Thursday, April 29, 2010

Putting the Horse Before the Car

Transportation has proven a surprisingly fertile topic for discussion and debate here in New York. Is the MTA thinking of raising fares again?!?! With miles of bike lanes being added annually and cars being booted from Times Square, and soon, from the northern end of Union Square as well, the Bloomberg administration seems to be working on a responsible and sustainable future for our transportation system. But, it can be just as fun and interesting to remember the way we used to do things. To this effect, the gallery and reading room Proteus Gowanus (543 Union St.) will be hosting a talk and PowerPoint presentation by PhD candidate Darryl Heller (Univ. of Chicago), who will discuss the horsecar railway, ubiquitous in Brooklyn between 1853 and 1898, and its place in the history of Brooklyn transportation. The talk will be on Friday, April 30, at 7 p.m. $5. E-mail reservations at

More Than You Ever Needed to Know About the Gowanus Flushing Tunnel

One of the perennial jokes about the Gowanus, of course, involves speculating just what variety of nastiness might be found in there. It’s where all the proverbial bodies are buried. Where all our industrial sins are documented. And, apparently, a carrier of sexually transmitted diseases. Scientists found traces of Gonorrhea in the waters a few years ago (wtf?!).

These unflattering thoughts and facts about the Gowanus were certainly spurred along by the fact that the flushing tunnel, which helps to slosh in fresh, oxygenated water and flush out sewage, was broken for decades, and thus the water was so gross that light could not penetrate it and ABSOLUTELY NO living things could exist in the canal. Yikes.

The flushing tunnel was fixed around 1999, and an upgrade is now under way to make it more efficient (a separate project from the whole Superfund thing). Mike Weiss of the Brooklyn Eagle reports. And I mention it on this blog, because he dedicates some of the article to the history of the efforts surrounding the flushing tunnel, which was completed in 1911. So if you are interested in the historic battle against the Gowanus stank, it is worth reading.

NOTE: The curvy line in the 1920 map above represents the flushing tunnel. The map is from Atlas of Brooklyn, E. Belcher Hyde. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Historical Society

A Man You Should Know About

Brownstoner has a lengthy and fascinating post on one of Brooklyn's big developers of yesteryear - William H. Reynolds (1867-1931). This guy built many of the houses in Prospect Heights, Bedford Corners and Borough Park. Maybe even more than that - the post leaves us hanging with a promise of a Part II. But he was a very wealthy man and a state senator by age 24. Not bad. Read up.
UPDATE: Here's part II

Brooklyn Heights Man was Co-founder of Time

If you pick up the May issue of Vanity Fair (the one with Grace Kelly on the cover), you’ll find a fascinating story inside about the beginning of Time magazine. (The piece is an excerpt from a new book out by Alan Brinkley, The Publisher).

Time was launched in 1923 by two ambitious young Yale graduates -- Henry Luce, the son of Protestant missionaries in China, and Briton Hadden, who hailed from Brooklyn Heights. (The first issue is pictured, with a March 3, 1923 publication date).

The two men hated the sensationalism of the Hearst papers and the long windedness of the “gray lady.” They saw an opening for a publication that could be informative, but concise, and comprehensive, covering all aspects of modern life – sports, arts, politics, personalities, etc.

Brinkley writes: “Hadden and Luce had come to the conclusion, instinctively, that saving busy people time could be a successful and lucrative enterprise. Indeed, Time was almost perfectly designed to respond to several of the era’s social changes: the increasing pace of modern life, the growing pressure on professionals to devote more time to their jobs, and the volume and variety of information that people believed they needed to know about the wider world.”

Little known fact: The magazine was initially going to be called Facts. Other contenders were Destiny, Chance and What’s What.

But, they settled on Time, because of the magazine’s goal of not only documenting the passage of time, but of saving time for busy businessmen who wanted to be acquainted with the news and issues of the day, relatively quickly and painlessly.

Hadden was greatly responsible for developing the literary style of the magazine, using, of all things, Homer’s Iliad for inspiration. This boiled down to a love of compound adjectives and inverted sentences. He also revived many words we think of as commonplace today, such as tycoon, socialite and pundit.

The Brooklynite Hadden would not live to see the heights of success that Time would reach (Time Warner, anyone?). He was hospitalized for a strep infection and died in 1929, six years after the first issue was printed.

Luce, however, went on to launch Fortune, Life, Sports Illustrated and of course, what eventually amounted to one of the most powerful media companies in the U.S.

p.s. I would link to the story, but they don’t seem to have it on the web site. You’ll have to fork over the $4.99 for the issue.

