Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Crown Heights History, Told by a Crown Heights Resident

Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. She is a third generation Brooklynite, and a genealogist. She has written two books tracing the history of her family — which stretches as far back as Jamestown on one side and to the Revolutionary War on the other.

In the course of her research, she became increasingly fascinated with the history in her own backyard, and so has since released two more books about the Brooklyn neighborhoods she has called home, most recently Crown Heights and Weeksville, released in 2009.

“In school we never learned about the local, neighborhood history,” she lamented on Wednesday night during a slide presentation at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Published by Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, the pictorial neighborhood history gives a glimpse of the “vanishing roots of central Brooklyn.”

Largely relying on the archives of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the Brooklyn Collection of the Brooklyn Public Library and her own memories and roots in the neighborhood, Kelly uncovers the people, places, institutions and geography that have defined the community of Crown Heights and the microcommunity of Weeksville, an early settlement of free blacks established in the 1830s.

Crown Heights is now home to roughly 300,000 people, about 10 percent of the borough’s population. But this abundant citizenry was late in coming, as the rocky, high terrain that is the neighborhood’s foundation deterred substantial settlement for many years. While the towns of Bedford to the north and Flatbush to the east flourished, a wilderness between them, situated atop some of the highest elevations in New York City, remained uninhabited but for squatters. One resourceful resident ensconced the hull of a ship in the side of hill and called it home, says Kelly.

During the Revolutionary War, a contingent of Hessian soldiers (mercenaries in the employ of the British) camped in quarters at Franklin Avenue and Bergen Street for the duration of the British occupation. Remnants of the site were found when the hilly lands were being graded in the 19th century.

The names of some of the area’s peaks — Prospect Hill, Ocean Hill and Crow Hill — evolved into the names of neighborhoods. Crown Heights is said to have derived its name from Crow Hill.
It was charitable institutions in need of cheap land that first recognized the potential of the area, a potential that only increased after Eastern Parkway was laid out in 1868. Hospitals, almshouses, orphanages, monasteries and homes for the aged were established, such as the Howard Colored Orphanage, St. Joseph’s Home for the Deaf, the Swedish Hospital and the Kings County Asylum for Chronic Insane. The last remaining example of these, Kelly says, is the Methodist Episcopal Home for men on St. Marks Place between Brooklyn and New York avenues. It is now a Seventh Day Adventist school.

One of the area’s more infamous institutions was the Brooklyn Penitentiary, which stood where Medgar Evers College is today.

But the most beloved of the neighborhood’s bygone structures is certainly Ebbets Field, which was bounded by Bedford Avenue, Sullivan Place, McKeever Place and Montgomery Street until it was torn down in 1960. Another beloved institution was spun off of a nearby property of Ebbets Field. The Empire Rollerdrome opened in what had at one point been a parking garage for Ebbets. Among those who took a spin around the roller rink in its 50 years of existence were Cher, JFK Jr. and Paul Newman.

Some of the talented people who have called Crown Heights home include record producer Clive Davis, the first black congresswoman and presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm and Erich Segal, author of the book-turned hit film Love Story.

As home to the worldwide Lubavitch Chasidic movement of Judaism, and a large Caribbean-American population, Crown Heights holds an incredibly diverse population. On August 19, 1991, three days of deadly riots seized the neighborhood, an incident that has largely defined Crown Heights for people who have never been there. “Tragedy and loss of life have always dominated the media, and this unfortunate neighborhood incident proved to be no exception,” writes Kelly.
“Crown Heights is, and remains, an American location of beauty and promise, with a dynamic history that is, and hopefully continues to be, a glowing example of multicultural successes and unlimited accomplishment,” she writes.

Kelly’s books on Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights are available at arcadiapublishing.com and at many local Barnes & Noble bookstores.

Some of the pictures from her book are included on the Eagle's web site here

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