(Not)Forgotten Greenpoint

Great “Open Studios” from Greenpoint’s Past

Union Porcelain Works ad from 1916 (via Brooklyn Eagle Archives)

Greenpoint Open Studios is the weekend of June 8th and 9th and is a special time in the area as about 400 artists open their studios to thousands of art lovers who get to see the amazing creativity that is Greenpoint’s beating heart.

However, this creativity is nothing new locally. Throughout its long history our area has been a home to highly creative artists and artisans. So let’s travel back in time and visit some of the great studios and workshops of Greenpoint’s past.

Many clay and porcelain artists work locally today, but these present-day potters are merely following in a long tradition. Walt Whitman in his 1857 visit to the area wrote an article about the American Porcelain Works, which once turned out beautiful pieces of porcelain at Franklin and Freeman Streets, but this workshop was only one of many local potteries. Continue reading

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Greenpoint’s Vanishing Parades

Greenpoint Veterans Memorial Parade 2011 on Manhattan Avenue

For years the local Memorial Day Parade was a big event. Hundreds of people came out to honor the veterans who fought and sometimes died defending the country. However, last year the Memorial Day Parade was canceled. In the past, Greenpoint had many veterans and organizations like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars were large active organizations. Today, though, there are too few committed local veterans to stage a parade.

A Brooklyn Eagle archives excerpt from 10/22/1952 where 2,000 Catholic veterans marched in the Memorial Day parade

Many of the older veterans have died off and many of the younger people who have moved into the neighborhood have never done military service. Memorial Day is now more about barbecuing than recalling our nation’s veterans, but Memorial Day is not the only parade that has disappeared. Here’s footage from the 2015 Greenpoint Memorial Day Parade for those who have not witnessed the parade before:

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Mel Brooks: Williamsburgs’ Comic Genius

Mel Brooks in 2010 (courtesy of Angela George/Flickr)

North Brooklyn has produced more than its fair share of great comedians. Jack Gilford, the man who many claim invented standup and the outrageously funny Buddy Hackett come immediately to mind, but none can hold a candle to the writer, actor, director and stand up comic genius Mel Brooks.

Mel Brooks is still going strong at age 92. He was born into poverty in Williamsburg, living with his three brothers in a $16-a-month tenement at 365  S. 3 St. Amazingly, the same apartment reportedly goes for over $4,000 today.

From NY Mag: Mel Brooks, (center), “outside his grandparents’ home in Bensonhurst.Photo: Courtesy of Mel Brooks”

Brooks’s father Max Kaminsky died when Mel was just three years old, so Brooks’ mother had to work hard just to support her family. Brooks said of his father’s early death, “There’s an outrage there. I may be angry at God, or at the world, for that. And I’m sure a lot of my comedy is based on anger and hostility. Growing up in Williamsburg, I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems—like a punch in the face.”
Brooks was a small, sickly boy who often was bullied and teased by his classmates because of his size, but he credits a visit to Broadway at age nine with sparking a desire in him to go into entertainment. He graduated from Eastern District High School and as a young man served in the army at the end of World War II. Brooks recalled growing up in Williamsburg with fond memories in a 2013 NY Magazine article:

I grew up at 365 South 3rd Street in Williamsburg. I remember doing my homework—it was to write down as many signers of the Declaration of Independence as you knew. I knew three. My brother Irving came home, and I said, “Irving, I only have three. I’m going to fail this test.” He said, “Where do you play ball?” “I play ball on Franklin Avenue.” He says, “There’s one.” He said, “Where do you play roller hockey?” “On Hooper.” “There’s another.” “Where’s the library?” “Hewes.” “Well, there’s another one.” I said, “Wait a minute, I’m beginning to get it.” I aced that test.

