Sunday, August 30, 2009

Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn

This neighborhood is in a world of its own. Cut off from the rest of the city, by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway to the south and the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge to the west, its serene character and days-of-yore appearance were preserved when industry left and the Navy Yard closed.

Ironically, the Vinegar Hill section of Brooklyn was named in honor of an Irish battle against the British, and it resides on land that was confiscated from the British. The land was initially the property of Rajaike, an English farmer and loyalist who supported the British during the Revolutionary War. At the end of the War he was accused of spying and his farm was confiscated. The Sands brothers, Comfort and Joshua, bought the confiscated land from the Commissioner of Forfeitures. The Sands were merchants and speculators; their goal was to create a summer retreat called Olympia on this hilltop location.

Olympia was to be fashionable and exclusive, an oasis in an area surrounded by water, with salubrious air, an excellent spring, nearby farms for produce and readily available building supplies, all of which eliminated dependency on Manhattan. The Sands were sure that Olympia would grow and prosper as a summer retreat, but this was not to be. The dream that was never realized; instead much of the character of the area was the result of John Jackson's plans.

John Jackson was a ship builder. He established a shipyard at the foot of Hudson Avenue, where he also constructed homes for his workers, and he sold some of the land to the US government for the for the creation of the Navy Yard. He named the area Vinegar Hill in hope of attracting Irish immigrants. The Battle of Vinegar Hill was a bloody battle fought between the Irish and British troops for control of Ireland. And it was this battle that galvanized the Irish in guerrilla warfare that eventually led to the return of Ireland as an independent country.

The Vinegar Hill Historic District is an example of a pre-Civil War working class neighborhood. The homes are modest and many are untouched today by modernization. Walking through the neighborhood feels something like being in a twilight zone where any minute a horse and buggy may appear, along with a rowdy group of workers. Hudson Avenue, the main shopping street, has store fronts that create the small town feeling that existed after the Revolutionary War. According to an old directory, there were 58 households in Vinegar Hill and the majority of the residents were laborers. Tavern proprietors composed one quarter of the population.

While Olympia did not take hold as a summer resort, the homes and businesses in the area were built in a splendid Greek Revival style, with columns, cornices and pilasters reminiscent of ancient Greece. The Greeks represented democracy, and the Greek architectural style proclaimed democracy as an ideal both in government buildings and in a working class neighborhood homes.

One interesting contrast to the modest homes is the Commandant's house located on the ridge overlooking the Navy Yard. Constructed in 1806 by the US Capital Building architect Charles Bulfinch, it boasts an oval office similar to the one in the White House. The house is landmarked and privately owned. We can only hope that someday it will be open for tours. Right now, we have to be content with a view through a twenty-foot high fence.

It was at the bottom of this ridge that the bodies of American Revolutionary War soldiers who died on British prison ships were found, in shallow graves along the bay. A monument, the Martyrs Tomb, was erected and the bodies interred under the monument. However, the remains were moved yet again, this time to Fort Greene Park where they do remain.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Hunters Point, Queens

Hunters Point is sometimes referred to as Long Island City although it is just a part of LIC, which is a much larger area. The neighborhood has long been a transportation hub. In fact, one of the defining features of the area today is the sheer number of trains that rim the boundaries. You name it, and it stops at Hunters Point: the Long Island Railroad, the BMT, IRT and IND subway lines. The current resurgence of Hunters Point as a residential area owes much to this transportation phenomenon and the wonderful waterfront views.

Tour of Hunters Point

Transportation Hub

During the railroad's heyday in the mid 1800s, when the railroads were being built across the country, passengers and goods bound for Manhattan from Long Island had to terminate and unload in Queens. There was no tunnel at this time and, therefore, no way for the long distance trains to cross the river and enter the City. The trains ended in Hunters Point and the passengers and goods were transported across the river by boat.

Commerce flourished, centered around the ferry industry that transported passengers from the LIR terminal to 34th Street in Manhattan. Inns and taverns were built to accommodate the passengers, and small industry developed to service the railroad industry. Many of the rich and famous passed through, including Theodore Roosevelt when he was headed to his home in Sagmore Hill, Long Island.

But the dirt and noise generated by the railroad industry got worse. The Hunters Point stench, as it was called by the New York Times, became infamous since the odor could not be contained and wafted over to Manhattan. The old established families began to leave. Many homes were abandoned and became rooming houses, with working families as tenants. The ethnic and religious power structure changed as the Protestant population was reduced by the establishment exodus, and the simultaneous influx of workers, who were largely Catholic, further tipped the balance. This shift in power became a source of discord.