Here's the New York Times review of Brinkley's book

Friday, April 16, 2010

New Book Illustrates Fort Greene History

Fort Greene will soon join the growing family of neighborhoods in Brooklyn featured by Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. This pictorial history collection has already covered Crown Heights, Flatbush, Bed-Stuy, Bay Ridge, Gravesend, Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay and Williamsburg, not to mention books dedicated to the Dodgers, Green-Wood Cemetery, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the borough’s streetcars and Brooklyn Eagle postcards.

Now Fort Greene — home to some of Brooklyn’s most beautiful residential architecture, Fort Greene Park, BAM and the Brooklyn Navy Yard — is the subject of Arcadia’s latest local release, due out April 26.

The book was written and compiled by long-time resident of the neighborhood Howard Pitsch, who is also a former chair of the Fort Greene Association. And, in fact, proceeds from the sale of the book will go to that non-profit organization, which is dedicated to preservation and community development in the neighborhood.

With images recalling the area’s earliest settlers to the recent transformation of DeKalb Avenue into a “restaurant row,” the book spans the neighborhood’s storied history with special emphasis on the Navy Yard, BAM and the digging up of subway tunnels in the early 20th century.

Included also are many images of street scenes from the heart of Fort Greene along Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue, as well as pictures of architectural details adorning neighborhood buildings. Pitsch clearly has an appreciation for detail — many terra cotta engravings and gargoyle-like embellishments are featured. (Twenty of Pitsch’s 30 years in Fort Greene have been spent renovating a derelict 1853 Cumberland Street frame house.)

Thumbing through the book gives one a sense not only of the neighborhood’s charms — and its misfortunes, such as floods and building collapses — but a sense of its place in a broader history. Anchored by BAM, America’s oldest continually operating arts center, the area has been a consistent draw for artistic and intellectual talent of international repute, and a home to such writers as Walt Whitman, Richard Wright and Marianne Moore.

The neighborhood is also something of a sacred site in Revolutionary War history. The area was part of an arc of defensive entrenchments during the Battle of Brooklyn, the first major battle of the American Revolution. And atop Fort Greene Park is the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, where remains of the estimated 11,500 people who died on British prison ships anchored off Brooklyn during the Revolution.

And as is always the satisfaction with looking at old pictures, the book offers a glimpse of the places that are no longer. There was the old Orpheum Theatre at Fulton and Rockwell Place, which was torn down in 1953, the Wallabout Market, an enormous outdoor emporium that operated near the Navy Yard from 1894 until WWII, when it was scuttled because the Yard needed to expand, and many others. Not to mention the horse-drawn carriages, elevated train lines and trolleys that used to define the streetscape.

Howard Pitsch will hold two upcoming book signings. On Saturday, May 1, he’ll be at the Fort Greene Farmer’s Market from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. And on Sunday, May 2, he’ll be at the 30th annual Fort Greene House Tour, at One Hanson Place (Williamsburgh Savings Bank) from noon to 4:30 p.m.

Fort Greene, $21.99, Arcadia Publishing, will be available at local retailers, online booksellers and through Arcadia Publishing at or (888) 313-2665.

A subway tunnel collapsed while under construction in 1917 at St. Felix Street.

Life before cars. Thirsty horses make use of a watering trough at the intersection of Fulton Street, Lafayette Avenue and South Elliott Place.

The original plan for the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument atop Fort Greene Park, designed by renowned landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Their full vision of the monument was never fulfilled.

See more photos from the book at the Brooklyn Eagle

Giving Architectural Walking Tours Their Proper Due

UPDATE: The Brooklyn Historical Society has just sent out word that this event has been cancelled.

Hmmm... I thought walking tours were just a nice thing to do when the folks were in town. But it turns out they may be more significant than that. Architectural historian Francis Morrone will be at the Brooklyn Historical Society on April 23 to discuss the history of the “walking tour” and how the first walking tours in the 1950s — sponsored by The Municipal Art Society, the Museum of the City of New York and the Brooklyn Heights Association — made the public aware as never before of the city’s historic architecture, and helped pave the way for the Landmarks Law of 1965.

Morrone will discuss the pioneering uses of walking tours by such architectural historians as Henry Hope Reed, Clay Lancaster and Margot Gayle; the European background of the New York walking tour; and his own experience as a leader of some 1,500 walking tours.

The Brooklyn Historical Society is at 128 Pierrepont Street, and the discussion will run from 7 to 9 p.m. It's $15, $10 for Municipal Art Society or Brooklyn Historical Society members. Reservations required. Register here or call (212) 935-2075.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Whitman, As Whitman Would Have Wanted

Walt Whitman is coming back to Brooklyn, as we’ve never seen or heard him before — but, perhaps, as he was always meant to be: Spoken and sung from the mouths of women and men and children. Sung from on high in Fort Greene Park, from down low at the Old Stone House, and from a barge on the East River.

