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. Clinton-Hill-Rental-1955-150x150

Here's the building courtesy of Google Maps:


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

AMST_BreukelenScenes31 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:

Friday Photo, Fort Greene History Edition

1938_MarianAnderson_011 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:

Friday Photo, Fort Greene History Edition


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:

Friday Photo: Fort Greene History Edition

Employees-Women-First-Day-12 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:

Friday Photo: Ft Greene History Edition

bottles1 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:

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. vandergaw2

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:

Last Day of the Myrtle Avenue El

goodbye glance 10.3.69 lr 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.

Robert Moses and the BQE

The recent meeting about the space under the BQE bridge got me thinking about the history of the BQE itself.  The BQE was developed by Robert Moses, one of the most active – and controversial – urban planners in New York City history. Moses never was elected to any office, but still had tremendous influence on construction and urban development not just in New York City, but throughout Westchester and Long Island.  Parts of the city we recognize today simply would not exist without him.  However, his critics complained that a lot his proposed changes were simply too broad, and that he had little regard for whether he disrupted any neighborhoods – or people – in laying out his plans.

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, Moses’ family moved to New York when he was only nine.  After studying in Yale and then Oxford, Moses returned to New York for a PhD in political science from Columbia.  After he graduated, he quickly got involved in the New York political scene, specifically in political reform movements. The city had just shaken loose from decades of political corruption, and Moses first tried his hand at writing reform laws that would eliminate the abuses of the old corrupt system.  None of his ideas went far, but governor Al Smith saw a good deal of intelligence in Moses, and took him on as an occasional advisor.

In 1923 he was assigned his first major urban planning project – a state park on Long Island.  At the time, what we know as Jones Beach was Jones Island, a tiny island which was often completely underwater.  Moses’ crew spent five years dredging up sand from the ocean floor and planting beach grass to anchor the new beach against strong winds.   Moses oversaw everything from the design of the locker rooms to the bricks used in all the buildings.  He also forbade any kind of boardwalk-style rides or games, which was unusual enough that the New York Times mentioned it in the headline of its 1929 article about the park’s opening day.  Jones Beach was such a rousing success that a few years later, during the Depression, governor Al Smith turned to Moses when New York State received grants for urban planning as part of FDR’s New Deal program.

Over his twenty-year career, Moses developed over a hundred civil projects, including ten public pools (including McCarren Pool in Williamsburg), four zoos (including the Prospect Park Zoo), 24 state parks, and two World’s Fairs. He built the Triboro Bridge, Throgs Neck Bridge and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and created Tavern On The Green restaurant as part of a 1934 renovation of Central Park. He relocated the New York Aquarium from Battery Park in Manhattan to its current Coney Island location. He also helmed the 1960 development of Lincoln Center and a number of middle-income housing projects, like Bronx’s Co-Op City and Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan.

But Moses had a habit of creating as many problems as he solved.  Some argued his housing projects destroyed as many homes as they created.  Others whispered about possible racism –how he seemed to locate nearly all of his projects in affluent areas of the city, and almost none in Harlem; or how he seemed to design all his overpasses so they were too low for buses to pass underneath, cutting off entire neighborhoods from public transit.  He also blocked a plan to extend the Long Island Railroad to Jones Beach Park, cutting it off from countless New Yorkers too poor to own a car.

Moses was fascinated by cars.  He blocked bills that would have promoted public transportation, preferring to develop freeway and highway systems – “Cities are for traffic,” he once said. Many of his plans involved bridges, expressways, or freeways to speed traffic through the city.  However, even here he ruffled feathers, often routing his highways and freeways around wealthy neighborhoods but plowing them right through poor ones.

In the late 1950’s, he blocked efforts to replace Ebbets Field Stadium, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Walter O’Malley, then owner of the team, wanted to build a new stadium at Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush (ironically, next to the site of the recently proposed New York Nets Stadium).  But Moses blocked the project – he had plans for a parking garage on the site instead.  Moses suggested a new stadium in Queens, but O’Malley refused, and moved the Dodgers to Los Angeles.  Some old Brooklyn Dodgers fans still bear a grudge against Moses.  He did build that stadium in Queens, however – Shea Stadium was also a Moses project.

