greenpoint history

Mae West’s Gay Drama That Shocked 1920s America

Artwork by Michael DiMotta – sketched for the stage play “Courting Mae West,” written by LindaAnn LoSchiavo, DGA

Mae West was much more than a local-born movie star or even a sex symbol. She was a playwright, a woman decades ahead of her time in dramatizing questions of gender and sexuality. Her views almost a century ago were remarkably progressive when it came to homosexuality and those views were never better dramatized than in her shocking play entitled “The Drag.”

Even today, in a time when society has largely embraced gay marriage and become more accepting, West’s play would be so offensive to some that it still could not be staged in many places in America. In puritanical 1920s America, the play was considered outrageous and morally offensive.

West, who grew up locally and began her theatrical career on Brooklyn vaudeville stages at the age of five, said that the theater was her greatest education. She had little formal schooling, but the stage taught her all she needed to know. She soon became friendly with a number of gay theatrical professionals and West immediately empathized with gay people. She enjoyed spending time in gay clubs in the west village and one night she hit upon the idea of writing a play about gay men.

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Sto Lat: 100 Years of Polish Independence and the End of World War I

The Polish flag

“Sto lat” means 100 years in Polish and many Polish people will be celebrating the anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I this weekend.

Sunday (11/11) marks the 100th anniversary of WWI , and with a special resonance for Polish people. One of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, self-determination for small nations, meant Poland would re-emerge again as an independent nation after 123 years of being swallowed up by Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia.

100 years ago, Greenpoint had a huge Polish community, which sent many of its young men to fight in the Great War. Many of those local Polish lads did not come home. One of the fallen has always intrigued me. Frank Baliszewski, who lived in my house at 2 Clifford Place, died on October 4, 1918 from wounds he suffered in battle in France. I know little else about him, but I have often wondered about Baliszewski. His name still stands on a monument outside his parish church, St. Stanislaw Kostka (607 Humboldt St.).

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There is a Pop-up Pencil Museum Devoted to Eberhard Faber Pencils on Staten Island!

The Pencil Museum, via NYC Parks

Greenpoint’s beloved Eberhard Faber Pencil Factory is a landmark, coworking space, and home to us, your trusty Greenpointers staff. But, the Faber family itself called the north shore of Staten Island home. They lived on the land that is now Faber Pool and Park.

Right now, in that park, there is a pop-up “Pencil Museum” honoring the history of pencils, manufacturing, and the Faber family, in New York City.  Continue reading

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Do The Time Warp: Greenpoint Real Estate, Circa 1919

Rendering of the Astral; Courtesy of the Brooklyn Department of Buildings
Rendering of the Astral; Courtesy of the Brooklyn Department of Buildings

In 1919, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle devoted some glowing coverage to Greenpoint, calling our slice of North Brooklyn “the first manufacturing center of the Empire State,” where “the smokestack is as sacred as the steeple,” and “public spirit…is not surpassed in any district in the City of New York.”

Our intrepid content manager, Megan, found the article earlier this week, and we thought the paper gave such a detailed view of life in Greenpoint 100 years ago, we’d do a series on life in the ‘nabe back in the day.

So, Welcome to our first installment of Do The Time Warp, when we look back on life in Greenpoint 100 years ago. In today’s post, we’ll check out Greenpoint’s housing market circa 1919, and delve into what life was like for people who lived here.

It seems that some of the same advantages that draw New Yorkers to Greenpoint today, exerted a similar pull 100 years ago. For example, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that “the close proximity of this district to the center of business life in Manhattan has been fully recognized by the far-seeing manufacturers of the metropolis,” and by homeowners alike.

