Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

A famous writer recalls his boyhood on an 1850s working-class Williamsburg block

February 6, 2023

If you think Williamsburg is popular now, you should have been there in the early 1850s.

At that time, the number of residents had ballooned to 35,000, the riverfront was bustling with industry, and this Kings County town ambitiously incorporated itself into a city (before changing course and becoming part of the neighboring city of Brooklyn three years later).

During these booming years, two real estate investors teamed up to buy and develop parcels of land in the center of Williamsburg, some of it farmland. They hired a surveyor, cut a slender new road they called Fillmore Street after the sitting U.S. President, and planned to construct two rows of mostly three-story homes designed in the elegant Italianate style.

Though they sound like the kind of fine houses upper class residents would be interested in, and they were billed before they were built in a June 1852 edition of the New York Times as future “magnificent dwellings,” the houses weren’t intended for Williamsburg’s wealthy business owners.

Instead, the walkups on what was later renamed Fillmore Place were multi-tenant “flats” meant to be owned or rented by the working-class folks who came to Williamsburg to fill jobs and enjoy a lower population density than that of New York across the East River.

Who were the early residents of this brand-new enclave, which soon had gaslights installed and sewer hookups? “In the mid-19th century, most of the owners were English, Irish or German, and worked as artisans or were petty merchants,” states the Brooklyn neighborhood association WGPA. “The residents renting apartments on Fillmore Place at this time were of a similar background, usually artisans, clerks and laborers.”

Life on Fillmore Place appears to have been a step above the options available to most working-class New Yorkers.

While the buildings “were erected as multifamily dwellings and occupied by working-class tenants, their architecture has more in common with the fashionable middle- and upper-class single-family row houses of the period than with the substandard tenements that were becoming more common in the poorer sections of the city,” states the Landmarks Preservation Commission Report for what’s now known as the Fillmore Place Historic District.

Though the houses weren’t large and only one flat existed on each floor, each room likely had a window facing “either the street or a generously sized rear yard,” per the LPC report—which is more than the typical tenement offered in an era before tenement reform laws.

As a result of this apparently decent quality of life, Fillmore Place’s residents tended to stick around. Even the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, which brought in thousands of new residents and saw the tearing down of row-house neighborhoods in favor of tenements, didn’t drastically alter the fabric.

The houses along Fillmore Place, “were not directly affected by the opening of the bridge and remain perhaps the most intact enclave of buildings erected during Williamsburg’s initial period of urban. development,” states the LPC report.

More than a century later, this slightly slanted street still retains a small-scale 19th century feel. No wonder it became an official historic district in 2009. While one-block Fillmore Place is bounded by Driggs Avenue, Roebling Street, Grand Street, and Metropolitan Avenue, the historic district extends to include a row of walkups from 662 to 676 Driggs Avenue.

One of those walkups was home in the 1890s to Henry Miller—author of Tropic of Capricorn, among other novels. Though Miller only spent the first nine years of his life at 662 Driggs (below), his description of Fillmore Place, his “favorite street,” as he called it in a 1971 New York Times essay, can give you an idea of what life was like here at the tail end of the 19th century.

“The house I lived In was between North First and Metropolitan Avenue, then called North Second Street,” Miller wrote in a 1971 essay for the New York Times. “Opposite us was Dr. Kinney, the veterinarian, and on the rooftop next door to his place Mrs. Omelio kept her 20 to 30 cats. Diagonally opposite us was Fillmore Place, just one block long, which was my favorite street and which I can still see vividly if I close my eyes.”

In his 1936 short story collection Black Spring, “Miller wrote “’there were three streets—North First, Fillmore Place, and Driggs Avenue. These marked the boundaries of the known world,’” via the neighborhood website Greenpointers.

“His description of Fillmore Place in Tropic of Capricorn perfectly captures many people’s love for the historic little block: ‘[it was] the most enchanting street I have ever seen in all my life. It was the ideal street—for a boy, a lover, a maniac, a drunkard, a crook, a lecher, a thug, an astronomer, a musician, a poet, a tailor, a shoemaker, a politician,’” wrote Miller, excerpted by Greenpointers.

[Third image: New York Times; seventh image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

What it was like commuting by sleigh in snowy 1860s Manhattan

January 23, 2023

The idea of getting around the city by horse-drawn sleigh might sound like a lot of fun to contemporary, snow-starved New Yorkers.

But as this detailed illustration from 1865 shows, sitting in an open-air omnibus as three teams of horses round a tight side street covered in snow was probably rather miserable.

What a rich scene the illustration offers, though. While two drivers direct three teams of horses to pull the streetcar to its destination, groups of boys are having a jolly time on sleds. A dog joins in the excitement, chasing the horses.

Ads for a tailor and a seller of shirts appear on the storefronts in the background. And when was the last time you came across a shop selling only wine and tea?

