Archive for the ‘Brooklyn’ Category

Your ticket to cross the new Williamsburg Bridge

August 28, 2017

Before coin tokens came into use, passengers riding the New York City subway in its early days needed a paper ticket.

And apparently a paper ticket also allowed you to take a trolley across the Williamsburgh (note the h!) Bridge after it opened in 1903.

This ticket comes from the Museum of the City of New York’s Collections Portal. The caption reads: “Good for one passage over Williamsburgh Bridge on local bridge cars only. Three rides 5 cents.”

That’s a bargain; when the subway opened in 1904, a ride ran you a nickel.

The Brooklyn tree that belongs in a fairy tale

August 28, 2017

New York has many famous trees: the elms that form a canopy over the Central Park Mall, Peter Stuyvesant’s 200-year-old flowering pear tree, the infamous “hangman’s elm” of Washington Square Park.

But none are as dreamy and enchanting as the Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park, gifted to the young park in 1872 by an East New York florist named A.G. Burgess (who after a career cultivating beauty, sadly committed suicide in 1883).

Grown from a mutated branch of an elm tree in Scotland, Brooklyn’s Camperdown Elm looks like it belongs in an Edgar Allan Poe story. Its gnarled, knotty trunk and thick curly branches give it an ominous fairy tale vibe.

On the other hand, the tree has a magical and protective quality to it. With those weeping branches growing parallel to the ground, the tree’s curtains of leaves serve as a shield against danger. Seek solitude or privacy under it, and it will keep your secrets.

No one described this Camperdown Elm better than Marianne Moore, the poet who began her writing career in the West Village before moving to Fort Greene in 1929 and then back to Greenwich Village in the 1960s.

Her 1967 ode to “Brooklyn’s Crowning Curio” gave the tree, then neglected and often a target of vandals, a new appreciation.

“I think, in connection with this weeping elm,
of “Kindred Spirits” at the edge of a rockledge
overlooking a stream:
Thanatopsis-invoking tree-loving Bryant
conversing with Thomas Cole
in Asher Durand’s painting of them
under the filigree of an elm overhead.
No doubt they had seen other trees—lindens,
maples and sycamores, oaks and the Paris
street-tree, the horse-chestnut; but imagine
their rapture, had they come on the Camperdown elm’s
massiveness and “the intricate pattern of its branches,”
arching high, curving low, in its mist of fine twigs.
The Bartlett tree-cavity specialist saw it
and thrust his arm the whole length of the hollowness
of its torso and there were six small cavities also.
Props are needed and tree-food. It is still leafing;
still there. Mortal though. We must save it. It is
our crowning curio.”

Save it the city did, with cables to support the Camperdown Elm’s branches and a cast-iron fence to keep admirers at a safe distance.

An Impressionist paints New York’s sand and surf

August 21, 2017

Impressionist artist Edward Henry Potthast, born in Cincinnati in 1857, never married and had no children.

[“Coney Island,” 1910]

But this devoted painter who made art his entire life (he even died in his studio overlooking Central Park) seemed to find deep delight in depicting scenes of families, especially young mothers and children, enjoying the sand and surf at the city’s seaside pleasure outposts.

[“Summer Day, Brighton Beach” date unknown]

After studying art in Europe, Potthast permanently relocated to Manhattan in the 1890s, working as an illustrator for monthly publications such as Scribner’s and Harper’s while painting and exhibiting his own work.

[“Saturday Afternoon, Rockaway Beach” 1915]

He lived and worked at the Gainsborough, a building of artists’ studios on Central Park South that opened in 1908. “After his move to New York, Potthast made scenes of people enjoying leisurely holidays at the beach and rocky harbor views his specialty,” states this biography.

[“Manhattan Beach” date unknown]

Although he painted scenes of bright sunny skies and sparkling blue water in out-of-state locales in Massachusetts and Maine, “[s]uch was his love of the beach that, when he resided in New York, he would journey out on fair days to Coney Island or Far Rockaway with his easel, paintbox, and a few panels.”

[“Brighton Beach” date unknown]

While Coney Island and the Rockaways have been popular with painters since these resorts began attracting massive crowds in the late 19th century, Potthast’s beach scenes don’t resemble not the tawdry Coney Island of Reginald Marsh or the foreboding Coney of Alfred Henry Maurer.

