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.

NYC’s Famed Gourmet Food Purveyor Balducci’s Began with a Pushcart in Greenpoint

The Balducci’s shop in the famed Greenwich Village location (via Baldor’s)

Last week Andrew Balducci, the man who built Balducci’s into the premier produce store in the city, died at ninety-two years of age. Balducci achieved his fame and fortune in Manhattan, but his family story starts here in Greenpoint in 1918 when a poor immigrant from Bari, Italy rented a pushcart in the neighborhood. Andy’s father Louis Balducci spoke little English and earned just five dollars a week working long days. He would travel to wholesale markets at dawn and buy fruits and vegetables, which he then peddled on local streets. The work was grueling and during the cold winters and on rainy days Louis must have longed for the warmth of the Italian sun. Peddlers like Louis were looked down on and were considered a nuisance. Already by 1904 there were attempts to license them and control their movements.

In 1925, Louis’s son Andrew was born in Greenpoint, but only two months later the family returned to Italy where Andrew stayed for fourteen years. Andrew returned to Brooklyn in 1939 and when World War II broke out he joined the Navy and was wounded in the Normandy landings. At the end of the war Andy joined his father in the grocery business. A family business from the start, Louis worked with his wife and daughter Grace, as well as a young family friend from Italy, Joe Doria. Grace married Joe in the late 1950’s and he became a partner in the original Balducci’s. The family worked around the clock, seven days a week, including holidays, to build Balducci’s into the finest produce market in the city.

They opened the first family store on Manhattan Avenue near St. Anthony of Padua church where they sold not only produce, but also fish and meat. One of my neighbors remembers his father’s heated conversations with Louis in Italian.

Site of the original Balducci’s in Greenpoint (image via Google)

The business began to thrive. They soon bought a truck to deliver ice and they opened a fruit and vegetable stand in Greenwich Village, which quickly became popular with discerning locals. In 1952, Andrew married Nina D’Amelio who quickly became part of the business. Sometime in the middle 1950s they closed their store in Greenpoint and concentrated on Manhattan retail.

In 1972, they opened a storefront at 6th Avenue and West 9th St where they would become a New York institution. The store began to change the tastes of New Yorkers. Food critic and author Julia della Croce said “Andy and Nina really taught New York how to eat and cook genuine Italian food at a time when it was perceived as little more than pizza and pasta covered with red sauce and gooey cheese,” “Theirs,” she said, “was a place where for the first time, New Yorkers found authentic Italian cooking and could buy the ingredients they would need to make it at home.” Manhattan’s best chefs flocked to the store and its fame grew.

Andrew Balducci (via NYT)

By 1999, the business was so famous and profitable that an investment group bought it up and Balduccis made 130 Million dollars that year. In 2003, the original Greenwich Village store closed marking the end of an era. Balduccis soon became a corporation with franchises around the country.

Balducci’s became synonymous with gourmet food and became the first market in the city to combine all the products of a butcher, fishmonger, delicatessen and greengrocer in one store. Gourmet stores all around the country have since modeled themselves on Balduccis. Food writer James Beard, a regular customer said that Balducci’s always sold “the best of the best, at the right price.” However, few of the devoted shoppers in Balducci’s knew that the roots of Manhattan’s most elegant gourmet food emporium reached back to a poor Italian immigrant. When Louis Balducci began pushing a cart through the streets of Greenpoint he could never have imagined that his family would grow rich and they would build the business into an empire.

 

 

 

 

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The Great Blizzard of 1888 in Greenpoint

Image courtesy of Brooklyn Children’s Museum

Monday, March 12th marks the hundred and thirtieth anniversary of the greatest storm ever to hit Greenpoint: The Great Blizzard of 1888. Snowfalls of 20–60 inches fell locally, and sustained winds of more than 45 miles per hour produced snowdrifts 50 feet high. Railroads were shut down and people were trapped in their houses for up to a week. This snowstorm became legendary, earning the nickname “The Great White Hurricane,” after it paralyzed the East Coast from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine. Ships at sea sunk or were grounded, telegraph and telephone wires came down, cutting off communication between major cities. All transportation was immobilized. Continue reading

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A Stroll Down Historic Huron Street

Inside Archestratus— part cookbook shop, part cafe and part event space.
Inside Archestratus on Huron Street— part cookbook shop, part cafe and part event space.

Huron was originally just called H Street, but it was changed to Huron in the 1850s, possibly in honor of a locally built steamship the U.S.S Huron, or it could simply honor the New York state Native American people.

Huron Street was once famed for the beauty of its gardens. At one time Huron Street had two gardens that were so beautiful that they helped make Greenpoint “The Garden Spot of Brooklyn.” Cousin’s garden near Franklin Street was a show place of Greenpoint. The Provost House near Manhattan Avenue also had a beautiful garden with grapevines and was known as The Brass Castle. Number 119 seems to be one of the oldest buildings in Greenpoint and might have shared the street with the gorgeous gardens. The gardens vanished long ago, but the foodie bookstore/cafe Archestratus (160 Huron St), near where the Provost House once stood, is a garden of culinary delights.

