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."
A lot of local history is quickly disappearing, but one place that is holding strong is Brooklyn Label (180 Franklin St.) and the historic building it calls home. French Greenpointer Robert Arbor, proprietor of Le Gamin (108 Franklin St.) re-opened Brooklyn Label in the historic Astral Building. The former management did little to recognize the amazing history of the space, something that Arbor has dedicated himself to changing.
The Astral Apartments are not only landmarked, but the building is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Arbor and his manager, Alex Russell, are determined to honor the building’s rich history and its patron philanthropist Charles Pratt, the oil baron and the richest man in 19th century Brooklyn.
Completed in 1883, the Astral Apartments were unique in their day: Unlike the flimsy tenement buildings that sprang up all around the city without basic amenities, the Astral was a kind of gift to the Greenpoint community and a solidly built showcase.
In contrast to tenements, Pratt’s building had plenty of natural light, air and even indoor plumbing, unheard of luxuries for most tenement dwellers. And the building was stunningly beautiful too!
The philanthropist hired famed architects Hugh Lamb and Charles A. Rich who also designed his stately Pratt Institute campus. Pratt commissioned them to design the Astral as a model for worker housing. Lamb & Rich based the Astral design on innovative tenement housing built by American philanthropist George Peabody in London who was a personal friend of Pratt’s.
The iconic industries of North Brooklyn were staffed by females who were underpaid and often worked in dangerous conditions. It’s high time we honor these anonymous, but heroic local workers. Some local industries preferred female workers.
Why? Well, there are a number of reasons, but more often than not factory owners could underpay female workers, especially immigrant women who often lacked the language skills and awareness to demand their fair wage and better conditions.
Some local female workers, however, were anything but docile. They fought for better wages and better conditions in strikes that often became violent. The American Manufacturing Company centered on West Street employed thousands of women, with many from Poland and Lithuanian. They were superior workers to men because the work making ropes required great manual dexterity and female hands outperformed men in making ropes.
The women worked long hours for poor pay, however, in 1910, the women organized a sit-down strike and engaged in a full-fledged street battle with the local police who tried to prevent them from taking over the sprawling factory. Polish women were also arrested when they violently confronted Italian immigrant workers hired to replace them. Later Puerto Rican women were brought from their native island to work in the plant, establishing a Puerto Rican presence in our area that lasts until today.
Another famous strike occurred at the Leviton plant on Greenpoint Avenue. Leviton manufactured pull-chain lamp holders for Thomas Edison’s newly developed light bulb, and in 1922 the company moved to Greenpoint. The massive factory took up two city blocks between Newel and Jewel Streets and produced over 600 other electrical items, from fuses to socket covers to outlets and switches.
The Leviton plant employed numerous women doing piecework. When inspectors came they saw guards on the machinery that protected the workers’ hands, but when the inspectors left the guards were removed because they slowed down assembly of the devices. Women at the plant lost fingers due to the lack of guards, which led to a demand for increased safety and union recognition in a long and bitter 1940 strike. The strikers were visited by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the first time in American history the First Lady addressed striking workers. The women won the long bitter strike achieving better pay and safe conditions. Continue reading →
March is Women’s History Month when we celebrate the achievements of North Brooklyn’s greatest women. Sarah Tompkins Garnet was not only the first black woman to serve as a principal in New York City, but she was also a fighter for women’s suffrage and for racial equality. She began her illustrious career locally in what was named “Colored School #3” right here in Williamsburg.
Sarah was born in the free black community of Weeksville in Bedford Stuyvesant, some buildings of which have survived and today form the basis of the Weeksville museum, a fascinating relic of Brooklyn’s 19th-century history. Her father, Sylvanus Smith, was one of Weeksville’s founders and one of the very few black Americans who were able to cast a vote in 1820 when New York State still had slavery.