Through the 1960’s, Moses’ popularity waned as ideas for urban planning changed.  But he refused to adapt, and proposed a number of unpopular ideas – such as trying to raze a playground in Central Park to expand a parking lot for Tavern On The Green.  The public finally decided it had had enough when he oversaw the destruction of the old Penn Station, regarded by many as an architectural jewel.  When he next tried to establish one more expressway through Manhattan, which would have leveled nearly 15 blocks in Soho and would have displaced 800 businesses, the public blocked the project.  Moses’ power dissolved soon thereafter.

At the time he built the BQE, though, Moses’ power was still strong.  We’ll look at that specific project in the next post.

By Special Request: The Colorful Life of Israel Putnam

In an earlier post, commenter George W. asked about the namesake for Putnam Avenue; technically it’s a toss-up whether Putnam is part of Clinton Hill or Bed Stuy, but Israel Putnam was just plain interesting.  So, George W., this is for you. I found a lot of info, but had to weed out what seemed like tall tales.  Born in Danvers, Massachusetts -- the town that used to be called “Salem” -- in 1718, Putnam was a Revolutionary War hero who was prone to acting rashly, and so some of his biographies are somewhat…exaggerated.  One biography claims that once when he was a child he was climbing a tree, and got stuck on a branch – and instead of panicking, calmly asked a friend to shoot at the branch until it fell, bringing him with it to the ground.

The stories about his early adulthood are a little more believable.  Putnam moved to Eastern Connecticut when he was 22 (in fact, he lived very near the town where I grew up).  The winter he was 24, Putnam and his neighbors had trouble with a wolf in the nearby woods preying on their sheep each night; the wolf killed as many as seventy sheep on one occasion.  Settlers set out traps, but she escaped them all.  One night, a team finally got fed up enough to spend all night tracking the wolf, and were able to find her den.  They spent the next twelve hours trying to drive her out so she could be shot, or urging their own dogs in to attack her, to no avail.  Finally, Putnam decided he would crawl into the den HIMSELF.  Tying a rope around his waist -- so the others could haul him out in a hurry, if need be -- he lit a makeshift torch and crawled into the wolf’s den, where he shot her at point-blank range.  The town celebrated for a full two days afterward, and Putnam’s nickname was “Old Wolf” for years afterward.

Putnam later went on to fight in both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, and got into similarly hair-raising scrapes.  During the French and Indian War, Putnam’s squad was ambushed, and a Mohawk warrior captured Putnam; rather than taking him to the POW camp right away, the warrior tied him to a tree and returned to battle.  Then the field of battle shifted – to the very field where Putnam’s tree stood smack in the center. For an hour Putnam dodged the musket balls from both directions as best he could.

Then another Mohawk warrior, discovering him trapped, started tormenting him by throwing his tomahawk towards his head, scaring Putnam with several near-misses.  A French officer coming on the scene then tried three times to shoot Putnam, but his gun jammed each time, and the officer gave up, taking the Mohawk warrior with him and leaving Putnam there.  Putnam’s original captor returned when the battle died down and took him to the prisoner of war camp, where later that night a group of other Mohawk warriors tied him to a stake and tried to burn him alive.  Putnam dodged the flames for a good five minutes before a passing French officer rescued Putnam, and kept him safe until he was returned home to Connecticut during a prisoner exchange.

The next twenty years were quiet for Putnam; then in 1775, he was plowing with his son Daniel when a messenger rode through town, spreading word about the outbreak of battle in Lexington, Massachusetts, and the beginning of the war for Independence. Putnam immediately dropped his plow, got a horse, and spent the rest of the afternoon spreading the news through two counties.  Putnam also formally enlisted at the home of the governor, and then – without even changing out of his work clothes – set out that night on the eighteen-hour ride to Concord, reporting for duty the next morning.

