Sunday, November 30, 2008

Rally 'Round the Flag, Brooklyn

One of Brooklyn's most historic sites is being kept alive and well by a dedicated group of neighbors. The New Utrecht Reformed Church on 18th Avenue in Bensonhurst has been closed since 2003 for restoration, but that doesn't keep the Friends of Historic New Utrecht from hosting all sorts of activities at the nearby parish house.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported last week that the church hosted a free concert on Nov. 22 to celebrate the 225th birthday of the "Liberty Pole" that sits on the church lawn. It was first erected on Nov. 25, 1783 with a 13-star, "Betsy Ross" flag to celebrate the evacuation of the British after the Revolutionary War.

Brooklyn Before Now spoke with Robert Buonvino, president of Friends of Historic New Utrecht, who said, "This particular church has a lot of history in connection with the beginning of our country, with the settlement of the Dutch and the Revolutionary War." Buonvino, a lifelong Brooklyn resident, became interested in the church's history by serving as a scoutmaster for Boyscout troop 20, which has been based in the church since 1910 and is actually the oldest continuously sponsored unit in the country.

The New Utrecht Reformed Church was first established in 1677, with the church edifice being completed in 1700 on 16th Avenue. In 1828, the current church structure was built, using the stones from the original, two avenues over on 84th Street and 18th Avenue.

"We have the original bell from 1700," says Buonvino. "It was recast in 1830. The bell has rung for the death of every president since George Washington. The last time we had to climb up there to do it by hand just to keep the tradition alive."

George Washington actually visited the site in 1790. (of course he had visited Brooklyn before, but the Battle of Brooklyn made for a rather hasty and flustered visit. I doubt if he really got to take in the sites...all that fleeing under cover of darkness and fog and whatnot). On April 20, 1790, Washington went to visit a schoolhouse which stood where the current church sanctuary stands, and he stayed at an inn across the way from the church's cemetery, where 14 Revolutionary War soldiers are buried, as well as soldiers of the Civil War. People are still buried in the cemetery today, though only church members who have been cremated, says Buonvino.

The roof has already been repaired, and Buonvino says they are on phase 2 of the restoration with an architect working on plans for restoring the tower, which has some cracks. Inside, work will be done on the ceiling, the Dutch doors and the organ, which was donated by the Van Brunt family in the late 1800s.

On Dec. 13, the parish house will host a free holiday concert with the North Shore Pops Concert Band. But Buonvino seems most excited about the ongoing education programs, when schoolkids come and fold the flag, and raise it on the pole themselves. (This is actually the sixth pole used since 1783 - and this particular pole is from the 1939 World's Fair).

"We are putting together a series of flags so we can have every one that has flown on that pole since 1783," says Buonvino. They fly the different flags to coincide with certain dates. For example, on Veterans Day, they fly the 48-star flag to honor the veterans of the two world wars. And during their Lincoln celebration, they fly the 36-star flag of the Civil War or the 15-star flag from the year President Lincoln was born.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Before Obama, There was Chisholm

The historic election on Nov. 4 coincided nicely with the anniversary of another important political first that happened right here in Brooklyn - the election of Shirley Chisholm to Congress in 1968. Chisholm was the first black woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, and in 1972, she broke more political ground by becoming the first African American to run for president.

She served in Congress until 1982, representing New York's 12th Congressional District, which included a large swath of the borough's waterfront in Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Red Hook and Sunset Park as well as Bushwick.

Shirley Chisholm passed away in 2005.

On Tuesday, Nov. 25, Brooklyn College will be opening a new exbibit on Chisholm, Shirley Chisholm: A Catalyst for Change, with a reception and keynote address by noted feminist activist Gloria Steinem.

This event comes just a few weeks after several local elected officials announced they drafted a bill to rename the Kings County State Office Building at 55 Hanson Place in honor of the congresswoman.