Greenpoint felt like home right away to Dana Schultze, for reasons she could not quite explain. But the North Brooklyn neighborhood, known for its Polish enclave, McCarren Park and polluted Newtown Creek, had a familiarity and comfort for the Florida native from the start.
It was in Williamsburg that she met her fiance, Jason Holmes, at a friend’s art gallery in 2005. She started spending a lot of time in the neighborhood, and moved there from Manhattan shortly after. (The happy couple is pictured at right).
On a trip home to Florida, she excitedly told her grandfather about her new stomping grounds, only to find out that they had been his as well.
“I was shocked to find out that my grandfather had grown up on Bedford Avenue, just blocks from where I was living,” says Schultze. “I had known he was from New York, but I never knew much more than that. I couldn’t believe it. The streets I walk down every day are the same ones that he used to walk down.”
Dana’s discovery of her roots in the borough has surely been echoed in other families. It is estimated that as many as a quarter of Americans can trace their forbears to Brooklyn, a cheaper and more homey alternative to Manhattan for the immigrants arriving daily in New York. But as opportunity — and suburbia — called in the second half of the 20th century, many native Brooklynites moved away, and now their progeny are being beckoned back to the old neighborhoods, which have since been anointed the creative core of America’s most dynamic city.
Today’s Brooklyn is a bit different from the trolley-tracked, Depression-era Brooklyn Dana’s grandfather knew. She actually had to take pictures of real estate office windows to prove to her grandfather, Theodore Grimac, now 85, the cost of rent. “I think he’s kind of amazed that people really want to live here,” said Dana.
Not that Grimac doesn’t remember the old neighborhood fondly. “I have a lot of great memories there. The memories are all good,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Destin, Florida. “Because we didn’t have too much…I realized that it didn’t matter how much you have, or what you can touch, but that you grow up happy, and you remember your relatives as happy.”
Grimac, the son of Polish immigrants, moved to Greenpoint in 1926 at 2 years old with his parents and older brother, Hank. His father was a tailor, working at department stores around the city. The family lived at 97 Bedford Ave., right by McCarren Park, “second house from the corner.” He attended Holy Family School and Bushwick High School. He was also a member of the Polish Falcons, an athletic and social club with which “he marched in parades on Fifth Avenue at holiday times.” As a teenager, he and his friends attended dances at the Greenpoint YMCA and the Knights of Columbus, which was where he first met Dana’s grandmother.
As a young man Grimac worked at Abraham & Straus Department Store on Fulton Street (now Macy’s). He also worked as an elevator man in the Chrysler Building. One day he rode up the Duke of Windsor and his wife, Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee whom the Duke had abdicated the throne for — one of the biggest news stories of the decade. “I took them up to the Cloud Club on the 66th floor. I felt real good about it.”
He also worked at Ellis Island in the early years of WWII. His grandfather ran the commissary department there and Grimac would help serve food to the incarcerated Germans and Italians who were being sent back to Europe. One day, while carrying a few trays of ice cream, he dropped one. “It went right down the back of one of those guys. He just stopped eating and put his fork down. I remember I moved away as fast as I could.”
Grimac also remembers seeing a young Frank Sinatra perform at the local Y. “He used to come over from Hoboken and sing at the YMCA. For about 10 or 15 cents you could pay admission and get a few beers. Most of the guys didn’t like him. The girls just loved him. They would scream and scream and scream.”
After finishing his engineering degree at NYU and serving as an airplane mechanic in the Navy, Grimac’s career took him from Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, to Florida, where he has lived for the past 30 years. (He is pictured at left in his naval uniform)
The house at 97 Bedford, where Grimac lived until he was drafted in 1944, has since been torn down. “It was a chain link fence and a pile of bricks when I first walked by,” says Dana. “Now it looks like they are going to build something there.” (An eight-story residential building is planned for the site, according to city records.)
But there are other landmarks from Grimac’s days that his granddaughter sees daily. When Dana made a slideshow for her grandfather of the neighborhood as it is today, he saw a picture of her at McCarren Park, and then dug out a picture of him with her grandmother taken in the very same spot.
And in April 2009, Dana and Jason moved onto the same block as St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, which they then found out was the church where her grandparents were married. “We hear the church bells every day,” she says. “It’s such a great reminder. I feel really connected to my past, which I haven’t always felt because my mother died when I was a teenager and my grandmother when I was four.”
Grimac can’t quite recall the last time he was in Brooklyn. “It’s been a long, long time,” he says. “From the pictures I’ve seen, I think it would be interesting to see it. The good Lord willing.”
Mr. Grimac will return to New York this fall to walk his granddaughter down the aisle. The wedding is set to take place in Long Island City, Queens, where incidentally, Dana’s great grandparents moved after they left Greenpoint. “It seems I just keep following the family trail,” she says.