African-Americans were only allowed to vote if they owned $250 worth of property- no small sum in 1820, but Sarah’s father was rich enough to meet the qualification. Her father was a strong advocate of black voting rights and Tompkins Garnet would continue his legacy, fighting against racial discrimination and for expanded voting rights. He also stressed that his daughters get educated. Garnet’s sister Susan McKinney Steward became the first black woman in New York State to earn a medical degree, and only the third in the United States. Continue reading →
North Brooklyn has produced a slew of creative geniuses in many fields, but Will Eisner created a new genre of art. A gifted and innovative comic artist, Eisner was the first to realize that comics were literature, and the first to coin the term ‘graphic novel.’ Wizard magazine named Eisner “the most influential comic artist of all time” and one of the comic industry’s most prestigious awards, The Eisner Award, is named after him.
Recognized as the ‘Oscars’ of the American comic book business, the Eisners are presented annually before a packed ballroom at Comic-Con International in San Diego, America’s largest comics convention. In a career that spanned nearly 70 years and eight decades — from the dawn of the comic book to the advent of digital comics, Eisner truly dominated his field and by the end of his life had become a living legend. He broke new ground in the development of visual narrative and the language of comics and was the creator of such famous comics as “The Spirit,” “John Law,” “Lady Luck,” “Mr. Mystic,” “Uncle Sam,” “Blackhawk,” “Sheena” and countless others.
His innovative storytelling, layouts, and drawings in his newspaper series “The Spirit” inspired a generation of cartoonists, and his creation of a heralded series of graphic novels, beginning in 1978 with “A Contract with God,” helped create the form. Like many other Williamsburg creative geniuses, Eisner was born into a poor Eastern European Jewish family. His boyhood was full of struggles on many fronts. Eisner was born on the Southside in 1917. His family, like many other local families, had crossed the Williamsburg Bridge in hopes of finding a better life in Brooklyn than in the crowded Manhattan tenements.
Young Eisner was subject both to bullying and to anti-semitic taunting as a boy. Eisner became addicted to pulp fiction magazines and film, even avant-garde films. To his mother’s disappointment, Eisner inherited his father’s love of art, and his father encouraged him by buying him art supplies. Eisner’s mother was angry about their impoverished circumstances and frequently berated his father for not providing the family a more comfortable life, as he went from one job to another. The family experienced particularly hard times during the Great Depression and In 1930, the family situation was so desperate that Eisner’s mother insisted that the 13-year-old Eisner work. Eisner began selling newspapers on street corners, but again became the victim of bullies who wanted to take the best corners for themselves.
High school helped him find his talent. Eisner attended DeWitt Clinton High School where he drew for the school newspaper (The Clintonian), the literary magazine and the yearbook, and did stage design, leading him to a career as an artist. After graduation, he studied under Canadian artist George Brandt Bridgman for a year at the Art Students League of New York, which led him to a position as an advertising writer-cartoonist for the New York American newspaper. Eisner also drew $10-a-page illustrations for pulp magazines, including “Western Sheriffs and Outlaws.”
In 1936, high-school friend and fellow cartoonist Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, suggested that the 19-year-old Eisner try selling cartoons to the new comic book “Wow, What A Magazine!” Wow Editor Jerry Iger published an Eisner comic strip called “Captain Scott Dalton,” a hero who traveled the world after rare artifacts. Eisner subsequently wrote and drew the pirate strip “The Flame” and the secret agent strip “Harry Karry” for Wow as well.
Wow folded and Iger and Eisner formed a partnership, producing and selling original comics material, which were in short supply because the depression killed so many magazines. Their partnership prospered and by age 22 Eisner had made a considerable fortune.
In 1939, Eisner wrote and drew the first issue of Wonder comics with a hero who was similar to Superman. The following year a newspaper syndicate approached him about creating comics for newspapers that would appear across the country. Eisner accepted the offer and reluctantly broke up his partnership with Iger. His syndicated creation, “The Spirit,” became a major success that lasted until the 1950s. In 1971, Eisner was inducted into the Comics Hall of Fame, but he still had other achievements to realize. In the late 70s, Eisner brought out the first of many graphic novels. Although he was a rich man and had no need to earn money teaching, Eisner began teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where he published Will Eisner’s Gallery, a collection of work by his students and wrote two books based on these lectures, “Comics and Sequential Art” and “Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative,” which are still widely used by students of cartooning.
In 2005, Eisner passed away. One of his fellow comic artists, Scott McCloud, the author of “Understanding Comics” summarized what many other comic artists and fans felt about the boy from Williamsburg stating, “Will Eisner is the heart and mind of American comics.”
