Historical Greenpoint

Love in Greenpoint in Wartime: How an Italian Prisoner-of-War Won a Brooklyn Girl’s Heart

Carmella and Giuseppe on their wedding day in 1947

About a year ago, I wrote a story for Greenpointers about a Brooklyn Italian-American girl who fell in love with a captured Italian soldier during World War II while he was incarcerated at a prisoner of war camp at Dupont and Franklin Streets. I did not have many of the details to this unique love story and thought that I would never learn the complete story of the romance. Amazingly, however, that woman, ninety-one-year old Carmela DiLieto, is still alive in Los Angeles, California and she told me by telephone the story of her romance with, and marriage to, Giuseppe DiLieto from Torre Del Greco near Mount Vesuvius, not far from Naples. Sadly, this love story with a romantic start did not finish with a happy ending. Continue reading

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A Stroll Down Historic Norman Avenue

Danish restaurateur Claus Meyer and Swedish chef, Fredrick Berselius. Photo by John Taggart for The New York Times

Things have changed a lot over the years on Norman Avenue, but Scandinavian influence remains. It is highly ironic that two Scandinavian cutting edge entrepreneurs have just opened their modern, ultra trendy, design center-restaurant Norman (29 Norman Ave) on a street named for the first Greenpointer, fellow Scandinavian, Dirck Volckertszen, the Norwegian immigrant who built the area’s first house nearby in 1645, more than three hundred and fifty years ago. Recently opened by Danish restaurateur Claus Meyer and Swedish chef, Fredrick Berselius, Norman is another chapter in Greenpoint’s long Nordic heritage. Volckertszen is too hard a name to pronounce, so the Dutch called him Dirck the Norseman, Dutch for Norwegian, which got shortened to Norman, hence the name of the street.

Norman Avenue was not always called by its present name. It was once Third Street and then Union Street. Volckert Dircksen, the oldest son of Dirck Volckertszen, built his house near Bushwick Creek on Norman Avenue between Manhattan Avenue and Lorimer Street about 1700. The house is long gone, but near where it once stood is one of the prettiest houses in Greenpoint, 61 Norman Avenue, a cute wood- frame house set off the street with a gorgeous garden in its front yard. Before the street was created Norman Avenue was part of the beautiful Meserole Orchard, and the trees remind me of the ancient orchard. Continue reading

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From the Archives: Historical Photos of Greenpoint

“Ash Street.” Date unknown, via NYPL

While it’s true the more things change the more they stay the same, the changes certainly outnumber the sameness in these vintage photos of Greenpoint. The sameness is enough for the streets to be recognizable, but the full throttle industrial landscape paired with the lack of development and people makes it clear these images were created in another world.

Some of the photographs are dated by their car models and aboveground telephone lines, others by their empty lots and the old school formal fashion. Take a look, and see if you can guess the photos’ locations without reading the caption.  Continue reading

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The History of Meserole Avenue

In the heart of where the old orchard once stood is P.S. 31, an elegant old school with a gorgeous façade that is being refurbished. Previously, P.S. 31 was on Dupont Street and the present school was once a middle school.

This post marks the first in a series of posts that will recount the history of different streets in Greenpoint. Meserole Avenue is named for the Meserole family who once had a gorgeous orchard that long ago disappeared. The orchard at one time was so beautiful that it was considered one of the “garden spots” of Brooklyn. Long after the orchard was just a memory, the name garden spot survived and was used ironically by Peter McGuinness and others to describe the highly industrial neighborhood. Continue reading

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Julia Wertz’s Triumphant Illustrated History of New York City

Full disclosure—I have been a fan of Julia Wertz‘s amazing graphic work long before the publication of her recent smash hit entitled Tenements, Towers and Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City, so let’s forget objectivity. I discovered Julia’s prodigious talent through her work in the New Yorker. Although I have never met Julia we have exchanged emails and we are kindred spirits, bonded by our mutual love for New York City and its rich past.

Perhaps the biggest gulf separating us as writers is Julia’s prodigious talent as an illustrator, which makes her book such a joy to read from beginning to end. (My drawings make my students either laugh in ridicule or cringe.) It is not just how she sketches, but what she draws that makes her book so close to my heart. She has done excellent renderings of many of the quirky places in New York that I love and teaches me things about those places I never knew. Continue reading

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Horrific History Lesson: Working Conditions at The Domino Sugar Refinery

Although the former Domino Sugar refinery on Kent Avenue does not lie in Greenpoint, the building and the firm that ran it, Havemeyer and Elder, cast a long shadow over local history. Having spent the summer researching the plant for my upcoming book The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King, it is hard to express how much suffering is associated with the refinery.