Putnam became a General in the Revolutionary War – he is best known for giving the famous command, “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” at the battle of Bunker Hill. Less famous – at least to the layman -- was Putnam’s solo ride to rally reinforcements during a surprise British attack on a site near Greenwich, Connecticut. Putnam’s 150 soldiers were only one-tenth the size of the attacking British force, and after defending their position a while, Putnam led his men to safety in the nearby woods, then set out alone to nearby Stamford for reinforcements; four British officers followed him in pursuit.

After about a mile, Putnam lost the officers by urging his horse down a steep and rocky hillside; the thwarted British soldiers, whose horses refused to follow, shot after him out of frustration, and one of the musket balls pierced through Putnam’s hat.  He responded by turning back to the British officers and taunting them before continuing to Stamford.  By the time he returned, the attacking British troops had withdrawn, but Putnam’s men had taken a few prisoners.  Perhaps recalling his own treatment in the French and Indian War, Putnam insisted on decent treatment and medical care for the prisoners, and looked after their safety until a later prisoner exchange.  As a reward for his decency and his bravery, the governor of Connecticut presented him with a new hat to replace the one with the bullet hole.

Very soon afterward, Putnam suffered a stroke, ending his military career.  He retired to his home in Brooklyn, Connecticut, dying there in 1790.

In addition to being the namesake for Putnam Avenue, Israel Putnam has also had counties in nine states named for him; there are also towns named Putnam in both Connecticut and New York.  PS 44 in Bed-Stuy, now named for Marcus Garvey, was at one time also named after Israel Putnam.

An amateur historian has created a whole tribute site to Israel Putnam ( ), where you can read more details about his exploits.  The site also has modern photos of the wolf’s den, the battlefield where Putnam was tied to a tree, and other landmarks (although, fair warning that the site also has a MIDI music file that can get fairly annoying after a while).

Meet The Ryersons

Like most of Brooklyn, Clinton Hill was originally farmland granted to early settlers.  With a name like Clinton Hill, you’d think that someone named Clinton was the original owner.  Wrong -- the first settlers in the Clinton Hill area were actually a Dutch couple, Marten and Annetje Ryerson. Marten emigrated from Amsterdam sometime in 1646, along with his brother Adrian; Adrian, the older brother, was probably married and brought his family along with him.  The two brothers settled in Brooklyn on two different farm plots – Marten settling in a plot alongside Wallabout Bay.  The site was a popular one for settlers; the first ferry between what is now Manhattan and Brooklyn docked in the bay.  The tiny colony, sponsored by the Dutch East India company, offered settlers a deal – settlers would pay the Dutch East India company a tenth of their earnings for ten years, and then would own their plots outright.  In fact, the very name “Brooklyn” refers to this deal – it comes from the Dutch words “Bruijk” and “leen,” meaning “to use” and “loan”.

It’s not clear when Marten settled on his plot, but he very well may have set up shop immediately.  However, he took his time getting married; it was another twenty years before he married Annetje, who was born in the “new world.”  Annetje was the daughter of Joris and and Catalina de Rapelje, another couple who emigrated to Albany via France.  It’s not clear whether Joris and Catalina married before they emigrated, immediately upon landing, or even on the boat – at the very least, they were on the same ship, arriving in time to give birth to their first daughter, Sarah, in 1625 in a fort on the site of what is now Albany. In fact, little Sarah Rapelje was the first colonial child born in that city.

Annetje was the sixth of the Rapelje’s eleven children.  It’s not clear when the Rapeljes moved to Brooklyn; it may have been sometime during Annetje’s childhood, as records show that Annetje’s older brother Jacob was “shot by Indians," an incident which may have been what sent the family from Albany to the comparatively safe Brooklyn colony.  Annetje had definitely been living in Brooklyn long enough for her to be listed in the records as “a young maiden from Brooklyn” when her marriage to Marten Ryerson was performed in 1663.

