Monday, March 30, 2009

My Favorite Photographer

Read about the great George Bradford Brainerd, inventor of the "detective camera" and "father of instantaneous photography" in a story I wrote for the Eagle.

Brainerd, a Brooklynite, was far ahead of his time, and a man of many talents (he had a reading knowledge of 12 languages). His candid images of street life in 1880s Brooklyn blew me away when I first stumbled across them in the Brooklyn Public Library's on line archive, so I did some research through the library, the old Eagle archives and the Haddam Neck Historical Society (he was born in Connecticut, but moved to Brooklyn when he was 2). Enjoy!


Friday, March 20, 2009

The Trolleys We Didn't Dodge

One of my favorite historical factoids about Brooklyn is how the Dodgers got their name. It's actually a shortening of one of their earlier names, the "Trolley Dodgers," which was a nickname for Brooklynites inspired by the number of trolley lines that ran through the borough.

But not every trolley was successfully dodged. When these things went electric in 1890, people were getting mowed down. There were dramatic headlines, a special trolley prosecuter was appointed, trolley operators were arrested for speeding, and the mayor at the time, Charles Schieren, talked a lot of smack about arresting the trolley company presidents.

Electricity was still a very new technology, and although exciting, it must have been a little scary. Sure, prior to that you might be the victim of a good old horse kick to the head, but they didn't have to lift up the cars to scrape your guts out of the trolley tracks (pardon the gruesome imagery).

Anyhow, with the help of the trusty Eagle archives, I wrote a little story about these undodged trolleys, which you can read here.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Will Brooklyn Ever Forgive O'Malley? Doubt it

There are few issues more touchy to a Brooklynite than the departure of the Dodgers. I was remnded of this after talking to Andrew Paul Mele, a 70-year old Staten Island resident who grew up in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Mele and I had a chat in light of the fact that a new book about the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles is being launched this weekend at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Forever Blue by Michael D’Antonio takes a very favorable view of Walter O'Malley, the Dodgers president who decided to move the team to L.A. in 1957, two years after "Dem Bums" finally won the World Series.

"It was totally greed. I’m not blaming him for being a businessman, but even though a ball club is privately owned, it has a responsibility to the community,” says Mele, author of The Brooklyn Dodgers Reader and Boys of Brooklyn.

Mele had some interesting reminiscences on the connection between the team and Brooklyn. "The players lived in the community. They weren’t making millions of dollars. They went to the same stores as us, the same doctors. You could get on the subway and be sitting next to Jackie Robinson on his way to work,” Mele recalled.

D'Antonio, Peter O'Malley (Walter's son) and sport writer Richard Sandomir will discuss the book at the Brooklyn Historical Society, 128 Pierrepont St., 1-3 p.m. on Saturday, March 21.


The Verdict on Walter O'Malley [Los Angeles Times]

Sympathy for THIS Devil? [Brooklyn Paper]

Monday, March 16, 2009

Some Things Never Change

Women have always wanted to improve their figures, and apparently have always purchased products that promise a simple solution to that goal. Today’s TrimSpa is yesterday’s Dissolvene Rubber Garment, shown here in an advertisment from Brooklyn Life magazine. The garment is touted as a “harmless and effectual method of reducing superfluous flesh.” It promises “no drugs,” “no dieting” and “no unusual exercise.” Oh, and of course, it’s “recommended by physicians.”

Read more about Brooklyn Life magazine in this story I wrote for the Eagle.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Cool New Project at Brooklyn Historical Society

The Brooklyn Historical has a new project in the works that I am very excited about. It's called Interpreting Brooklyn. They have chosen 10 artists — visual artists, writers and a composer — to spend time with their collection and create pieces inspired by what they find. The artist furthest along in her project, photographer Nora Herting, gave a work-in-progress talk at BHS this week.

After looking through BHS's portrait collection, she felt it did not give a fair representation of the borough's diverse population, so she set up mini outdoor portrait studios in 8 public parks throughout Brooklyn and made portraits of hundreds of Brooklynites (Examples seen above and below).

Some time next year, once all the artists' projects are complete, they will be displayed all together with the pieces from BHS's collection that inspired them. Can't wait. If Nora's work is any indication, it will be a fantastic exhibit.

She has been keeping a blog the project,

And I wrote a story about it for the Eagle, click here.


Thursday, March 5, 2009

New Brooklyn History Web Site Launched

"Does anyone know why Pacific Street is named that?" City Councilman David Yassky asked a group of second graders from P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill.

"Well, we can find out," he said, as they all turned to the laptops in front of them and entered Brooklyn Revealed, the new web-based interactive tour of Brooklyn history launched on Thursday by the New York Historical Society (NYHS).

