Brooklyn, Before It Was a Global Brand: Walk Its History

Officially incorporated in 1834, Brooklyn was already the third largest city in America by the Civil War. Just over a century later it was in shambles, hemorrhaging jobs. Now it’s a global brand, a glorious, complex megalopolis of thriving streets, gentrification and poverty, its booming neighborhoods illuminated by a million twee Edison bulbs, its enduring emblems a parachute jump and an old, beloved roller coaster.

Thomas J. Campanella teaches city planning and directs the Urban and Regional Studies program at Cornell University. Historian-in-residence for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, a fourth-generation Brooklynite, he is the author of “Brooklyn: The Once and Future City.

He proposed a stroll from Brooklyn Heights to the gates of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The walk meandered through Cadman Plaza Park and Vinegar Hill — a couple of miles, more or less, covering a few hundred years.

Mr. Campanella suggested “meeting” at Fulton Ferry Landing, below the Heights, in the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge — the “beginning of the story,” he said, where ferries to Manhattan started crossing the East River by 1642.

Michael Kimmelman The story of Brooklyn begins here?

Thomas J. Campanella Modern Brooklyn, yes. Brooklyn was of course home to Native Americans, the Lenape, for a very, very long time, around the ferry landing and especially to the far south, in and around Gerritsen Creek, today’s Marine Park, and also at Barren Island and Bergen Beach. The Dutch arrived in the early 17th century. Ferries across the East River started supplying New Amsterdam with food, provisions, lumber. Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who gave us Central Park and Prospect Park, once referred to Manhattan as a walled city, hemmed in by water. Brooklyn was a vast, bountiful hinterland that sustained Manhattan for a couple of hundred years.

Around 1814 Robert Fulton developed the first fast and reliable steam ferry between this spot and Lower Manhattan, which made the crossing in a few minutes. That set off a boom in residential development. One of Fulton’s investors and buddies was Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont, who buys up land in Brooklyn Heights, lays out a grid, and starts building rowhouses.

Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

Early transit-oriented development. Pierrepont named a street after himself.

So did Hicks, Furman, Remsen — they’re all early developers of the Heights. Pierrepont advertised the neighborhood as combining all of the advantages of the country with most of the conveniences of the city.

The prototypical suburban pitch.

Brooklyn Heights was America’s first commuter suburb. By the 1860s, the neighborhood was flourishing. Early houses like 24 Middagh Street were mostly wood construction. Increasingly, they’re made of brick and clad in a chocolate-colored sandstone quarried in Portland, Connecticut, then shipped down the Connecticut River to Red Hook or Gowanus on a boat appropriately called the Brownstone.

Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

People liked brownstone because it was warm, soft and easily worked, which all these years later also means it’s a problem to maintain because it crumbles and erodes easily. The 1860s and ’70s were the heyday of eclecticism in American architecture, so you have Greek Revival brownstones, Italianate brownstones, neo-Gothic brownstones. The early ones involved lots of carved stone and wrought iron, and the interiors were hand-tooled wood. By the 1880s, with mass production, mechanized planers were doing a lot of the woodwork, cast iron replaced wrought iron, terra-cotta replaced carved stone, the cladding got thinner and thinner.

An example is 76 Willow Street, a brick building with just a thin front cladding of brownstone, like chocolate frosting on poundcake. A few doors down is 70 Willow, which just has brownstone trim. It’s where Truman Capote lived during the 1950s, after the Heights had gone into decline and been colonized by artists and intellectuals.

Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

That sounds like a very New York story.

Anaïs Nin named 7 Middagh Street, a couple of blocks away, February House because many of the occupants had February birthdays. It was home to Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Kurt Weill, Gypsy Rose Lee, Lotte Lenya.

The building’s gone now. Demolished to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

What had precipitated the neighborhood’s decline?

Suburbanization, the very thing that had created the Heights. By the 1920s, the old Anglo-Dutch elites here were fleeing for Scarsdale and Bronxville, and by the 1950s the place was a bit threadbare. Brownstone itself had gone out of fashion long before that. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago suddenly made Neo-Classicism fashionable. Limestone became the rage among rich New Yorkers. The brownstone quarry in Connecticut closed not long after. It’s now an adventure park.

You descend from a long line of Brooklynites.

