Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

All the ways to cross the Brooklyn Bridge in 1903

September 21, 2020

Here we are at Brooklyn Terminal in 1903, on the Brooklyn side of the bridge known as the “East River Bridge” during its long construction.

To cross the bridge, you had options. Taking a trolley car was one method; a horse-drawn cart was another. And of course, walking was a possibility. By 1903, it was free to be a pedestrian on the bridge, but when the span opened in 1883, the fee to walk was one cent!

What, no bike lane yet?

[MCNY F2011.33.1886]

A 1941 painting reveals a lost Brooklyn street

September 21, 2020

New York City has a shadow metropolis of hundreds of demapped streets—roads, avenues, and ordinary blocks that were removed from the streetscape over the centuries because they didn’t fit the encroaching street grid or were wiped out by new development.

It’s fun to find references to them in the contemporary city. A few examples: the manhole covers embossed with “Goerck Street” across Manhattan or signs for the ‘Fourth Avenue Building” on Park Avenue South.

But a striking painting by Miklos Suba, a Hungarian-born Precisionist painter who immigrated to Brooklyn in 1924, brought to my attention another demapped street in a formerly industrial swath of the borough.

“York Street/Flint Street Corner (House in Shadow)” was painted in 1941, a clean, controlled, and geometric depiction of the back of tenement and factory buildings in Brooklyn. (Top image)

York Street is still here, stretching from DUMBO to Vinegar Hill. But what happened to Flint Street, a one-and-a-half block alley under the Manhattan Bridge approach? (Second image)

The first mention I found of it is in a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article on street names from 1869. By the middle of the century, Flint Street seemed to have vanished without a trace.

It wasn’t a casualty of the development of Cadman Plaza, which opened in 1939. Perhaps it was demapped because of changes to the Brooklyn Bridge approach, or maybe the industrial buildings of the surrounding streets subsumed it.

[Above photo: Front Street looking toward Flint Street, 1927]

I bet Suba would know. A resident of Montague Street and later Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights, Suba developing an intimate relationship with the borough he lived in until his death in 1944, capturing buildings in bold colors and devoid of people. (“Smith Street,” 1930, is another example of his work, above)

[Top image: McNay Art Museum; second image: LOC; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Whitney Museum]

New York City’s last unsolved murder of 9/11

September 7, 2020

Nineteen years ago on 9/11, a total of 2753 people were killed at the World Trade Center by Al Qaeda terrorists.

But one more person was murdered on that terrible day, shot to death on a dark Brooklyn street just before midnight.

Almost two decades later, amid yearly tributes to the victims at the World Trade Center, his death on a Bed-Stuy block is still unsolved.

The victim was Polish immigrant Henryk Siwiak, a 46-year-old father of two. Siwiak came to the United States 11 months earlier looking for work, according to a WNYC report from 2011.

Siwiak was staying near his sister in Far Rockaway. On the morning of 9/11, he arrived at the Lower Manhattan construction site where he had been working, but the site had closed due to the terrorist attacks.

“So he walked to Brooklyn and sometime later went to a Polish employment agency,” states WNYC. “There he was offered a job: to clean a Pathmark supermarket in Flatbush. The pay was around $10 an hour and he would start that same night.”

He went home to Queens and called his wife. “He borrowed a map from his landlady,” Siwiak’s wife, Ewa, later told WNYC. “I spoke to her later. She tried to stop him, told him it wasn’t a good neighborhood, it was not a good time to go there, and definitely not on that particular day.”

That night, Siwiak took an A train and got off at Utica Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which was unfortunately a long way from the supermarket.

Apparently trying to find the store, he ended up on Albany Avenue between Fulton and Decatur Streets (above right, the block in 2019).

At 11:45 pm, residents heard gunshots. Siwiak was hit in the chest. He made it up the stoop at 119 Decatur Street (above left, in 2011) and rang the doorbell before dying, the New York Times reported in 2011.

The gunman got away. Was it a robbery? Money in Siwiak’s pockets had not been taken, according to the Times.

“His widow has theorized that Siwiak was targeted in the aftermath of the attack because he looked Middle Eastern, with a dark complexion, and spoke with an accent,” states the Daily News article. “And she noted that her husband wore an army fatigue jacket and camouflage pants on the night he was blown away.”

To this day, police still have not said they have any leads. (At right, 119 Decatur Street in 2019)

His case remains cold, his death a mystery overshadowed by the horrors of 9/11 and memorialized by no one outside his family.

[Top image: Wikipedia; second image: Google 2019; third image: Todd Heisler/NYT; fourth image: Google 2019]

An Impressionist paints Brooklyn by the water

August 24, 2020

After studying art in Munich, refining his eclectic Impressionist style across Europe, and creating an elegant studio on East 10th Street in Manhattan that reflected his flamboyant persona, painter William Merritt Chase moved to Brooklyn.

