Monday, June 29, 2009

A Highly Effective Brooklynite

I was interested to learn last week that the chief engineer on the Panama Canal was from Brooklyn: George Washington Goethals. I'm not sure what neighborhood he grew up in, but he was born to Flemish immigrants here in 1858.

Historian David McCullough had kind words for the man: In The Path Between the Seas, he wrote: “He was an exemplary public servant. He was a very able, effective administrator. He brought the project through on time and at less cost (about $387 million) than originally estimated, this despite the fact that land-slides increased the magnitude of the job almost by geometric proportions.”

(Please excuse the creepy, Marlon Brando-in Apocalypse Now-Lookin' photo of Goethals, but I guess the man did spend some serious time in deep, jungly interiors, right?)
To read a bit more about Goethals, check out this Eagle profile: Brooklyn Connection to the Panama Canal


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Old 16mm Movies About B'klyn To be Shown

Aziz Rahman, director of the Brooklyn Film & Arts Festival, will present highlights of the Brooklyn Public Library's 16mm film collection in the Dweck Auditorium on Wednesday, June 24th at 7 p.m. The program, which is free, will include Trinidad in Brooklyn, 1985; Who Grows in Brooklyn, 1969; Incident on Wilson Street, 1964 and I remember Barbara, 1981. Dweck Auditorium is at the library's main branch, Grand Army Plaza. See Brooklynology

I wrote about the Brooklyn Film & Arts Festival just last month for the Eagle, in an article titled Brooklyn Street Life Explored at Upcoming Film Conference

Brooklyn Honors Spike Lee

A MULTI-FACETED TRIBUTE to the renowned Brooklyn director Spike Lee is planned for June 25-28.

Orchestrated by PlanIt Brooklyn, and through collaborations with other Brooklyn institutions, Brooklyn Honors Spike Lee will feature art and poetry inspired by Lee’s work as well as a panel discussion, photo exhibit, father and son basketball tournament and block party.

On Friday, June 26, the Brooklyn Historical Society will host Buggin Out: Poetry Inspired by Spike Lee, as well as open the new exhibit of photos by Spike’s brother, David Lee, who has been shooting stills on 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks’ sets since the beginning. David Lee’s stills of children, brownstone-filled streets, and now blockbuster actors early in their careers serve as some of the most beautiful examples of his brother’s genius.

The Brooklyn Historical Society is at 129 Pierrepont St. in Brooklyn Heights. Visit for a full listing of events for Brooklyn Honors Spike Lee.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Gritty Days of Brooklyn, When ‘The Newspaper Was King’

Peeking through the glass case at a new exhibit in the Brooklyn Public Library, a woman asked, “Don’t you miss this New York?”

Her nostalgia was sparked by a series of photos from the 1980s originally published in the neighborhood newspaper the Prospect Press. She was seeing a Brooklyn at the very beginning of a transformation we now take for granted. When brownstones were first being reclaimed, along with the streets, and residents began marching against condo towers, as well as crime, crack-cocaine and graffiti.

A collection of photos, ephemera and front pages, the exhibit offered some familiar faces — a newly elected Congressman Chuck Schumer reclining at his desk and a campaigning Mario Cuomo being gushed over by a group of secretaries — and some even more familiar headlines. “Gowanus Canal Finally Cleaning Up?” Good thing they added the question mark.

But after speaking with the paper’s alums, it’s clear what has changed the most in the 22 years since the Prospect Press closed: the newspaper business itself.“No cell phones, hardly anyone had a personal computer, no Google, and blackberries were still a fruit,” said Mike Stein, the staff photographer and an editor of the paper, who organized the exhibit and narrated a slide presentation at its opening last week.

“This was how people got their neighborhood news. We were really filling a need. They snapped the papers up when we put them out,” marveled Stein. “Just two decades ago, the newspaper was still king.”

Add to his list of anachronisms that there was no digital photography and no Quark or PageMaker. “We used Mergenthaler linotype machines,” Stein recalled. “It was this huge, refrigerator-like, hulking monstrosity that spit out gallies of black ink. Then the layout was done manually. The production department would literally cut and paste the stories, headlines, captions, photos [actually developed in dark rooms] and ads onto boards to be sent to the printer.”

It was a pre-web site world, and in Brooklyn, it was the Wild West.

“I’d be trying to get in my friends’ apartment at the Ansonia and the cops would have their guns out facing off with the gangs,” recalls Monica Musetti-Carlin, the Press’s advertising manager and a native of Park Slope, which was the paper’s area of coverage, along with adjacent neighborhoods such as Windsor Terrace, Sunset Park and Kensington.

“It was a really gritty neighborhood at the time. A lot of seemingly abandoned buildings,” said Doug Tsuruoka, who had been one of the paper’s staff reporters. “There was a lot of energy in the air. Things were starting to change, for good and bad. There was a lot of real estate speculation and forcing out of old tenants.”

