Williamsburg History

The Unlikley Story Behind Williamsburg’s Washington Statue

(Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives)

These last bone-chilling, frigid days have been hard to bear, but these freezing days have reminded me of the horrible cold the Continental Army endured during the darkest moments of the revolution and of a unique local statue that captures Washington’s suffering during that freezing winter. Situated in Continental Army Plaza, right near Roebling Street’s entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge, the Equestrian Statue of George Washington at Valley Forge is decidedly the most impressive piece of public sculpture in North Brooklyn. Perhaps the only thing that can rival the awe the statue inspires is the incredible story of how an honest politician (that rare breed indeed) gifted it to the city.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle archives

The statue was dedicated in 1906, and presented to the City by local Congressman James R. Howe and the Committee of Supervision and Construction. It was sculpted by Henry Mervin Shrady, a New Yorker and Columbia University graduate, who was commissioned to make his first major public work after winning a design competition in 1901. The huge statue was cast at Roman Bronze Works on Green Street in our area and is anchored to a granite base designed by Lord and Hewlett.

Image courtesy of Ephemeral New York

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Where Do The Names of Williamsburg Streets Come From?

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

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North Brooklyn Is Home to One of America’s Oldest Mosques

Powers Street Mosque (via Google Maps)

I had often walked by the inconspicuous former church at 104 Powers St. near the border of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, yet I never noticed the sole sign that this was a Muslim house of worship. Then last week, I suddenly noticed the crescent moon protruding above the roof and I realized that the building was a mosque, hiding in plain sight. Growing curious, I did some digging and discovered that the building was not only a mosque, but also the first mosque founded in the United States. The Mosque’s faithful, though, are so unobtrusive and the services so infrequent that even longtime local residents are shocked to learn that 104 Powers St. has been a local Muslim house of worship for four generations.

The structure at 104 Powers St. shows that it was once a church. In the 188os Methodists built a house of worship, but like many Christian denominations, the congregation dwindled and the Methodists were forced to merge congregations, abandoning the Powers Street building. The building served as a Democratic Party clubhouse for a few years, but in 1931, the American Mohammedan Society, Inc., a group of Tatar immigrants from Lithuania, Poland and Belarus— bought the property from the 13th Assembly District Realty Company, for the purposes of converting the property into a mosque.

A picture of the Tatar immigrants who founded the Mosque ( courtesy of Bedford and Bowery)

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Ben Shahn: Williamsburg’s Greatest Artist Ever?

Ben Shahn (Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum

Ben Shahn’s name today is obscure, but Shahn was perhaps one of the greatest artists ever to come out of Williamsburg. Born in Lithuania, Shahn grew up in the Southside in real poverty (1898-1969). Recognized during his lifetime as one of the greatest American painters of his generation, he was also a highly talented photographer, graphic artist, and lithographer.

Like many other Williamsburg celebrities, Shahn’s parents were Orthodox Jews who fled the poverty and Anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe. His father was a leftist political activist whom The Tsar’s forces arrested, imprisoned and sent to Siberia. In 1906, when Shahn was eight years old, his family immigrated to New York where they were reunited with Shahn’s father.

His artistic talent soon manifested itself. In Williamsburg, his fifth-grade teacher first noticed and encouraged his artistic development. The family, however, was very poor and despite his obvious talent, Shahn’s mother made him drop out of school at the end of the eighth-grade to work and help support the family. Shahn got a job as an apprentice in his uncle’s lithography shop, where he continued to develop his artistic ability. By age 19, Shahn had become a professional lithographer, but he was determined to learn even more, so he also started to study at New York University, the College of the City of New York, and the National Academy of Design.

Shahn’s Painting of Sacco and Vanzetti

He toured Europe as a young man and was deeply impressed with European painting, especially Cezanne and Matisse, whom he mimicked in his early work, but Shahn thankfully realized that he was an American artist, soon developing a uniquely American style of art. Later in life he called himself “the most American of all American painters.” His art, though, was highly critical of American life, often depicting American poverty and injustice.
His first fame came with his series of paintings surrounding the extremely controversial execution of the Italian immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts. Shahn, like many people around the world, believed that the two men were framed for their anarchism, and he created twenty-three protests images of the trial. Many of these, including the gouache Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco became famous amongst leftists around the world. One of those leftists was Diego Rivera, the celebrated Mexican muralist, invited him to assist him in creating his famed murals for Rockefeller Center. Under Rivera’s tutelage, Shahn mastered the demanding art of fresco or painting with dry pigments on wet plaster.

Post World War II painting Continue reading

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Williamsburgs’ Enchanted Fillmore Place and the Author Who Immortalized the Street

 

The Henry miller House at 662 Driggs Avenue (Google Maps)

Thanks in large part to the writings of celebrated author Henry Miller and the stately Italianate houses on the street, Fillmore Place were landmarked in 2009 and will forever preserve the charm that enthralled the young Miller, who first saw it as a child in the late 1890s. The atmosphere of late 19th century Williamsburg is rtetained on the street in an area that rapidly gentrified over the past decade and lost much of its history: Fillmore Place is a gem and a throwback to an earlier era of local history. Gazing upon the austere brick facades of the old row houses on the south side of Fillmore Place, it is easy to imagine Williamsburg before the bridge and why Miller loved the neighborhood so strongly.

In the 1840s two merchant tailors could see that Williamsburg was prime real estate ripe for development. In 1846, Connecticut-born businessmen Alfred Clock and Ephraim Miller began acquiring parcels of land on the block bounded by Grand Street, Roebling Street, N. 2nd Street (renamed Metropolitan Avenue), and 5th Street ( Now Driggs Avenue). They purchased 12 lots from one owner and Clock and Miller also acquired three more lots from another landowner in 1847. Finally, they added a small strip of the David Van Cott farmstead in 1848. Now owning a contiguous parcel of developable land, Clock and Miller then hired a surveyor in 1850 to lay out a new, more regularized set of city lots on the property. The cumbersome dimensions of the block—each frontage was over 300 feet in length—also lead the pair to cut a narrow road through the middle of their development, which they named Fillmore Street (soon renamed Fillmore Place), after the president of the United States at the time Millard Fillmore.

Photo courtesy of New York City Landmarks Preservation Report.

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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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Who was Patrick McCarren?

PatrickMcCarren

Recently there was controversy about the naming rights to the McCarren Park Pool. A company offered money for the naming rights and many locals became angry about the proposed name change. Truth is, few people know anything about Patrick McCarren.

I have been researching McCarren for a book I am writing about Williamsburg . He was a fascinating, amazingly corrupt figure. In his day he was not just a powerful local boss, but was also powerful on the national level. Born in 1849 in Massachusetts, he grew up locally. Too poor to afford higher education, McCarren started life in the local sugar mills, but was ambitious. Politics in the eighteen seventies was almost the only way a humble man could acquire wealth and power. Continue reading

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