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.
Registration opens tomorrow Thursday, Jan. 31 at 12 p.m., for the annual Valentines Day tour of the futuristic digester eggs at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. The tour will be on Saturday, Feb. 9, with four different sessions at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.; more info is available here.
From the NYC Department of Environmental Protection:
The Digester Egg Tour starts with an overview of the wastewater treatment process—an essential part of protecting public health and NYC’s waterways. After, we treat guests to unobstructed views of the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens skylines from the observation deck, a glass-enclosed walkway built atop our state-of-the art digester eggs. Learn more about the Newtown Creek Digester Eggs.
The Digester Egg Tour starts at the Visitor Center at Newtown Creek, located in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood. We are easy to spot—just look for the bright orange building. The entrance is near the intersection of Greenpoint Avenue and Humboldt Street at 329 Greenpoint Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11222.
Tours take place 3 times a year, in February, April and October, and are free and open to the public, ages 12 and older. Close-toed shoes are a must, and cameras are allowed!
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 →
Echo Glass Works at 253 Greenpoint Ave. offers a dazzling variety of one-of-a-kind custom glass jewelry, kiln cast glass, along with blown glass vessels that simply stun. However, this is not the first time that beautiful glass has been created in Greenpoint, which has a history of glass blowing dating back to the Civil War. One of the best-known glass factories in America in the 19th century was the Greenpoint Flint Glass Works located on Commercial Street.
The founder of the Greenpoint Flint Glass Works was an immigrant from Alsace, France Christian Dorflinger who set up his first glass blowing plants in downtown Brooklyn in 1852. Benefiting from growing demand for glass between 1856 and 1860, Dorflinger, looking to expand, constructed a new factory on the then undeveloped Newtown Creek at Commercial Street in Greenpoint. This factory was larger than his other two and also enjoyed a waterfront location with docking facilities. Because this area of Greenpoint was sparsely developed, Dorflinger also built housing near the factory for his workers, many of whom were also French immigrants.
Quickly, Dorflinger’s annual output reached $300,000, a huge sum for that era, and the quality of his glass was so highly regarded that Mary Todd Lincoln commissioned the Greenpoint firm to produce table settings for the White House. It helped to establish his company’s reputation for fine cut and engraved lead crystal. Many pieces of the Lincoln pattern glassware still remain in the White House collection today. Continue reading →
The Duryea House, a 240-year-old Greenpoint landmark, was sadly destroyed in the days before New York awakened to its own history. The original colonial structure stood on the banks of Newtown Creek until 1921, before it was demolished, an unpardonable offense to local history. No building in local history survived for as long as this piece of early colonial history.
The farmhouse at 418 Meeker Ave was built about 1681; the lower part was constructed of stone with defensive features that allowed the residents to shoot at their Native American enemies who were still a feared presence locally at the time of its construction.
Humphrey Clay, for whom some believe our Clay street is named, operated a ferry across Newtown Creek near the building as early as 1670 and Clay probably erected the Duryea house. In later times a primitive bridge crossed the creek and after 1812, the Newtown and Bushwick Road Company, which was incorporated in 1814, built a bridge on piles. In 1836 the Newtown Road Company Bridge and Turnpike Company was incorporated and built a toll upon stone piers and constructed a shell road through Bushwick. This road was once known as the North Road, but now is Meeker Avenue. The charge to cross the bridge was a penny, hence it was dubbed “The Penny Bridge.” Continue reading →
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been intensely lobbying Amazon to locate its HQ2 in Long Island City. Gov. Cuomo jokingly offered to rename Newtown Creek ‘Amazon Creek’ on the condition that the corporate giant agreed to choose LIC. He even humorously offered to change his name to ‘Amazon Cuomo’ to entice the corporate giant to choose Long Island City.
It seems that Cuomo’s intense lobbying may have borne fruit, according to a Monday report in the New York Times. The Times reports that Amazon has decided not to create one mega headquarters, but to divide the new headquarters in two. One of those locations, according to the article is in LIC. The other location Amazon has chosen is Crystal City, Virginia, in the greater Washington D.C. Area. The Times, however, did strike a cautionary note, though, stating that the company has made no final decision. Continue reading →
Due to the heavy rain last weekend, the North Brooklyn Boat Club has some tickets available for the fifth annual Haunted Paddle with multiple sessions beginning Tuesday, Oct. 31, at 7 p.m.
Founding NBBC member Jens Rasmussen explains: “The North Brooklyn Boat Club’s Annual Cthulhu Haunted Boat Rides sold out (like it does every year) but this weekend’s weather forced us to move to Halloween night. We now have last minute tickets available! If you didn’t make plans, you can now snag tickets to this HP Lovecraft themed Halloween canoe ride and experience the cosmic horror that resides in the abandoned recesses of Newtown Creek.”
The paddle starts at the NBCC’s 51 Ash St. launch near McGuinness Blvd, and some tickets are still available for the 7 p.m., 7:20 p.m., 7:40 p.m., 8 p.m., 9 p.m., 9:20 p.m. and 9:40 p.m. paddles.
With some turf and a table, the Pulaski Bridge pedestrian lane just got a little greener. A small “park” installation has been slotted into the span’s scenic-overlook which offers unobstructed views of Newtown Creek. Continue reading →
Happy first day of school, Greenpoint! This year, the local conservationists at Newtown Creek Alliance are bringing the creek to the curriculum as part of the National Wildlife Federation’s Greenpoint EcoSchools initiative.
NCA will pioneer its new STEM Urban Ecology curriculum in the four Greenpoint Public schools: PS 31, PS 34, PS 110, and MS 126. The learning modules and field trips, designed for elementary and middle school students, cover Flora and Fauna relationships, invasive and native species, topography, water and soil quality, ecological health and legacy and ongoing pollution sources.
Each lesson will culminate in a “design based applied learning project,” and NCA staff will serve as expert guides, leading classes through related activities and offering guest lecturers in the classroom. Continue reading →