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."
Few people today might recognize him by his real name, Joe Yule Jr., but the boy born in 1920 at 696 Leonard Street would become an Academy Award winner and Hollywood legend using the stage name Mickey Rooney. Rooney’s career in Hollywood spanned an astonishing nine decades.
Rooney’s career, like that of Greenpoint’s other Hollywood legend Mae West, began in Vaudeville as a child. Rooney’s parents were vaudeville actors, but they could never have dreamed how much their son would achieve on stage, screen, and television. Joe Yule Jr. became the star of his parents’ act by the age of two. In an autobiography, Rooney explained how he first entered the theater world. As a toddler, Rooney was hiding under the scenery when he sneezed. Dragged out by an actor, the toddler was ordered to play his harmonica. He did, and the crowd erupted. The rest, as they say, was history.
Local settlement houses have a long and honorable history in North Brooklyn and they have served as a cultural and educational oasis for generations of local youths. Still, many people might not fully appreciate the historic and current role settlement houses play in our area.
Settlement houses first appeared in England in 1884. Several young graduates from Oxford and Cambridge saw that the working class had little access to education or to culture, so they opened the first settlement house and hoped to share their knowledge and culture with their low-paid, poorly educated neighbors. The idea quickly spread to America where millions of illiterate, or semi-literate, immigrants with little or no English language skills began to populate the nation’s cities.
Many middle-class Americans feared that these immigrants and their children posed a danger to American culture and democracy. Something had to be done to help “Americanize” these newcomers and the settlement house quickly became the answer.
In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded the famous Hull House Settlement House on Chicago’s west side. Hull House served the needs of recently arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe and it served as a model for approximately five hundred similar institutions that sprang up around the country.
Two settlement houses based on Hull House were founded in North Brooklyn. One was funded by Brooklyn’s richest man, Charles Pratt, on the ground floor of his model apartment building, The Astral Apartments, which still stands on Franklin Street and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The settlement house in the building ran a kindergarten, English language classes, home economics courses and civics classes for many of the newly arrived immigrants from Poland, Russia, Lithuania, and Italy.
The philosopher George Santayana once famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I do not know if Santayana ever visited our area, but Santayana’s words relate to North Brooklyn’s struggle to recall its unique history and preserve the landmarks that help us remember our area’s fascinating past.
Last Saturday, I led about 75 hard souls who braved the rain on a walking tour of the Domino Refinery, which was once the largest sugar refinery in the world, processing at its height one-eighth of all the sugar refined on the planet! Today, the great refinery is being transformed into a mixed-use development.
Although the façade of the Domino building is landmarked and must be preserved, the building’s interior is being removed and it will become luxury condominiums and offices. Already huge metal stanchions have been attached to the exterior wall to facilitate gutting the historic refinery. Our history is being destroyed before our very eyes. Continue reading →
Greenpoint has a nickname, “The Garden Spot,” which was given at a time when our area was truly a bucolic haven. Although it later became one of the most industrial areas on planet earth, today our community is trying to live up to the verdant image of its nickname and Greenpoint is rapidly becoming a “green point” again, but let us take a look at the history of gardens in our area.
Greenpoint was once a farming community and every family had its own garden. There was a huge hill running around the area of Franklin and Green Streets called Pottery Hill where wildflowers grew. The flowers there were so pretty that courting couples sailed over from Manhattan to enjoy its beauty. However, the name Garden Spot derives from the Meserole Orchard, which once occupied a huge swath of land around Meserole Avenue. The garden was famous for its apples and the beautiful apple blossoms each spring, but in what has become a familiar local story: the real estate was too valuable and the orchard disappeared as lots were sold off for housing.
Greenpoint became an area of factories and heavy industry, but it was also still an area of homes, many of which boasted gardens. One of the most beautiful Gardens was the rose garden of Thomas Smith, the porcelain baron who lived on Milton Street, but many local kids who grew up in tenements never saw a garden and the name “ The Garden Spot” became something of a cruel joke in the heavily polluted area. The area suffered from a severe lack of green spaces, however, Pete McGuinness not only ironically referred to the area of smokestacks and pollution as “ The Garden Spot of Brooklyn,” but he even called it “The Garden Spot of the Universe.” Continue reading →
Being a local historian, I acknowledge that all of us make mistakes. The problem is when mistakes in local history become fossilized over years and people accept these errors as fact. Let’s correct a few blatant local history errors.
The first glaring example of historians getting it wrong is on the markers set up by the Landmark Preservation Commission to demark the areas within the Greenpoint Historic District. If you read the Historic District Designation Report, then you are informed about the correct historical fact that our area was developed by Neziah Bliss in the 1830s. However, the historical signposts get it wrong, claiming that the area was developed by Samuel Tilden in 1834. Tilden did develop some of the area, but he developed it in the 1850s on land he purchased from Bliss. In fact, Tilden was still In upstate New York in 1834 and did not arrive in the city until two years later.
