For a working-class industrial area, North Brooklyn has played an outsized influence on American sculpture. The great Western artist Fredrick Remington cast many of his iconic western sculptures at the Roman Bronze works on Green Street in Greenpoint.
The famous Wall Street Bull and the Iwo Jima Memorial were also cast on India Street at the Bedi-Makki Art Foundry. As if those two accomplishments were not enough, there is still more. One of the giants of abstract metal sculpture, and one of the greatest American sculptors ever, David Smith, lived in Williamsburg and mastered his technique on a pier in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
He was born in Indiana in 1906. Perhaps, metal was in his blood. He was, ironically, the great-grandson of a blacksmith, and the artist even as a child had a fascination for heavy industry saying, “we used to play on trains and around factories. I played there just as I played in nature, on hills and creeks.”
Smith attended college for a year, but dropped out in 1925, to work at the Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend, Indiana where Smith learned soldering and spot-welding techniques that he would later use to create his sculptures.
Smith came to New York City in 1926 and he soon met his first wife, the sculptor Dorothy Dehner. Smith enrolled in The Art Students League, where he studied painting and drawing over the next five years. Smith and Dehner settled in North Brooklyn because as artists they could not afford to live in Manhattan.
Though Smith never received formal sculptural training, one of the instructors at the Art Students League, Jan Matulka, encouraged him to start adding three-dimensional elements to his paintings. Matulka also introduced Smith to the abstract art of innovators such as Picasso and Kandinsky.
Smith was on the verge of an artistic revolution at the start of the 1930s. Wanting to master metal work, he set up his workshop in the Brooklyn Navy Pier in New York in 1933, sharing the space not with artists, but with professional welders and others who worked with metals.
At that time, most sculptors worked in a bronze foundry, a marble quarry or a conventional studio. At the Navy pier, Smith mastered the technical aspects of cutting and welding different kinds of metal. In the unlikeliest of places, Smith became the first American artist to make welded metal sculpture. Continue reading →
Tens of thousands of men have played professional baseball, but only a few have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. One of those rare individuals is pitcher Mickey Welsh (July 4, 1859 – July 30, 1941) who was born and raised in Williamsburg.
Only about two-dozen pitchers have won more than 300 games in their careers and Mickey Welsh was the third-ever pitcher to join that elite club. Welch played 13 seasons in the major leagues, three with the Troy Trojans, and 10 with the New York Gothams/Giants. He was very successful with an effective curveball, a change of pace, and a version of the screwball. During his 13 major league seasons, he posted 20 or more wins nine times, seven in succession.
Welch’s real name was Walsh. Mickey was the son of Irish immigrants who settled in Williamsburg. When Welch was young baseball was the rage in Brooklyn. Welsh in all likelihood saw the great local amateur team, the Eckford Club, which twice won the national baseball title before professional teams came to dominate the sport and the Eckford club folded in 1872. The first fully enclosed baseball grounds was also located in Williamsburg, The Union Grounds and it is more than likely Welch watched games there as a child.
Welsh was no physical giant. He stood only five feet eight inches tall and was no power pitcher. He threw underhand and had his success because he was a student of the game who mastered batters strengths and weaknesses and pitched smartly. Welch said, “I was a little fellow and I had to learn to use my head. I studied the hitters and knew how to pitch to all of them and I worked hard to perfect my control. I had a pretty good fastball, but I depended on my change of pace and an assortment of curveballs.”
Today Al Reach is largely a forgotten figure here in North Brooklyn where he began his baseball career, But Reach not only became the first openly professional baseball player in 1864, but he also went on to co-found the Philadelphia Phillies and become a millionaire – not bad for an immigrant kid who began life working twelve hour days in a Greenpoint shipyard.
Reach was born in 1840 in London, England, but he followed his father to America and lived in Williamsburg. When Reach was a teenager in the 1850’s, the East River was lined with shipyards and Reach got a job doing the grueling work of a shipwright, working ten to twelve hours a day in the days before power tools.
Baseball was also exploding on the scene in America, but nowhere was the sport more popular than here in Brooklyn. Most of the teams were composed of the sons of well-to-do families who could allow their sons the leisure to play the game. Greenpoint also formed a team, but it was not composed of rich kids sons. Its team, the Eckford Club, was made up of shipwrights like Reach who worked 60 to 72 hours per week. Though they had little time to practice, the grueling nature of their work left them very strong and fit and it is little wonder that the team proved successful.
Reach was never a great power hitter, but he was a great fielder. Many sources give him credit for being the first baseman who for the first time played off the bag allowing him to turn balls hit through the infield into outs.
Baseball was evolving in the 1850s and there is a lot of conjecture about the rules of the game. Pitching was underhand and many of the modern pitches had yet to be born. The game was still amateur and players played simply for love of the game. The Civil War interrupted baseball for many players, but the Eckford Club still played on and in 1862 and 1863 the Greenpoint club won the National title, making them the best club in America, but money would soon destroy the proud local baseball team.