[“Brighton Beach” date unknown]

Instead, they show the gentle and genteel side of the city’s beaches in the 1910s—vivid with color, activity, and a dreamy innocence that makes one wish they could be instantly transported there, away from the complexities of contemporary life.

[“Rockaway Beach” 1910]

The street names carved into Brooklyn corners

August 14, 2017

Look up at this busy Park Slope corner, and you’ll see two street names engraved on decorative blocks: 5th Avenue (the numeral, lovely!) and Garfield Place.

The lettering is in remarkably good condition, considering that it could be 134 years old.

In 1883, two years after the assassination of President Garfield, Garfield Place became the new name of what used to be Macomb Street. (Though the Macomb name lives on engraved into another corner.)

Third Avenue and Dean Street both still exist, of course. But it’s unusual to see street names carved into marble, which decorates the facade of a New York Times‘ 20th century printing plant on this Boerum Hill corner.

The former printing plant now houses a school, which features these wonderful original Art Deco bas reliefs.

Buffalo Bill’s wild west show thrills 1894 Brooklyn

July 17, 2017

Part circus, part vaudeville act, part patriotic celebration of a mythic American frontier, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was a huge summer draw when this traveling extravaganza booked time in New York in the late 19th century.

The show first visited Erastina, a park on the north shore of Staten Island, in 1886. “The festivities began with an elaborate parade through the streets of Manhattan on June 26,” states the blog for the Museum of the City of New York.

“Quickly, the entertainers’ camp became as popular as the scheduled performances. Families from Manhattan and Queens chatted with cowboys and marveled at Native Americans who sat in hammocks and roasted hotdogs for supper.”

After a turn at Madison Square Garden, the show moved to Brooklyn for the summer of 1894, thrilling audiences at Ambrose Park, a 24-acre parcel of land on Third Avenue and 37th Street in today’s Sunset Park.

And while it might seem corny to New Yorkers today, this kind of spectacle was great family fun for the growing middle class of the Gilded Age, when ferries and elevated trains made day trips to Ambrose Park easier.

William Cody “truly did establish himself as a talented marksman and scout on the frontier before he transformed into a charming showman,” states the MCNY blog.

“His Wild West show subsequently relied on his knowledge of the West to gain popularity, but he also depended on urban environments, like New York, which allowed his spectacle to flourish.”

Get a load of the map of Greater New York in the poster! Whoever drew it managed to get the Brooklyn Bridge in there, but the city seems to stop at Chambers Street. And what’s the rectangle land mass off Brooklyn?

[Second image Brooklyn Eagle ad, 1894; third photo: Green-Wood Cemetery]

Riding an elephant at Coney Island’s Luna Park

July 15, 2017

If rides like Helter Skelter, Shoot the Chutes, and the Witching Waves weren’t enough excitement for you, you could always take advantage of another thrill offered at Luna Park: elephant rides.

Opened in 1903, Luna Park was the Surf Avenue pleasure pavilion that entertained millions of Coney Island fun-seekers every summer with the kinds of rides and spectacles no amusement park could get away with today.

This postcard dates to 1906—those women don’t look like they’re enjoying Brooklyn on an elephant, do they?

The roof sunbathers of New York’s tar beaches

July 7, 2017

Lying out to work on your tan just isn’t fashionable anymore. But sunbathers glistening with baby oil were once a ubiquitous summer sight on the city’s tar beaches.

Tar beaches? That was the nickname New Yorkers gave the tarry black tenement or apartment house rooftop. Tenants would drag up a chair or blanket, maybe a book, radio or Walkman, and a cold drink, then pick a spot in the sun and happily bake themselves while taking a break from the crowds and noise many stories below.

Up on a usually empty roof, there was the illusion of privacy. Of course anyone living above you could see you. But in an era before smartphone cameras and social media, it hardly mattered if curious neighbors stared.

“As long as there have been sun worshipers in search of the perfect tan in the city, there has been the tar beach,” stated a New York Times article from 2007, mourning the passing of rooftop sunbathing as a popular alternative to a day at the shore.

