brooklyn history

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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Brooklyn Public Library Celebrates Walt Whitmans’ 200th Birthday

Celebrations at the Brooklyn Public Library are underway marking the legendary writer, journalist, and poet Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday.

Whitman was born on 5/21/1819 and worked as a journalist for the Brooklyn Eagle and a local Williamsburg-based newspaper in between publishing his poetry.

The “Whitman Weekend” kicked off last Saturday with events continuing through this week to mark the occasion. Continue reading

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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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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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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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‘Smiling’ Mickey Welch: The Hall of Fame Baseball Pitcher from Williamsburg

Mickey Walsh (via Haulsofshame.com)

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.

Mickey Walsh (via newsday)

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.”

(via Baseballhall.org

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The First Professional Baseball Player Began in Williamsburg

Al Reach ( A.G. Spalding Baseball Collection)

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.

The Union Grounds, the First Enclosed Baseball Stadium in Williamsburg where Reach Played.

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.

Union Grounds in Williamsburg (courtesy of Brooklynballparks.com)

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

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1940s Manhattan Avenue in Photos

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:

903 Manhattan Ave. in 1940 (via NYC tax photo archives)
903 Manhattan Ave. in 2018 (via Google Maps)
897 Manhattan Ave. in 1940 (via NYC tax photo archives)
897 Manhattan Ave. in 2018 (via Google Maps)
921 Manhattan Ave. in 1940 (via NYC tax photo archives)

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