them out with a microwave and grind them up in a garbage disposal. Franzese was also recorded on a federal wiretap saying, “Today, you can’t have a body no more…It’s better to take that half-an-hour, an hour, to get rid of the body than it is to leave the body on the street.” Continue reading

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