Thursday, January 21, 2010

Greenpoint Bride-to-Be Unearths Brooklyn Roots

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.

Popcorn Snowballs and Lemonade Springs: Raising Money in 1902

We could learn a thing or two about fundraising from the Brooklyn ladies living in 1902. On January 19 of that year, the Brooklyn Eagle ran a feature in its Sunday edition about an upcoming fundraiser at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, then on Montague Street (but not for long, it would burn down a year later and be rebuilt where it stands today in Fort Greene).

Called “From Colonial America to the United States, Its Colonies and Protectorates,” the fundraiser was a craft sale, history lesson and art exhibition all in one. Because of the cumbersome name, everyone just called it the “Midwinter Fete.” It was to raise money for an organization known as the Church Charity Foundation, which was comprised of five different charities.

“Modern ingenuity” and “feminine enterprise” were responsible for the show, the article explained. “The barnlike Academy will be transformed into a little cosmos of beauty…nothing beyond the exterior will be recognizable.”

Parishes from all over Brooklyn and Long Island — 128 in total — were involved in pulling it together, and each parish was responsible for different booths at the fete.

Mrs. J. Eliott Langstaff, the chief organizer, said, “The fete means something more than the mere raising of a large sum of money for a worthy purpose. It means the sympathetic fellowship, the working together for one cause of a large body of people, it means the creation of an enduring interest in this cause, the Church Charity Foundation…”

The following is a description of the Academy:

“The bare entrance will become Washington’s old home and the visitors will come in, most appropriately, through the gates of Mount Vernon finding even the posts metamorphosed into trees and the blank walls into landscapes.

“The inner foyers will reveal charming vistas: to the left palms, bamboo vines, flowers and fruits: this is Florida, in charge of Christ Church. In perspective is seen Key West, and in a sea corner the women of St. Marks church, Islip, will sell fishing accessories such as nets, decoy ducks and trout flies made by the people of Bayswater.

“The right corridor will represent a street in New Orleans with the quaint old Spanish cabildo in the foreground and marshes beyond. Here charming maids and matrons of St. Mark’s Church, garbed in costumes of the First Empire, will vend French candy, while in an old southern cabin molasses candy, crete and sugar cane will be sold.

“Entering the auditorium, the entire front will show a semi-circle of gay shops, where every conceivable thing may be purchased.

“In ‘Ye Olde Booke Shoppe,’ in charge of Holy Trinity Church, will be found books and pictures, interesting photographs and signed copies. In commemoration of the first book shop established by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia the maids in attendance at the book stalls will wear the prim Quaker costume, while those in charge of the pictures will afford a striking contrast to the gay gowns of colonial Virginia.

“Next to the book shop, Christ Church, South Brooklyn, will conduct a cotton and linen sale in a shop fitted up with looms and old spinning wheels…

“Of special interest will be an old Dutch kitchen where St. Paul’s Church, South Brooklyn, will dispense hot chocolate. Its quaint fireplace, leaded windows, pewter plates and steins will make a proper background for various pretty maids in Dutch costume.

“It is not very far from Holland to Alaska at the Midwinter Fete. St. Andrew’s Church has prepared a realistic Alaska with stuffed deer, sleds and plumb snowballs made of popcorn. The attendants will be dressed as Indians or miners and in the corner will be a sandpile where children can dig for nuggets and be sure of finding something for their pains.”

There was also an abundance of dining options at the adjacent Colonial Hall, the article reported, including “a marvelous Ponce de Leon spring which will flow with lemonade.” There was also a “smoking room where cigars and daily papers could be bought.”

The fete opened with a colonial reception on Jan. 27 and closed on Feb. 1. On January 31, the Eagle reported that so many people turned up for one of the art exhibits, that hundreds had to be turned away. Among the pieces on display was a miniature of King Louis XVI of France that had been presented to Benjamin Franklin in 1785.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Some Cool Upcoming Exhibits in Brooklyn

“Tivoli: A Place We Call Home”
A multi-media exhibition of photographs, words and video documenting the people of Tivoli Towers, a 35-year-old apartment building in Crown Heights, will open at the Brooklyn Historical Society on February 11.

Tivoli is located in a neighborhood that once suffered harshly from lack of investment and the crack epidemic. Today, this same neighborhood is rapidly changing due to gentrification. Tivoli Towers is one of the few buildings in the neighborhood that has not been gentrified as yet, due to its status in the city-sponsored Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program. When the landlord recently tried to sell the building and remove it from the Mitchell-Lama Program, the tenants sued — and won. Since several NYC landlords have successfully removed their buildings from this program, this proved to be a landmark decision and important victory in 2005.

In May 2009, the tenants were informed that their landlord is going to appeal the case. If he wins, Tivoli Towers will no longer provide affordable housing for this diverse community of people. “Tivoli: A Place We Call Home” aims to put a face and identity on Tivoli’s tenants at the onset of gentrification in this Brooklyn neighborhood and will help answer questions such as: Who lives there? Where do they come from? What experiences have they had living in this building? How do they use this space that they call home? What are their aspirations for this community that they have created? What contributions do they make to society? How have they been affected by the lack of investment in their building? What does gentrification mean to them?

“Tivoli: A Place We Call Home” is produced by photographer/filmmaker, Delphine Fawundu Buford, along with filmmakers Scott Brathwaite and Anthony Clouden Jr. These three long-time friends and residents at Tivoli Towers felt the need to collect visual histories of their own community.

“Healing the Wounds of War: The Brooklyn Sanitary Fair of 1864”
Opening on January 29 will be a new exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum that will present a selection of artworks and historical objects celebrating the contributions of women to the mid-19th century Sanitary Movement, particularly the highly important Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair of 1864.

During the Civil War, sanitary fairs were held to raise money for the war effort in major cities in the Northeast. These large-scale fairs were social events that combined entertainment, education, and philanthropy. Although the U.S. Sanitary Commission was headed by men, most of its work was accomplished by thousands of women volunteers. In Brooklyn, civic-minded women’s organizations orchestrated the hugely successful Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, a separate event from the New York Sanitary Fair. It raised $400,000, well over the projected $100,000 and equal to more than four million dollars by today’s standards. The money was used for clothing, food, medical supplies, and other provisions for the Union Army.
For more background on the Sanitary Fair, check out this Eagle article.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Night Brooklyn Became a Borough

As January 1, 1898 approached, an item in the New York Tribune exulted: “The sun will rise this morning upon the greatest experiment in municipal government that the world has ever known — the enlarged city.” Some would mourn the demise of ‘Little Old New York.’ Mayor William L. Strock even suggested holding a “funeral service.” Nothing was officially planned except a stuffy speech or two to celebrate the founding of Greater New York ...until William Randolph Heart got his hands on it... Read more at the Brooklyn Eagle

This sketch above depicts the final gathering of the Brooklyn Common Council on Dec. 31, 1898. It was published in the Eagle on the following January 2, after Brooklyn officially became part of the greater City of New York.