Historical Greenpoint

Greenpoint’s Most Famous Reputed Living Gangster Turns One Hundred Years Old

John “Sonny” Franseze turned 100 in federal prison on February 6, 2017. Franseze, from Leonard Street, is the oldest inmate in the Federal Prison system and was denied compassionate release last year even though he is blind, deaf and in a wheel chair. Today the aged Franseze seems harmless, but that was not always so. In his day he became one of the most feared Mafiosi in New York and Franseze is reputed to have killed sixty men. A ruthless man, franseze, Federal Prosecutors allege, once recommended that the best way to dispose of body parts was to dry them out with a microwave and grind them up in a garbage disposal. Franzese was also recorded on a federal wiretap saying, “Today, you can’t have a body no more…It’s better to take that half-an-hour, an hour, to get rid of the body than it is to leave the body on the street.” Continue reading

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Elegance Lost: Greenpoint’s Colonnade Row on Humboldt Street

For years I had admired Manhattan’s Greek Revival Colonnade Row, the imposing landmark row houses with their austere, yet graceful Doric columns on Astor Place in NoHo, never imagining that Greenpoint also had its own colonnade row, until I cam across this 1922 picture of colonnade row houses on Humboldt Street. No one is certain who built Noho’s Colonnade Row, however it is attributed to builder Set Geer who constructed the spacious row houses with graceful marble columns as their defining feature. Continue reading

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A History of Greenpoint in 25 Buildings: 95 Commercial Street

95 Commercial Street. Illustration by Sara Harvey
95 Commercial Street. Illustration by Sara Harvey

Greenpoint became home to five industrial “black arts” in the 19th century, and one of those black arts was glass production. (Printing, pottery making, oil refining, and cast iron manufacturing are the others.) Our area became one of the first places in the United States where artistic glass was produced. Some of the finest pieces of glass ever smelted in America were locally produced, and today they are still prized pieces in museums around the country.

One of the most famous nineteenth century glass factories—the Greenpoint Glass Works—was located at 95 Commercial Street. Founded about 1852 by Christian Dorflinger (1828-1915), an immigrant from Alsace. He Started in Manhattan, but needing more space expanded his now sizable workshop to the edge of Newtown Creek in 1860. Greenpoint Glass Works was larger than his other two plants and also enjoyed a waterfront location with docking facilities. The operation also included kilns and a large assembly line. Because this area of Greenpoint was sparsely developed, Dorflinger had to build housing near the factory for his workers, many of whom were French. Continue reading

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Greenpoint’s Long, But Forgotten African-American History

The first slave auction at New Amsterdam in 1655
The first slave auction at New Amsterdam in 1655, via Wikipedia

It’s Black History Month when we celebrate African-American contributions to our country, but many born and raised Greenpointers who pride themselves on knowing local history would be shocked to learn that African-Americans have played a role in history here for more than three centuries.

Sadly, the first African-Americans were slaves. We do not know the name of the first African American who came to Greenpoint, but we do know how he came here. Dirck Volckertszen, the first European settler, in our area bought one of the first slaves sold at the slave market on Wall Street in 1645, but Volckertszen was not alone as a Greenpoint slave owner. All the original five families who farmed the land here had slaves. In the book “Historic Greenpoint” written by William Felter in 1918, the author assures us, “The Dutch enjoyed a reputation of treating their slaves with consideration.” However, we are not able to ask these enslaved men and women about the accuracy of Felter’s claim. Felter also makes the claim that even after New York State’s Slave Emancipation Act, which took effect in 1827 that the former slaves of Greenpoint continued to regard themselves as members of the household, but again perhaps these first African-American Greenpointers simply were not ready to face the difficult transition to independence. Continue reading

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A History of Greenpoint in 25 Buildings: St. Stanislaus Kostka Church

Saint Stanislaus Kostka Church - Illustration by Sara Harvey
Saint Stanislaus Kostka Church – Illustration by Sara Harvey

Perhaps no local building defines Polish Greenpoint than St. Stanislaus Kostka Church at 607 Humboldt Street. St Stanislaus Kostka is home to the largest Polish Catholic congregation in Brooklyn. Each weekend nine masses are celebrated, five in Polish and four in English. This parish also has an elementary school with 300 students and another 300 who attend Sunday school. Each Sunday thousands of the faithful attend mass there. It is where many locals were christened, received their first communion and were married. When Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope, visited New York he had to visit his people’s church. John Paul II, still as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, prayed in the parish during his 1969 visit when he spoke from the marble pulpit, prayed near the altar and received the heartfelt wishes of hundreds of local Catholics. There is a statue of John Paul II outside the church, which implores the faithful, “Nie Boj sie,” Don’t be afraid. Continue reading

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The Day Greenpoint Wrote a Chapter in American History

USS Monitor
Monitor on the James River, Virginia, 1862 Officers on deck (left to right): Robinson W. Hands, Louis N. Stodder, Albert B. Campbell (seated), William Flye (with binoculars). Note dents in turret from cannon fire. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

On January 30, 1862 the most important event that ever happened locally occurred. Greenpoint wrote its name in the history book when a ship was launched here that not only changed naval warfare forever, but also helped the Union win the Civil War and end slavery. That ship, the first ironclad ship in the United States Navy, The U.S.S. Monitor, was built locally at the Continental Iron Works on Quay Street and West Street.