This omnibus appears to carry commuters to and from the Fulton Ferry, which allowed people to cross the East River in an era before bridges. I’m not quite sure how the omnibus got from the ferry on the East River to Broadway, Greenwich Avenue, Amity Street (the former name for Third Street), and Seventh Avenue.

More sleighing and sled scenes from old New York can be accessed here.

Williamsburg used to be Williamsburgh—when did it lose the h and why?

January 9, 2023

The Williamsburg section of Brooklyn has taken some strange and convoluted turns during its journey from farm village to urban neighborhood.

In the 17th century it was part of the Dutch town of Boswijck, which became the anglicized Bushwick when the British captured New Amsterdam in 1664.

But it wasn’t until 1802 when real-estate developer Richard M. Woodhull purchased 13 acres in Bushwick near the East River, intending to develop what had been farmland into an urban enclave. Woodhull hired an engineer, Jonathan Williams, to survey the land—then named the new development after Williams.

He called it Williamsburgh, with an h.

Williamsburgh grew rapidly. It became its own village in the town of Bushwick in 1827 and an affluent suburb of New York, according to Victor Lederer’s book Williamsburg. Riverfront industry such as shipbuilding and sugar refining attracted even more residents, and Williamsburgh incorporated itself into a town in 1840.

In 1852, the booming town—now home to 35,000 people—declared itself a separate city in Kings County. In the process, city officials dropped the h and called it the city of Williamsburg.

Williamsburg’s time as a city didn’t last long. By 1855, Williamsburg was annexed by the city of Brooklyn. And in 1898, the city of Brooklyn bit the dust, becoming the borough of Brooklyn of Greater New York City.

So it’s been 171 years since Williamsburgh became Williamsburg. What I’d like to know is why government officials decided to do away with the h in the first place.

Newspaper archives and other records aren’t giving me an answer. But my guess involves the ethnic background of Williamsburg’s newest residents in the mid-1850s. During the first half of the 19th century, thousands of Irish and German immigrants came to New York City, and a sizable number ended up in Williamsburg, laboring in the refineries and shipyards.

Perhaps “Williamsburgh” sounded a little too English. By ditching the h, Williamsburg may have been more appealing to new arrivals from nations that didn’t always have good relations with Britain.

A glorious birds-eye view of early 1900s Brooklyn at night

November 7, 2022

Sometimes a simple penny postcard really can blow you away. Behold this turn-of-the-century nocturne downtown in the county of Kings, with office windows glowing with amber light and trolley cars making their way.

The one building I can make out with clarity is Brooklyn Borough Hall at the far left, with the clock and domed tower. Completed in 1848, it was formerly called City Hall.

[MCNY; 2004.36.3]

This Brooklyn corner store has one of the last vintage soda signs

October 24, 2022

They used to be all over New York City on practically every block: simple deli or drugstore signs that featured the name of the store along with iconic emblems for national soda brands.

Officially, they’re called “privilege signs,” because by offering the store the free sign, the brand had the privilege of free advertising. The store benefited as well, since the logos for Coke, Pepsi, or another brand brought in thirsty or hungry customers looking for a product they recognized.

Slowly these privilege signs have disappeared, and today, it’s rare to come across one. Which is why I stopped in my tracks when I spotted this vintage beauty for Millys Mini Market on Berry and South Second Streets in Williamsburg. Sadly, it’s one of the last of a dwindling breed.

Over the years Ephemeral New York has featured some last remaining privilege signs. I can’t guarantee any of them still exist, but if you’re an old-school sign enthusiast, check them out here.

A 1905 Brooklyn school building so lovely, it’s on a postcard

August 29, 2022

New York City was once so proud of the new schools that went up across all five boroughs during the school-building frenzy at the turn of the 20th century, several schools made it onto postcards.

That pride extended to trade schools as well. This red brick French Renaissance beauty on Park Slope’s Seventh Avenue between Fourth and Fifth Streets opened in 1905 as Brooklyn Manual Training, or Manual Training High School. (Note the streetcar tracks!)

That first year, 1,900 boys and girls took academic courses as well as classes in dressmaking, mechanical drawing, printing, joinery, blacksmithing, or other trades. Night classes were offered for working students; 900 enrolled in night school in 1905.

I’m not sure when Manual Training ceased to exist. But the handsome building is still at its original site—renamed the John Jay Educational Campus, which seems to be subdivided into several schools.

[Image: NYPL Digital Collections]

Two views to New York from the countryside of Brooklyn Heights

August 12, 2022

Imagine Brooklyn Heights with a sandy beach, a smattering of spaced-apart houses, and rocky bluffs providing a peaceful, unobstructed view of the sailing ships and side-by-side buildings of booming Manhattan.