Last week I spoke about Brooklyn’s great poet Walt Whitman who served as the editor of Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Daily News in the late 1850s, but I also mentioned the name of another important Williamsburg newspaper editor whom few in the audience had ever heard of. With the 200th birthday of Whitman approaching in May, Brooklynites are celebrating the author of “Leaves of Grass” and the one-time editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle , however, African-American editor and abolitionist Willis Hodges was an equally amazing character whose life and unique achievements deserve recognition.
If it were not true, Willis Hodges’ amazing life would seem contrived. Born free to unenslaved African-American parents in Virginia in 1815, Hodges learned to read and write at a time when many whites were illiterate and only a handful of African-Americans could read and write. The family prospered, living on a huge farm, but Nat Turner’s rebellion cast a shadow over the Hodges family when his older brother was falsely accused of and imprisoned for abetting Tuner in his slave revolt. Hodges’ older brother escaped the jail and headed to Canada, so When Incensed whites took vengeance on Hodges’ family, nearly blinding his mother and killing all the family livestock, Hodges knew he had to leave Virginia.
Willis arrived in Williamsburg in 1836. He soon bought land, becoming a deacon in a local black church and also one of the founders of Colored School #2 in Williamsburg where black children were taught to read and write. Willis also quickly joined the local abolitionist movement and became a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad.
Angered by a pro-slavery editorial in a New York newspaper, Hodges paid to print a rebuttal, but his article was stuck in the back of the paper where no one would see it. When he confronted the publisher, the man told Hodges to start his own newspaper which he did, starting publishing the weekly Ram’s Horn in 1840, which features articles by Fredrick Douglass and John Brown, the future leader of the unsuccessful attack on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal. Douglass urged Hodges to “blow away” on his horn, predicting that its “wild, rough, uncultivated notes may grate on the ear of the refined,” but would “be pleasurable to the slave, and terrible to the slaveholder.” Continue reading →
Recently, heavyweight boxer Adam ‘Babyface’ Kownacki has generated a lot of local excitement. The Polish-born, but Greenpoint bred, Konwacki is 19- 0 in his professional career. A huge contingent of locals showed up to support Kownacki in his last match in the Barclay’s Center. Kownacki continued to climb up the heavyweight rankings by earning a second-round TKO victory over former title challenger Gerald Washington (19-3-1, 12 KOs). The talented Kownacki is only the latest in a long tradition of excellent North Brooklyn boxers. The first local champion boxer dates to the era after the Civil War when prizefighting was still illegal.
Williamsburg Civil War hero and bare-knuckle fighter Sam Collyer won both the Medal of Honor and a lightweight world championship in the days after the War Between the States, but Collyer was a puncher and not a boxer. He won a few title defenses in the 1860s, but was later embarrassed in the ring by perhaps the greatest local fighter, McAuliffe in an 1888 match staged in a local theater, in which McAuliffe humiliated the former champ with his technical boxing prowess. Continue reading →
These last bone-chilling, frigid days have been hard to bear, but these freezing days have reminded me of the horrible cold the Continental Army endured during the darkest moments of the revolution and of a unique local statue that captures Washington’s suffering during that freezing winter. Situated in Continental Army Plaza, right near Roebling Street’s entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge, the Equestrian Statue of George Washington at Valley Forge is decidedly the most impressive piece of public sculpture in North Brooklyn. Perhaps the only thing that can rival the awe the statue inspires is the incredible story of how an honest politician (that rare breed indeed) gifted it to the city.
The statue was dedicated in 1906, and presented to the City by local Congressman James R. Howe and the Committee of Supervision and Construction. It was sculpted by Henry Mervin Shrady, a New Yorker and Columbia University graduate, who was commissioned to make his first major public work after winning a design competition in 1901. The huge statue was cast at Roman Bronze Works on Green Street in our area and is anchored to a granite base designed by Lord and Hewlett.