Marten and Annetje had eleven children themselves.  Their oldest son, Joris, only stayed until he was married at the age of 24; Joris then started his own farm on Manhattan Island, nearby the site of Trinity Church.  After 20 years, Joris moved even further, buying 5500 acres of land in what is now Bergen County, New Jersey, and eventually becoming a judge.  Another son, Jacobus, stayed on the family plot, tending to the Ryerson’s land along what is now Flatbush Avenue; his own son, Marten, took over afterward, and operated another ferry running to and from Manhattan that proved useful to troop movements during the Revolutionary War.

The Ryersons, of course, lent their name to Ryerson Street, running from DeKalb Avenue north to the spot where Marten Jr. operated his ferry.

Sister Act

This past December, The New York Times ran an in-depth article (linked below) about the elderly nuns who reside at the Convent of Mercy, which has been located at Willoughby and Classon Avenues for the past 147 years.  As explained in the article, their order, the Sisters of Mercy, decided to close down the convent because of the prohibitive $20 million it would cost to fix “structural and accessibility problems” in the building.  While a final decision had not been made yet as to what they are going to do with the building, selling was one of the options on the table.  The nuns who have lived there together and no doubt thought they would die there, were instead split up and sent packing to nursing homes and other facilities at far remove, even in different states. Shortly after the article was published, the Society for Clinton Hill e-mailed a petition urging that the Landmarks Preservation Commission act on the request submitted in August, 2007 to grant landmark status to the Convent, stating that “the loss of this intact nineteenth-century religious complex to yet more "luxury condos" would be a sad thing for our neighborhood on many levels.  We would much prefer to see this historic religious compound preserved and put to adaptive re-use.”

I happen to have an acquaintance who got to know some of the Sisters during 2007 and 2008, as she visited them on several occasions to provide professional health care services to them.  She was kind enough to share some anecdotes about them with me so Clinton Hill Blog readers could get a better sense of these long-time neighbors.

First, she describes the sisters she visited as frail elderly (65+), and in various stages of dementia.  However, with proper medical supervision and provision of home health aides, they were able to remain at the convent in good shape.

My friend says the women were sweet and kind and peaceful, but confused due to the dementia.  Each of the sisters would always tell visitors that she loved them and would kiss them on the cheek.  A favorite ruse that some of them liked to employ was claiming that they were going to the chapel to pray, but then going to the kitchen to sneak chocolate (not a good thing when one is suffering from diabetes!). At one point, when my friend happened to be bent over working with one of the nuns, another nun playfully smacked my friend on the rear, saying “You’re just so irresistible, I couldn’t stop myself!”  On a more somber note, one of the sisters, who was a Mother Superior in her pre-retirement days and accustomed to being a formidable presence and running the show, would spend her time sitting in a chair all day with nothing to do, asking, “Where am I supposed to go?  What am I supposed to do?”

At some point in the recent past the roof collapsed, rendering the living area unsafe for the sisters.  This was probably when the decision was made to move the sisters out.  The ladies were very upset and unhappy about the decision, since they had been living together for so many years and had formed a strong attachment to each other, kind of like a “band of sisters," I guess you could say.   After all, they shared a common living area, and did practically everything together -- eating, praying together, playing cards, watching television, exercising together.  They communally celebrated birthdays and shared holidays in prayer and celebration.

In closing, in this writer’s opinion, it is a shame that these dear elderly ladies are no longer in our community; and that the convent, with its rich history in Clinton Hill, is closed and may be sold.  Who knows what will happen to the property?

More information:


Part Two Last time, we met the Marquis de Lafayette and Johann DeKalb, two French military officers come to the United States to help with the Revolution.  After some initial hesitancy, the Continental Congress found them both positions as Washington’s aide-de-camp and a major general respectively; soon, each was about to meet our other two soldiers with Brooklyn street namesakes.