[“Afternoon by the Sea, Gravesend Bay” 1888]

It was 1887. The 37-year-old had just gotten married, and he and his new bride chose to live with his parents at their comfortable Brooklyn home as they began having kids.

It’s no surprise, then, that the booming city of Brooklyn was the subject of many of Chase’s landscape paintings.

[“Stormy Day Bath Beach,” 1888]

Chase painted scenes in Prospect Park, Tompkins Park, the Navy Yard, and other lush, verdant parts of the city that reflected Brooklyn’s natural (if landscaped) beauty.

But he also depicted Brooklyn’s beaches—not the honky tonk, tawdry scene at Coney Island but the quieter upper class areas along Gravesend Bay.

[“Bath Beach—a Sketch,” 1888]

By the 1880s, after the railroads came in and made it easier for vacationers to reach Brooklyn’s beaches, Coney Island and Brighton Beach weren’t the only areas that became recreation destinations.

The upper part of Gravesend also evolved into an elite resort and entertainment area, and the resort neighborhood of Bath Beach was created with a nod toward Bath, England.

[“Gravesend Bay (the Lower Bay),” 1889]

Bath Beach had hotels, yacht racing, bathing, and family-friendly entertainment “upon the soft, sea-washed sands,” as one 1887 Brooklyn beach guidebook described it. Gravesend was best-known for its racetrack, which attracted throngs of fans.

Merritt did venture near Coney Island at least once. In “Landscape Near Coney Island,” one icon of Sodom by the Sea can be seen in the background: Coney’s elephant-shaped hotel, made famous when it went up in the 1880s.

[“Landscape Near Coney Island,” date unknown]

The Impressionist painter and his family didn’t stay very long in Brooklyn. In 1891, Merritt became the director of the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art.

His waterside landscapes after that point reflected the sunny, white sandy beaches of the Eastern End of Long Island, where the school was located.

How NYC taught school during a lethal outbreak

August 17, 2020

School districts all over the country are facing a dilemma right now. Should they hold classes in school buildings—or keep schools closed, as they have been since the coronavirus pandemic began, and continue teaching kids at home via digital classes?

In the early 1900s, New York school and health officials faced a similar dilemma. So they came up with a novel way to teach kids safely under the threat of a lethal infection: they built outdoor and open-air classrooms on rooftops, in schoolyards, and even on ferryboats (above, 1908).

Pioneered in Germany in the early 1900s, fresh-air classrooms, as they were also known, were adopted by some New York City schools to prevent the spread of tuberculosis in the city’s crowded, airless school buildings.

Tuberculosis may not have been a full-fledged pandemic in New York at the time. But the “white plague,” also known as the “captain of the men of death,” was Gotham’s leading killer in 1900.

A cure for TB wasn’t developed until the 1940s. In the 1900s and 1910s, treatment meant fresh air and sunlight. Prevention efforts included public health campaigns against spitting and building apartments and hospitals that allowed for better ventilation and light.

A school for kids stricken with TB opened on a ferry docked at the East River (top photo) in 1908. Four more ferries and the Vanderbilt Clinic on 16th Street were also converted into classrooms, with students gathered around on chairs and a teacher leading lessons, according to the 1918 book, Open-Air Schools.

Thanks to their success, public health officials began thinking about using the same strategy to prevent infections in kids who might be predisposed to the disease because of their home environment or their own physical health. They also proposed that so-called “normal” pupils would benefit as well.

So in 1909, the city set aside $6500 for the construction of open-air classrooms, according to the New York Times on October 30 of that year.

An elementary school on Carmine Street began holding “open-window” classes, as did a grade school in Chelsea. In these and other public schools, “there is no supplementary feeding, no rest period, and no extra clothes provided,” Open-Air Schools explained. “The children wear their street wraps in cold weather.”

[At right: A student in an outdoor class on the Lower East Side, 1910]

Horace Mann, the private school then located in Morningside Heights, also launched open-air classes. The school built open classrooms on the roof, with windowed walls on three sides of each room. “Indoor toilet rooms are provided and also an indoor room where children may go to get warm if necessary.”

Kindergartners were not spared from the open-air school idea (above). Young kids at Brooklyn’s Friends School were taught on the roof. “As yet the children are wearing their own coats and wraps, but later in the season we expect to have sitting-out bags…only in the really cold weather are the blankets to wrap up the smaller children used,” a November 5, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article stated, quoting a teacher.

In the coldest weather, some schools provided students with a new garment called a “parka,” or “fuzzy Eskimo suit,” as one Brooklyn school described them in a 1933 Brooklyn Times Union article (photo above).

Other cities across the country launched their own outdoor or open-air classrooms, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston.

The open-air school movement seems to have died down by the 1930s though, perhaps because TB wasn’t quite as feared, and a new scourge—polio—began causing panic, especially in the summertime when public pools opened.

Could New York City kids (and their teachers) handle open-air or outdoor classes today? Interestingly, according to the newspaper sources used in this post, parents did not have a problem with the open-air policy.