Religious Hotbed

By the early 1900s, The New York Times reported many disputes between the Protestants and "upstart Catholics." Many of the NY Times articles centered around religion in the schools, citing instances such as "Catholic priest marches into school and takes the kids to church" and "Catholic priest demands that the Protestant version of the Lords Prayer not be read in school." At this time prayer in school was legal, hence raising the question of which versions should be read. Maybe the religious haggling was the legacy of the karma left by the "fiery" Dutch Minister, Dominie Everadus Bogardus who first purchased the land then drowned.

The Last Mayor of Long Island City

Hunters Point was incorporated into Long Island City and became the seat of government for that city and all of Queens County. The power in this area was in the hands of a popular mayor known as Battle Axe Gleason, who was infamous for taking the law into his own hands. He spent many a night in jail, with his loyal supporters cheering him on. He acquired the status of local hero when he and his followers tore down a fence erected by the railroad because it blocked the path of local residents. But he was not invincible and did lose a re-election bid because of the shadow of corruption. However, the mayor refused to leave office. He also destroyed public documents that might have shown his hand in the till,particularly in regard to the construction of PS1, a school built under the mayor's most watchful eye. He was, however, the last mayor of LIC, which then became the borough of Queens and part of the city of New York.

Between 1900 and the present, not much happened or changed in Hunters Point until recently, when the current transition into an artistic community began. It is interesting to note that P.S.1, now an experimental art center and no longer a functional school, is at the forefront of this change. Thus the site ultimately responsible for Mayor Gleason's demise is today a focal point in an exciting artistic resurgence.

The neighborhood, which is a mecca for art institutions as well as subways, is also seeing the development of residential buildings, restaurants and other amenities that serve the growing native population and visitors. The latest addition is Gantry Park and beach, accessible by water taxi. How fitting, since ferries were part of the scene back when Hunters Point first became the transportation link to Manhattan.

Tour of Hunters Point

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Which Williamsburg, Which spelling?

There are three distinct communities that comprise the area known as Williamsburg. The northern section is where the artists have created a vibrant community with galleries, late night music venues and trendy restaurants . South Williamsburg (south of Broadway) is the Hasidic section, not just any Hasidim but Sadmars, a highly insulated community with their distinctive dress and communal life. East Williamsburg is a Hispanic community with deep roots in Puerto Rican culture.

With or without the H?

There are two spellings of Williamsburg, with and without the H. The current spelling without the H, came about after the after the consolidation of Williamsburgh into Brooklyn, when the H was dropped and the fabric of the neighborhood changed along with the spelling. The original spelling can be seen on such institutions such as the Williamsburgh Saving Bank. An interesting note is that the area was named for the surveyor Colonel Jonathan Williams, Williams + burgh, not for Richard Woodhull, the owner of the land. All he did was survey it. When he actually designed the northern battery on Governor's Island, the battery was also given his name, Castle Williams.

Williamsburgh attracts Wealth

WilliamsburgH came into existence in the 1840s, quite late in Brooklyn historical terms, and within a 15 year period WillliamsbugH went from a town to a city and finally was incorporated into Brooklyn as the Eastern District. But more amazing than the rapid status change was the rapid growth and accumulation of wealth in the area. Think Standard Oil, Corning Glass, Pfizer, Domino sugar, Esquire Shoe Polish, Dutch Mustard : all originated in WilliamsburgH.

Names such as Vanderbilt, Jim Fisk, Charles Pratt, Charles Pfizer walked these streets, did their banking here and set up industries. The institution of the ferry to and from Manhattan and street names such as Grand do not adequately reflect the wealth that was in Williamsburgh. According to Wikipedia, ten percent of the wealth of the US was in WilliamsburgH. It became a major banking hub, and the number of banks and elegant buildings are testimony to the magnitude of the money. Three of these buildings survive today. The Kings County Savings Bank, now the Williamsburg Art & Historic Center (photo at right), looks more like a mansion than a bank.

The Williamsburg Bridge (no H)

This bridge lacks the panache of the Brooklyn Bridge, and was the second bridge to span the East River. The entrance to the bridge was in the heart of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and the bridge became a convenient byway giving immigrants access to Brooklyn both to live and work.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Downtown Brooklyn

Downtown Brooklyn is the civic center of Brooklyn. Within the radius of a few blocks you have Borough Hall, formerly City Hall, The Municipal Building, with its compendium of bureaucratic services, several courts, a law school and a jail, aka house of detention. In short, there is everything you need to govern a city, which many residents still consider Brooklyn to be despite its official status as one of the five boroughs of New York City.