The idea was hatched and funded by Councilman Yassky, whose district includes Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, DUMBO and parts of Park Slope and Willliamsburg. "The best way to get kids engaged in history is to bring it home to them," he said. "To show them the history they come across in their everyday lives, like street names."

The web site has been a year and a half in the making and includes 80 historic photos, so far, as well as the history behind 100 street names in Brooklyn. But that archive of information will grow as school kids and history buffs are invited to add information to the site. "It will be like Wikipedia for street names," said Yassky.

"It encourages kids to go out and do their own research, to be active in their learning," said Adrianne Kupper, vice president of education at NYHS. "And it helps kids learn about where they live using a medium that they’re very knowledgeable about. These kids are very tech savvy."

P.S. 261 second grade teacher Meryl Glicksman was thrilled with the site. "We’ve been studying our community, as well as New Amsterdam and how the city started, so this works great with that."

"It’s a place where people can get information and share information," said NYHS President Louise Mirrer, who said they would like to eventually do a similar site for all the boroughs.
The web site also includes an interactive map of Brooklyn, where you can click on each of the original six towns that made up Kings County — Brooklyn, Flatbush, Bushwick, Flatlands, Gravesend and New Utrecht — and read a short history on that town as well as view photos.

"It provides a venue through which we can engage our children in how Brooklyn has evolved," said Yassky, "and allow for the dynamic exchange of ideas that helps define our great borough."
This new web site joins other great web research tools for those interested in Brooklyn history, including the Brooklyn Eagle archives online, the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection and the Brooklyn Historical Society’s searchable database, completed in conjunction with NYU.
And for the record, Pacific Street was named for the Pacific Stores warehouses that were on that street. Find out about other street names at


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Mayors of Brooklyn: A Primer

On April 10, 1834, Brooklyn was incorporated as a city. The process for electing a mayor was initially not as democratic as we may have liked — the mayor was elected by a board of alderman, 18 men in all, two from each of the nine wards. But by 1840, the city turned to popular election to elect its chief, when they elected Cyrus P. Smith, a young whippersnapper of a lawyer who would become one of the moving forces behind establishing Green-Wood Cemetery.

Brooklyn plowed through 28 mayors in the 64 years it was an independent city, before the larger municipality swallowed it up in 1898. The mayoral terms were short, only one year at first and then two years starting in 1850.

Below, I offer a smattering of historic tidbits on some of our former leaders.

A first is a first, and George Hall was the very first mayor of Brooklyn. Hall was raised on a farm in Flatbush. As a village trustee, he proved himself extremely effective in “excluding hogs from the streets” and as a temperance man, he shut down “the shops of unlicensed liquor dealers.” So he was a natural candidate for mayor. That first mayoral term was only one year, but a productive year it was. In that time, omnibuses were introduced to the streets, a system of reservoirs and pipes was installed, and Hall purchased the site where City (Borough) Hall would be built, and still stands.

He ran again for mayor unsuccessfully in 1844, and then again in 1854 with the Know-Nothing Party. He had to fight off a nasty rumor that he was born in Ireland rather than New York, but he prevailed, becoming the first mayor after consolidation with Williamsburg. The city was so grateful for his level- headed courage during a cholera epidemic that they awarded him with a house at 37 Livingston St. where he lived out the rest of his days.

Jeremiah Johnson (pictured at left) served as mayor from 1837-38, beginning when he was 71 years old, which was about 140 in early 19th century terms. He was a man with some deep patriotic roots, descended from early Dutch settlers; his great-grandfather settled in Gravesend in 1657. His father fought in the Revolutionary War, holding command in the Kings County Militia. Johnson himself was a soldier, rising to the rank of major general in command of Fort Greene during the War of 1812, at the ready for a British invasion that never came to Brooklyn. He was a stickler for punctuality, and would adjourn a common council meeting if he didn’t have a quorum. His official portrait shows him pointing at his watch, set at 3 p.m., the time at which the Council regularly met.

Henry C. Murphy (pictured at top of story) was one of the few mayors whose influence only grew once he left office. He was a powerful player in Kings County civic life for decades. He was elected mayor at the young age of 32, but left that position after only one year when he got a better gig, serving as a U.S. congressman. He also went on to serve as a state senator for six terms; to be president of the company that backed the building of the Brooklyn Bridge; to be owner and editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle; to be president of the Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Railway Company; and to be instrumental in organizing the Young Men’s Literary Association of Brooklyn — out of which grew the Brooklyn Lyceum, a parent institution of the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and other important cultural institutions. He also served as ambassador to the Hague under President James Buchanan.