Horatio Gates was a former British military man – he’d served during the French and Indian War in the 1750’s.  Gates immediately offered his support when revolution broke out; Congress at first appointed him to oversee the administration of the troops, as he had the most experience in the British military and could best coordinate the new Colonial army.  Gates complied reluctantly – he was more interested in a combat position.  He was later given command of a proposed invasion of British Canada – but the invasion was cancelled before it began, and Gates was stuck assisting with the Northern campaign.

Part of what frustrated Gates was serving under George Washington.  Gates and Washington were in the same regiment during the French and Indian War, and the two frequently disagreed on strategy.  Gates had hoped to lead the Continental Army himself, so serving under his rival Washington was a particular insult.  After only a few months, Gates was openly trash-talking Washington – he reported to Congress instead of Washington, and was openly asking Congress to demote Washington and give him command of the army.  He even played hooky from one battle – he and Washington had disagreed about whether to attack on one particular front, and when Gates was overruled, he actually played sick to sit things out.

Congress finally promoted Gates to lead the Northern campaign in August of 1777, where he almost immediately had a stunning success with the Battle of Saratoga, capturing an entire British division and successfully defending the northern states from a northern attack.  Congress briefly considered giving in to Gates’ long-standing wish to take over control of the army, but ultimately kept Gates where he was.

Then in 1780, Gates was re-assigned to the southern front.  That August, he lead an attack on Camden, a North Carolina supply center for the British army.  Among the troops supporting Gates was a team of militia from Maryland lead by Johann DeKalb.  Gates’ men outnumbered the British troops, but the British were better trained – and more importantly, had seen more battle.  At the first round of shots, half of Gates’ men panicked and fled.  Gates desperately urged the remaining troops to attack, and DeKalb led the charge; he was shot eleven times.  The remaining Colonial troops fled themselves -- Gates personally rode over 60 miles in a panic before finally stopping.  DeKalb, meanwhile, was brought to a British POW camp, where he was recognized by the British General Cornwallis and treated by Cornwallis’ own doctors.  DeKalb died in the POW camp three days later.  Gates was immediately court-martialed – a move which he, of course, protested loudly – and was replaced in command by another general, Nathanael Greene.

Greene, unlike Gates, DeKalb, or Lafayette, had actually been born in the colonies; he was the son of a Quaker family in Rhode Island.  He had absolutely no military background, but was so passionate about the Revolutionary cause that he had organized his own militia in Rhode Island in 1773 – an act which put him at odds with his religion, and lead to his excommunication.  Greene threw himself into the cause, and within only four years was serving under Washington, alongside Lafayette.  After Gates’ downfall, Washington personally recommended Greene to replace Gates.

Greene was a brilliant tactician, and under his command the Continental Army confined the British to the Carolinas and weakened them to the point of surrender.  All the while, a wildly bitter Gates often spoke out against him – but Greene urged others to forgive him, and even defended Gates for his prior service.

He continued to defend Gates’ reputation after the war.  Greene had since retired to an estate in Georgia, where he died six years later.  Gates, whose court-martial was ultimately waived, ended up in New York City, serving in the New York State legislature in 1800.  He died six years later and is buried in an unmarked grave in Trinity Churchyard on Wall Street.

Lafayette, the youngest of these four soldiers, did the most after the Revolutionary War.  During the early days of the French Revolution, Lafayette was part of a team of soldiers impartially seeking to preserve the peace, but was later accused of firing on civilians during one uprising.  He tried fleeing to the Netherlands, then to the new United States, but was captured and kept in prison for much of the 1790’s before finally being released by Napoleon.  Thomas Jefferson offered Lafayette a governorship of the Louisiana territory, but Lafayette declined, preferring to stay in France and keep his eye on Napoleon.

Then in 1825, President Monroe invited Lafayette to visit the United States to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  During Lafayette’s grand tour, he visited every state, paid his respects at Mount Vernon, visited Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, and was awarded honorary citizenship.  He also laid the cornerstone for a new monument in Maryland, paying tribute to his mentor Baron DeKalb.