“New York From Brooklyn Heights,” by Thomas Kelah Wharton

You’d have to go all the way back to the early 19th century to experience these in Brooklyn Heights, which even then was becoming something of a suburb to New York: a residential district with laid-out streets and ferry service for commuters. Plenty of land also awaited wealthy Gothamites looking for a place to put up a summer estate.

The first painting, “New York From Brooklyn Heights,” is by English-born artist Thomas Kelah Wharton, according to Bruce Weber’s The Paintings of New York, 1800-1950. It’s not clear when Wharton completed his view from the Heights, but the engraving was done in 1834, per Weber.

“New York From Near the Heights of Brooklyn,” by William Guy Wall

“New York From Near the Heights of Brooklyn” was painted by William Guy Wall around 1820, estimates the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (It’s one of two watercolors Wall collaborated on with another painter, John Hill, with the other showing the view of the city from Weehawken.)

Wall, from Ireland, gives us “the eastern face of New York City from the former ‘Bergen’s Hill’ in what is now Brooklyn Heights, looking west-northwest across the East River,” according to the Met.

The population of Brooklyn came to about 11,000 in 1820—practically a country hamlet compared to New York City’s 123,000 residents. Who could have predicted at the time that Brooklyn would became a major city that rivaled New York, and that by the end of the century the two would join forces as part of one united metropolis?

A midcentury painter’s magical nocturne of the Brooklyn Bridge

July 22, 2022

“Brooklyn Bridge” is a curiously plain title for a painting that shrouds much of the bridge, the river, and the piers around it in a Turner-esque swirl of industrial smoke, thick clouds, and the blue glow of dusk or dawn.

Light illuminates small pockets surrounding the bridge’s iconic towers: a tugboat’s smokestack, a wood building on an empty pier, and a retreating human figure turned away from the East River.

The painter is Frank Mason, an artist of many landscapes, seascapes, and portraits who studied at the Art Students League, where he later taught. “Brooklyn Bridge” was painted in 1950, a pivotal year for the bridge, when trolley service crossing back and forth from Manhattan to Brooklyn was discontinued.

Mason’s primary interest probably isn’t the Bridge’s historical timeline. He seems captivated by the light and color at a certain time of night, and it’s easy to understand why. His evocative nocturne becomes more enchanting every time to you view it.


A writer recalls “the beauty of it all” after a visit to 1890s Manhattan Beach

July 22, 2022

During summer in the early 1890s, a huge electric sign dominated the side of the St. Germain Hotel, at Broadway and 22nd Street. The St. Germain stood on the sliver of land that would be home to the Flatiron building less than a decade later. But at that time, nothing obstructed the ad—which faced the fashionable hotels, streetcar lines, and shopping emporiums of Madison Square.

The sign’s flashing colored lights advertised the pleasures of Manhattan Beach, one of Brooklyn’s seaside resorts created in the 1870s. “Swept by Ocean Breezes,” the ad blazed several stories in the air. A list of attractions—the Manhattan and Oriental Hotels, “Sousa’s Band,” and “Pains Fireworks”—lit up the New York night.

The electric sign hoped to lure sweltering city residents to this middle class resort, a more genteel version of Coney Island on the same Brooklyn peninsula. But it also captivated Theodore Dreiser, who was new in New York City after a stint as a journalist in the Midwest.

The Manhattan Beach Hotel, 1900

By 1900, Dreiser would publish Sister Carrie, his first novel, and establish himself as a leading American author. Now, he was an anonymous observer without means, struggling to make a living writing for New York’s newspapers while living in shabby rooms in Greenwich Village.

“Walking up or down Broadway of a hot summer night, this sign was an inspiration and an invitation,” Dreiser recalled in The Color of a Great City, his collection of vignettes about life in Gotham before and after the turn of the 20th century. “I had heard as much about Atlantic City and Coney Island, but this blazing sign lifted Manhattan Beach into rivalry with fairyland.”

Theodore Dreiser, around 1900

So one Sunday, Dreiser and his brother headed to Manhattan Beach. The two took the 34th Street ferry, which brought the “seaward-moving throng” to a railroad connection in Long Island City and then to the beach.

“The boat on which we crossed was packed to suffocation,” he wrote. “Indeed, 34th Street near the ferry was packed with people carrying bags and parasols and all but fighting each other to gain access to the dozen or more ticket windows.”

“The clerk and his prettiest girl, the actress and her admirer, the actor and his playmate, brokers, small and exclusive tradesmen, men of obvious political or commercial position, their wives, daughters, relatives, and friends, all were outbound toward this much above average resort.”

At Manhattan Beach, Dreiser was awestruck. He marveled at the “great hotels, held and contained all summer long all that was best and most leisurely and pleasure-loving in New York’s great middle class of that day….”