On the front lines of a rapidly changing neighborhood, the paper’s offices were on Seventh Avenue between 13th and 14th streets. The publisher, Jim Smith, had a printing business and political aspirations, and so a newspaper was born.

“There were other papers. It was competitive, but there were also a lot of new businesses looking for venues to advertise. There was room for everybody,” said Musetti-Carlin. “Now, with the internet and so many other options, there isn’t room for everybody.”

But the Press foretold the fate of newspapers today, says Stein, when it folded after five years. “It was an unsustainable business model,” he says. Smith had sold the paper a few years earlier and relocated to Hawaii. (Politics didn’t pan out. He was defeated in a City Council race by Steve DiBrienza). And one small print paper with no other streams of income couldn’t make it.

But the five years in Brooklyn life that the Press documented are still with us, largely thanks to the New York State Newspaper Program, which took the Brooklyn Library’s collection of more than 60 defunct Brooklyn community papers and digitized them so they are available on microfilm. “I thought I had lost so much of it, but 90 percent of the Press was saved because of that program,” said Stein.

“They’re such a tremendous trove of information,” said Joy Holland of the library’s Brooklyn Collection, adding that these papers reported from the heart of neighborhoods with details and stories often overlooked by the larger metropolitan dailies.
But the Prospect Press benefited from some big city paper wisdom. “Having Dan O’Malley was the greatest thing any local paper could have had,” said Musetti-Carlin. O’Malley was a “lifer” at the Daily News and contributed to the Press. His son Tim was a staff reporter. “He showed us the ropes. He knew how to talk to people, how to run a newspaper.”

Among the stories and people covered during the paper’s run were the Seventh Avenue Rapist, a string of murders in Prospect Park, the opening of The Atrium at Sterling Place (an early co-op conversion in the neighborhood, in which a group of old stables were turned into 47 apartments selling for $49,686 to $149,877), the retirement of longtime Brooklyn Democratic Chair Meade Esposito, JFK Jr. visiting the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the battle against a 12-story condo tower on Prospect Park Southwest (it eventually was built), and the graffiti artist who painted the F train.

“[The Prospect Press] really was very community oriented. It was a lightening rod. It kept everybody honest,” recalled Eric Weiss, a freelance photographer who occasionally worked for the Press. “If there was a problem with the commander at the precinct, they were on it. The city was reeling from a lot of corruption, and this paper tried to keep everything on the level.”

“Images From the Prospect Press” will be on display at the Brooklyn Collection of the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, Grand Army Plaza, through August 29, 2009. It is free and open to the public. Check for the Brooklyn Collection’s hours.
Both photos are by Mike Stein for the Prospect Press. The top photo shows Sunset Park residents marching against the crack epidemic and the second photo shows "the Wildmen of the South Slope," who were among those responsible for the ubiquitous shoes tossed over electrical lines in the neighborhood.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Rock & Roll Photo Exhibit Coming To Brooklyn Museum

"Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present," an exhibit acknowledging the work of photographers for their creative role in the history of rock and roll music, will be on view Oct. 30, 2009, through Jan. 31, 2010 at the Brooklyn Museum, reports the Examiner.

Among the works on view will be William “Red” Robertson’s 1955 photo of Elvis Presley that appeared on his first album; the contact sheets of Bob Gruen’s portrait of John Lennon in a sleeveless New York City T-shirt and another photo session of Lennon on a rooftop; a bedside shot of John Lennon and Yoko Ono by Allan Tannenbaum, Astrid Kirchherr's portrait of Beatles John, Paul, George, Stu and Pete in Hamburg, Don Hunstein’s photograph of Bob Dylan walking with girlfriend Suze Rotolo down a snowy Greenwich Village street that appeared on the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" and a Jim Marshall portait of the Beatles disembarking from an airplane as well as his portrait of Johnny Cash "flipping the bird" at the camera.

The photo above, taken by William "PoPsie" Randolph, shows Wilson Pickett backed by a young Jimi Hendrix on guitar.

Upcoming Events

A talk by fabric artist and historian Janice Everett will take place Sunday, June 21 at 4 p.m. at the Proteus Gowanus gallery. Everett will talk about the history and technique of Jacquard weaving, an 18th century invention leading to the mechanization of weaving and, some argue, a precursor to the development of modern computing science. Also, on Sunday, June 28, 6-8 p.m. Proteus Gowanus will have its Closing Party and Sale as they close up shop for the summer. Come bid adieu to the MEND exhibit, which looked at the methods and tools of saving, recycling, conserving and archiving, from books to household refuse. Proteus Gowanus is at 543 Union St. Visit for gallery hours.

