Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

Coney Island’s “disaster spectacles” thrill crowds

September 14, 2015

ConeyislandfightingtheflamesConey Island at the turn of the century let visitors escape the conventions of city life and experience a fantastical world: of thrilling rides and exotic animals, carnival games, freak shows, Eskimo and lilliputian villages, even a trip to the moon.

But perhaps the most bizarre exhibits were the disaster spectacles.

These shows recreated a real-life disaster so visitors could witness the death and destruction that took place.

The fall of Pompeii, the San Francisco Earthquake, the eruption of Mount Pelee in Martinique, and the Johnstown and Galveston Floods exhibits were hugely popular.


“Six hundred veterans of the Boer War, fresh from Johannesburg, re-fought their battles in a 12,000-seat stadium,” stated PBS’ American Experience show about Coney Island.

“Galveston disappeared beneath the flood. Mount Pelee erupted hourly, while across the street, Mount Vesuvius showered death on the people of Pompeii.”

ConeyislandpeleeadsAnother spectacle called “Fire and Flames” had real firemen set a four-story building on fire, then extinguish it as “residents” of the building, really actors, jumped out of windows, just like in a real New York City fire (except they jumped into safety nets).

The fire spectacle, at Luna Park, was so successful, Dreamland came up with their own version, called “Fighting the Flames” that brought in actual fire rescue equipment.

What was so fascinating about disaster to Coney Island visitors of the era?


“In its very horror, disaster conferred a kind of meaning to its victims’ lives, transforming commonplace routine into the extraordinary,” writes John F. Kasson in Amusing the Million.

“Sensationalized recreations of such disasters gave a vicarious sense of this transcendence to their audience—with of course the inestimable advantage of allowing them to emerge from the performance unharmed.”


It’s really no different from our more contemporary attraction to disaster movies, like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, says Kasson.

Faded ad reveals an old Brooklyn phone exchange

September 3, 2015

It’s hard to tell how old this Realty Corp. faded ad is. But it could date as far back as 1930. That’s when the Midwood phone exchange was created, usually abbreviated MI.


Construction off Kings Highway and East 16th Street brought the ad—and vintage graffiti—back into view. The best vantage point: from the Q train platform at the Avenue P Kings Highway subway station.


Phone exchange spotting is always fun, and there’s plenty of signs and ads still left in the city that have them. Just keep your eyes peeled!

A Brooklyn street named for a president’s son

August 31, 2015

QuentinroadOn a street grid packed with lettered avenues, Brooklyn’s Quentin Road stands out.

Stuck between Avenue P and Avenue R, Quentin Road actually used to be known as Avenue Q. But in 1922, a petition to change the name was brought to the city’s Board of Aldermen. So who was Quentin, and why did Brooklynites want to honor him with a street name?

Quentin was Quentin Roosevelt, 21, fifth child of Teddy Roosevelt. Rambunctious and mischievous as a child, Quentin left Harvard and his fiance, Flora Vanderbilt Payne, in 1916 to volunteer for World War I.

QuentinrooseveltHe trained as a pilot at a field on Long Island (today known as Roosevelt Field), but was killed in combat over France in 1918.

The petition to rename Avenue Q for Quentin may have had to do with his father’s popularity in New York. After all, he was the former city police commissioner and state governor, not to mention U.S. president.

QuentinRooseveltgravefranceReportedly devastated by his son’s death behind enemy lines, Theodore Roosevelt died the next year.

“To those who fearlessly face death for a good cause; no life is so honorable or so fruitful as such a death,” he said.

“Unless men are willing to fight and die for great ideals, including love of country, ideals will vanish, and the world will become one huge sty of materialism.”

A 1930s daredevil dives off the Brooklyn Bridge

August 10, 2015

Since it opened in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge has been catnip for stuntmen and attention-seekers.

The first jumper was swimming instructor Robert Oldum in 1885, and last year, two German guys climbed to the top of the bridge tower and stuck a white flag on the top.


