A 1920s poet haunts a Brooklyn red-light district

Sands Street today is an unremarkable stretch through the Farragut Houses in Dumbo.

But this beachy-sounding street has a very colorful history.

In the late 19th century, it was Brooklyn’s red-light district, so seedy it earned two evocative nicknames: locals called it the “Barbary Coast” in the 19th century and then “Hell’s Half Acre” through the 1950s.

Lined with saloons, rooming houses, gambling dens, and tattoo parlors, Sands Street catered to sailors from the Navy Yard and the East River waterfront.

It also appealed to less rough-and-tumble New Yorkers craving a dangerous thrill.

Struggling young poet Hart Crane (below), an Ohio transplant living just a short walk away at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights, regularly visited Sands Street in the 1920s.

“With Emil away at sea a lot and their relationship intermittent, Crane walked down to Sands Street searching for sex to share in a rendezvous meant not to last,” writes Evan Hughes in his wonderful book Literary Brooklyn.

“Cruising was a dangerous pursuit for Crane in a time of rampant homophobia. More than once he came home beaten and bloodied.”

Crane committed suicide in 1932, leaving behind his poem “The Bridge,” an ode to the Brooklyn Bridge—which he was able to see from his apartment and perhaps Sands Street as well.

[Top photos: Sands Street tattoo parlor, undated, and Sands Street in 1946, from the NYPL digital collection]

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3 Responses to “A 1920s poet haunts a Brooklyn red-light district”

  1. niallmunro Says:

    It’s nice to see Hart Crane getting a mention on your blog, but your photo is actually of Crane’s merchant sailor lover Emil Opffer, not Crane himself! The photo of Crane (also on the roof at 110 Columbia Heights) with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background can be found here: http://www.brns.com/pages3/hartcrane.html.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Oh, yikes, thanks for letting me know and supplying a photo. I changed the photo and linked to that URL as well.

  3. Chris B. Says:

    Ha!Growing up in the 60s that n’hood was my playground.Completely deserted on weekends.Now its NY’s latest shopping mall.

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