Edward Copeland began his career as a grocer but gained some public attention through his efforts in aid of the Polish Revolution and the national uprising in Greece between 1828 and 1830. He served on Brooklyn’s Board of Trustees, and at one point refused to accept a nomination to run for Congress. But he was elected mayor for a term in 1849, and is remembered for his contributions to the advancement of the public education system in Brooklyn.

Thomas G. Talmadge was a New Jersey native who represented Manhattan in the state legislature before he came to Brooklyn in 1840, residing in Gowanus. He was elected as Mayor five years later. Most notable during his term was the completion of City (Borough) Hall, which had started about 20 years earlier but was held up by lack of funds.

Samuel Smith served as mayor beginning in 1850, and is the namesake for Boerum Hill’s Smith Street. He was a farmer who owned 28 acres of land in that area. For years he used to walk around selling milk which he suspended from a stick that he carried across his shoulders. But eventually he took part in less agricultural endeavors and at different times served as highway commissioner, justice of the peace, superintendent of the poor, county judge and assessor.

Frederick Schroeder (pictured at left) was something of a refugee. He fled Prussia with his family when he was 15 during the revolutionary upheavals of Europe in 1848. Shortly after his arrival Schroeder entered the cigar making business and eventually owned his own company. He also helped found the Germania Savings Bank, and served as Brooklyn’s comptroller before being elected mayor in 1876. He called for a new city charter that placed greater control in the hands of the mayor and went on to serve in the New York Senate, where he secured the new city charter. His tenure as mayor was also marked by the opening of Ocean Parkway, the early construction phases of the Brooklyn Bridge and the first elevated rail line in Brooklyn.

Seth Low was the only man to serve both as mayor of Brooklyn and as mayor of New York City. His father was the wealthy tea merchant A.A. Low, who built the fabulous mansion that still stands on Pierrepont Place at the corner of the Montague entrance to the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights. He was elected mayor in 1882 and served two terms. For over a decade after that he served as president of Columbia University, of which he was an alum, and then in 1902 became the second mayor of the newly consolidated New York City. In his later life, he served as chairman of the Tuskegee Institute and the National Civic Federation.

Frederick Wurster was Brooklyn’s last mayor and his term is pretty much characterized by just that. He was vehemently opposed to consolidation, but alas, the tides of history won out.

All photos are courtesy of the Brooklyn Borough Hall Portrait Collection

Monday, March 2, 2009

Snow Storm, 1904

With the streets and trees of Brooklyn blanketed with snow, we were reminded of this 1904 photo of Prospect Park, when a few adventurous souls braved the cold weather to take in the austere beauty of winter.
Photo from of Historic Photos of Brooklyn by John Manbeck
In recognition of Women’s History Month, women veterans who served in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan will discuss their military experiences and the expanding role of women in U.S. Armed Forces at the BRIC Rotunda Gallery, 33 Clinton St., on March 5. The panel features Joan Furey, author (with Lynda Van Devanter) of Visions of War, Dreams of Peace; Captain Esther S. Marcella, the commander of the Long Island Recruiting Company with 7 years of active service as a commissioned officer; and Susan O'Neill, author of Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam. The event will run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and has been organized in conjunction with the Brooklyn Historical Society.

The Park Slope Civic Council will hold a meeting on Thursday, March 5 at 7 p.m. to discuss the effort to expand the Park Slope Historic District. Architectural historian Francis Morrone will lead the discussion. The meeting is open to the public and will take place at Old First Reformed Church at 729 Carroll St.

The Brooklyn Bridge will be 126 years old in 2009 and the Brooklyn Historical Society, in conjunction with the Center for Architecture Foundation, is celebrating. Families with children ages 6 - 12 are invited to BHS on March 7 from 1 to 4 p.m. to discover some of the bridge's secrets and to make a model of the Brooklyn Bridge to take home. All materials are provided and a $10 donation per family is requested. Gallery talks and art projects are geared for kids 5-13 years old.

Author Peter Quinn will be reading from his historical novel Banished Children of Eve at the Chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery at 1p.m. on Sunday, March 8. The book tells the story of Irish immigrants during the 1863 Civil War draft riots in New York City. Following, there will be a book signing and trolley tour through Green-Wood, conducted by cemetery historian Jeff Richman. The reading is free, with a $5 suggested donation, and $20 ($10 for Historic Fund members) for the trolley tour. For more information, visit

In celebration of President Lincoln’s 200th birthday, the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Gilder Lehrman Institute will present a book reading and discussion on Thursday, March 19 with author Matthew Pinsker. Mr. Pinsker will illuminate the story of Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home, a place that became a central retreat for the president. An original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation from the BHS Collection will be on display for this very special occasion. The event is free and open to the public and will run from 7 to 8 p.m. at BHS, 128 Pierrepont St.