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Oil, Philanthropy, The Astral and Art: The Mixed Local Legacy of Charles Pratt

Pratt Institute

Perhaps there is no person in the long history of Greenpoint who had a bigger effect on our area than Charles Pratt. Pratt’s legacy, though is a mixed one: a philanthropist, Pratt felt a duty to use his wealth to give back to the community, but he is also heavily responsible for the massive local pollution that is a result of his business in oil refining. One thing though is sure, more than a hundred and twenty years after his death; Pratt’s long shadow still hangs over Greenpoint. Continue reading

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The Fascinating and Tragic History of The Wythe Hotel

The Weidmann Cooperage before its renovation
The Weidmann Cooperage before its renovation

The Wythe Hotel at North 11th Street and Wythe Avenue is a symbol of cool in trendy Williamsburg. The building is a combination of old and new, with a three story sleek glass tower rising out of the remnants of a 1901 industrial building. The hotel’s L-shaped rooftop bar The Ides has stunning views of the Manhattan skyline, attracting people from around the world to the 72-room boutique hotel. People use words like chic, trendy and ultra-modern in describing the building, but it has a fascinating and tragic past that stretches back to the 1890’s—and that past is still evident in today’s hotel building.

The Wythe Hotel today, image via Morris Adjmi Architects
The Wythe Hotel today, image via Morris Adjmi Architects

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The Story Behind Brooklyn’s Iconic Water Tanks

Courtesy of Ted McGrath on Flickr.
Via Ted McGrath on Flickr.

PARIS has its world famous Eiffel Tower. Pisa, of course has its leaning tower and London has its ancient tower. What about New York? We have towers, too, but here, they hold water.
Although the skyline of New York city has changed dramatically over the years, one element has remained constant; the city’s romantic wooden water towers, which are every bit as iconic as the Empire State building or the Chrysler Building. There are more than 10,000 water towers around the city, which feature prominently in the works of famous New York artists Like Edward Hopper and the Ash Can School.

In the 1880s, steel was transforming the New York skyline, allowing buildings to reach above five stories, but also creating a design problem. As the buildings soared upwards, water pressure could only reach the fifth floor. Taller buildings needed water for the upper floors and that’s why the water towers were built. Water towers use gravity to help create pressure in pipes on the upper floors. These wooden towers are still the water source for many of the city’s buildings, and they also contain enough water to feed the sprinklers if there’s a fire.
With demand spiking for water towers in late nineteenth century New York, Brooklyn’s large barrel making industry was perfectly positioned to build the city’s water towers. One of the firms that achieved market dominance was the Rosenwach Water Tower Company, which for decades was located in the Northside.
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The Miracle on Manhattan Avenue: Viking Fever at Lake Street

CreditBrad Rempel/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

None of the Vikings fans crowded into the bar will ever forget Sunday January 14th on Manhattan Avenue, and the football miracle that happened that day. Lake Street (706 Manhattan Ave) is a Minnesota bar, and home to local Vikings fans who take over the place every Sunday clad in purple uniforms. The Vikings were losing in the playoffs and were ten seconds away from a season ending loss. Looks of pain and anguish were visible around the room as their quarterback threw up the ball in one last desperate attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The ball flew up and a Minnesota receiver caught it. Then, miraculously the defender behind him missed a tackle allowing the Viking player to run half the field and score what was one of the most dramatic and unexpected touchdowns in football history. In a flash, local Vikings fans moods shifted from sorrow to rapture, exploding in wild ecstasy and unbridled joy.
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The Greenpointer Who Led a Prison Break from Sing-Sing

Charles Bergstrom

For years his wanted poster had hung in the Meserole Avenue Police station, but there was not a trace of Charles Bergstrom to be found. Bergstrom was wanted for being an accomplice in the worst prison break in Sing Sing history. He had become a wanted man for helping three of his buddies to break out of the maximum-security prison, and four people had lost their lives as a result of the breakout.
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A Brief History of the Puerto Ricans in Greenpoint

Members of the Assembly of God Church in 1928

Sunday, January 14th is a day of pride for the Puerto Rican community in North Brooklyn. It is the celebration of the feast of the Three Kings and there is an enthusiastic parade and celebration of Puerto Rican culture on Grand Street. In traditional Puerto Rican culture, the feast day was a day of celebration and gift giving that was actually bigger than Christmas for many Puerto Ricans. So it’s a good time to reflect on the long history of Puerto Ricans in our part of Brooklyn. Continue reading

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The Amazing Philanthropist Who Founded Williamsburg’s First Public Schools

Grahams Polley

So many of the wealthy in today’s world are both so selfish and self-interested that it’s easy to believe that rich people do not think of those who have nothing. The story of Grahams Polley, the great Williamsburg philanthropist, however, shows that wealth and concern for the poor and for public education are not mutually exclusive. Polley only lived to be thirty-four years of age, dying in a riding accident in 1860 and leaving behind a wife and ten children. His charity was legendary and left a legacy still felt today.

Polley was born in Manhattan to a poor family. He never had the chance to go to school for himself and he never learned to read or write, but he died as a bank president with a fortune of $40,000. He was determined to use his wealth for the public good and his chief interest was ensuring that all of Williamsburg’s children got educated. Continue reading

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