In the 1930s, a slender man in a one-piece bathing suit calling himself “Dare Devil Jack” does a quasi-jackknife off the bridge, up to seven times, reported the New York Daily News.

Lucky for us, on May 24, 1930, a news crew caught Jack Latkowski diving 155 feet into the East River on film.

From the moment he emerges from a car that’s pulled over to the side of the bridge to his careful climb down to a beam to his plunge into choppy waters, the “New Steve Brodie,” as he’s called, makes it look easy.

Notice how he crosses himself before his feet leave the bridge.

What Brooklyn looked like in summer 1820

July 20, 2015

Landscape artist Francis Guy painted “Summer View of Brooklyn” in 1820 from the vantage point of 11 Front Street in today’s DUMBO.

That means this collection of tidy barns and houses would be located under the Brooklyn Bridge. That even looks like a nascent Manhattan skyline, with steeples, in the distance.


Things have changed a lot in 195 years. A summer view of today’s Brooklyn from Front Street would look more like this, with crowds sweltering on line at Grimaldi’s pizza.


Guy painted the same scene from Front Street in winter 1820 as well. The winter scene is more detailed, with various residents working and going about their day.

Who were the hardy Brooklynites he depicted? This key from the Brooklyn Museum decodes their names and which house belonged to who.

The piece of Plymouth Rock in a Brooklyn church

July 20, 2015

PlymouthchurchBrooklyn’s Plymouth Church, on Hicks Street, is a 168-year-old Congregational church with a long and impressive history.

Founded by transplanted New Englanders, it reportedly was a stop on the Underground Railroad and was visited by President Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth.

Pastor Henry Ward Beecher’s fiery abolitionist sermons and mock slave auctions made him famous.

(Beecher later gained infamy for having affairs with congregation members as well as for his 1875 adultery trial, but that’s another post).

But the church has something else to boast about: it houses a football-sized chunk of the original Plymouth Rock, on display in a part of the church called the Arcade.

The backstory? Apparently the piece of rock came from a parishioner at neighboring Church of the Pilgrims.

Plymouth_Church,_Brooklyn,_New_YorkWhen Plymouth Church merged with Church of the Pilgrims in 1934 (and changed its name until 2011 to Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims), it acquired this artifact of colonial history.

Of course, no one knows for sure if Plymouth rock really was the landing place of the Mayflower in 1620. Real or fake, a fragment of this symbol of religious freedom has found a home in Brooklyn Heights.

[Second image: Suarez; third image: Plymouth Church in 1866]

The summertime beauty of Brooklyn in the 1880s

July 13, 2015

Indiana-born William Merritt Chase lived and painted in Manhattan, Munich, Venice, and the Netherlands.

[“Prospect Park, Brooklyn”]


But he also spent about four years residing in Brooklyn. Between 1887 and 1890, he and his new bride (and eventually their first-born daughter) lived with his parents in a home in the progressive, thriving city.

[“In Navy Yard”]


He was apparently taken by Brooklyn’s lovely new parks and more bucolic sections, as he painted many landscapes and scenes of everyday life in the borough’s less urban outposts.

[“Gravesend Bay (the Lower Bay)”]


His favorite places seemed to be Prospect Park, Tompkins Park (below, now renamed Herbert Von King Park), Gravesend Bay, and even the Brooklyn Navy Yard (above, his wife is holding the parasol).

[“The Park”]


Chase painted these pastoral parts of Brooklyn, “not only because they were part of his Brooklyn surroundings at the time; he also wanted to present them to the world as examples of ‘civilized urban landscapes’ that accorded with the European avant-garde model of modern life,” states the New York Times in an article on a Chase retrospective from 2000.


[“Harbor Scene, Brooklyn Docks”]

By the 1890s, after relocating to Manhattan, he depicted Central Park in several paintings. They are lovely, but his Brooklyn work captures the beauty of the City of Churches in full summer bloom.

The gaudy elephant hotel of 1880s Coney Island

July 6, 2015

When Coney Island went from remote sandbar resort to the city’s biggest beachfront playground in the 1880s, tawdry amusement attractions began to pop up on the West End: beer halls, roller coasters, and freak shows.