For nine days in May, an international collaborative of performing artists known as Compagnia De Colombari will be presenting “More or Less I Am” — a theatrical and musical presentation of “Song of Myself,” arguably the greatest poem of Walt Whitman’s seminal Leaves of Grass, first published on July 4, 1855, out of a small print shop on Fulton Street in Brooklyn.

“Whitman is meant to be spoken and heard aloud,” says Karin Coonrod, Colombari’s founding artistic director. “I believe that Whitman’s words are meant to be unhinged from the pages and alive in the mouths of the people.

“We are building a little stage for the audience,” she explains. “I realized that we could not make this piece without activating the audience voice.”

Every night audience members will participate in speaking part of the text, joining the cast of five musicians, six actors, a gospel singer, a mezzo soprano and two children, who will be journeying through a whirlwind New York tour: nine shows at nine different venues in nine days (May 5-14).

“Whitman loved opera, so I knew we had to have a mezzo soprano,” said Coonrod. The piece will also include a section in Spanish, because, Coonrod says, Whitman is the “the New York Poet Laureate of the Americas.”

“He gives strong voice to the new world. For him ‘diversity’ is not medicine, it is joyous. This abundance is more present in the Americas than any place.”

The company has also scored original music for the hour-long performance. “There are echoes of many different musical styles represented in our piece,” says violinist Colin Jacobsen. “There are strands of the blues, old-time music and other American folk-styles. And there are sounds from other global music traditions, as we wanted to emulate Whitman’s hearty embrace of all of humanity, not just America ... It seems that he celebrates the music of the street as much as the music of the opera house; that he celebrates the life of the downtrodden as much as that of the President. I think that’s part of the spirit we wanted to capture.”

Whitman would probably approve of another aspect of “More or Less I Am.” Seven out of the nine shows will be free, and many of them will be held outdoors. The purpose, says Coonrod, is to “go outside and meet our audience in the public spaces, to make a thing of extravagant, ineffable beauty and offer it freely.”

One of the show’s venues, Fort Greene Park, partially owes its existence to Whitman, who wrote several editorials advocating for its creation while he was editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from 1846 to ’48. Though Whitman’s itinerant life brought him to many places, he spent much of it, including his childhood, in Brooklyn, moving here at the age 4 with his family. By 11 his formal education was over and he worked as an office boy at a Fulton Street law firm. It wasn’t long before he took to printing and newspaper work, writing for nearly 10 other papers before becoming the editor of the Eagle at the age of 27.

Years after Leaves of Grass was first published, Whitman reflected, “Remember, the book arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York from 1838 to 1853, absorbing a million people for 15 years, with an intimacy, an eagerness, an abandon, probably never equalled.”

The first performance of “More or Less I Am” will be a benefit at Bargemusic, an old coffee-barge turned concert venue anchored off Fulton Ferry Landing. Fulton Ferry was a familiar and beloved locale of Whitman’s. He took the ferry nearly everyday during his afternoon jaunts around the city, after finishing up his editorials in the morning. (Like with so many other seemingly ordinary things, Whitman took a rapturous and transcendent joy in the ferry, and wrote a poem about it, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”)

In addition to Fort Greene Park and the Old Stone House in Park Slope, “More or Less I Am” will be performed for free at Whitman’s birthplace in Huntington, Long Island, the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan, Marcus Garvey Park, Grant’s Tomb and The Wadleigh School in Harlem. The final show ($15) will be at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, “not far from Pfaff’s, a beer pub at 653 Broadway, where Walt and a lot of other rowdies were regulars,” explained Coonrod.

“Whitman, like Shakespeare, is a miracle, fully present and penning what they heard from the surrounding vernacular,” says Coonrod, who teaches Shakespeare at the Yale School of Drama, and is best known for directing the epic Henry VI at the Public Theater. “Of American writers, Whitman has perhaps been most influential around the world.”

Whitman was 36 years old in 1855 when he released the first, 95-page, 12-poem edition of Leaves of Grass. “Song of Myself,” which had no title in the first edition, was the first poem in the book, and longer than the other 11 poems put together. He continued to revise and expand Leaves of Grass throughout his life. (The final “deathbed edition” would have 383 poems.)
But it is the first incarnation of “Song of Myself” that Compagnia De Colombari will be performing in May. “There is an urgency in it that I love,” says Coonrod. “Of course it is wonderful that Whitman kept reworking the piece, kept revising, just like many a poet and playwright. But I love the primal quality of the 1855 edition … The first is more pure to me, has more chutzpah.”