The construction of the Monitor was something of a miracle in itself. Its builder, Swedish John Ericsson had previously been falsely blamed by The United States Navy for a tragic incident. In 1844 Ericsson was the mastermind of the construction of a revolutionary warship, the Princeton, which featured futuristic innovations: steam engines below the waterline; a screw propeller instead of paddle wheels and new methods of mounting, aiming and firing guns. Ericsson’s sponsor in building the Princeton was an unscrupulous United States Navy officer, Captain John Stockton who wrongly took credit for designing the ship that was rightfully Ericsson’s. Stockton did in fact design one part of the ship, a huge gun, which exploded on the ship’s maiden voyage, killing numerous Washington big-wigs. Amazingly, Stockton pinned the blame on Ericsson who was blackballed and told he would never build another ship for the Navy. Continue reading

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The Pristine Beauty of Greenpoint? Or How Our Area Looked Before Industrialization

Today Greenpoint is a densely populated urban neighborhood, whose remaining factory buildings bear silent witness to its past as one of the largest centers of industrialization in America. However, Greenpoint was once far different. It was a pristine place of great natural beauty, and its Native American inhabitants, the Mespeatches, worshipped the nature here as something holy. Let us take an imaginary canoe trip with them.

We begin our journey in Maspeth, a ways up Newtown Creek from Greenpoint, whose name comes from the Algonquin language and is a corruption of the term the Natives used to describe themselves: Mespeatches, which can be roughly translated as “place of bad water,” referring to the many swamps that once characterized the areas around Newtown Creek, including Greenpoint. It might also be translated as “swamp people.” Their village was located on high ground east of what is now Mount Zion Cemetery, which allowed them to escape the area’s frequent flooding. They lived in several long wooden wigwams with about 20 members of their extended families. Continue reading

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Native American Greenpoint

Looking around Greenpoint today, it’s hard to imagine that this area of high rises and former factories was ever different, but three hundred and fifty years ago Greenpoint was the hunting grounds of the Native American Mespeatches people who lived just up Newtown creek in Maspeth, which takes its name from its original dwellers. There they lived in large wooden long houses with up to twenty members of their extended families.

Perhaps there were once earlier Native Americans who actually lived in Greenpoint. In the 1840s when Neziah Bliss, the founder of Greenpooint, was laying out streets they found a Native American burial ground around Freeman Street. In the early 17th century diseases spread by Europeans wiped out around ninety percent of Natives, perhaps including local Native Americans. We will never know for certain. Continue reading

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Greenpoint Loses a Legend: Hugh Reid (1927-2017)

Hugh Reid

Hugh Reid, who helped bury the dead of Greenpoint for generations, himself finally succumbed to death himself last Thursday, just short of his ninetieth year. I was lucky enough to spend a long afternoon with Hugh about two years ago, while researching my recently published book, King of Greenpoint, about Peter J McGuinness, the boss of Greenpoint. Many locals insisted that I had to talk to Hugh because no one knew more Greenpoint history, so we sat down.

He told me his grandparents immigrated in 1856 from Cushendall Northern Ireland and for generations his family had worked the Greenpoint waterfront. He was one of twelve children, so when he was not in school he hustled to help the family get extra money. Hugh knew Peter McGuinness well because they both lived on Leonard Street, though he was not necessarily a fan of McGuinness by any means. I learned not only about McGuinness, but also a wealth of local information. Hugh had lived here all his life and his memory was sharp, even if his hearing had grown dim. Many of the characters I wrote about I only knew from books but Hugh knew them as people and gave me insights into their personalities no book or document ever could. Continue reading

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A Greenpointer who Survived Pearl Harbor

screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-10-36-47-amLast year on December 7th marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of one of the most momentous days in American history—the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, in which more than two thousand four hundred American military personnel were killed and which led the United States into World War II.

screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-11-05-45-amGreenpointer and United States Navy Botswain John Hogan was there that fateful Sunday morning. The twenty-one year old had enlisted in 1939 and was below deck on his ship, the submarine Sumner, which was moored at Pearl’s submarine base. Appropriately enough for a local boy, Hogan was reading the local newspaper, the Greenpoint Star, when he heard commotion on the deck and the alarm ring to report to general quarters. The Sumner was about to go down in history and Hogan would witness it. Hogan saw a group of Japanese torpedo planes flying low preparing to attack battleship row. The gun crew from the Sumner opened fire and took down a Japanese torpedo bomber, the first Japanese plane shot down by the surprised American forces in the war. Continue reading

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