Category Archives: history

Renting in Clinton Hill: 1955

Sometimes, the strangest stuff happens.  For example, one day we came home and went upstairs to inspect some of the reno work we’re doing, and the contractor had left behind some little slips of old newspaper from 1955 that had seemingly been in a wall or in the floor (it’s amazing what kinds of treasures are hidden in an old home). One of the slips was apartment rental listings, and what do you know- there were some listings on Clinton Avenue!  Check out the below, which lists an apartment at 286 Clinton Ave for just $90 a month.

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Here’s the building courtesy of Google Maps:

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Too bad the rest had been torn away, but it was almost like the old neighborhood was sending me a little hello.

Friday Photo, Fort Greene History Edition

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More than 350 years ago Brooklyn took its original name from that of Breukelen in the Dutch province of Utrecht on the Vecht River.  Here we see the earlier town’s square.  Whereas our borough is now home to 2.6 million, Breuckelen still thrives at 15,000.  And, like Brooklyn being spooned into New York City in 1898, our Dutch namesake is going to be folded in to a nearby larger city.  (Courtesy Brooklyn Paper.  From “Fort Greene” by Howard Pitsch, Foreword by Paul Palazzo, Arcadia Publishing, 2010, $22.  Available online: HistoricFortGreene.org)

Friday Photo, Fort Greene History Edition

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Pivotal in the march of African Americans toward human rights was Marian Anderson, a contralto of “intrinsic beauty.” Only once did she appear in opera, preferring recitals or concerts. When she sang at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1938, the hall announced “Standing Room Only.” That was just a year before Eleanor Roosevelt asked her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial after the DAR refused her entry to Constitution Hall in Washington. (Courtesy BAM.  From “Fort Greene” by Howard Pitsch, Foreword by Paul Palazzo, Arcadia Publishing, 2010, $22.  Available online: HistoricFortGreene.org)

Friday Photo, Fort Greene History Edition

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For the cause of their country, these naval personnel gave up their limbs during World War I. With its extensive medical facilities at the Brooklyn Navy Yard along Wallabout Bay, the Naval Hospital fitted returning amputees with prostheses designed up to that period. (Courtesy National Archives, the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  From “Fort Greene” by Howard Pitsch, Foreword by Paul Palazzo, Arcadia Publishing, 2010, $22.  Available online: HistoricFortGreene.org)

Friday Photo: Fort Greene History Edition

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Before electronic surveillance gates, these “Rosie the Riveters” — first-ever women to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II — had to open their handbags for security reasons. Assuredly the guards found nothing more sinister or explosive than a mirror, lipstick, sanitary pads and bobby pins.  In all, the Navy Yard workers jumped from 10,000 in 1938 to some 70,000 by war’s end. (Courtesy National Archives, the Brookyln Navy Yard.  From “Fort Greene” by Howard Pitsch, Foreword by Paul Palazzo, Arcadia Publishing, 2010, $22.  Available online: HistoricFortGreene.org)

Friday Photo: Ft Greene History Edition

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Arrival of water mains, sewers and flush toilets in the 1860s created a new use of outdoor privy pots as spots for trash. All these bottles are more than four score years old, from deep down. The small bottle was the type usually contained bitters, heavy with alcohol, which women often used for cramps.  If a lot of those in a privy pit, you knew that Mama was a tippler.  Sunny Brook Rye at left, from Prohibition days, states that it is 50% alcohol by volume — “For medicinal purposes.” Yeah, sure! As they’d say: “First ‘ya swaller, then ‘ya holler.” (Author’s photograph.  From “Fort Greene” by Howard Pitsch, Foreword by Paul Palazzo, Arcadia Publishing, 2010, $22.  Available online: HistoricFortGreene.org)

Friday Photo: Ft Greene History Edition

A local resident for nearly 30 years and one-time chair of the Fort Greene Association, Howard Pitsch recently published a fascinating pictorial history of the neighborhood.  For the next six Fridays, we’ll be posting images from his book.  The Local will also feature some of the book’s photography, but CHB will be posting its own unique set of imagery from the book.

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Horses, the unrequited and often abused heroes of wagons and carriages, did not pose for this picture when everyone had to “freeze” for the slow shutter speed.  In 1860, Vandergaw was at the junction of Fulton Street and DeKalb Avenue, probably where the Dime Savings Bank stands today. The buildings in the background are not identified, although the center one would appear to be a church.  (Courtesy Roger Whitehouse collection.  From “Fort Greene” by Howard Pitsch, Foreword by Paul Palazzo, Arcadia Publishing, 2010, $22.  Available online: HistoricFortGreene.org)

Last Day of the Myrtle Avenue El

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The New York Transit Museum will feature a very cool photography exhibit documenting the last day of the Myrtle Ave El – the elevated train that ran down Myrtle Avenue from 1888 – 1969.  Go far enough down Myrtle, near Bushwick, and you can still see the El’s structure, never fully taken down.  It’s crazy to imagine so many NYC streets beneath elevated trains!

The press release includes some wonderful historical facts about the line and the exhibit:

Opening in 1888, the Myrtle Avenue el ran from downtown Brooklyn to Queens, passing through Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Ridgewood, and Middle Village.  After eighty years, to the dismay of many passengers, the Myrtle Avenue el closed in 1969 and was demolished the following year. Yet, in the mid-20th century, the el’s wooden train cars and antiquated stations still held fond memories for riders who grew up in those neighborhoods.

