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 →
This week all over Brooklyn, there will be celebrations honoring Walt Whitman. With the 200th anniversary of the birth of Brooklyn’s greatest poet, one has to ask the question: Was Walt Whitman gay and does his poetry celebrate the joys of being gay? Reading his poetry there are so many clear homoerotic images that many students of Whitman conclude that despite the fact that Whitman never came out as gay, he was gay, or at least bisexual.
Were Whitman to return to Brooklyn today, he would probably be pleasantly surprised by the many Brooklynites who live an openly gay lifestyle.
During Whitman’s time admitting to a gay relationship was taboo, but he hinted at it in a letter he wrote at the end of his life with his discussion of “fervent comradeship.” In the passage below he seems to suggest to a time when gay relationships would be accepted by the broader American society:
Many will say it is a dream and will not follow my inferences: but I confidentially expect a time when there will be seen running through it like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown, not only giving tone to individual character and making it unprecedentedly emotional, muscular, heroic and refined, but having the deepest relation to general politics. I say democracy infers such loving comradeship as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain and incapable of perpetuating itself.
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.
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.
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 →
Being a local historian, I acknowledge that all of us make mistakes. The problem is when mistakes in local history become fossilized over years and people accept these errors as fact. Let’s correct a few blatant local history errors.
The first glaring example of historians getting it wrong is on the markers set up by the Landmark Preservation Commission to demark the areas within the Greenpoint Historic District. If you read the Historic District Designation Report, then you are informed about the correct historical fact that our area was developed by Neziah Bliss in the 1830s. However, the historical signposts get it wrong, claiming that the area was developed by Samuel Tilden in 1834. Tilden did develop some of the area, but he developed it in the 1850s on land he purchased from Bliss. In fact, Tilden was still In upstate New York in 1834 and did not arrive in the city until two years later.
Benjamin Solotaire, the aide to local City Council member Steven Levin, has been in touch with the Landmarks Preservation folks in an attempt to right this error, but there is still no admission that Bliss, not Tilden, developed our area.
The Landmarks preservation people are not the only group making local history mistakes. The Brooklyn Historical Society also has two egregious errors in its publication about local history: Greenpoint Neighborhood History Guide. The good folks at the society put a picture of the striking Russian Orthodox cathedral at the south end of McCarren Park on the guide’s cover. Sorry, but that church is in Williamsburg, not Greenpoint. To add insult to injury the author Marcia Reiss adds a picture of a church on Meserole Street, which you well know is in Williamsburg, not Greenpoint. We have Meserole Avenue, not Meserole Street.
I love the Bowery Boys podcasts and I am grateful to them for their shout out on my book “ Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Historic Past” in their podcast on Greenpoint, but they too get an important fact wrong, the famous singer Pat Benatar was born in Greenpoint, but left the area as an infant and grew up on Long Island, but according to the Bowery Boys she grew up locally.
One of the more gobsmacking errors has recently been corrected. Wikipedia identified the legendary bank robber Willie Sutton as a Greenpointer. Sutton was born near the Navy Yard on Nassau Street, not locally on Nassau Avenue. The mistake did, however, lead to a local eatery being named Slick Willie’s in honor of the legendary robber. A new bar on McGuinness Boulevard is set to open called “Pete’s Tavern” with an image of Peter J. McGuinness, for whom the Boulevard was named. One might assume that Pete himself chugged beers locally, but McGuinness never drank alcohol, so his image inside Pete’s Tavern is quite misleading.
We have a duty to our posterity to pass local history on correctly. All historians, myself included, make errors, but we must correct the errors we make. Hopefully, we will see changes in the historic markers and a revised Greenpoint Local History Guide from the Brooklyn Historical Society.
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.
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 →
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 →
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 →