The 1862 and 1863 championships were held at the Union Grounds in Williamsburg, the first fully enclosed baseball stadium. The Eckford Club’s victory on its home grounds was the cause for jubilant celebrations. The thousands of fans who showed up for the championship showed observers there was the potential for ticket money in baseball. Teams began to charge and offer players money under the table to join their squads. Continue reading →
Today female physicians are the norm, but in 1908 when Mary Crawford became Brooklyn’s first female ambulance surgeon at Williamsburg Hospital people were shocked and her male colleagues were outraged. What’s more, Crawford never would have gotten the job had it not been for a mistake, but lets backtrack and tell the story of this remarkable local doctor.
When Mary “Mollie” Crawford was born in 1884 in Manhattan women were not expected to have careers, let alone become medical doctors, but thanks to pioneering females like Dr. Crawford that changed. She grew up in a large wealthy family in Nyack, New York and then Mollie went off to Cornell. At Cornell Mollie excelled at basketball and crew, but also in the classroom. She was accepted into Cornell Medical School and graduated in 1907. Crawford wanted to work in a hospital, but very few hospitals seriously entertained the idea of hiring a female physician.
Most hospitals looking for interns stipulated that only men could apply, but somehow, serendipitously, Williamsburg Hospital screwed up and they forgot to say that only men could apply. Crawford applied, the only female of thirty-five applicants, but Crawford bested all the male applicants on the admissions test and the hospital reluctantly had to hire her to work as an ambulance doctor. Her male colleagues were horrified and the hospital was reportedly scared to death. She would become the first female ambulance surgeon in Brooklyn.
In those days horses pulled ambulances and doctors treated their patients at the scene. Her first case was on Manhattan Avenue where she treated a man for severe lacerations who had fallen from a window. Being the first female doctor, there was no female uniform, but Dr. Crawford designed her own. She proved to be a highly skilled and unflappable physician who treated many patients in the sugarhouses that once were the major employer here. She defied deranged patients, drunks and even bites while treating her patients. In 1910 she started her own medical practice in Brooklyn alongside her work at the hospital. Continue reading →
Manhattan Avenue, like the rest of New York City, has seen a lot of changes since 1940, and here we’ve compiled a ‘before and after’ series of the northern stretch of the Avenue (past Greenpoint Avenue) using the 1940s NYC tax photo archives. Did you know there was a synagogue where C-Town now stands? Check it out:
Some call it McGolrick Park, while many born and bred locals call it Winthrop Park. So what are you supposed to call it and why does the park have two names anyway? To answer these questions we need to explore the history of the pretty little nine-acre park.
The park was once swampy land on the Kingsland farm. You might have heard of Kingsland Avenue in South Greenpoint, but not know who Ambrose Kingsland was. Well, he was a rich Manhattan sperm whale oil merchant who served as mayor of New York in 1851. What saves him from the so what dustbin of irrelevant figures in history? Well in his two-year term as mayor he started the process of creating Central Park, but back to Greenpoint.
Kingsland had his farmland surveyed and he made a killing selling off parcels of it, but the land where the park sits was a swamp and draining it was too costly so it sat there undeveloped until the year 1889 when State Assemblyman Winthrop Jones spearheaded obtaining a $132,825 appropriation for its purchase. Locals howled about the outrageous price of the swampy land and they groused further because the City of Brooklyn (we were still an independent city then) paid even more for improvements to the park. The site was graded and fitted with a drainage system, and a new lawn was planted. Winthrop Jones died in 1891 and naming the park after the Calyer Street resident seemed like a fitting memorial.
It’s both Women’s History Month and the week before St. Patrick’s Day so it is totally fitting that we honor the most famous Irish woman who ever lived in Greenpoint- Kathleen Daly Clarke, who lived for many years on Russell Street and operated a candy shop on Nassau Avenue.
Like many women deserving of recognition, Kathleen is often overshadowed by her famous husband, the man who proclaimed the Irish Republic and was shot by the British after the failed Dublin rising of 1916, Thomas Clarke. Although Thomas Clarke was a dedicated revolutionary, he was only able to achieve what he did thanks to the emotional, intellectual, moral and financial support that Kathleen gave him.
Thomas Clarke arrived locally in the early 1880s from Dungannon, Co. Tyrone where he had become a fiery advocate of Irish political freedom and an enemy of British colonial rule of Ireland. He became involved in a local plot to bomb the British mainland led by Doctor Thomas Gallagher who practiced medicine on Manhattan Avenue. Clarke was arrested and sentenced to serve life for his crimes. He served fifteen years and the harsh conditions and psychological abuse broke Gallagher who lost his mind in prison.