Benjamin Solotaire, the aide to local City Council member Steven Levin, has been in touch with the Landmarks Preservation folks in an attempt to right this error, but there is still no admission that Bliss, not Tilden, developed our area.
The Landmarks preservation people are not the only group making local history mistakes. The Brooklyn Historical Society also has two egregious errors in its publication about local history: Greenpoint Neighborhood History Guide. The good folks at the society put a picture of the striking Russian Orthodox cathedral at the south end of McCarren Park on the guide’s cover. Sorry, but that church is in Williamsburg, not Greenpoint. To add insult to injury the author Marcia Reiss adds a picture of a church on Meserole Street, which you well know is in Williamsburg, not Greenpoint. We have Meserole Avenue, not Meserole Street.
I love the Bowery Boys podcasts and I am grateful to them for their shout out on my book “ Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Historic Past” in their podcast on Greenpoint, but they too get an important fact wrong, the famous singer Pat Benatar was born in Greenpoint, but left the area as an infant and grew up on Long Island, but according to the Bowery Boys she grew up locally.
One of the more gobsmacking errors has recently been corrected. Wikipedia identified the legendary bank robber Willie Sutton as a Greenpointer. Sutton was born near the Navy Yard on Nassau Street, not locally on Nassau Avenue. The mistake did, however, lead to a local eatery being named Slick Willie’s in honor of the legendary robber. A new bar on McGuinness Boulevard is set to open called “Pete’s Tavern” with an image of Peter J. McGuinness, for whom the Boulevard was named. One might assume that Pete himself chugged beers locally, but McGuinness never drank alcohol, so his image inside Pete’s Tavern is quite misleading.
We have a duty to our posterity to pass local history on correctly. All historians, myself included, make errors, but we must correct the errors we make. Hopefully, we will see changes in the historic markers and a revised Greenpoint Local History Guide from the Brooklyn Historical Society.
When you speak to anyone who was a Dodger fan you feel their love for the team and the wound they felt when the team left for Los Angeles. The Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1957 and many die-hard fans could never come to terms with their departure. Part of the mystique of the Dodgers was a legendary local band that helped create an unrivaled and unforgettable part of being at the ballpark: the Sym-Phony band. Old Dodger fans recall that Ebbets Field had a unique character, packed every day with the most enthusiastic and loyal fans a team could have. One of the most cherished sights and sounds in those games was a group of rather poor musicians from Greenpoint and Williamsburg. They called themselves the Sym- PHONY (accent on the last two syllables!) to differentiate themselves from professional musicians, but despite their missed notes, they were a loved feature at Dodger games.
Lets digress for a moment and talk about why the Dodgers were so loved locally. The Dodgers were for many years little better than an average team, but Brooklyn loved them with a passion that is hard to describe. They were affectionately called “Our Bums,” because they could never seem to win a championship, but they had a passionate, even fanatical local following.
During the Dodgers, Brooklyn years played the players were not millionaires like today’s stars. Many of them had to work in the off-season to make ends meet. The players lived in the community, shopping in local stores and praying in local houses of worship just like everyone else. Part of the love that people in the community had for them was their ordinariness. We bought our house from Vic La Magna who grew up in Greenpoint and worshipped the Dodgers. LaMagna and a large group of Greenpoint boys would often ride their bikes to games Ebbets field in Crown Heights to watch the Dodgers, but the real thrill was waiting until after the game to see the players appear. The players in those years felt that it was a privilege to be paid to play a kids’ game and they had to give back to the community. The Dodgers would not only sign autographs but would talk to the kids, offering them suggestions on how to master the finer points of the game. They might stay a half-hour to forty-five minutes, never letting a young fan leave without an autograph. Continue reading →
Just across Newtown Creek in Long Island City stood an abandoned industrial site that many considered the world’s greatest treasury of graffiti art. Tragically demolished in 2013, the world-famous Five Pointz consisted of twelve factory buildings ranging in height from a single story to five floors. The name Five Pointz referred both to the five boroughs of New York City and to the notorious 19th century Manhattan slum of the same name. Five Pointz grew so famous that tourists from around the world journeyed to Long Island City to photograph the amazing examples of graffiti art that adorned its many exterior walls, but the famous complex would not have a long life and would die a tragic death.
