Historical Greenpoint

The Illicit Affair That Brought Greenpoint’s own Mae West to Hollywood

Mae West

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

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Patrick Keely, The Prolific Architect of Saint Anthony of Padua Church

Saint Anthony of Padua Church - image via Historic Districts Council
Saint Anthony of Padua Church. Photo via Historic Districts Council

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

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Greenpoint’s Notorious Sonny Franseze Released from Prison at Age 100

NY Daily News photo

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

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How New York’s Most Notorious Gangster Bankrolled Mae West’s Broadway Hit

Cary Grant and Mae West in You're No Angel.
Cary Grant and Mae West in You’re No Angel.

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

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Greenpoint: The Birthplace of the American Carousel

Charles Looff’s Coney Island Carousel

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

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Greenpoint and World War I: Farewell Parades, Lives Lost & A Fitting Monument

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

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How A Greenpoint Statue Became A Target of Anti-Americanism

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

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A History of the Greenpoint Ferry

East River Ferry, via Facebooka
The East River Ferry, via Facebook

Starting this morning, the East River Ferry is no more—it’s transitioning into a new entity, NYC Ferry, to provide city-wide service. The good thing about the new city-subsidized service is that fares are being slashed to $2.75 for a one-way ticket (formerly up to $6). As Greenpoint’s waterfront transforms itself from industrial shoreline to “Dubai on the East River,” and greater numbers of people settle along the East River shore the importance of local ferry service becomes increasingly important. Let’s take a look at the history of the Greenpoint ferry. Continue reading

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A History of Greenpoint in 25 Buildings: 85 Calyer Street

Thomas Fitch Rowland, illustration by Aubrey Nolan
Thomas Fitch Rowland, illustration by Aubrey Nolan

85 Calyer Street looks like many other frame houses in Greenpoint, but it was the home of the greatest mechanical genius to ever live in Greenpoint, Thomas Fitch Rowland, and one of the most important short conversations in American history took place in the parlor there. First, though, lets get a little background on the owner of the house, Thomas Fitch Rowland.

Rowland was born in Connecticut in 1831 and became a railroad engineer, quickly becoming one of the leading experts in the design and construction of steam engines. However, he decided to leave railroad engineering, switching to the construction of steam engines for sailing ships and also developing an expertise in metallurgy. He was soon invited to come to Greenpoint to build ships because of his twin areas of expertise. By 1859 he founded his own company, the legendary Continental Iron Works on Quay Street. 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 making wooden ships obsolete. Continue reading

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Weekend Art Roundup: April 14 – April 16

Photo: @APSmithNYC

Ok, y’all. Don’t freak out.

But, yes, winter is over.

Perhaps only art speaks truer to the soul than the spring. So, here’s a few things to hit this weekend, ya know, between drinks at bars with sidewalk seating.

Go get em, Tiger!

 

Sacred Luminosity
Friday, April 14
6pm – 9pm
at Gallery AWA
61 Greenpoint Ave #306

As a feature of The Lumiere Series, Gallery AWA presents an exhibition of the sculpture of Susan Pullman Brooks, Sacred Luminosity: Goddesses of the Vedic and Celtic Pantheons.

Sacred Luminosity seeks to examine the divine feminine energy that was once an integral part of ancient belief systems, and to reassess and re-imagine this energy in the modern day.

The Lit Exhibit: Spectrums
Friday, April 14
6pm – 9pm
at New Women Space
188 Woodpoint Road

Showcasing a variety of multi-genre experimental and interactive prose and poetry across mediums, this exhibition is hosted and curated by Lana C. Marilyn.

The Lit Exhibit is a project that launched in July 2016. The show returns in Spring 2017, this time at New Women Space, for its second iteration. The gallery will feature several contemporary emerging writers and artists.

For The Lit Exhibit: Spectrums, participants have been asked to reflect on the subject of “fluidity” as it applies to daily life, and to produce work that illuminates this theme.

$10, Tickets

Jumpin’ Jive: Vintage Musical Shorts
Friday, April 14
7pm
at City Reliquary
370 Metropolitan Ave

Check out 80-minutes of musical shorts “both ecstatic and sublime,” including vintage jazz, pop, country and gospel performances, Soudies and television and film performances ranging from the late 1920s to the early 21st century. This program is curated by Brooklyn-based film/video archivist Russell Scholl, known best for producing a compact disc by noted American folk artist Howard Finster, “The Night Howard Finster Got Saved.”

$10/$8 Reliquary members

THROAT CHAKRA w/ Inna Babaeva, Joy Curtis, Gail Fitzgerald
April 15, 2017 – May 7, 2017
Opening Reception, April 15
7pm – 9pm
at Songs for Presidents
1673 Gates Avenue

Throat Chakra features three artists who engage in concrete wizardry, re-forming elemental material into transformative objects. Insistently abstract, these art objects are interventionist – protruding, bulging. They take up space.

 

 

See you in the streets!

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