Historical Greenpoint

“Bath Haus” Renderings of the Under Construction Huron Street Bathhouse

The Bathaus (courtesy of Perkins Eastman)

Sales have officially launched along with the release of new renderings of the”Bath Haus” condo development by Caro Enterprises. The luxury development is currently under construction at 139 Huron St. with 9 units hitting the market ranging in price from $750,000 to $3,300,000. The architectural firm Perkins Eastman is behind the redesign and have a global portfolio spanning the Hilton Lagos in Nigeria and the Abu Dhabi Court Complex in the UAE.

139 Huron St. in 1940 (Courtesy of NYC tax photo archives)

A state mandate in 1895 required the construction of public baths in cities with more than 50,000 residents. The city’s poor were previously given access to floating baths off the shores of the East River, but they fell out of favor due to unsanitary pollution.

Greenpoint’s former Huron Street Bathhouse was built 1903, opened 1904 and closed 1960, it’s completion was a result of the City Beautiful Movement, which inspired ‘beautiful’ public architecture and increased municipal amenities to improve the living conditions of the city’s poorest residents.

The Bathaus (courtesy of Perkins Eastman)

25 baths were built in the Classical Revival Style around NYC with seven constructed in Brooklyn. All were based on the baths of ancient Rome. Continue reading

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Will Eisner: Williamsburg’s Father of The Graphic Novel and Legendary Comic Artist

Will Eisner at the 2004 San Diego Comic Con. (Photograph by Patty Mooney)

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.”

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Williamsburg’s Forgotten Great Abolitionist Editor: Willis Hodges

(The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, 1891)

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.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle: 8/11/1864

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

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Walt Whitman’s Writing About North Brooklyn

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.

Whitman’s desk in Williamsburg courtesy of Walt Whitman Review

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

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Historic Documents Highlight Local History of Slavery

Meeker Ave Duryea House (Brooklyn Public Library archives)

It’s February and Black History Month has started, a time when we recall the huge African-American contribution to our country. Ask many educated New Yorkers and you may find that they will have no idea of New York’s more than a century and a half of slavery.

The French Huguenot families who first settled Greenpoint were all slave owners who used their slaves to drain the swampy land and clear the brush so that they could farm the land. Dirck Volckertszen, the area’s original settler, brought the first slave to Greenpoint way back in 1645. Slavery in New York continued until 1827, so our area has a long history of enslaved labor.

We can only speculate about the lives of those enslaved Africans. William Felter, the author of the area’s first history, “Historic Greenpoint,” assures us that the first settlers not only treated their slaves well, but he also tells us that the slaves considered themselves as members of the family.

Recently I wrote a piece about the Penny Bridge, which spanned Newtown Creek from the foot of Meeker Avenue and about the Duryea family who occupied the house beside it for over 150 years. The Duryea’s might have been Huguenots who were fleeing persecution in France, but they were also people who enslaved African-Americans.

An amateur local historian, Dan Cumberland, dug up documents that show the brutal nature of local slavery and contradict the pleasant picture Felter paints of local slavery. The chilling ad below dates from the 1820s when the family advertised an enslaved 15-year-old boy for sale.

The claim that slaves were happy and considered themselves family members is refuted by another horrifying document offering a reward for an enslaved woman who ran away from the family farm and offering a six-cent reward for her capture.

The slave-owning Duryea’s were typical Brooklynites and slavery was widely practiced in King’s County. In 1698, 15 percent of the people in Kings County were of African descent, and virtually all were enslaved. By 1738, the percentage had risen to 25 percent. In 1790, that figure rose again with African Americans accounting for over 30 percent of Kings County’s population and most of these people were enslaved.

New York State gradually emancipated its slaves in large part because northern slavery proved unprofitable. New York lacked cash crops like cotton, sugar and tobacco that fueled the explosive growth of Southern slavery, but bondage played an important role in local history – a fact we should recall during Black History Month.

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157th Anniversary of USS Monitors’ Greenpoint Launch

 

The USS Monitor is launched from Greenpoint, 1862

Today marks the 157 year anniversary of Jan 30th, 1862, the day Greenpoint staked its claim in history as the site where the ironclad USS Monitor was built and launched, in the midst of the Civil War.

monitor st statue greenpoint mcgolrick park
USS Monitor Memorial statue in McGolrick Park

The Greenpoint Monitor Memorial is in McGolrick park. It depicts a nude sailor and was erected in 1938 in the memory of John Ericsson and the lost crew members. Any guess what Monitor Street was named after?

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. Library of Congress)

The vessel was constructed at Continental Iron Works and designed by the Swedish-born engineer and inventor, John Ericsson. The innovative design captured the attention of the world and became famous for battling the USS Merrimack of Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads, which lasted four hours and was the first stand-off between two armored warships. Neither ship could destroy the other, although many cannon shots were fired. Continue reading

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Dangerous Immigrants and Deportations? Not Trump’s America, but Greenpoint 100 Years Ago!


Sign for Long Gone Russian People’s Home on Clay Street

The more things change the more they seem to stay the same. Today’s headlines feature stories about dangerous immigrants on our shores, threats to national security and the need for mass deportations, but these very same headlines appeared a hundred years ago in the New York Tribune and one of the dangerous foreigners meriting deportation was a teenage Greenpointer nicknamed “Tommy the Kid.” While some media outlets today might scare people with menaces from Central America or the Middle East, in 1919 the fear was that Russians would spread the Bolshevik Revolution to the banks of the East River.

New York Tribune – December 23, 1919

The December 23, 1919 edition of the New York Tribune ran an article on Russian anarchists who had been arrested by the government to be deported. The youngest threat to the American way of life was Greenpointer Tommy Buhkanov, who was just 17, but despite his youth was the Financial Secretary of the Greenpoint Branch of the subversive Union of Russian Workers, an association of Eastern European anarchists who supported worker seizure of factories and industries.