THE LAST DAY OF THE MYRTLE AVENUE EL: Photographs by Theresa King is a photo essay shot in a single day forty years ago. The photographer recalls, “At midnight on October 3, 1969 over a thousand people eagerly awaited a train – not just any train, but the final train to run on Brooklyn’s Myrtle Avenue elevated line.  These people were taking the last ride on this historic elevated train.  As soon as they crammed on, the train rolled along from Brooklyn’s Jay Street station to the Metropolitan Avenue station in Queens.  At the end of this sad journey, some passengers took artifacts to remember this very special old timer and bid a fond farewell. The pictures were taken during this last day at various stations along the Myrtle Avenue el in Brooklyn.  During my childhood, I rode this train daily and loved the look of the station stops and the train itself.  When I realized the line was due for demolition, I wanted to document a part of Brooklyn’s past that would be no more.”

Myrtle Avenue—named for the myrtle trees that once grew in the area – has been a major roadway since the early 1800’s. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Knickerbocker Stage Coach Line ran omnibus service on the avenue. In April 1888 the Myrtle Avenue elevated train began operation from downtown Brooklyn to Grand Avenue Junction, where Pratt Institute had opened one year earlier. That September, the line was extended west to Sands Street, where passengers could transfer to a cable car to cross the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. In 1889 it was extended east to Wyckoff Avenue in Bushwick, and then to Metropolitan Avenue in Queens in 1906. When it first opened the neighborhoods along the western end of Myrtle Avenue – downtown Brooklyn, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill, were already densely populated. The Brooklyn Bridge had been completed five years earlier and omnibus lines and railroads served the area. Beyond Grand Avenue Junction, however, the area was still mostly rural, and much of eastern Myrtle Avenue developed along with the el.  Bushwick’s housing and industry boomed in the late 1880’s, as German immigrants opened successful large-scale breweries, and Ridgewood developed just after the line was extended there in the prosperous years before World War I.  But beginning in the 1930s, with the decline of business along Brooklyn’s once vibrant waterfront and the opening of what is today the G subway line, ridership on the Myrtle Avenue el began a decline that would culminate with the closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1966.

The exhibit features color and black and white photographs by Theresa King, along with historic photographs, archival material, and station signage from the New York Transit Museum collection.

New York Transit Museum
Located on the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn Heights
Hours: Tuesday – Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
Admission: $5 Adults, $3 children (3-17) and Seniors (62+)
Seniors admitted free every Wednesday

Moses and the BQE, Part II

Robert Moses, the city planner responsible for much of the look of today’s city, proposed the idea for the BQE in 1940.  Construction was interrupted by World War II, and work did not begin until 1945, with the first section opening in 1945.   While the BQE has left Clinton Hill only mildly changed, it strongly affected other neighborhoods, like Red Hook.

In 1940, Moses grew concerned that increased traffic from LaGuardia Airport and trucks using the Triborough Bridge would tax the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges and the smaller side streets in Brooklyn and Queens, and proposed an expressway cutting across both boroughs.  “The present streets are narrow and congested, with crossings at every block,” he wrote in his proposal.  “The crazy-quilt pattern of the streets inherited from the villages that grew together to form the present borough adds to the difficulty of travel.”

His plan proposed to build on an existing road which already connected Queens Boulevard and the Kosciuszko Bridge in Greenpoint, extending it northward to the Grand Central Parkway and southward through Brooklyn.  The original plan called for the expressway to run directly along the shoreline from the Wiliamsburg Bridge down to the Manhattan Bridge, which would have bypassed Clinton Hill entirely.  However, as this plan would have dramatically affected the Navy Yard – which was then still a military facility – the city altered the route a few blocks south, to its present location.

Even so, construction didn’t even get underway anyway until after the war.  Construction began on the first new section in 1945, as part of Moses’ postwar development programs a section which connected the Williamsburg and Kosciuszko Bridges opened in 1950.  Moses seemed fascinated by the construction – a 1974 biography reports that Moses rented the penthouse floor of the Marguerite Hotel for his office; the hotel was just alongside the construction site, so Moses could keep a sharp eye on the proceedings.  However, sometimes Moses would just stare out the window, watching.  One of his assistants later said in an interview that “I never saw him look happier than he did when he was looking out of that window.”

Moses may have been happy with the construction, but several other Brooklynites were not.  Residents of Brooklyn Heights were concerned about the expressway’s impact on their historic neighborhood and its postcard views of Manhattan; when they complained, Moses shifted the route four blocks west to the very edge of the shoreline, and built a park above it – the Brooklyn Promenade.  Residents originally asked that this park be used for private gardens, but Moses insisted it be made available to the public instead.

Other neighborhoods weren’t as lucky, however.  Entire blocks were often cleared to make way for BQE overpasses, in the name of “slum clearance.”  He did leave behind the occasional park here and there, but many found this cold comfort.

In Red Hook, instead of an overpass, Moses dug a below-ground ditch to run the expressway through, plowing it straight through the center of the neighborhood.  Moreover, instead of covering it over as he had in Brooklyn Heights, Moses left the Red Hook section open, funneling pollution from passing traffic into surrounding Red Hook Streets.  He also left behind very few options to cross over the expressway from either side of the neighborhood, which in effect cut off Red Hook from the rest of Brooklyn.  At the time, Red Hook was a working-class neighborhood with active waterfronts; only a single exit connected the waterfronts with the BQE, causing traffic bottlenecks from trucks delivering goods.  Red Hook’s industrial waterfront declined soon thereafter, and with it, the rest of the surrounding neighborhood.

Today, a number of residents alongside the BQE are brainstorming ways to take back some of the space Moses left us with.  While here in Clinton Hill we’re brainstorming ways to use the space under the bridge, in Cobble Hill and Carrol Gardens Mayor Bloomberg has proposed constructing a roof deck over a nine-block stretch of the expressway, and then building housing on top of that.  Moses may have largely ignored most neighborhood’s wishes in planning the BQE, but it seems many neighborhoods are starting to take it back.