I attended the launch of an exciting new book last night at the Brooklyn Historical Society. The Social Vision of Alfred T. White is a collaborative publication, composed of seven essays, and the result of some great work by the interdisciplinary gallery Proteus Gowanus (based on Union Street) and the Brooklyn Historical Society.
Some of you may be familiar with White (1846-1921), especially if you live in certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn that still bear the physical evidence of his good work. Born into a wealthy family of fur traders, White dedicated his life to improving the living conditions of the working poor and their children.
A trained engineer, White worked with top architects and other philanthropically inclined pals to build sunlit, safe, ventilated housing with outdoor spaces. Examples that still exist include the Warren Place Cottages in Cobble Hill and the Riverside Apartments in Brooklyn Heights. (Residents of that neighborhood do not need to be reminded of White's accomplishments. An upcoming spring fair is dedicated to White and is actually slated to include an A.T. White impersonator). If you've never seen either of these structures, I highly recommend you check them out. They are absolutely enchanting.
White also co-founded the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities with Seth Low; started the Brooklyn branch of the Children’s Aid Society; bought the land for what later became Marine Park along with Frederic Pratt; along with his sisters donated huge sums to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; served as commissioner of Public Works in the 1890s; endowed a chair in Social Ethics at Harvard; and was influential in the establishment of the City Planning Commission. That's really not even all of it. You'll have to read the book.
There are really no other books in print about White, so as Proteus Managing Editor Tom LaFarge said last night, "It's high time he got some recognition."
The idea for the book was generated from an event that Proteus Gowanus held in 2005, Alfred T. White Day, as well as from the research of Sally Yarmolinksy, a resident of White's Warren Place Cottages who spent the last year of her life researching him (she passed away in 2006).
The book goes far beyond presenting biographical information on the man, and really digs into the ideas and vision that his accomplishments represent and how they can be used as a model for solving similar issues today, i.e. affordable housing. There's something in it for anyone who likes urban/Brooklyn history, architecture or city planning, and the book's diverse group of contributers reflect this interdisciplinary approach to their subject. They include Lisa Ackerman, Olive Hoogenboom, LaFarge, Kathy Madden, Francis Morrone, Benjamin Warnke and Yarmolinsky.
"Everything we do is developed by a collaborative group of artists and writers," said Sasha Chavchavadze, founder and creative director of Proteus Gowanus.
The book was funded by White's great grand nephew, Jonathan Montgomery. It is available for purchase at http://proteusgowanus.com/main/ and at the Brooklyn HIstorical Society, 128 Pierrepont St. Hopefully some local bookstores will start carrying it as well.
It seems there are all sorts of events celebrating Walt Whitman on the horizon, mostly thanks to the efforts of The Walt Whitman Project.
On Sunday, April 26, at 2 p.m there will be a guided tour of "Walt Whitman's Fort Greene Park" with WW Project artistic director Greg Trupiano. The afternoon will include readings of Whitman’s prose and poetry and discussions about the park, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument and Brooklyn Hospital. The event will conclude with a walk up Myrtle Avenue to 99 Ryerson Ave., the last existing building in Brooklyn that was a residence of Walt Whitman. Reservations are limited to 25 people, so call (718) 391-8824 to secure your place.
Robert Roper, author of Now the Drum of War, a book about Whitman and his brothers in the Civil War, will give a talk sponsored by the Brooklyn Collection of the Brooklyn Public Library on Wednesday April 29 at 7 p.m. It will b held in the Trustees Room, Third Floor, Central Library, Grand Army Plaza.
Walt Whitman and the Arts in Brooklyn will be discussed at the Brooklyn Museum Library Reading Room on Saturday, May 2 at 3 p.m. Whitman was acting librarian of the Brooklyn Apprentice’s Library (nucleus of the Brooklyn Museum Library) in 1835, and he wrote about the arts in Brooklyn, including exhibitions he saw at the Brooklyn Institute (formerly the Brooklyn Museum). Representatives from The Walt Whitman Project will recite from texts Whitman wrote about the arts in Brooklyn. Space is limited, so RSVP at email@example.com. Suggested donation is $8, $4 for students and seniors. Call 718-638-5000 for more info.
And Whitman’s 190th birthday will be celebrated by The Walt Whitman Project in a joyous evening of poetry, prose, and music at Theater Ten Ten in Manhattan (1010 Park Ave.). Speakers will include Michael Robertson, author of "Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples." Ed Centeno is providing Whitman memorabilia for the raffle prize. The celebration will take place on Wednesday, May 27 at 7 p.m. Admission is free. Call 212-288-3246 ext. 3 for reservations.
Robert Fulton (1765-1815) is most famous for inventing the first commercially successful steamship, which made commuting around our island metropolis a great deal more efficient. (the Fulton streets in Brooklyn and Manhattan are named for him, in case that's not obvious).
He also developed one of the first submarines, for Napoleon, no less. One of his lesser known accomplishments is that he also developed one of the first torpedoes, and was the first to give the weapon that name. After testing the weapon in France and England (and failing to get support from those regimes), Fulton came to the States and managed to wrangle some funding out of Congress. He conducted tests at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1810, but was unable to convince the Navy that the weapon was worthy of further investment.
Fulton was way ahead of his time on this one, and the the concept was "a popular subject of ridicule, both in social circles and in the press," according to an 1898 Eagle article recalling the weapon's history.
A year after the Brooklyn Navy Yard tests, Fulton sent a letter in verse to Napoleon's infant son in which he playfully asked for more backing from the "great King." Excerpts are printed below:
The plan, my lord, which I have hit on Will quite destroy the pride of Britain; 'Twill send her navy to the devil And bring her to your nation's level The great torpedoes I prepare Will blow her ships up in the air And every man of war will soon Ascend just like a vast balloon…
Let not the greatness of my plan Lead you to think 'tis not for man To accomplish such a vast design As that which I avow is mine I wish you only to retrace What revolutions have ta'en place Not those which made your father king (I would not speak of such a thing) But those which learned scribes disclose As science an invention rose Reflect, sir, powder was invented And then, sir, you must feel contented…
Observe, great King, I am not greedy Though truth to say, I'm rather needy And prosecuting these great labors, Have been annoy'd much by my neighbors Who, jeering oft, my feelings hurt, Because I go without a shirt For this, sure no man ought to flout one Even you, great King, were born without one...