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.

Long Island City Graffiti Artists Win Legal Battle With Developer Who Destroyed Their Work

5 Pointz

For years I used to love taking the number seven train through Long Island City just to see the amazing 5 Pointz building and its amazing graffiti. Some called it “The United Nations of Graffiti” because of the international artists who created the art there. Other people dubbed it “the world’s only graffiti museum.” The owner, Jerry Wolkoff, had given the artists’ permission to use the building as a canvas for “aerosol art” and the building was covered in multicolored murals and tags, making it a tourist mecca as artists and fans of graffiti art from around the world traveled to see the former industrial building in Long Island City that artists had decorated for two decades. Continue reading

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The History of Meserole Avenue

In the heart of where the old orchard once stood is P.S. 31, an elegant old school with a gorgeous façade that is being refurbished. Previously, P.S. 31 was on Dupont Street and the present school was once a middle school.

This post marks the first in a series of posts that will recount the history of different streets in Greenpoint. Meserole Avenue is named for the Meserole family who once had a gorgeous orchard that long ago disappeared. The orchard at one time was so beautiful that it was considered one of the “garden spots” of Brooklyn. Long after the orchard was just a memory, the name garden spot survived and was used ironically by Peter McGuinness and others to describe the highly industrial neighborhood. Continue reading

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Democrat Stephen Levin Wins City Council Race in a Landslide

Councilman Stephen Levin
Councilman Stephen Levin

Democratic City Council Member Stephen Levin was re-elected to represent Greenpoint and the rest of the 33rd District on the New York City Council this Tuesday, November 7th. Levin received more than 18,600 votes, or over eighty-eight percent of the ballots cast. His opponent was a native Greenpointer, Victoria Cambranes, a novice politician who received some two thousand seven hundred votes, or about eleven percent of the vote. Cambranes cut into Levin’s victory total in 2013 when Levin received over ninety-one percent of the vote. Cambranes attracted some support because of her Polish and Latina background, but still fell far short of the very popular Levin.

Part of the reason for the Levin landslide was his success in getting the city to buy the land for Bushwick Inlet Park. In announcing the purchase of the land, Mayor De Blasio, an ally of Levin’s, spoke of Levin being a tireless gadfly in advocating for the purchase of the park. Levin was also instrumental in gaining more than seventeen million dollars in funding for the park.  Continue reading

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Local Filmmaker Joe Campo Wins Prize for Best Film at Justice Film Festival

Perhaps no one was more surprised than local producer Joe Campo of Grassroots films when the Justice Film Festival at the Sheen Center in Manhattan named his film Outcasts as the winner of the prize for best film of the festival on October 8th. One of the films that Outcasts beat out was The Story of Us, which featured Morgan Freeman who made a personal appearance at the screening. The judges explained that they chose Campo’s film because Outcasts offered the public a way of seeing the outcasts in a completely different light, that light was hope, viewing the problems of the poor in a non-judgmental way.

Continue reading

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Julia Wertz’s Triumphant Illustrated History of New York City

Full disclosure—I have been a fan of Julia Wertz‘s amazing graphic work long before the publication of her recent smash hit entitled Tenements, Towers and Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City, so let’s forget objectivity. I discovered Julia’s prodigious talent through her work in the New Yorker. Although I have never met Julia we have exchanged emails and we are kindred spirits, bonded by our mutual love for New York City and its rich past.

Perhaps the biggest gulf separating us as writers is Julia’s prodigious talent as an illustrator, which makes her book such a joy to read from beginning to end. (My drawings make my students either laugh in ridicule or cringe.) It is not just how she sketches, but what she draws that makes her book so close to my heart. She has done excellent renderings of many of the quirky places in New York that I love and teaches me things about those places I never knew. Continue reading

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Horrific History Lesson: Working Conditions at The Domino Sugar Refinery

Although the former Domino Sugar refinery on Kent Avenue does not lie in Greenpoint, the building and the firm that ran it, Havemeyer and Elder, cast a long shadow over local history. Having spent the summer researching the plant for my upcoming book The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King, it is hard to express how much suffering is associated with the refinery.

The plant, which was opened in 1858, employed thousands of Greenpointers over its almost a century-and-a-half of existence. Much of the reason that we have a Polish population today is because the refinery had a policy of hiring Slavic men, principally Polish, who could not recount to outsiders the misery that working in the plant entailed. They worked in horrendous conditions that we can scarcely imagine today. Continue reading

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A Greenpoint Landmark Now Seems Doomed

Thomas Rowland Local Millionaire
Thomas Rowland, local millionaire and builder of the USS Monitor

In a previous post I reported that there was an application to demolish 85 Calyer Street, the historic home of the builder of the first ironclad battleship in the United States Navy, the USS Monitor. The situation looks bleak and the historic house seems doomed. The new owner of the property, Daniel Kaykov, has received an approval to have the historic building demolished. Although the building is rich with local history, the building is not protected by landmark status, so little can be done to save the historic structure.