I had the best childhood. I loved life. I thought life was the most wonderful thing ever created. For three cents, you could get a small egg cream—they were called egg creams for some reason, there was never an egg in it. For a nickel, you could get a regular—a Coke glass, a jumbo glass. They put in a spoon of chocolate—Fox’s U-Bet from a jar. Then they would put in a little bit of milk, still from a bottle of milk—it was glass and cold from the icebox. Then they’d hit it from the fountain with a thin, powerful, high stream of seltzer. Shhhhhhhh! It would explode the chocolate syrup in the milk. It was not nonfat milk—it was milk, real milk. And then the soft flow of seltzer to bring it to the top, and a deep, long spoon stirred mightily until there was a beautiful foam top of milk and chocolate bubbles. It was the nectar of the gods. I compare it now to my Château Mouton Rothschild ’82.

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Hollywood Legend Mickey Rooney’s Greenpoint Roots

 

Mikey Rooney by Flybynight from Pixabay

Few people today might recognize him by his real name, Joe Yule Jr., but the boy born in 1920 at 696 Leonard Street would become an Academy Award winner and Hollywood legend using the stage name Mickey Rooney. Rooney’s career in Hollywood spanned an astonishing nine decades.

The house at 696 Leonard Street where Rooney was born (Google Maps)

Rooney’s career, like that of Greenpoint’s other Hollywood legend Mae West, began in Vaudeville as a child. Rooney’s parents were vaudeville actors, but they could never have dreamed how much their son would achieve on stage, screen, and television. Joe Yule Jr. became the star of his parents’ act by the age of two. In an autobiography, Rooney explained how he first entered the theater world. As a toddler, Rooney was hiding under the scenery when he sneezed. Dragged out by an actor, the toddler was ordered to play his harmonica. He did, and the crowd erupted. The rest, as they say, was history.

An excerpt from The Brooklyn Eagle archives – 7/27/1937

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Domino Sugar’s Enduring Lesson of Local History

The Domino refinery in 2008 (courtesy of Doug Letterman/Flickr)

The philosopher George Santayana once famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I do not know if Santayana ever visited our area, but Santayana’s words relate to North Brooklyn’s struggle to recall its unique history and preserve the landmarks that help us remember our area’s fascinating past.


Last Saturday, I led about 75 hard souls who braved the rain on a walking tour of the Domino Refinery, which was once the largest sugar refinery in the world, processing at its height one-eighth of all the sugar refined on the planet! Today, the great refinery is being transformed into a mixed-use development.

Although the façade of the Domino building is landmarked and must be preserved, the building’s interior is being removed and it will become luxury condominiums and offices. Already huge metal stanchions have been attached to the exterior wall to facilitate gutting the historic refinery. Our history is being destroyed before our very eyes. Continue reading

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A History of Gardens in Brooklyn’s “Garden Spot”

Victory Garden in McCarren Park during World War I ( Image from the scrapbook of local resident)

Greenpoint has a nickname, “The Garden Spot,” which was given at a time when our area was truly a bucolic haven. Although it later became one of the most industrial areas on planet earth, today our community is trying to live up to the verdant image of its nickname and Greenpoint is rapidly becoming a “green point” again, but let us take a look at the history of gardens in our area.

Greenpoint was once a farming community and every family had its own garden. There was a huge hill running around the area of Franklin and Green Streets called Pottery Hill where wildflowers grew. The flowers there were so pretty that courting couples sailed over from Manhattan to enjoy its beauty. However, the name Garden Spot derives from the Meserole Orchard, which once occupied a huge swath of land around Meserole Avenue. The garden was famous for its apples and the beautiful apple blossoms each spring, but in what has become a familiar local story: the real estate was too valuable and the orchard disappeared as lots were sold off for housing.

Greenpoint became an area of factories and heavy industry, but it was also still an area of homes, many of which boasted gardens. One of the most beautiful Gardens was the rose garden of Thomas Smith, the porcelain baron who lived on Milton Street, but many local kids who grew up in tenements never saw a garden and the name “ The Garden Spot” became something of a cruel joke in the heavily polluted area. The area suffered from a severe lack of green spaces, however, Pete McGuinness not only ironically referred to the area of smokestacks and pollution as “ The Garden Spot of Brooklyn,” but he even called it “The Garden Spot of the Universe.” Continue reading

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How Local Musicians Became Part of Baseball Folklore

(courtesy of Street Play)