Ever wonder about what went on or even goes on today behind those mysterious walls at the Brooklyn Navy Yard? You can take a bus tour of the Navy Yard at 1:30 p.m. on June 21 with hop off stops along the way that provide an overview of the fascinating stories of the Navy Yard’s past, present, and future.
The tour will provide a close look at a dry dock that has been used since before the Civil War, a glimpse inside the naval hospital campus that has been empty for decades, and one of the nation’s first multi-story LEED-certified industrial buildings in the country.
Please call 718-222-4111 x250 to reserve your seat. Tours book up fast, so call today! $25 BHS members, $30 non-members.
Meet at the Brooklyn Historical Society, 128 Pierrepont St. Bus leaves BHS promptly at 1:45.

A free walking tour of Sunset Park will be given on Saturday, June 27 from 2-4 p.m. Join curator Andy Urban and tour guide Dave Madden for an informative walk through Brooklyn’s Chinatown in conjunction with the Brooklyn Historical Society exhibit, "Living and Learning: Chinese Immigration, Restriction & Community in Brooklyn, 1850 to Present."
Meeting point: 36th Street and Fourth Avenue, SE corner (near entrance to 36th St subway station, D/M/N/R trains).

Brooklyn Beer Tours will be given every Saturday this summer from June 6 to September 26. Hosted by Urban Oyster, the tour will explore the rise and fall and rise again of the beer brewing industry and how it tells a larger story about the neighborhood of Williamsburg, the borough of Brooklyn, and even the country as a whole.
The tours will begin at the Brooklyn Brewery with a private tour and then head over to East Williamsburg to check out some of the last remaining 19th century brewery buildings; explore the diverse cultures and mom and pop businesses that make the neighborhood what it is today; learn about what happened to local beer producers; and discover how beer brewing has returned to Brooklyn. Along the way, the tour will also visit restaurants and merchants, hear the stories of residents past and present, and, of course, sample some of the finest beer Brooklyn has to offer today. The tour is $45, with a 10 percent discount for Brooklyn Historical Society members. Cheers!
Visit and click on calendar for more info on how to book your tickets.

Dickens in the Heights?

Since June 9 was the anniversary of Charles Dickens death (1870), I decided to rifle through the old Eagle archives to see if "Boz" had ever set foot in the County of Kings, and of course, he did. He gave a series of readings at Plymouth Church in the late 1860s or so. But I also found a lengthy article written in 1890 about a much disputed earlier trip to the borough.

There were some Brooklyn Heights residents with a distinct memory of a reception for Dickens being held in the neighborhood on his first trip to the States in 1842. However, the owners of the various fine homes in which this reception supposedly took place, refuted it. It's amazing how many people the reporter tracked down in trying to get to the bottom of things, but everyone had a different recollection. The people quoted add up to a who's who of the Heights at the time, with familiar names such as Packer, Joralemon and Low.

Anyhow, I reprinted most of the exhaustive article in the Eagle this week. If you're feeling the strength, it's kind of an amusing read.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Brooklyn Landmarks Photos Included at New York Historical Society Exhibit

Ok, so this is not in Brooklyn, but still sounds like it could be pretty cool. "Landmarks of New York" is a photography exhibit on display at the New York Historical Society through July 12. Curated by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, it "offers visitors contrasting yet complementary visions of the urban landscape as a site of historic change" and includes images of Brooklyn landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Peter Claesen Wyckoff House, the Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brickworks Storehouse and WPA recreation centers such as McCarren Play Center.

The exhibit has traveled to 82 countries under the sponsorship of the United States Department of State since 2006 and has come home to New York for its final showing.

Each of the photographs the exhibit is accompanied by historic descriptive text about the landmark and its significance to the social fabric of New York. The photographs, selected from images of more than 1,224 landmarks designated between 1965 and March 2009, include views of buildings constructed between 1640 and 1967.

The exhibit was originally conceived to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the passage of the New York City Landmarks Law.

The New York Historical Society is at 170 Central Park West between 76th and 77th streets.

Student-Curated Exhibit on 17th Century Brooklyn Opening June 5

Nineteen local teens have curated an exhibit for the Brooklyn Historical Society that will open this Friday, June 5. "Pages of the Past: The Breukelen Adventures of Jasper Danckaerts" chronicles the voyage of Jasper Danckaerts through 17th century Brooklyn.

In 1679, Danckaerts and his colleague Peter Sluyter came to New York in search of land. For 200 years Danckaerts’ meticulously written and illustrated diaries lay undiscovered until Henry C. Murphy, a founder of the Long Island Historical Society, (later renamed the Brooklyn Historical Society) came upon the diaries in 1864 in an Amsterdam book store. Now an important part of the BHS collection and an invaluable primary resource for scholars, the diaries will be featured in this exhibit in celebration of the 400 Years of the Dutch in New York.

Participating students are from Brooklyn Technical High School, Cobble Hill School of American Studies, The Packer Collegiate Institute and Saint Ann’s School.The exhibit opening will be June 5 with a reception from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
The Brooklyn Historical Society is at 128 Pierrepont St. (at Clinton St.) in Brooklyn Heights.
UPDATE: I went over to BHS the night before the exhibit opened and chatted with some of the students as they finished setting up. Here's the story in the Eagle