While Clarke was in prison he befriended a County Limerick Irish Republican fighter named John Daly who would also be shot for his role in the 1916 revolt. Following his release in 1898, Clarke visited Daly and became enamored of Daly’s niece Kathleen who was twenty-one years his junior. Impressed more by his character and commitment to Irish freedom than his looks, Daly agreed to marry Clarke and in 1898 they moved to the United States.
There is no more important geographical feature of Greenpoint than our waterfront defined by piers, wharves and docks, so let us take a moment and examine in more detail the history of our local docks.
In 1845, David Provost, a scion of one of the five ancestral families that farmed Greenpoint, built the first pier at the foot of Freeman Street. Around 1850, the Federal Government also built a dock and a gunpowder storage facility at the foot of Milton Street that was used more for swimming than anything else.
In the 1850s, 12 shipyards lined the East River shore, building wooden clipper ships. Shipbuilding combined with the demand for wooden barrels for the sugar and oil refineries required huge amounts of wood, so Greenpoint became New York’s center for lumberyards. Lumber often arrived on three-masted ships where it was unloaded by brawny Irish-American longshoremen like Peter J. McGuinness who was the head stevedore at Orr’s lumber yard at the foot of Green Street.
The first pier was built at the foot of Greenpoint Avenue for the local ferry in the early 1850s, which made two stops in Manhattan- one at 10th Street and the other at 23rd Street. A fleet of ferries ran the East River until 1931 when the ferry service was closed in the money-strapped Great Depression.
In 1888, the Noble Street pier was built by the city for the use of the many industrial concerns that covered Greenpoint, but it was not alone. Piers also stretched out from Quay, Oak, Kent, Java, India and Huron.
As Greenpoint industrialized, the swimming holes that once served as pools for kids were filled up and kids began to use the piers to swim in the East River, despite the fact that raw sewage was dumped right into the river. A number of local boys drowned in the swift river currents until the 1930s when Peter McGuinness succeeded in opening the McCarren Park pool, thus providing local kids with a far safer way of cooling off.
Greenpoint never had a commercial railroad that could supply local factories, so the local docks and wharfs played a central role in the local economy. Tugboats like the McAlister fleet also left from local docks, so hundreds of local families were dependent on the longshoremen who worked the East River shoreline.
American theater and film acting owes a huge debt to Stella Adler who is perhaps the most influential teacher of the dramatic method in American theater history. Adler’s method went on to dominate American acting for more than half-a-century and is still the dominant acting method now. The roots of Adler’s success in teaching acting go back to her mother Sara Adler who founded The Novelty Yiddish Theater that once packed in audiences at 778 Driggs Avenue.
Those of you who know local history well might be familiar with 778 Driggs Avenue. It is the same building where Detective Frank Serpico was shot and nearly killed in the 1960s. Before the building was converted into an apartment house it was an entertainment venue for the huge Yiddish speaking community that called Williamsburg home.
The Adlers were the royalty of the Yiddish theater. Sara Adler was born in the Russian Empire in 1853 and became a star of the Yiddish theater there until Yiddish performances were banned in 1883. She and her husband left for New York where they continued to act in the Yiddish theater. Sara divorced her first husband and re-married famous actor Jacob Adler in 1891 and they had six children. Continue reading →
As we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month its time to recall that one of the early giants of both the Abolitionist movement and the women’s movement lived for many years in Williamsburg. Maria Stewart, who taught in Colored School #3 on Union Avenue, can claim a number of amazing firsts.
Stewart had a brief, but an extremely controversial career as a public orator in Boston where she became the first black American female to address a racially mixed audience. She also has the honor of being the first black American woman to lecture about women’s rights and black women’s rights. Stewart is even credited as being the first known American woman to lecture in public on political issues. As if these accomplishments were not enough Stewart also can claim to be the first black American woman to make public anti-slavery speeches. Speaking up also got her in a lot of trouble and that is part of the reason Stewart ended up here in North Brooklyn.
Maria Stewart was unique from her childhood. She was born free as Maria Miller in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut, during a period when the state still practiced slavery. All that is known about her parents is their surname: Miller. At the age of five, her parents passed away and she was forced to become a servant in the household of a white clergyman where she lived for 10 years.
Although Stewart received no formal education, she taught herself literacy by reading books from the extensive family library. After leaving the family at the age of 15, she continued to work as a domestic servant while continuing her education at Sabbath schools.
The young Stewart moved to Boston where on August 10, 1826, she married James W. Stewart, a 44-year-old veteran of the War of 1812 who earned a good living by fitting out whaling and fishing vessels. At the time, African Americans made up only three percent of Boston’s population, and the Stewarts were part of an even smaller minority: Boston’s black middle class.
In 1829, Stewart died. Although Stewart left his wife with a substantial inheritance, the white executors of the will cheated her out of it after a court battle. Once again, Maria was forced to turn to domestic service to make ends meet. Continue reading →