Also, she says, “It’s the one he broke out with in that time when the country was so polarized. I like going back to that original impulse that he had.”

Whitman, whose life spanned from 1819 to 1892, was witness to a fractious American century, and this played no small part in his life. His term at the Eagle ended because he took a more radical Democratic stance than his publisher: He rejected the expansion of slavery into new territories. He witnessed a slave auction in New Orleans, which many believe was a transformative event for the poet. He also served as a nurse in Washington, D.C. to both northern and southern soldiers during the Civil War.

“[‘Song of Myself’] is full of energy in an effort to reconcile the nation with words,” says Coonrod.

If Coonrod has her way, “More or Less I Am” will be performed every May (Whitman’s birthday is May 31) in other cities that share a connection with him, such as New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

“I believe that Whitman gives voice to all people and that is an exhilarating sentiment for our own time,” says Coonrad. “As Whitman himself says: ‘The words of my book nothing, the drift of it everything…’”

Schedule of Performances

May 5 (Weds) 8 p.m., Barge Music at Fulton Ferry Landing, BENEFIT, $40. Call (718) 624-2083 for reservations.
May 6 (Thurs) 7 p.m., Fort Greene Park, FREE
May 7 (Fri) 8 p.m., Winter Garden World Financial Center, 200 Vesey St., FREE
May 8 (Sat) 7 p.m., Whitman Birthplace, 246 Old Walt Whitman Rd., Huntington, Long Island, FREE
May 10 (Mon) 11 a.m., The Wadleigh School, 114th St and Frederick Douglas Blvd., FREE
May 11 (Tues) 7 p.m., The Old Stone House in Washington Park, Third Street and Fifth Avenue, FREE
May 12 (Weds) 7 p.m., Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, FREE
May 13 (Thurs) 7 p.m., Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Park near 122nd Street, FREE
May 14 (Fri) 7 p.m., Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette St., $15. Visit for tickets.

Above: The cast of “More or Less I Am,” Colin Jacobsen, Michael Rogers, Eric Jacobsen, Elliot Villar and Jorge Rubio. Seated are, Michael Potts, Ayeje Feamster, Sarah Heltzel and Kyle Sanna.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Fan’s 1958 Poem Relives Loss of Brooklyn Dodgers

It was spring of 1958, and although the weather was warming up, it was a sad season for Brooklyn — the first without its beloved Dodgers, who had decamped for Los Angeles the year before (the same year the New York Giants baseball team left for San Fran).

Among the brokenhearted was John Wandzilak (pictured), a life-long Dodgers fan from Greenpoint. He was at Queens College that first year without “dem bums” and eased the pain through a tried and true method: writing poetry.

His son, Andrew Wandzilak, recently sent to the Eagle his father’s poem, an artifact of the heartache — and unique Brooklyn accent — so manifest in the borough back in 1958.

“He used to tell me how you could walk down the block and hear the Dodgers games coming out every window,” says Andrew, who owns Two Boots restaurant in Park Slope. His dad has since moved down to Florida.

Born to Russian immigrants in 1932 and raised on Kent Avenue in Greenpoint, John Wandzilak was the youngest of five Dodger-loving kids.

“His whole family were Dodgers fans. Now they’re Mets fans. They couldn’t be Yankees fans,” Andrew explained.

John’s father (Andrew’s Grandfather) owned an auto body shop near Ebbets Field. “Grandpa would see the players at the local bar. He would be talking to the Dodgers about baseball and all they wanted to talk about was cars.”

John Wandzilak served in the air force during the Korean War and then embarked on a career in engineering and marketing, whilst raising his two boys Andrew and David with wife Sydney “Nikki” Oakley. In retirement, he is finding time to write again, and is working on a memoir about his time growing up in Greenpoint. “He’s got incredible stories,” his son says.

As for the poem, “It has just been kicking around for years, Andrew says. “And every year when baseball season comes up, I say ‘I should do something with that. I have to get it published.’”
Well, without further ado:


A poem by John Wandzilak (1958)

Da spring has sprung, da grass has riz
I wonder where da Dodgers is?
No line at Ebbets do I see.
I don’t know where da flock can be.
Oh yeah, dat’s right, dey flew da coop,
To play in smog dat’s tick as soup.
How bout da Jints skippin too?
No one to heckle when I’m blue.
Da one arm jernts are kinda quiet.
No more Jints and Dodgers in a riot.
Dat O’Malley’s some kinda hoople.*
Anyting to make a ruble.
Dose greedy guys ain’t never grateful.
He stole da team right from da faitful.
To tink a rootin for da Phillies,
Gives me d.t.’s and da willies.
I guess I’m troo wid baseball.
Tennis any a youse guys?

*untranslatable Brooklynese term

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