Located at 45–46 Davis Street, the buildings, which were constructed in 1892, once housed a water meter factory, but the water meter plant was long by the early 1970s when developer Jerry Wolkoff bought the abandoned factory and leased space inside to industrial firms. In 1990, hungry for new tenants, Wolkoff granted permission for artists to cover the exterior walls with art and by the 1990s artists attracted to the area by the low rents began to rent interior spaces in the building. Soon, aerosol artists began to cover the exterior walls with their colorful and creative murals. Initially called the Phun Factory, the building was renamed “5 Pointz” in 2002 when graffiti artist Jonathan Cohen began curating the exterior murals. The murals’ fame spread and Cohen even conceived plans to turn the huge complex into a museum of graffiti art. The former industrial complex attracted elite aerosol artists who arrived from all over the United States and even around the world, including famous graffiti artists such as Stay High 149, Tracy 168, Part, SPE, Dan Plasma, CORTES and TATS CRU.
While Five Pointz fame was spreading around the globe, Long Island City was also changing. Due to its proximity to Manhattan, the area started to become a magnet for high-rise residential towers and Wolkoff became increasingly aware of his site’s multi-million dollar real estate value.
Maybe it is just me, but I find McGuinness Boulevard ugly. Huge trucks and streams of traffic wiz by the four-laned, soulless traffic artery. The newer apartment buildings lack the quaint charm of many of Greenpoint’s other streets, but this was not always so.
Once McGuinness Boulevard was not a boulevard at all, it was named Oakland Street; a narrow charming cobblestoned lane lined by wood frame 19th-century homes typical of our area.
Oakland Street would become a victim to a vision of New York City as a city of cars and trucks. The destruction of Oakland Street was only a small piece in the grand scheme of Robert Moses who built the BQE, the Tri-borough Bridge, and the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Thousands of homes across the city fell victim to Moses’ vision.
For a working-class industrial area, North Brooklyn has played an outsized influence on American sculpture. The great Western artist Fredrick Remington cast many of his iconic western sculptures at the Roman Bronze works on Green Street in Greenpoint.
The famous Wall Street Bull and the Iwo Jima Memorial were also cast on India Street at the Bedi-Makki Art Foundry. As if those two accomplishments were not enough, there is still more. One of the giants of abstract metal sculpture, and one of the greatest American sculptors ever, David Smith, lived in Williamsburg and mastered his technique on a pier in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
He was born in Indiana in 1906. Perhaps, metal was in his blood. He was, ironically, the great-grandson of a blacksmith, and the artist even as a child had a fascination for heavy industry saying, “we used to play on trains and around factories. I played there just as I played in nature, on hills and creeks.”
Smith attended college for a year, but dropped out in 1925, to work at the Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend, Indiana where Smith learned soldering and spot-welding techniques that he would later use to create his sculptures.
Smith came to New York City in 1926 and he soon met his first wife, the sculptor Dorothy Dehner. Smith enrolled in The Art Students League, where he studied painting and drawing over the next five years. Smith and Dehner settled in North Brooklyn because as artists they could not afford to live in Manhattan.
Though Smith never received formal sculptural training, one of the instructors at the Art Students League, Jan Matulka, encouraged him to start adding three-dimensional elements to his paintings. Matulka also introduced Smith to the abstract art of innovators such as Picasso and Kandinsky.
Smith was on the verge of an artistic revolution at the start of the 1930s. Wanting to master metal work, he set up his workshop in the Brooklyn Navy Pier in New York in 1933, sharing the space not with artists, but with professional welders and others who worked with metals.
At that time, most sculptors worked in a bronze foundry, a marble quarry or a conventional studio. At the Navy pier, Smith mastered the technical aspects of cutting and welding different kinds of metal. In the unlikeliest of places, Smith became the first American artist to make welded metal sculpture. Continue reading →
Tens of thousands of men have played professional baseball, but only a few have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. One of those rare individuals is pitcher Mickey Welsh (July 4, 1859 – July 30, 1941) who was born and raised in Williamsburg.
Only about two-dozen pitchers have won more than 300 games in their careers and Mickey Welsh was the third-ever pitcher to join that elite club. Welch played 13 seasons in the major leagues, three with the Troy Trojans, and 10 with the New York Gothams/Giants. He was very successful with an effective curveball, a change of pace, and a version of the screwball. During his 13 major league seasons, he posted 20 or more wins nine times, seven in succession.
Welch’s real name was Walsh. Mickey was the son of Irish immigrants who settled in Williamsburg. When Welch was young baseball was the rage in Brooklyn. Welsh in all likelihood saw the great local amateur team, the Eckford Club, which twice won the national baseball title before professional teams came to dominate the sport and the Eckford club folded in 1872. The first fully enclosed baseball grounds was also located in Williamsburg, The Union Grounds and it is more than likely Welch watched games there as a child.
Welsh was no physical giant. He stood only five feet eight inches tall and was no power pitcher. He threw underhand and had his success because he was a student of the game who mastered batters strengths and weaknesses and pitched smartly. Welch said, “I was a little fellow and I had to learn to use my head. I studied the hitters and knew how to pitch to all of them and I worked hard to perfect my control. I had a pretty good fastball, but I depended on my change of pace and an assortment of curveballs.”