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.
A lot of people drive cross country from New York to California, but few people do it with a larger social and political message as a goal. On August 8th, Australian-born local street artist and Northern Territory owner Jamie Toll and his wife—Colombian immigrant, actress and filmmaker Paola Baldion—will do just that, while making a completely unique trip. For two months they will travel across America providing free DNA tests to total strangers, and then on the return leg of their journey they’ll interview the recipients of the kits about their DNA discoveries for a documentary film the couple plan to make while on the road.
If you think that all pastors are uptight, judgmental, straight laced, bores, that only shows you never met Reverend Ann Kansfield. I spoke with Ann for an hour and a half and the time seemed to whiz by. She is a great conversationalist with a disarming sense of humor, most of it self-deprecating.
I took careful notes on our conversation, but experienced writer’s block when trying to write about her. Suddenly, I had an aha moment, and realized why. Ann very rarely speaks in first person. She avoids the pronoun I, and invariably shifts from saying I to we. I realized that Ann is one of the least egotistical people I have ever met. Even though she was chosen as the New York Times person of the year in 2016, Ann is the personification of humility. As the old saying goes, “There is no I in team,” and Ann is the consummate team builder. Continue reading →
In a previous piece I described how Mae West funded her scandalous 1927 play sex through her romance with the rich, handsome, but very dangerous gangster Owney Madden. However, it was the poor, but handsome bag man of the gangster who made West an American icon.
In 1927 the Acting Mayor of New York Joe McKee, scandalized by the drama’s frank sexual portrayals, had West and the rest of the cast arrested. The arrest was a publicity gold mine and sex and West were the words on the lips of all New Yorkers. When the cops jailed Mae the gangster’s connections with Blackwell’s Island warden earned Mae a private cell and silk underwear. She even dined with the warden every night and left after six days being let out early for good behavior. Upon her release she quipped, “It was the first time I ever got anything for good behavior.”Continue reading →
For years I passed the graceful façade of Saint Anthony of Padua church (862 Manhattan Avenue) and admired its beauty, but never really thought much about the man who built it. Recently I researched the life of the amazing man who built this Greenpoint landmark and his story is every bit as amazing as the church he built.
Patrick Keely (1816-1896) was the most prolific church builder in American history, constructing, by some estimates, seven hundred churches stretching from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico and from New England to Iowa. He built St. Anthony’s in 1876. It is like many of his churches built in the neo-gothic style. Keely’s prolific career is all the more shocking when we consider that he never received any formal training as an architect.Continue reading →
The reputed local crime boss, John “Sonny” Franzese was recently released from the Federal Medical Center in Devens, Massachusetts. The hundred-year-old reputed member of the Colombo crime family had been serving a fifty year sentence for bank robbery that dated back to 1966. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons confirmed that the Greenpoint native had been the oldest prisoner in Federal custody until his release. He had been paroled at least six times since his 1967 conviction, but always violated his parole, ending up repeatedly back in prison.
Franseze lived for many years locally on Engert Avenue. Mob aficionados credit Franseze with introducing the kiss into mafia family culture. It all started when “Sonny” Franzese and Joey Brancato, both alleged members of the Colombo crime family, bumped into each other on the corner of Lorimer Street and Metropolitan Avenue. As a gesture of peace, they kissed each other on the cheeks. The only thing anybody on Metropolitan Avenue knew was that they had never seen it done before. After the men kissed, it quickly became a mafia trademark. Continue reading →
In my book about local history, Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past, I told the story about how in 1927, local Greenpoint gal Mae West scandalized New York by staging a play called Sex, which presented prostitution and so outraged the acting mayor of New York that he had Mae and the cast arrested. The arrest catapulted West to stardom, but I only knew half the story. The real life drama behind the staging of the play is every bit as salacious as West’s racy drama.
Staging a Broadway play has always been an expensive proposition, and it was beyond the means of West, who in 1926 was an out of work actress. West, however, was resourceful and if she did not have money, then there were men who did; so she decided to use her considerable feminine charms to finance her Broadway drama. Continue reading →
There was a time not long ago when Greenpoint was the ground zero for reasonably priced, delicious, home-cooked food. There seemed to be no end to the great cheap mom and pop little restaurants, delis and butchers that offered fresh, hearty food. Little by little, though,those solid family-run businesses have been disappearing, many the victims of rising rent. It seems that the latest victim is the Park Deli (209 Nassau Avenue), but the owner has vowed to fight to keep her business open.
The deli predates the present Polish ownership, going back 86 years when a German-American William Mullenbrock opened the business. His place drew a loyal following of locals who loved their cold cuts, salads and tasty sandwiches, all reasonably priced. Sold by Mullenbrock in the 50s, it stayed a German place until about two decades ago when Poles took it over, but continued to serve the same German-style food that has made the place a Greenpoint institution. Continue reading →
Our area has been the birthplace of many things: the American porcelain industry, oil refining, but carousels? Who knew? Actually, Greenpoint has a long history of carousel production that goes all the way back to 1850 when Greenpoint’s Eliphalet Scripture off Greenpoint received the first patent for the improvement of the “flying” carousel horse.
Another Greenpoint man would make a name for himself as the creator of some of the most beautiful American carousels. Charles Looff who lived on Leonard Street is arguably the father of the American carousel. The Danish-born Loof, arrived in Greenpoint in 1870 and found employment as a woodworker in a local furniture factory. After work he would take scraps of wood home and carve beautiful carousel animal figures from them. Loof mounted his wooden animals onto a circular platform and created his first merry-go-round. In 1876, he built the carousel at Lucy Vandeveer’s Bathing Pavilion at West Sixth Street and Surf Avenue, Coney Island’s first carousel and first amusement ride. Continue reading →
Last month marked the hundredth anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, a war which had many profound effects on Greenpoint. A hundred and fifty local men lost their lives in the war and many more were wounded. One of the fallen has always intrigued me. Frank Baliszewski, who lived in my house at two Clifford Place, died on October 4th, 1918 from wounds he suffered in battle in France. I know little else about him, but I have often wondered about him. His name still stands on a monument outside his parish church, St. Stanislaw Kostka on Driggs Avenue. There were also two brothers, the McVeighs from Hausman Street, who fell within a day of each other in different parts of France. Continue reading →
Many Greenpointers know that Ferdinand De Lesseps famous Iwo Jima memorial was cast locally at Bedi Rassy Art foundry on India Street; however many people do not know the story of another sculpture cast there, which has become one of the most attacked statues in the world and a focal point of anti-American violence.
In 1963 De Lesseps cast a twelve-foot high bronze statue of Harry Truman. The statue is one of only eight statues of American presidents that stand outside of the United. States. The piece was commissioned by the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, a Greek-American group, to honor the Truman Doctrine, which gave $2 billion in economic and military aid to the Greek government to defeat communist guerrillas during the country’s civil war between 1946 and 1949. Continue reading →