In fact, homeownership was common in Greenpoint. The paper maintains, “Housing conditions have been remarkably good, and despite the fact that Greenpoint is generally known as a manufacturing district, a large percentage of the dwellings are owned by persons who live on the premises and are employed in or near Greenpoint.” Happily, this seems to have kept Greenpoint “particularly free from that class of undesirable citizens known as ‘rent profiteers’.”  Continue reading

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Greenpoint History Walking Tour to Benefit the Park Church Co-op Saturday (7/7)

Historical Map of Greenpoint courtesy of Dennis Ward

Beloved neighborhood worship/art space, the Park Church Co-op (129 Russell St.) has put out a fundraising call to the community. Ace local historian, and Greenpointers contributor, Geoff Cobb has answered that call in a fantastically innovative way! He’ll lead a donation-based historical walking tour of Greenpoint on Saturday, July 7th from 10-11am, and donate all proceeds to the Park Church Co-op.

The tour will meet at the corner of Calyer and Franklin. All are welcome! RSVP here.

What: Walking Tour with Geoff Cobb on Behalf of the Park Church Co-op
When: Saturday, July 7, at 10am.
Where: Franklin and Calyer
Who: Everyone!

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Share Your Memories with Greenpoint Library’s Environmental Oral History Project

A rendering of the New Library and Environmental Education Center. Via BPL
A rendering of the New Library and Environmental Education Center. Via BPL

Greenpoint is getting a brand new Library and Environmental Center, and your memories can be part of its collection!

On June 23rd, the new library will begin the “Greenpoint Oral History and Community Scanning Project,” an initiative designed to highlight and document Greenpoint’s relationship with the natural environment. Anyone who has lived or worked in Greenpoint is welcome to share both memories and memorabilia related to local environmental history.

According to Acacia Thompson, Greenpoint Outreach Archivist for the Brooklyn Public Library, “People are welcome to bring in photos, documents, ephemera, and any physical item we can photograph and digitize that informs the history of Greenpoint’s environment. All manner of items are welcome – for example, flyers from environmental events from the 1990s, t-shirts and photos from marches, medical bills documenting asthma, and sustainability projects from area school children.” Additionally, you can schedule an oral history interview to share your experience with the local environment.  Continue reading

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Bask in the History of Greenpoint’s Basque Club

Greenpoint's Basque Club 307 Eckford
Greenpoint’s Basque Club at 307 Eckford

Greenpoint is well known for its Polish herritage, but New York’s Basque community also calls Greenpoint home. Since 1973, Euzko-Etxea, the Basque Club of New York, has maintained its headquarters at 307 Eckford Street. The group’s mission is to preserve Basque culture in the lives of immigrants and their descendants, and to share Basque culture and heritage with the community at large.  To that end, Euzko-Etxea and offers Basque language classes, traditional Basque dancing, and pintxos (or tapas) on special occasions at the converted two story church on Eckford Street.  Continue reading

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NYC’s Famed Gourmet Food Purveyor Balducci’s Began with a Pushcart in Greenpoint

The Balducci’s shop in the famed Greenwich Village location (via Baldor’s)

Last week Andrew Balducci, the man who built Balducci’s into the premier produce store in the city, died at ninety-two years of age. Balducci achieved his fame and fortune in Manhattan, but his family story starts here in Greenpoint in 1918 when a poor immigrant from Bari, Italy rented a pushcart in the neighborhood. Andy’s father Louis Balducci spoke little English and earned just five dollars a week working long days. He would travel to wholesale markets at dawn and buy fruits and vegetables, which he then peddled on local streets. The work was grueling and during the cold winters and on rainy days Louis must have longed for the warmth of the Italian sun. Peddlers like Louis were looked down on and were considered a nuisance. Already by 1904 there were attempts to license them and control their movements.

In 1925, Louis’s son Andrew was born in Greenpoint, but only two months later the family returned to Italy where Andrew stayed for fourteen years. Andrew returned to Brooklyn in 1939 and when World War II broke out he joined the Navy and was wounded in the Normandy landings. At the end of the war Andy joined his father in the grocery business. A family business from the start, Louis worked with his wife and daughter Grace, as well as a young family friend from Italy, Joe Doria. Grace married Joe in the late 1950’s and he became a partner in the original Balducci’s. The family worked around the clock, seven days a week, including holidays, to build Balducci’s into the finest produce market in the city.