But perhaps the gaudiest addition was the Elephantine Colossus, a nearly 200-foot tall hotel sheathed in blue tin and with a gilded howdah on top.

Encircled by the Shaw Channel Chute roller coaster, the hotel looked like a bizarro version of one of the live pachyderms on exhibit at Coney Island’s amusement parks at the turn of the century.


Completed in 1885 at Surf Avenue and West 12th Street, the 12-story elephant was divided into 31 rooms. Visitors could also climb to the observatory and pay 10 cents to get an incredible aerial view of New York City by looking through the elephant’s eyes, which were actually telescopes.

Elephanthotelrollercoaster“The forelegs contained a cigar store and diorama and the hind legs held circular stairways leading to the rooms contained above,” wrote Michael Immerso in Coney Island: The People’s Playground.

The developer called the elephant hotel the eighth wonder of the world. Locals soon began calling it a brothel; apparently it wasn’t too popular with regular tourists, so prostitutes took over.

ElephanthoteladIn fact, “seeing the elephant” became a slang term for visiting the hotel and hiring a hooker, according to this clip from the New-York Historical Society.

As a gimmick, the elephant hotel gripped the imagination. But as a business, it lost money, and by the 1890s, the structure had been abandoned.

ElephanthotelfireIts ultimate demise was spectacular. The hotel burned down in 1896 in a blaze so fiery, it reportedly could be seen from Sandy Hook in New Jersey.

The Elephantine Colossus isn’t the only pachyderm to come to a gruesome end at Coney Island.

Topsy the elephant, a temperamental creature brought to Luna Park so park-goers could ride on her back, was put to death by electrocution there in 1903 under the direction of Thomas Edison, who wanted to test his new direct current.

[Photos: top, New-York Historical Society; second, fourth, and fifth:]

Congratulations to these old New York graduates

June 8, 2015

It’s commencement season, the perfect time to look back at images of long-ago graduates posing in class photos. What in the world became of them?


The suited up boys in this 1915 photo, new graduates of P.S. 64 at 605 East Ninth Street, look like they’re going places in life.

P.S. 64 opened in 1906, not long after the consolidation of the city, a time of huge investment in new school facilities. “Organized around two courtyards, it was the first elementary school to have an auditorium with direct access to the street, allowing this structure to serve an expanded role in the community,” states the Guide to New York City Landmarks.


Brooklyn Friends is a private school in downtown Brooklyn founded in 1867. This is the class of 1943, decked out in graduation suits and gowns.


Elementary and high schools aren’t the only institutions that hold a commencement ceremony. Meet the 1885 nursing school graduates from Broad Street Hospital, formerly at the end of Broad Street.

News photographer George Bain captured this image of the graduates of the “Cripple School” on the Lower East Side’s Henry Street in 1912.


Officially known as the Crippled Children’s East Side Free School, the school intended to “provide the crippled children of the Lower East Side with facilities for securing an education and learning a trade, so that they may become self-supporting,” according to a 1920 guide.

“Workrooms maintained where older cripples fill orders for all kinds of needlework and hand stitching and paper boxes.”

A 1951 stamp explains the Battle of Brooklyn

May 25, 2015

This image of George Washington evacuating his troops illustrates the dramatic escape made by Patriot forces to Manhattan after the bruising Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776.


The stamp was issued in Brooklyn in 1951, commemorating the battle’s 175th anniversary. This is Brooklyn Heights 239 years ago; the Fulton Ferry house is at right. Here’s the historical recap:

“On August 27, the Red Coats marched against the Patriot position at Brooklyn Heights, overcoming the Americans at Gowanus Pass and then outflanking the entire Continental Army,” states

“Howe failed to follow the advice of his subordinates and storm the redoubts at Brooklyn Heights, and on August 29 General Washington ordered a brilliant retreat to Manhattan by boat, thus saving the Continental Army from capture. At the Battle of Brooklyn, the Americans suffered 1,000 casualties to the British loss of only 400 men. On September 15, the British captured New York City.”


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