[Top photo: LOC; second photo: LOC; third photo: MCNY, 90.13.4.66; fourth photo: MCNY 90.13.4.68; fifth photo: MCNY 90.13.2.36; sixth photo: LOC; seventh photo: Brooklyn Times Union; eighth photo: LOC]

What New Yorkers wore to Coney Island in 1879

August 3, 2020

“Beach Scene,” by Samuel S. Carr, is your portal into what people looked like when they visited a pristine, boardwalk-free Coney Island in 1879.

It won’t be long before placid beach scenes like this are replaced by throngs of city residents looking for fun and adventure, and Sodom by the Sea is born.

Reading coal hole covers underfoot in Manhattan

July 27, 2020

You can learn a lot about New York’s makers and inventors just by coal hole covers—the decorative iron lids that lead to a storage space beneath the sidewalk where coal for heating a house or building was stored.

This beauty embossed with stars sits at Fifth Avenue and 30th Street.

“Dreier Safety Coal Hole Cover” it reads, listing an address in today’s East Village and a patent date, April 1919.

What’s a safety coal hole cover? A 1979 New York Times obituary for Abraham Dreier, the Polish immigrant who founded the Dreier Structural Steel Company in 1917, doesn’t explain it. But the obituary does say that Dreier patented the cover after he began his career making fire escapes.

Dreier’s company had an earlier address on the Lower East Side’s now-defunct Goerck Street.

What’s better than a coal hole cover than a coal hole cover with vault lights? This one was made by the Brooklyn Vault Light Company, once located on Monitor Street in Greenpoint. (The company had several addresses in the neighborhood, the ever-informative Walter Grutchfield says.)

Vault lights are basically glass skylights that allow sunlight into a space, though I’m not sure why that would be advantageous in a hole designed to store coal.

This coal hole cover is also a safety cover, patented in August 1905. The company operated from 1896 to 1958, according to Glassian. The company is gone, but the cover remains at East 73rd Street near Lexington Avenue, a quiet monument to the ironworks of another New York.

Brooklyn’s most charming doughnut shop sign

July 6, 2020

New York once had lots of neighborhood doughnut places, and this stamp-size shop on Avenue U in Sheepshead Bay keeps the tradition alive. Also known as Shaikh’s Place, Donut Shoppe still has the original sign installed by the shop’s first owner decades ago.

The shop has diversified over the years, adding to the menu tacos, chicken sandwiches, and other eats reflecting the changing demographics of this working class neighborhood. But people still flock here for the heavenly glazed and iced spheres of fried dough.

[Thanks to Duane Sherwood for sending the photo]

A New York painter creates “order against chaos”

June 15, 2020

George Copeland Ault’s still, ordered paintings of New York City in the 1920s and early 1930s look deceptively simplistic.

[“From Brooklyn Heights”]

Known for depicting landscapes and cityscapes in “simple lines and vivid color,” as Smithsonian magazine put it, Ault was considered a Precisionist painter—his work was informed by realism yet emphasized the geometrical forms of his subjects.

[“Ninth Avenue”]

But his work is more than tightly controlled stillness and smoothed-out lines. Painting was Ault’s way of creating “order against chaos,” his wife later told an interviewer in The Magazine Antiques.

[“Stacks Up First Avenue at 34th Street,” 1928]

The chaos Ault was up against could have been the chaos of his era. Born in 1891 into a wealthy family and raised in England, Ault arrived in America in 1911, setting himself up in a New York City studio.

His work spanned the teens to the 1940s, decades dominated by world wars, rising fascism, and economic devastation.

[“Morning in Brooklyn,” 1929]

His personal life also had its chaos. “Ault experienced a great deal of tragedy during the early years of his career,” states the Smithsonian. “One of his brothers committed suicide in 1915, his mother died five years later, and his father died in 1929.” His two remaining brothers took their own lives after the stock market crash.

[“Roofs,” 1931]

“In the 1930s, depressed and struggling with alcoholism, Ault lost touch with many of his artist friends and gallery contacts in New York,” according to the Smithsonian.

He and his wife isolated themselves in Woodstock in the 1940s. But hard times followed, and Ault couldn’t reestablish his career. In 1948, his body was found in a creek; his death was deemed a suicide by drowning.

[“Hudson Street,” 1932]

“Although Ault is often grouped with Precisionists Charles Demuth, Ralston Crawford, and Charles Sheeler, he did not idealize modern life and machinery as they generally did,” states arthistoryarchive.com.

His cityscapes instead are filled with a “sense of disquiet and psychic distress,” the site explains, beneath the antiseptic stillness on the surface.

Let the Brooklyn Bridge show you the way

June 8, 2020

The Brooklyn Bridge (or the East River Bridge, as this 1920 postcard charmingly calls it) is many things.

It’s a display of engineering might, a graceful web of wire over water, a symbol of New York’s unity, the embodiment of promise and possibility. Let it be a source of inspiration during this time when our city has been tested.

[MCNY F2011.33.1882]