Fourth generation. I grew up in Marine Park, in the affordable equivalent of a brownstone from the 1920s, a Tudor Revival rowhouse. The cellphone number you called me on was my childhood landline. My mom grew up in Vinegar Hill — we’ll go there. My dad’s side of the family lived in and around Coney Island. His family moved from the Lower East Side around 1902 to escape from a cholera outbreak. His grandfather, Michael Onorato, opened a barbershop in Coney Island — Michael’s Tonsorial Parlor — around the corner from Steeplechase Park, and one of his customers was George C. Tilyou, the founder of Steeplechase.

Credit…Allyn Baum/The New York Times

So as a result, all my relatives got summer jobs at the park, and my great-uncle Jimmy became general manager for 40 years — a legend in Coney Island, Jimmy of Steeplechase, he was called. During summers, my dad operated the Parachute Jump. Then he went to night school on the G.I. Bill, got a degree in electrical engineering, started a little electric motor shop in Bensonhurst with my grandfather, and went back for another degree, in English literature. He was probably the only motor repair guy in Brooklyn who quoted Byron, Shelley and Shakespeare.

Let’s walk from the Heights down Orange Street to Cadman Plaza West, near the A train exit, which was the location of the Rome Brothers print shop.

Publisher of “Leaves of Grass,” by another Brooklynite.

The Rome Brothers building was demolished during the early 1960s in the last phase of an enormous urban renewal campaign Robert Moses had started decades earlier called the Brooklyn Civic Center. His idea was to create a gleaming civic and administrative hub for Downtown Brooklyn. Moses cleared out all the urban gunk that had accumulated in this area, and there was a lot of it. What’s now Cadman Plaza Park used to be a dense warren of interlaced rail lines, elevated train tracks, commercial buildings and light manufacturing.

Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

Residential too?

Some residential, a mix of ethnic groups, not so much African-American. The main African-American neighborhood around here was just south of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which was carpet-bombed to build what became one of the largest public housing projects in American history, the Fort Greene Houses — now the Ingersoll and Whitman Houses.

I assume Brooklynites protested the Civic Center demolitions?

Not many protested. The project was cheered by the borough’s movers and shakers, the most important of whom was a fellow named Cleveland Rodgers. He was on the city planning commission and a good friend of Moses’s. He wrote editorials singing the project’s praises in the Brooklyn Eagle. As part of the last phase of renewal, the Brooklyn Eagle’s headquarters were torn down.

Sad. George L. Morse was the architect.

It was a nice building. Moses talked about the park, bordered by plane trees, as Brooklyn’s equivalent of the Piazza San Marco in Venice. The designers were two of his most faithful consultants, Gilmore D. Clarke and Michael Rapuano.

They also designed the Promenade.

Among much else. Rapuano channeled his studies at the American Academy in Rome during the 1920s into his work. He saw how Italian Renaissance artists and designers played with perspective and foreshortening. And he admired the rows of London plane trees on the Janiculum Hill and at the Villa Aldobrandini. He laid out the park in a way that highlights its centerpiece, the Brooklyn War Memorial, which remembers the almost 12,000 Brooklynites killed during the Second World War.

Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

There was an open design competition for the memorial. Funny thing, the finalists were all favorites of Moses, the winning scheme by a team that included Clarke and the Beaux-Arts firm of Eggers and Higgins, who did the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. The memorial’s sculptures are by Charles Keck, a student of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. It’s an austere, magnificent memorial, the last great example of Beaux-Arts Neo-Classicism in New York.

If we walk east from the park on Tillary we can pass one of the few survivors of Moses’s renewal plan, the Federal Building and Post Office, by the architect Mifflin Bell.

Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

A grand Romanesque Revival landmark from the 1890s.

Moses wanted to tear it down but a public campaign saved it. Then farther up Tillary is Concord Village, a postwar superblock housing development designed for workers in the new Civic Center. I mention it because Mies van der Rohe was supposed to design Concord Village.

Clearly he didn’t. Who did?

I don’t recall offhand.

I’ll look it up in the AIA Guide.

Hefty. A good weapon.

What are you talking about?

The AIA Guide. My dad was mugged at gunpoint in Lower Manhattan once and threw his AIA Guide at the guy.

Did it work?

No. He gave the guy his money. But I still have his old dog-eared guide.