The Pratt Steam Whistles

Even though I moved here over two years ago, I still think of myself as the new kid – and I’m still learning the neighborhood and its history. And that history is in more places than you’d think.  Take the steam whistles at Pratt – this was the first New Year’s Eve I saw them, and I got a huge kick out of sounding a couple of them.  A couple days later, though, I wondered where those whistles had come from.  As it turns out, one of them had quite a history before Pratt’s Chief Engineer Conrad Milster got his hands on it; it was the steam whistle for the ocean liner S.S. Normandie..

In her day, the Normandie was the largest and fastest ship in the world, and still holds the record for the most powerful steam-powered passenger ship ever built.  The French build her to take advantage of American tourism – the financial boom of the 1920’s gave more Americans than ever the money to afford luxury travel, and European countries were building lavish transatlantic cruise ships to cater to the craze.  On her maiden voyage transatlantic voyage in 1935, the Normandie proved sailed from Normandy, France to New York City in only four days, setting a new record for fastest transatlantic voyage.

But the Normandie wasn’t just fast – she was gorgeous.  Passengers enjoyed an outdoor and indoor pool, chapel, theater, moviehouse, and even a garden.  Some rooms even came with private dining rooms and music rooms complete with baby grand pianos.  French artist Jean de Brunhoff, creator of Babar the elephant, was personally commissioned for a series of Babar murals in the childrens’ areas.  The first class dining hall – almost the length of a football field – seated 700 diners and was lit with lamps encased in huge glass pillars, earning the Normandie the nickname “Ship of Light”. The luxury attracted passengers like Ernest Hemingway, Noël Coward, Fred Astaire, Walt Disney, James Stewart, and even the von Trapp family Singers.

Sadly, the Normandie’s life on the sea was short –World War II caught her in New York, and the U.S. Navy took her over as a troopship.  While she was being refitted for combat, sparks from a welding torch set fire to a stack of life preservers in the first-class dining hall.  The ship’s sprinkler system had been disconnected, and firefighters were unable to contain the blaze.  She finally capsized and sank onto her side in the Hudson, remaining there until she was sold for salvage in 1946.

Some of the interior décor had been saved and sold at a special auction beforehand, though – the lighted pillars, some of the furniture, and several statues and other art pieces which decorated the ship.  Another bit of the Normandie is elsewhere in Brooklyn; the church doors of Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church, in Brooklyn Heights, used to be the doors to the first class dining room.

And the whistle ended up here in Clinton Hill, sounding off again every New Year’s Eve.


Notorious, the movie based on the life of the Notorious BIG / Biggie Small and filmed in the neighborhood, opened last Friday.  The Times offers an interesting article on the film, with some rich history about Biggie's life and the neighborhood. Biggie grew up on St. James Place, and there is some differences of opinion on whether or not the area was called Clinton Hill back then.  (The Times seems to think it wasn't.)  My research suggests that Clinton Hill is NOT a new-fangled real estate broker creation, and St. James Place is firmly within the borders of Clinton Hill. Long-time residents, please chime in!  Did you refer to the area as Bed-Stuy?

I was in college when Biggie was killed, and had no idea he was just 24 when he died.

Has anyone seen the movie yet?  I hope to this weekend.

Clinton Hill Convent to Close

You may have noticed the fortress-like building on Willoughby Avenue near the Clinton Hill-Bed Stuy border and wondered what it was.  It's been a convent for nearly 150 years, and is now closing. The NY Times offered an interesting profile on it recently, including a photo slide show.  Sadly, the building isn't landmarked so there's no telling what will happen to it.  It's also sad to think about the remaining women there being split up.  I wish them well in their new homes.