When you speak to anyone who was a Dodger fan you feel their love for the team and the wound they felt when the team left for Los Angeles. The Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1957 and many die-hard fans could never come to terms with their departure. Part of the mystique of the Dodgers was a legendary local band that helped create an unrivaled and unforgettable part of being at the ballpark: the Sym-Phony band. Old Dodger fans recall that Ebbets Field had a unique character, packed every day with the most enthusiastic and loyal fans a team could have. One of the most cherished sights and sounds in those games was a group of rather poor musicians from Greenpoint and Williamsburg. They called themselves the Sym- PHONY (accent on the last two syllables!) to differentiate themselves from professional musicians, but despite their missed notes, they were a loved feature at Dodger games.

Lets digress for a moment and talk about why the Dodgers were so loved locally. The Dodgers were for many years little better than an average team, but Brooklyn loved them with a passion that is hard to describe. They were affectionately called “Our Bums,” because they could never seem to win a championship, but they had a passionate, even fanatical local following.

Armand Soriano and the sym-phony (courtesy of Newsday)

During the Dodgers, Brooklyn years played the players were not millionaires like today’s stars. Many of them had to work in the off-season to make ends meet. The players lived in the community, shopping in local stores and praying in local houses of worship just like everyone else. Part of the love that people in the community had for them was their ordinariness.
We bought our house from Vic La Magna who grew up in Greenpoint and worshipped the Dodgers. LaMagna and a large group of Greenpoint boys would often ride their bikes to games Ebbets field in Crown Heights to watch the Dodgers, but the real thrill was waiting until after the game to see the players appear. The players in those years felt that it was a privilege to be paid to play a kids’ game and they had to give back to the community. The Dodgers would not only sign autographs but would talk to the kids, offering them suggestions on how to master the finer points of the game. They might stay a half-hour to forty-five minutes, never letting a young fan leave without an autograph. Continue reading

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How McGuinness Boulevard Was Created

 

(via Forgotten NY)

Maybe it is just me, but I find McGuinness Boulevard ugly. Huge trucks and streams of traffic wiz by the four-laned, soulless traffic artery. The newer apartment buildings lack the quaint charm of many of Greenpoint’s other streets, but this was not always so.

McGuinness Boulevard (via Google Maps)

Once McGuinness Boulevard was not a boulevard at all, it was named Oakland Street; a narrow charming cobblestoned lane lined by wood frame 19th-century homes typical of our area.

Oakland Street would become a victim to a vision of New York City as a city of cars and trucks. The destruction of Oakland Street was only a small piece in the grand scheme of Robert Moses who built the BQE, the Tri-borough Bridge, and the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Thousands of homes across the city fell victim to Moses’ vision.

(NY Public Library archives – Greenpoint map 1880s)

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Take a Historic Stroll at Jane’s Walk This Weekend

Domino Sugar factory in 2013 (courtesy of Christopher Camp)

The Municipal Art Society of New York is bringing back Jane’s Walk NYC, which is part of “a global festival of free, volunteer-led walking conversations inspired by urban activist Jane Jacobs,” with tours happening in all five boroughs this weekend. See the tours happening in Greenpoint and Williamsburg:

Saturday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.:

Domino Refinery Walk:

Join author of ” The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King” Geoffrey Cobb as he explains the history of the Domino plant, which was the largest sugar refinery in the world and the linchpin in the “Sugar Trust.” The tour focuses on the brutal conditions for the thousands of workers who toiled and died working in the landmarked building now undergoing a controversial luxury renovation.

Saturday at 11 a.m.:

Rezoning Brooklyn: “Where’s Our Park?!”:

Written into the rezoning of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint’s waterfront was a promise of a park. Ever since area residents have steadily chanted; “Where’s Our Park?!”

Join Lynn del Sol, a native New Yorker and twenty year resident of the area, in a discussion about the rezoning North Brooklyn’s waterfront and what happens when city government, private interest, and community residents duel over two miles of land.

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Williamsburg Roots of David Smith, Who Made First Welded Sculptures

David Smith in 1942 (via Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

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

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