“Roofs have long been the urbanites’ slightly hotter, slightly gooier answer to the backyard pools and lawns of the suburbs—like private little plots without bothersome trees to throw shade.”

It’s a summer day pastime with fewer and fewer fans. Maybe roofs are barred because landlords don’t want to be liable for an accident, or perhaps New Yorkers have more cash these days to enjoy the sun on vacation out of the city.

“This time-honored summer escape is a diminished, perhaps even dying habit. This has been noted by those who have a bird’s-eye access to the city: helicopter pilots, water tank repairmen and occupants of tall buildings in otherwise low-lying neighborhoods,” concluded the Times.

[Top photo: Getty Images, 1966, Hell’s Kitchen; second photo: Tudor City, MCNY, 1943; x2010.7.2.9662; third photo: via Flying VIPs; fourth photo: Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos, 1983; fifth photo: Brooklyn, Ed Clark/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images via the Daily Mail]

A lovely day to relax in Green-Wood Cemetery

May 15, 2017

It might sound a little macabre to our modern sensibilities.

But in a city with almost no public parks until the late 19th century, what better place was there to take in the fresh air and views of New York Harbor and enjoy the natural landscape than a burial ground?

Which is why half a million Brooklynites and tourists a year flocked to Green-Wood Cemetery, founded in 1838.

Green-Wood was one of the new “rural” cemeteries that allowed people to stroll the grounds, ride 17 miles of carriage drives, and picnic inside a necropolis of 150,000 souls by 1870, according to Lights and Shadows of New York Life.

“[T]he sunlight falls brightly, the birds sing their sweetest over the new-made graves, the wind sighs its dirge through the tall trees, and the ‘sad sea waves’ blend with it all in their solemn undertone from afar,” wrote author James D. McCabe, in wonderfully flowery Victorian-era prose.

Green-Wood “has come to be, next to the Central Park and Prospect Parks, one of the favorite resorts of the people of New York and Brooklyn.”

[Top photo: Green-Wood Cemetery; bottom photo: NYPL]

Is this the last OTB parlor in New York City?

May 15, 2017

In 2010, Off Track Betting went the way of the Automat and checker cabs—shut down by the state thanks to financial issues caused by waning interest in betting on horses.

But in Chatham Square in Chinatown, amazingly, the ghost of one OTB remains. Its doors are locked but the sign (and a Chinese translation!) is in place, a forgotten relic of a grittier 1970s and 1980s city.

New Yorkers of a certain age will remember OTB parlors (like the one below, in Times Square in 1971), each with its own cast of colorful, often sad-sack regulars placing bets or just hovering around the entrance.

A 2013 article from Daily Racing Forum recalled the Chatham Square OTB in all of its grimy glory.

“It was always crowded, and until the citywide ban you could barely see through clouds of cigarette smoke,” wrote Ryan Goldberg. “Before the races, Chinese men used to sit at the counter of the greasy dim-sum restaurant next door, examining the entries while eating Frisbee-sized pork buns.”

“Flyers notifying patrons where to cash their remaining tickets are still stuck on the dirty windows. Standing there, you half expect somebody to walk up and unlock the door, open the register and begin taking bets.”

[Second photo: NYPost/Getty Images; third photo: Bay Ridge OTB, 1977, via Flickr by Anthony Catalano]

Gowanus Bay like you’ve never seen it before

April 21, 2017

Could these two paintings really be of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Bay — namesake of the canal that was once a notoriously polluted mob dumping ground snaking through Red Hook and Carroll Gardens?

Hard to believe, but the waterfront — and the creek that became the canal — was once this bucolic and beautiful. The first painting, “Sunset at Gowanus Bay,” dates to 1851. It’s by an Australian painter named Henry Gritten, who lived in Brooklyn in the 1850s.

At the time Gritten painted this, Gowanus Creek was being widened and deepened, according to nyc.gov. The new Gowanus Canal, as it would be named, was supposed to attract industry and compete with New York.

In 1887, long after the canal had been built out, William Merritt Chase did his own take on Gowanus Bay.

I wish I knew where his vantage point was when he painted this beachy scene with a pier, small boats, gentle waves, and not much industry along the waterfront. The Bay looks absolutely swim-able.