Oriental Hotel, 1903

His attention to detail served him well when describing what the male guests wore. “I never saw so many prosperous-looking people in one place, more with better and smarter clothes, even though they were a little showy. The straw hat with its blue or striped ribbon, the flannel suit with its accompanying white shoes, light cane, the pearl-gray derby, the check suit, the diamond and pearl pin in necktie, the silk shirt. What a cool, summery, airy-fairy realm!”

The women in bathing outfits impressed him as well. “It seemed to me that the fabled days of the Greeks had returned. These were nymphs, nereids, sirens in truth. Old Triton might well have raised his head above the blue waves and sounded his spiral horn.”

Guests strolling beside the beach, 1895

When Dreiser had moved to Manhattan, he was caught off guard by the great riches of the upper classes and the deep poverty of the poor—conditions that had become more or less accepted by Gilded Age residents. He brought a sensitivity to class struggles in his writings about Manhattan Beach, as he observed the thousands of finely dressed guests enjoying dining room feasts, music pavilions, rocking chairs on the verandas, and the nightly fireworks over the beach.

“The wealth, as I saw it then, that permitted this!”

He was also struck by the resort’s flimsy beauty. “But the beauty of it all, the wonder, the airy, insubstantial, almost transparent quality of it all! Never before had I seen the sea, and here it was before me, a great, blue, rocking floor, its distant horizon dotted with white sails and the smoke of but faintly visible steamers dissolving in the clear air above them….And as dusk came on, the lights of the lighthouses, and later the glimmer of the stars above the water, added an impressive and to me melancholy quality to it all. It was so insubstantial and yet so beautiful.”

Diving into the water with the Oriental Hotel in the background, 1897

His visit to Manhattan Beach that day in the early 1890s ended. Twenty-five years later, Dreiser wrote that he went back to the site of the once-fabled resort.

“But of that old, sweet, fair, summery life not a trace,” he stated. “Gone were the great hotels, the wall, the flowers, the parklike nature of the scene. In 25 years the beautiful circular pavilion had fallen into the sea and a part of the grounds of the great Manhattan Hotel had been eaten away by winter storms….Even the great Oriental, hanging on for a few years and struggling to accommodate itself to new conditions, had been torn down.”

A family takes to the sand in bathing suits armed with an umbrella

Open since the 1870s, the Manhattan Beach Hotel was demolished in 1911, according to The Oriental Hotel, hosting guests since 1880, met the wrecking ball in 1916. Manhattan Beach the resort was over, but Manhattan Beach the neighborhood was seized by developers, who built homes and sidewalks. Manhattan Beach Park, a small beach, continues to be open to the public.

“Only the beach remained, and even that was changed with new conditions,” Dreiser wrote, explaining the newly planted trees along divided new streets, “sold to those who craved the freshness of this seaside isle.”

[Second image: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY, 1887, MNY111867; fifth image: NYPL; sixth image: MCNY, MNY62849; seventh image: MCNY, MNY62850; eighth image: MCNY, MNY62854]

The first roller coaster in America was at Coney Island

July 14, 2022

During its golden era around the turn of the last century, Coney Island was a roller coaster pioneer—from the Flip-Flap Railway in the 1890s to the Loop-the-Loop in 1901 to the Giant Racer in 1911. (The Cyclone was a latecomer when it replaced the Giant Racer in 1927, according to

But even before these coasters thrilled visitors, Coney Island was home to a ride that’s considered to be the first roller coaster in the United States: the “Switchback Railway.” How wild was it? By contemporary roller coaster standards, it sounds pretty tame.

“Passengers rode a train on undulating tracks over a wooden structure 600 feet long,” explains “The train started at a height of 50 feet on one end and ran downhill by gravity until its momentum died. Passengers then left the train and attendants pushed the car over a switch to a higher level. The passengers returned to their sideways facing seats and rode back to the original starting point.”

Clearly it doesn’t compare to the Cyclone’s 85-foot plunge. But then again, it wasn’t intended to generate adrenaline-pumping excitement. “It wasn’t supposed to be a thrill ride, just a tour of the beach, with people sitting sideways for the best view,” stated Robert Cartmell, described as an expert of roller coasters and author of “The Roller Coaster Book” in the June 17, 1984 edition of Newsday.

The Switchback Railway was an immediate hit, according to Cartmell, and it made tons of money for La Marcus Thompson, the man who built it. (Thompson charged five cents per ride.) Yet within months, it was closed for good—a victim of its own success.

“Someone got the bright idea of facing the seats forward and turning it into a thrill ride,” stated Cartmell. “They opened better rides down the street, and they built the track in a loop and added an engine to pull the cars back to the top.”

For a brief moment in time, the Switchback was the most exciting ride at Coney.

[Top image: Granger; second image: Wikipedia; third image: MCNY x2011.34.2098; fourth image: MCNY x2011.34.2091]