The City of Brooklyn
A hundred years ago, Brooklyn was a separate city. The icon of Brooklyn as a city was its City Hall, now called Borough Hall. It was here that the mayor had his offices and the city council, court and jail were located. The construction of the building began in 1837 but took fourteen years to complete, delayed by the usual fiscal problems. It was just ten years ago that the crowning piece, the statue of justice on the roof, was installed. But the fact that it was completed so recently is a testimony to the continued importance of the building, which is the home of the Borough President.

Brooklyn conscripted into the ranks of NYC

Brooklyn was a city for seventy years before it was absorbed, along with the other boroughs, into New York City. From the very beginning, control and dominance of the area was in Manhattan. Perhaps the first and most important coup was Manhattan's gain of control over the East River. This was granted by the Dongan Charter (see photo of Thomas Dongan) when New York was a colony under British rule. As a result of the charter, Brooklyn had no say about its own waterway.

In the mid 1850's, Brooklyn was a separate and growing city and considered, famously so, in the Emily Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue Of Liberty,"Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free....," which refers to the "air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame."

Brooklyn has always maintained a fierce pride in its own separate identity and fought hard to maintain its independence. Brooklynites wanted to preserve the special feeling that characterized Brooklyn culture. But it was no match for Manhattan's determination to become the most powerful and influential city in the country. And Manhattan never seriously regarded Brooklyn as a separate and competing city, seeing it rather as a "suburban bedroom community" for Manhattan middle classes. The next threat to Brooklyn independence came in 1857 when the state of New York combined the police, fire and health departments of the two cities, giving Manhattan another large measure of control over Brooklyn.

As the century moved on, Brooklyn's freedom became precarious. Manhattan's quest for incorporation intensified, fueled by competition with Chicago, which was threatening to overtake Manhattan in size and prestige. Manhattan needed to expand to assure supremacy over Chicago and other challengers and to gain more waterfront property. This meant annexation of Brooklyn and consolidation. Brooklyn, after all, had much to offer in addition to population. It was home to half of the sugar cane industry and all of the Atlantic oil refineries, as well as to the bakeries and breweries. Even so, Brooklyn was running dry, literally running out of water and money.

The consolidation so coveted by Manhattan came to a vote in 1898. The result: 64,744 pro consolidation and 64,467, against. By a margin of 277 votes, Brooklyn as a separate entity --The City Of Brooklyn-- no longer existed. If there were hanging chads or counting irregularities we will never know. Brooklyn, linked by the bridge, is subsumed under the banner of New York.

Pre-consolidation Buildings and Statues

Cadman plaza, a green square, has two interesting statues:

Henry Ward Beecher statue was sculpted by John Quincey Adams Ward, known for his over-sized sculpture of George Washington. Beecher was a local preacher and prominent abolitionist who represents the spirit of Brooklyn.

Christopher Columbus statue was sculpted by Emma Stebbins, best known for her Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

The General Post Office building, now the Bankruptcy Court, is a wonderful structure worth seeing, with an interior that has a beautiful semi-circular balcony that will transport you back in time.
(Beecher & General Post Office)

Post-consolidation Building
The Brooklyn Municipal Building, across from the old City Hall at 10 Joralemon Street, is similar in tone and mood to the Manhattan Municipal Building but smaller in scale. Many government agencies, including the City Clerk's office where marriage licenses are obtained, are located here.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Red Hook, Brooklyn

Red Hook is a scruffy waterfront district, with the new sprouting among the old landmarks. In an area where cargo ships once loaded grain, cruise ships now transport tourists. Landmarks are largely in disrepair, but artists have found the old warehouses hospitable and mega-stores have found the space they crave for expansion. It is a work in progress, an unfinished picture.

Tobacco The Cash Crop
Roode Hoek, Red Hook or the red corner as it was called by the Dutch settlers when they arrived in 1636, became a profitable center for tobacco farming, an enterprise that was begun by the Lenape Indians.

Pre Civil War Period: The Boom Years
The construction of the Erie Canal allowed grain grown in the Midwest to be shipped to New York via the Hudson river and loaded onto ships in Red Hook. The Beard Warehouse is typical of the warehouses that lined the shore here during that time. The Beard Street Warehouse, built in 1860's, is actually many smaller warehouses linked together. There were so many warehouses built on the shores that, when viewed from Manhattan, Red Hook looked like a walled city.

Bust Years
Housing projects were built for the dock workers in the 1930's and amenities included parks and a wonderful pool often used by an after-hours crowd adept at climbing the fence. But the construction of the Expressway cut the area off from the rest of Brooklyn. This, combined with a lack of train service to the area and the shipping industry's migration to New Jersey, dealt Red Hook a fierce blow. Unemployment in the 1950's was running at 30 percent.