Sadly, the previous owner of 85 Calyer Street, a man named Tommy, not only knew the history of the house, but even expressed pride in owning this piece of local history. Once, when I was giving a historic walking tour he approached the group and showed us some of his historic photos of the house when Rowland owned it. The house once had a grand entrance for carriages and an elegant facade that has since been covered over with drab vinyl. The owner also told me of a kind of bunker in the back garden that might have been used to help smuggle booze into the area from the nearby Noble Street pier during the prohibition era. Continue reading

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Greenpoint’s Haunted House On Oak Street

Oak Street and Guernsey - Greenpoint's Haunted House - Photo by Megan Penmann
Greenpoint’s “haunted house” at Oak Street and Guernsey (137 Oak St). Photo: Megan Penmann

If I had to pick one house in Greenpoint to set a horror movie in it would be the big old house set back off the street at the corner of Oak and Guernsey. The red brick facade, spooky wooden double doors, cast iron railings at the building’s entrance, as well as the iron fence and gate at lawn’s edge all are original, dating to the house’s construction in 1887.

The house has a fascinating history and it is connected to an equally fascinating man who had the presidency of the United States stolen from him in 1876: Samuel Tilden. Tilden is probably one of the people who gets the least credit for making Greenpoint great. Tilden was an absolutely brilliant corporate lawyer who knew a good investment when he saw one. He bought a huge piece of land before the Civil War in Greenpoint that covered an area from Calyer Street to Milton and east to Leonard Street including the land that St. Anthony’s church now sits on. Tilden did a lot for our state. He broke the corrupt Boss Tweed ring and helped write our state Constitution. In 1876 he really should have been elected president, but lost when his party, the Democrats, cut a dirty back room deal that ended reconstruction and sold him out. Continue reading

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The Forgotten History of Sugar in North Brooklyn

The old Domino Sugar refinery, with North Brooklyn Farms in the foreground.

To understand the history of Greenpoint and Williamsburg you have to grasp the massive role that refining played in this heavily industrial corner of North Brooklyn. Our area became the world’s largest refiner of oil and sugar and the owners of these refineries became unbelievably wealthy. A lot of writers have told the story of local oil refining, but until now there has been a dearth of information about the massive local sugar industry here, so I wrote The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King to trace the powerful effect sugar refining had on North Brooklyn.
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A Piece of Greenpoint History Faces Demolition

85 Calyer Street
85 Calyer Street

Recently, I did a series of stories for Greenpointers about the twenty-five most historic local buildings. One of the posts I wrote was about 85 Calyer Street, the residence of Thomas Fitch Rowland, whose company, the Continental Iron Works, located around the corner on Quay Street built the famous ship. In 1859, Rowland founded the innovative factory. Two years later, he would help make history when visionary Swedish naval engineer John Ericsson approached him about building a revolutionary ship in Greenpoint, the ironclad Monitor, which would revolutionize warfare and make wooden ships obsolete. Ericsson was a frequent visitor to the house and the many conversations in Rowland’s house led to the realization of Ericsson’s plan for the United States Navy’s first Ironclad battleship, which fought the legendary battle against the Rebel ironclad, the Virginia, in 1862. Thanks to the Monitor’s victory, the North won the Civil War and slavery ended. Rowland produced a number of ironclad ships locally, employing 1,500 workers at his works during the Civil War. Rowland also received the first patent for an underwater oil drilling well, an invention that had dramatic effects on the oil industry. He died a millionaire and the house changed hands a number of times.

Thomas Fitch Rowland
Thomas Fitch Rowland

The house has been sold and is evidently set for demolition. The new owner of the property, Daniel Kaykov of the Renovation Group, a Forest Hills-based construction firm filed demolition paperwork with the city on August 31st and additional paperwork for a demolition has also been filed. The frame house, which has had its facade remodeled, is an important part of local history and allowing its demolition would rob the community of an important landmark. Currently, the house has no landmark status from the city so its destruction could occur quickly. I described the awesome achievement that Ericsson and Rowland accomplished in my book Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past when they built the Monitor in just a hundred and one days, so I would feel great loss seeing the building be demolished. The Continental Iron Works was also demolished, so 85 Calyer Street is the last building that is a direct link to the building of the Monitor. I hope that the community can rally to save this authentic Greenpoint Civil War landmark.

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