Brooklyn loves to do battle over real estate. Whether over projects as grandiose as sports arenas and skyscrapers, or as modest as what shade of brown to paint the landmarked houses of an historic district, dedicated denizens of the borough are always rekindling the contest between progress and preservation.
These issues are not new to Brooklyn, and though the borough’s growth—in real population and in status—has been considerable in recent years, Brooklyn’s 19th century transformation from farmland to the third largest city in the country was far more abrupt, drastic, and divisive.
No one person better personifies Brooklyn’s contentious path forward than the man they called “the last of the leather breeches” and “the great protester.” Jacob Patchen, a resident of Brooklyn who lived between 1790 and 1840, was a “sworn enemy to all improvements.” He refused to sell his property to the city trustees, and thus he was literally carted away from his home on Fulton Street, when its demolition was required to enable the development of a central market near the ferry landing.
Patchen essentially lived upon the economic lifeline of Brooklyn with his two adjoining lots on Fulton near York St. He was a butcher, and according to a contemporary who recollected Patchen to an Eagle reporter, “he was never known to own but one pair of leather trousers at a time. These he wore until they were so smeared with dirt that they were unpresentable.” His home, “a quaint and ancient oak framed, scallop shingled house,” was reported to be at least 150 years old by the time he moved into it.
Patchen’s resistance to development began in 1816 when he ignored an ordinance to gravel and curb the sidewalk in front of his property. Though he was fined for disobeying, he flatly refused, stating “that the old cobblestones had been good enough to walk upon for many years, and were good enough for him, and therefore, for others, for many years to come.”
To further communicate his indignation at the ordinance, upon making his own way through town, Patchen refused to use the sidewalks and would often be seen walking in the middle of the street. But this was a minor scuffle compared to what was ahead of him.
In 1826, the city offered Patchen $6,850 for his property so they could open a new street, Market Street, to connect with the market on James Street. The court rejected his first attempt to contest the sale, so he then “persistently avoided any tender of the cash.” When he was finally awakened one early April morning by officers with a cartload of silver dollars, he excused himself so that he might put on his breeches (leather ones, of course.) He then escaped through a back window to the ferry to further delay the transfer.
But the government was not to be avoided. His house was sold at auction and ordered to be removed. The contents of the house were taken out one by one on a cart, and “then the last of the leather breeches, still seated in his chair, was carefully deposited on the top of the load.”
One witness wrote, “I well remember seeing the old fellow, clad in knee breeches and silver buckled shoes, sitting upon the tail of the cart with his legs dangling down and gyrating with every jolt of the cobblestones.”
But old leather breeches was persistent if nothing else and he refused to give in to the “new fangled notions,” as he liked to call them. So in 1832, “the thick set little gentleman,” after years of litigation, managed to possess his lands once again, though they were now a paved street with stores and dwellings, having become the principal avenue to the market.
In a demonstration of pure obstinancy, Patchen built a fence around his reacquired land, “played the tyrant, refused a right of way to all who needed it,” and landed himself right back into a host of lawsuits.
This time the city offered him $16,000 to reopen the street, which he and his lawyer fought until his death in 1840, by drowning, of all things. (One wonders if it was an accident, considering all the trouble he caused). Most of the money, which was awarded to his wife and daughter, went to pay fees to his lawyer.
Today, we battle over skyscrapers, pro sports teams, and waterfront parks. Jacob Patchen watched the “progress of innovation whereby the fair face of nature had been marred…” waxed an old Eagle reporter. “The farms had been cut up into streets, the sheep and cow paths had been straightened, the hills had been laid low…”
PATCHEN’S BROOKLYN: This painting by Francis Guy depicts the ferry district in the quaint village of Brooklyn in 1820. The people seen in the painting are supposedly recognizable portraits of the real members of the community, including Jacob Patchen. Tradition has it that while working near his window, Guy would call out to friends and passersby, asking them to stand still while he captured their characteristic postures.
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