The area had acquired a reputation not only as a waterfront but as a mecca for tough, blue collar workers, and the neighborhood was the setting for several blockbuster books, movies and plays. Think of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, the family in Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge and the world of Al Capone. This was Red Hook in its heyday.

Back Up Again
It is hard to pinpoint what brought about the changes occurring in the neighborhood, but they have been gaining momentum. The artists, the food vendors at the soccer fields, Fairway Food Market and Ikea are all part of the new equation. There is still much of the past to savor and enjoy. You can walk along the waterfront and see splendid views of the Statue Of Liberty, ponder the boats moving about the harbor, pop into small artisan shops, drop into a pub or, on a weekend, walk over to the soccer fields and enjoy a carnival of food treats from Central America.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Greenpoint is a charming, village-like neighborhood in Brooklyn, where Polish is heard on the streets and restaurants serve traditional Polish cuisine from bilingual menus.

The first families
Greenpoint was originally settled by Christine Vigne, from a French wine making family, and Dirck Volckerten. a Norseman. Because of Native American attacks, Dirck’s hot temper, which brought him to court many times, and the exile of his outspoken daughter Magdalena, the family abandoned Greenpoint for points north. The property was sold to Jacob Hay, and it was his daughter, Maria, her husband, Pieter Praa, and their descendants who farmed the land and kept the verdant quality from which the name Greenpoint derives. For almost two hundred years, Greenpoint remained isolated farmland.

Industrial transformation

Neziah Bliss, who married into the farm family, saw an opportunity. Bliss bought property, carved out streets, opened a public turnpike on what is now Franklin Street, and established a ferry service to Manhattan. With Greenpoint connected to the rest of the city by roads and ferries and miles of waterfront, Greenpoint was set for the influx of industry. Ship building was the primary industry. The first ironclad ship, the USS Monitor, which participated in the Civil War, was built here. Secondary industries such as printing and pottery factories followed, as did housing, churches and schools. Thus a small industrial village was formed.

A walk down Milton Street provides a glimpse of what it was like. The homes and churches are almost untouched on this landmarked block. At the head of the block stands St. Anthony of Padula, built in 1874 by the master church architect, PC Keely. In the center of the block are two churches, the Lutheran Church with its flying buttress and the Greenpoint Reformed Church, once the home of Thomas C. Smith who owned the Union Porcelain Works. Charming 19th century homes line both sides of the street, and at the end of the street is the waterfront with a factory building.

Enter the New York High Rise

The green pasture transformed into a small industrial village is now facing its next transformation. The high rise industry has arrived, attracted by the miles of waterfront that are prime real estate property. There will certainly be a big change from the apartment house built on Franklin Street by Pratt of Astral Oil Works for its workers and from the village as we have come to know it. However, the landmarked clock on Manhattan Street keeps ticking, a remnant and reminder of the industrial past. Greenpoint’s name is itself a remembrance, a tribute to the original farming community.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Marble Hill, Mahattan

Tucked away in a corner of The Bronx is an area called Marble Hill, an area that is technically part of Manhattan. The story starts in 1895 when the Harlem River Shipping Canal was dug, separating Marble Hill from the rest of Manhattan, and creating an island. In 1914, the old Harlem River bed was filled, attaching Marble Hill to The Bronx. Landfill has changed many areas of New York but this creation of dual affiliation is unique.

In 1939, during the consolidation negotiations that set the borough boundaries, the Bronx borough president planted the Bronx flag in this area, claiming Marble Hill as part of the Bronx. The fifty residents protested and in 1984, forty years later, the New York State Legislature officially declared Marble Hill as part of Manhattan. Politically, it is part of the Manhattan, voting with Manhattan, but the US Postal Service lists the area as part of the Bronx. The telephone company takes a middle of the road approach, giving the area a Bronx area code but listing the residences in both the Manhattan and Bronx directories.

Marble Hill gets its name from dolomite marble which was quarried here as early as the 1600's and was used in building federal buildings in lower Manhattan such as the Bank of United States, the Merchants Exchange, and the Assay Office, whose marble pediment is on display at the Metropolitan Museum. Unfortunately this marble weathered badly and buildings built with it seemed to melt away. By 1840 quarry operations ceased and the quarry is now hidden under the Harlem River. The name Marble Hill was coined in 1891 as part of the real estate development plan.

In keeping with the inclusive mood generated by the dual location, there are quirky and oddly beautiful homes, a cedar shingled church that was established in 1825, a curving street tracing the foot print of the now gone fort built by General Washington, Target and Marshall's mega stores, a strip mall, and an Applebee. Putting it all together, we might wonder, "Am I really in Manhattan?"