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."
Greenpoint Open Studios is the weekend of June 8th and 9th and is a special time in the area as about 400 artists open their studios to thousands of art lovers who get to see the amazing creativity that is Greenpoint’s beating heart.
However, this creativity is nothing new locally. Throughout its long history our area has been a home to highly creative artists and artisans. So let’s travel back in time and visit some of the great studios and workshops of Greenpoint’s past.
Many clay and porcelain artists work locally today, but these present-day potters are merely following in a long tradition. Walt Whitman in his 1857 visit to the area wrote an article about the American Porcelain Works, which once turned out beautiful pieces of porcelain at Franklin and Freeman Streets, but this workshop was only one of many local potteries. Continue reading →
This week all over Brooklyn, there will be celebrations honoring Walt Whitman. With the 200th anniversary of the birth of Brooklyn’s greatest poet, one has to ask the question: Was Walt Whitman gay and does his poetry celebrate the joys of being gay? Reading his poetry there are so many clear homoerotic images that many students of Whitman conclude that despite the fact that Whitman never came out as gay, he was gay, or at least bisexual.
Were Whitman to return to Brooklyn today, he would probably be pleasantly surprised by the many Brooklynites who live an openly gay lifestyle.
During Whitman’s time admitting to a gay relationship was taboo, but he hinted at it in a letter he wrote at the end of his life with his discussion of “fervent comradeship.” In the passage below he seems to suggest to a time when gay relationships would be accepted by the broader American society:
Many will say it is a dream and will not follow my inferences: but I confidentially expect a time when there will be seen running through it like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown, not only giving tone to individual character and making it unprecedentedly emotional, muscular, heroic and refined, but having the deepest relation to general politics. I say democracy infers such loving comradeship as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain and incapable of perpetuating itself.
For years the local Memorial Day Parade was a big event. Hundreds of people came out to honor the veterans who fought and sometimes died defending the country. However, last year the Memorial Day Parade was canceled. In the past, Greenpoint had many veterans and organizations like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars were large active organizations. Today, though, there are too few committed local veterans to stage a parade.
Many of the older veterans have died off and many of the younger people who have moved into the neighborhood have never done military service. Memorial Day is now more about barbecuing than recalling our nation’s veterans, but Memorial Day is not the only parade that has disappeared. Here’s footage from the 2015 Greenpoint Memorial Day Parade for those who have not witnessed the parade before:
North Brooklyn has produced more than its fair share of great comedians. Jack Gilford, the man who many claim invented standup and the outrageously funny Buddy Hackett come immediately to mind, but none can hold a candle to the writer, actor, director and stand up comic genius Mel Brooks.
Brooks’s father Max Kaminsky died when Mel was just three years old, so Brooks’ mother had to work hard just to support her family. Brooks said of his father’s early death, “There’s an outrage there. I may be angry at God, or at the world, for that. And I’m sure a lot of my comedy is based on anger and hostility. Growing up in Williamsburg, I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems—like a punch in the face.”
Brooks was a small, sickly boy who often was bullied and teased by his classmates because of his size, but he credits a visit to Broadway at age nine with sparking a desire in him to go into entertainment. He graduated from Eastern District High School and as a young man served in the army at the end of World War II. Brooks recalled growing up in Williamsburg with fond memories in a 2013 NY Magazine article:
I grew up at 365 South 3rd Street in Williamsburg. I remember doing my homework—it was to write down as many signers of the Declaration of Independence as you knew. I knew three. My brother Irving came home, and I said, “Irving, I only have three. I’m going to fail this test.” He said, “Where do you play ball?” “I play ball on Franklin Avenue.” He says, “There’s one.” He said, “Where do you play roller hockey?” “On Hooper.” “There’s another.” “Where’s the library?” “Hewes.” “Well, there’s another one.” I said, “Wait a minute, I’m beginning to get it.” I aced that test.
I had the best childhood. I loved life. I thought life was the most wonderful thing ever created. For three cents, you could get a small egg cream—they were called egg creams for some reason, there was never an egg in it. For a nickel, you could get a regular—a Coke glass, a jumbo glass. They put in a spoon of chocolate—Fox’s U-Bet from a jar. Then they would put in a little bit of milk, still from a bottle of milk—it was glass and cold from the icebox. Then they’d hit it from the fountain with a thin, powerful, high stream of seltzer. Shhhhhhhh! It would explode the chocolate syrup in the milk. It was not nonfat milk—it was milk, real milk. And then the soft flow of seltzer to bring it to the top, and a deep, long spoon stirred mightily until there was a beautiful foam top of milk and chocolate bubbles. It was the nectar of the gods. I compare it now to my Château Mouton Rothschild ’82.
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 →