New  York Tribune – December 23, 1919

“Wait,” you say, “Russians, but I thought Greenpoint was Polish?” Although Greenpoint was heavily Polish a hundred years ago there was a thriving Russian community here around Clay and Dupont Streets, which was centered around a Russian National Home at 106 Clay Street and a Russian Saturday school on Dupont Street and Manhattan Avenue that taught American-born kids how to read and write in Russian, but lets get back to the Union of Russian Workers and Tommy the kid. Continue reading

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Where Do The Names of Williamsburg Streets Come From?

The longest street in Brooklyn and the road that runs through the heart of Williamsburg is Bedford Avenue. The 10.19 mile-long street got its name from the village of Bedford, which was located roughly at the intersection of what is now Bedford Avenue and Fulton Street. There is some disagreement about Bedford. The village, which is so old that it was a focal point of the Revolutionary Wars’ Battle of Brooklyn could come from the English Duke of Bedford or it could refer to Dutch word bestevaar, meaning “the place where old men meet.”

Another street with an ancient history is Bushwick Avenue, which is the oldest street in all of Bushwick, dating back to the earliest Dutch occupation. Peter Stuyvesant named it on March 14, 1661. The name is generally said to mean “place of the woods.” The area was dense with forests, thickets, scrub oaks, logs and low land. British soldiers used a great deal of the wood for fuel, forever changing the area’s natural environment.

In 1792, Richard Woodhull, a real estate developer, whose name graces the local hospital, tried unsuccessfully to develop a settlement in Williamsburg. He created the numbered Streets (S. 5th to N. 3rd). When Richard Woodhull had the area surveyed in 1792 (he had purchased 12 acres), he simply gave the streets numbers for names, except for Grand Street. Woodhull also created a lane along the waterfront which he called “Water Street” and another East River street called “River Street” (now under water). Continue reading

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Transmitter Park: How Greenpoint’s Waterfront Oasis Finally Appeared

When Transmitter Park finally opened in 2012, many longtime Greenpoint residents were shocked to realize that for decades they had been denied amazing views of the East River. They wondered how they could have lived so close to the East River, yet missed its stunning vistas. They also wondered why the community had been shut off from their waterfront for generations. The 1.61-acre park on the East River offers spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline and is a much needed urban oasis, but to understand why it took North Brooklyn decades to develop a park at the site lets take a look at the history.

WNYC’s Greenpoint Transmitter site in 1937; by Allan Gordon Lorimer (WNYC Archive Collections)

The park is a natural estuary with wetlands that were once the hunting ground of the Keskachaugue Native Americans. The land is also susceptible to floods and when the park was planned, the designers incorporated a bridge into the park design that allows for the periodic high waters of the East River to enter the park. Sometime in the 1840s, the area was chosen as the site for a primitive ferry that was nothing more than a small rowboat with a sail that carried a few passengers over to the sparsely settled Brooklyn shore. Remnants of that first ferry are still visible from the park’s bridge, but the undeveloped shoreline of the park would soon change with the advent of our area’s first industry: shipbuilding.

The rapid development of shipbuilding in Greenpoint coincided with a huge demand for sailing ships. Trade with China and the gold rush in California created a massive need for ships and the East River shoreline became the nation’s largest center of shipbuilding. The first wooden ship was built locally in 1850 and within five years a dozen shipyards producing wooden ships lined the East River shoreline.

The Grand Republic (via the Bowery Boys)

John Englis joined his father’s business in 1850 at his yard at the foot of East 10th Street in Manhattan and created the famous shipbuilding firm John Englis and Sons. Manhattan was booming, forcing shipbuilding across the river and John Englis and Sons moved to Greenpoint in 1872. The Englis family yard, located where the park is today, built several famous ships there. The family constructed one of the largest wooden ships ever built, The Grand Republic, which was more than a football field in length. Today, the bar ‘Grand Republic’ is just up the street from the park and recalls the huge wooden ship.

Shipbuilding was proving unprofitable in the early 1900s, and slowly the Greenpoint yards closed, but John Englis and Sons alone held out. Finally, Englis and Sons too could not find orders and in 1911 the last surviving shipyard in Greenpoint closed, ending a colorful era.

Continue reading

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Sister Francis Kress, Pioneer in Greenpoint Environmental Movement, Has Passed Away

Sister Francis Gerard Kress who Greenpointers profiled last year in its series on important local women passed away on January 17th in Brentwood, Long Island. She was 104 years old and was a nun for an amazing 87 years. Sister Francis, a beloved local figure, taught for many years at the Saint Anthony of Padua school (862 Manhattan Ave.), but it was her work as one of the first local environmentalists that is perhaps her greatest local legacy.

The future activist was born in Hells Kitchen in 1914 and by age ten she had already organized her first protest, a pot and pan demonstration of local children in favor of the first Catholic presidential candidate. She joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph in 1932 and became an elementary school educator. In the 1960s, she arrived in Greenpoint, teaching local children who loved her charisma and energy in the classroom. In those days, Greenpoint was severely polluted with local residents at the time enduring a shockingly high cancer rate, but few locals knew the extent of the environmental damage.

In 1977, a plume appeared in Newtown Creek, the first evidence of a 15 million gallon oil slick that poisoned the surrounding earth. That same year Sister Francis, learning from a city bus driver about the spill, began to make inquiries among local residents. Discovering that almost everyone had a story about the black mayonnaise that oozed in Newtown Creek, she also learned about the spiking local cancer rate. She recalled that toxic fumes stained people’s clothes drying on the line outside and that it gave them headaches and made their children agitated, but locals simply lived with these dangers, but she was determined to take action. Continue reading

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