This just in from the Society for Clinton Hill:

As you will see in the information below, the Sisters of Mercy Convent is soon to be closed and the property sold and possibly demolished. This property is one of 5 recommended for Individual Landmark status in our 2007 Cultural Resource Survey, which was submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission in August 2007 and recommends an expansion of our landmark district. Our report is still under review by LPC and we are now asking LPC to address our request as soon as possible. In just the year and a half since we submitted our report, there have been losses to the fabric of our unique architectural community, including some of those especially unique properties which are recommended for consideration as "Individual Landmarks." The loss of this intact nineteenth-century religious complex to yet more "luxury condos" would be a sad thing for our neighborhood on many levels. We would much prefer to see this historic religious compound preserved and put to adaptive re-use.

We hope you will help us save the Sisters of Mercy Convent!

The Sisters of Mercy Convent is located in Clinton Hill at 237 Willoughby Avenue between Classon Avenue and Taafe Place. The buildings represent an intact nineteenth-century convent complex. The motherhouse on the property was designed by Brooklyn resident Patrick C. Keely, the most important Catholic-church architect in America in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Sisters of Mercy first came to Brooklyn in 1855 and moved into the Willoughby Avenue building in November 1862. A substantial addition, St. Francis of Assisium Female Orphan Asylum, was built in 1883.  By 1891 there were 510 girls in residence.  Many were taught at St. Francis Industrial School at Kent and Willoughby Avenues.

Now with dwindling numbers and an estimated $20 million in needed repairs, the convent is closing. This complex is an important part of Clinton Hill and Brooklyn's history. Religious institutions across the city are being demolished and with their loss, neighborhoods are losing significant community anchors. The Sisters of Mercy Convent should not be demolished and can be adapted into any number of uses including housing, educational facilities, retail, office, medical and/or community facilities, including affordable housing.

The petition is sponsored by the Society for Clinton Hill and our friends, the Historic Districts Council.

Please use the link below to sign our on-line petition to LPC.

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument Centennial

Ever wondered what that giant tower in Fort Greene Park is?  The one that was hidden under scaffolding for ages? It's the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, and it turns 100 years old this coming weekend!

The Fort Greene Park Conservancy has scheduled several events for this coming weekend, most of them on Saturday and free.  The monument, which has been dark for 70 years, will be relit and the park will host a number of tours and family-friendly events (many of them with a "olden days" theme).

Here is the schedule thus far: Come be a part of history and honor our country as we re-light the monument, which has been dark for over seventy years! To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1908 dedication of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, a grand celebration will take place on November 15, 2008 in Fort Greene Park. The majestic Stanford White-designed Monument which stands in the heart of the Park is one of the most important and sacred memorials in our country. It honors the remains of over 11,500 POWs, interred in a crypt beneath the Monument, who perished for the cause of freedom during the American War of Independence.

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 14, 2008 5:30-7:30 PM - Kick-Off Reception at MoCADA, 80 Hanson Place. Prize-winning art works inspired by the experiences of the British Prison Ship Martyrs during the American Revolution, created by neighborhood high school students; free, refreshments.