The plant, which was opened in 1858, employed thousands of Greenpointers over its almost a century-and-a-half of existence. Much of the reason that we have a Polish population today is because the refinery had a policy of hiring Slavic men, principally Polish, who could not recount to outsiders the misery that working in the plant entailed. They worked in horrendous conditions that we can scarcely imagine today. Continue reading

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A Greenpoint Landmark Now Seems Doomed

Thomas Rowland Local Millionaire
Thomas Rowland, local millionaire and builder of the USS Monitor

In a previous post I reported that there was an application to demolish 85 Calyer Street, the historic home of the builder of the first ironclad battleship in the United States Navy, the USS Monitor. The situation looks bleak and the historic house seems doomed. The new owner of the property, Daniel Kaykov, has received an approval to have the historic building demolished. Although the building is rich with local history, the building is not protected by landmark status, so little can be done to save the historic structure.

Sadly, the previous owner of 85 Calyer Street, a man named Tommy, not only knew the history of the house, but even expressed pride in owning this piece of local history. Once, when I was giving a historic walking tour he approached the group and showed us some of his historic photos of the house when Rowland owned it. The house once had a grand entrance for carriages and an elegant facade that has since been covered over with drab vinyl. The owner also told me of a kind of bunker in the back garden that might have been used to help smuggle booze into the area from the nearby Noble Street pier during the prohibition era. Continue reading

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Greenpoint’s Haunted House On Oak Street

Oak Street and Guernsey - Greenpoint's Haunted House - Photo by Megan Penmann
Greenpoint’s “haunted house” at Oak Street and Guernsey (137 Oak St). Photo: Megan Penmann

If I had to pick one house in Greenpoint to set a horror movie in it would be the big old house set back off the street at the corner of Oak and Guernsey. The red brick facade, spooky wooden double doors, cast iron railings at the building’s entrance, as well as the iron fence and gate at lawn’s edge all are original, dating to the house’s construction in 1887.

The house has a fascinating history and it is connected to an equally fascinating man who had the presidency of the United States stolen from him in 1876: Samuel Tilden. Tilden is probably one of the people who gets the least credit for making Greenpoint great. Tilden was an absolutely brilliant corporate lawyer who knew a good investment when he saw one. He bought a huge piece of land before the Civil War in Greenpoint that covered an area from Calyer Street to Milton and east to Leonard Street including the land that St. Anthony’s church now sits on. Tilden did a lot for our state. He broke the corrupt Boss Tweed ring and helped write our state Constitution. In 1876 he really should have been elected president, but lost when his party, the Democrats, cut a dirty back room deal that ended reconstruction and sold him out. Continue reading

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The Forgotten History of Sugar in North Brooklyn

The old Domino Sugar refinery, with North Brooklyn Farms in the foreground.

To understand the history of Greenpoint and Williamsburg you have to grasp the massive role that refining played in this heavily industrial corner of North Brooklyn. Our area became the world’s largest refiner of oil and sugar and the owners of these refineries became unbelievably wealthy. A lot of writers have told the story of local oil refining, but until now there has been a dearth of information about the massive local sugar industry here, so I wrote The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King to trace the powerful effect sugar refining had on North Brooklyn.
Continue reading

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The Pencil Factory Was Landmarked 10 Years Ago This Month!

The Pencil Factory. Via Woodclinched.
The Pencil Factory. Via Woodclinched, a blog for people who love wooden pencils.

Today at The Pencil Factory at 47-61 Greenpoint Avenue, you can get an amazing haircut, or see an exciting new art exhibit, or even stop by our very own Greenpointers office, but between 1924 and 1956, that building lived up to its name and turned out pencils for the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company, one of the largest pencil manufacturers in the world. Faber had additional factories located in Germany, Canada, and Argentina, but Brooklyn was the heart of the enterprise. In fact, the Greenpoint Avenue plant was “one of Brooklyn’s most important factories, employing hundreds of workers, many of which were women.” Ace local historian Geoff Cobb included the Pencil Factory in his history of Greenpoint in 25 buildings, and 10 years ago this month, the City of New York recognized the importance of The Pencil Factory’s industrial and architectural history, and landmarked the building, establishing The Eberhard Faber Pencil Company Historic District. The district includes properties on Greenpoint Avenue, West and Kent Streets which were all originally part of the Pencil Factory complex.

The Eberhard Faber Pencil Company was a pencil industry Game Changer! The ingenuity of its products foreshadowed the creativity of businesses working out of the building today. For example, according to the site’s Historic District Designation Report, “Faber was responsible for many breakthroughs in the production of pencils and related items, including having been the first pencil manufacturer maker to merchandise pencils with color tips (known as Mongol pencils, they became the world’s most popular color pencil), the first to apply polishes in bright colors to the wood encasements, and the first to offer color pencils in sets.” That’s right. No Faber, no color pencils. We stand on the shoulders of giants, people!  Continue reading

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