When people make shortlists for the Democratic Party’s likely nominees to run against Donald Trump in the 2020 election, Beto O’Rourke’s name is often near the top of those lists. The 48 year old former three-term Congressman from El Paso, Texas gained national prominence last year when he narrowly lost an election to Ted Cruz for United States Senator in Texas. A charismatic figure who reminds some of Barack Obama, O’Rourke has been described as hip, smart and empathetic. A great speaker and an impressive funds raiser, Beto seems totally in his element in front of people.
Although Beto was born and raised in Texas, he spent many of his formative years here in New York City, first at Columbia University where he majored in English, and later living in a Spartan, run down loft in Williamsburg while he was the bassist for a punk rock band. A recent New York Times article examined O’Rourke’s time in New York City and described his days in North Brooklyn.
Beto O’ Rourke was in some ways typical of many of the people I knew who gravitated towards the area’s punk rock music scene in the 90s. A social person who loved music, Beto in the 90s was a man trying to find himself. While some of his other Columbia classmates went straight into graduate school or started careers, O’Rourke drifted aimlessly and fell into deep depression. Eventually, by total chance, he wound up meeting an old friend in a Williamsburg bar who told him about the possibility of sharing a loft located near Wallabout Street, near the Orthodox Jewish section of South Williamsburg. O’Rourke moved into the loft and his Williamsburg tenure began.
His rent was ridiculously cheap, but for a good reason. The Times article states that Beto’s share of the rent for the 2,000 square-foot loft was only a $130 per month, but he and his loft mates had to construct their own bedrooms and at times the space was so cold that sometimes they could see their own breath. Continue reading →
Greenpoint is home to dozens of interesting, creative micro-communities, from potters and runners to actors and musicians, but none is more daring than the rock climbing community whose amazing ability to scale sheer rock faces and even mountains inspire awe in those like me who fear heights.
Until recently local climbers had no home, but that has changed in the past year. I recently became acquainted with the guru of the local climbing community, Cliff Simanksi, who has constructed a climbing gym that has won rave reviews from experienced climbers and an online climbing magazine. His gym, known as GP81 (81 Quay St.), is a business, but for Simanksi it’s a love and an endeavor he has poured heart, soul and copious sweat into creating. Simanski splits operating duties of the facility with Julian Acevedo, and founding partner Mike Cesari has stepped away fromb the day to day operations.
The 6,500 square-foot venue features walls of 35, 45 and 60 degrees, another of 40 degrees and there are also multiple hang boards, campus board setups, weights, and other training-focused items to help climbers reach new levels in their climbing.
For most of us when we think about Brooklyn’s greatest poet Walt Whitman we think about his poetry and not about his prose. However, Whitman like many creative people today in Brooklyn, had to pay the bills and to make ends meet from 1857 to 1859 he edited a Williamsburg newspaper called the Brooklyn Daily Times, which changed its name from the Williamsburg Daily Times when Williamsburg merged with the city of Brooklyn in 1855, the same year Whitman first published his celebrated “Leaves of Grass.” Whitman worked out of an office that was near the foot of Broadway in Williamsburg and the prose he wrote there gives us a unique window into what our area was like on the eve of the Civil War.
Many of the editorials that Whitman wrote for the paper concerned the spread of slavery, the burning national question of the day. Whitman was no abolitionist and even told his readers that there were some positive aspects to slavery. Whitman was a “Free Soiler,” which meant that he favored stopping the spread of slavery into the new western territories that were to be incorporated into states. Previously, Whitman had edited the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a Democratic paper and he had been fired because of his free-soil stance from the paper.
Looking back on Whitman’s racial views a century and a half later, we are struck by the fact that a man who was so humane and sensitive in his poems could be so indifferent to the enslavement of millions of Americans. Whitman never believed in racial equality and asked, “Is not America for the whites?” He also asked what he believed to be a horribly racist rhetorical question, “Who believes that whites and blacks can ever amalgamate in America? Or who wishes it to happen?”
Aside from dealing with the burning political questions of the day, Whitman also loved Brooklyn deeply and wrote extensive observations of local life. In 1857, he visited Greenpoint and described at length the burgeoning pottery industry here. He visited Pottery Hill, where the father of local ceramics, Charles Cartlidge had set up our area’s first pottery and Whitman went into great detail describing the process by which pottery was crafted. Continue reading →