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2008 RAIN OR SHINE Full Day of Free Spectacular Activities in Fort Greene Park 10:00 AM - To reserve for limited space events, sign-up sheets will be available in the Visitors’ Center. 11:00 AM - NYC Department of Parks and Recreation unveiling of the Monument eagles. Noon – 3:45 PM - Visitors Center: Family Roots Project: Explore your family’s roots, free genealogical workshops and assistance with individual searches conducted by professionals from the African Atlantic Genealogical Society; entertainment stage: Jazz by Jeff Newell’s New Trad and Wade Barnes’ Brooklyn Four plus One, Brooklyn High School of the Arts band, performers from Irondale Theater; * Guided bus tours of the Brooklyn Navy Yard; Revolutionary war re-enactors; activities for families – meet Mr. Walt Whitman; Ranger-led tours of the park; *a horse and buggy will be available for family fun and to provide transport for people in need of help to reach the Monument Plaza. *Limited space events 3:15 PM - Fife and drum led procession and parade of flags from South Oxford Park to Fort Greene Park Monument Plaza for the beginning of the formal tribute. 3:30 – 3:45 PM - Monument stairs: Flag-posting ceremony 4:15 PM - Formal commemoration: U.S. National Anthem sung by Tony Award winner Cady Huffman; keynote address by Dr. Edwin G. Burrows, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner and author of recently released “Forgotten Patriots; The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War;” 21- gun salute; wreath-laying; color guards; solemn military pageantry and much much more! 5:00 PM - Re-lighting the Eternal Flame of the Prison Ship Martyrs for the first time since 1921, and the return of our eagles after a four-decade struggle by undaunted Fort Greeners. 5:30 – 7:30 PM - Reception: Brooklyn Technical High School, 29 South Elliott Place immediately following the re-dedication of the Monument and the re-lighting of the eternal flame, in the fabulous Art Deco lobby of the school. Food provided by the chef/owner of the restaurant Eletteria, Akhtar Nawab, former sous-chef for Tom Coliccio at Craft. Entertainment will be provided by noted cabaret singer, Victoria England. For this reception there is a charge of $25, which must be paid in advance. For reservations call Ruth Goldstein at 718.596.0899. 7:30 PM - Free Concert: Brooklyn Technical High School Auditorium, 29 South Elliott Place. World Premier of “Brooklyn Bones: Requiem for the Prison Ship Martyrs” by composer Alvin Singleton, text by Patricia Hampl, commissioned by the Fort Greene Park Conservancy to commemorate the Centennial. It is a work for chorus, orchestra and solo tenor.

For more info on the monument itself, click here.

Nostalgic Essay

A reader who grew up in the 'nabe emailed me this rambling and lovely essay about growing up in Clinton Hill: (posted verbatim)Sure there's a group of us from those days that wax nostalgia which is so odd, because we still think we're kind of hip and young. I guess it's all relative. There are so many stories to tell, I guess I could start at 10 years old and work my way up to when everyone started moving away when I was about 18 ish.

Our playground was initially the Clinton Hill Apartments which many of us lived in. The courtyards (with the Guards booth from outer space being our focal point) some of those guards back then were really quite funny and they would literally chase us through these tunnels beneath the buildings --- which to a kid seemed like a coal mine. I n any case, my best friend back then was Arthur Maturo, who's mother was the producer of the "To Tell the Truth" television show. Her name was Mimi O"Brian and they were the only ones in the Clinton Hill apts that had a maid!

We were really like the kids in Stand By Me....Clinton Hill style. My Aunt Milly was a politician in the area back then too she and her family the Marchiano's, lived on Adelphi. There were actually a lot of Italians in that neighborhood. While most landed in Bensonhurst, a crew must have got lost and landed in Ft. Green and Clinton Hill. My grandparents were Italian immigrants and lived on Classon Ave. The Pratt students at the time used to use her (my Aunt's) billboards as art pieces and probably dart boards. I could never get a grip on why that was. I think she may have been pretty tacky and arts students thought she was a joke. (that's all another story).

My friend Laura Yaccarino whom I still know, would be my oldest friend (were both 50), and grew up on Clinton Avenue between Dekalb and Lafayette in a brownstone. Her father was Joe from Joe's Place restaurant on Waverly (very hip hangout back then) and her mother Nancy may still live there. Nancy and Joe were like my adopted parents back then. I just loved hanging out with them as they had this kind of gay sensibility. I'm a gay man and back when I was 16 she would always get references I would make to lines in All About Eve or things like that. Their late son John was a good friend as well. They would toss these really fabulous Christmas parties with all these artsy types, and "the kids" were allowed to join the party. The older people there (they were probably only 30ish), seemed really fascinated by our little androgynous group of hippy kids. They would usually gravitate over and ask us strange questions like, I dunno, um "What do you think of the new Mahavishnu Orchestra LP?" (insert blank stare)..

More to come....

I will get to the coven of witches that worked at the Woodward School and the Warlock who sold drugs from the Good Humor Truck in a later email. Then there's Spike Lee. Who is probably my age now. and The Ft Green Waltons (a family of beautiful blonde men that lived on Cumberland).