Let’s keep heading east on Tillary, turn left on Jay, then right under the B.Q.E. onto Sands Street, which dead-ends into the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Sands Street is now a double-wide thruway. But it used to be a dense, vibrant, diverse street teeming with sailors — packed with stores, barber shops, cafes, restaurants, gambling dens, tattoo parlors, brothels, bars. Habitués of February House hung out in the bars and soaked up the color.

Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

William Thomas McCarthy and Rosario Candela were the architects for Concord Village, by the way.

Oh, right. Sands was this hot, glowing target for Moses the moral crusader, who tore it all down and built a fleet of asterisk-shaped public housing towers called the Farragut Houses — my uncle Sebastian lived there at the beginning and loved it — which by the 1970s was a troubled neighborhood. Pretty much all that’s left from the old days, architecturally, is 167 Sands Street, the former Brooklyn Navy Yard YMCA.

Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

A Beaux-Arts brick-and-limestone pile from 1902 with nautical motifs. Converted some years ago into housing, I believe.

This area is part of what we refer to today as Vinegar Hill. Like Brooklyn Heights, it was speculative development in the 19th century, in this case marketed to working-class Irish immigrants who were flooding into the city during the 1850s, many of whom got jobs at the Navy Yard. Hudson Avenue, just off Sands, was typical of the original neighborhood: cobblestone, wonderfully scaled, with three-story Greek Revival houses and ground floor shops.

Much sought after now.

My mother grew up during the 1930s at 96 Hudson Avenue, when Vinegar Hill was known as the Fifth Ward and wasn’t a neighborhood you boasted about. I’ve seen aerial photographs from back then. Massive natural gas storage tanks were inches from tenement buildings.

My mother told me kids would make little hats out of newspaper to protect their heads from ash and soot raining down when the boilers of the steam turbine plant were cleaned in the afternoons.

Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

One of the turbine plant smokestacks is still there.

There used to be four stacks. The neighborhood was mostly Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, some African-American — very Jane Jacobsian, with a strong sense of community and street life, a little rough but where people looked out their windows, shouted to each other.

Kept their eyes on the street.

Exactly. As a little Catholic girl, my mother felt shame living around the corner from Sands Street, so she had mixed feelings when Moses wiped the old Sands Street off the map. On the other hand, she wasn’t happy about him demolishing her family home.

Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

Where was that?

In the back of my grandparent’s grocery store. The store sold pastas, cheese, some fresh fruits and vegetables. My grandfather, Giovanni Tambasco, opened the place in the 1920s. In my refrigerator I still have an 80-year-old quarter-wheel of cheese from his shop. He would go a couple of times a week at the crack of dawn with his handcart to the Wallabout Market, outside the Navy Yard. Back then, that was one of the busiest produce markets in America. It served people from all over Brooklyn. It was torn down when the yard expanded during World War II. Great Flemish Revival buildings. When it went, my grandparents’ store was doomed.

And what replaced his store?

P.S. 307. That’s what’s there now. I’ve seen old photos of the shop and there is still one thing left.

What’s that?

The manhole cover in front of the school.

Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times
Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

You said you wanted to end at the Navy Yard, which is a whole long wonderful walk of its own.

There’s now a Wegmans near the Sands Street gate and a Russ & Daughters inside. The last time my mother saw the neighborhood, during the late ’80s, it was so sad and grim. The yard dates back to 1801. At the peak of operations during World War II, 75,000 men and women were building the Iowa and the Missouri, on which the war ended in the Pacific. Some of the greatest ships in American history were built in the yard. The Vincennes, from the 1820s, was the first navy vessel to circumnavigate the globe. The Niagara, from 1855, laid the first trans-Atlantic cable.

In the Navy Yard’s museum, I’ve seen a photograph of an aircraft carrier leaving the yard and trying to turn in the East River toward the harbor. It’s an 18 wheeler navigating the streets of a tiny Italian hill town. The yard clearly became outmoded for the new supersized warships.

The yard was decommissioned in 1966. Thousands of people lost their jobs. By then, the Dodgers had left Brooklyn. Steeplechase Park had closed. Companies all over Brooklyn were fleeing labor unrest, violence and high taxes for the American South.

The Navy Yard is the story of Brooklyn in a nutshell, from the early 19th century through the cataclysms of urban renewal, industrial decline, to today, when the yard is thriving and the borough is a global brand.

The symbol of renewal.

New York always finds a way to bounce back.

Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

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