They opened the first family store on Manhattan Avenue near St. Anthony of Padua church where they sold not only produce, but also fish and meat. One of my neighbors remembers his father’s heated conversations with Louis in Italian.

Site of the original Balducci’s in Greenpoint (image via Google)

The business began to thrive. They soon bought a truck to deliver ice and they opened a fruit and vegetable stand in Greenwich Village, which quickly became popular with discerning locals. In 1952, Andrew married Nina D’Amelio who quickly became part of the business. Sometime in the middle 1950s they closed their store in Greenpoint and concentrated on Manhattan retail.

In 1972, they opened a storefront at 6th Avenue and West 9th St where they would become a New York institution. The store began to change the tastes of New Yorkers. Food critic and author Julia della Croce said “Andy and Nina really taught New York how to eat and cook genuine Italian food at a time when it was perceived as little more than pizza and pasta covered with red sauce and gooey cheese,” “Theirs,” she said, “was a place where for the first time, New Yorkers found authentic Italian cooking and could buy the ingredients they would need to make it at home.” Manhattan’s best chefs flocked to the store and its fame grew.

Andrew Balducci (via NYT)

By 1999, the business was so famous and profitable that an investment group bought it up and Balduccis made 130 Million dollars that year. In 2003, the original Greenwich Village store closed marking the end of an era. Balduccis soon became a corporation with franchises around the country.

Balducci’s became synonymous with gourmet food and became the first market in the city to combine all the products of a butcher, fishmonger, delicatessen and greengrocer in one store. Gourmet stores all around the country have since modeled themselves on Balduccis. Food writer James Beard, a regular customer said that Balducci’s always sold “the best of the best, at the right price.” However, few of the devoted shoppers in Balducci’s knew that the roots of Manhattan’s most elegant gourmet food emporium reached back to a poor Italian immigrant. When Louis Balducci began pushing a cart through the streets of Greenpoint he could never have imagined that his family would grow rich and they would build the business into an empire.

 

 

 

 

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Gangs of New York: North Brooklyn Edition

Map of North Brooklyn Gangs 1974
Map of North Brooklyn Gangs 1974 via The New York Times

Martin Scorsese acquired the rights to Gangs of New York, Herbert Ashbery’s 1927 history of Gotham’s urban underworld, in 1979. The movie focuses on the murderous mayhem of mid-19th century Five Points, but 1970s New York City was itself a study in violence. Bloodshed was so prevalent here in North Brooklyn that Luis Garten Acosta, founder of the local outreach program El Puente, dubbed the area “The Killing Fields.”

Pre-eminent New York City History podcasters The Bowery Boys unearthed a map produced in 1974 by the New York Times which plots the territory of “youth gangs” in ’70s North Brooklyn. In all, reported the Times, the NYPD had identified 48 gangs in the area with a total membership of 2,500. The police also held that six of those gangs were “responsible for more than half of the criminal gang activity in Northern Brooklyn.” Greenpoint in particular was home turf for the Sinners, the Mad Caps and the Sons of Devils.  Continue reading

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Before L-pocalypse: A History of Transit in North BK

B.R.C.C. Crosstown Trolley, Via the Transit Museum
B.C.R.R. Crosstown Trolley, Via the New York Transit Museum

As the MTA’s planned 15-month suspension of L train service between Brooklyn and Manhattan draws near, all 200,000 daily riders of the L-pocalypse have been asking the same question: how will we get across the river? Brooklynites have been asking that question for generations, and personal ingenuity, along with municipal planning, has yielded several answers. All we can say for sure is that this is not the first time aggrieved Greenpointers have been up in arms over inadequate inter-borough transit. I’m just glad we don’t have to take a rowboat.

The rowboat commute was the first in a line increasingly efficient methods of getting from Greenpoint to Manhattan that includes horsecars, trollies, ferry services, elevated trains, and the dawn and growth of the subway. Step in, stand clear and read on for a history of transit in North Brooklyn.   Continue reading

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