Tuesday, July 27, 2010

WNYC Testing Brooklyn Borough Historian This Week

Where was the Brooklyn Ice Palace located? What does “Brooklyn” mean in Dutch? Did the egg cream really start in Brooklyn?

These are just a few of the questions facing Ron Schweiger (pictured), Brooklyn’s borough historian. This week, he’ll really be earning his title, since New York’s public radio station WNYC is in the midst of a special summer program featuring New York City’s five official borough historians, who are appointed by their respective borough presidents.

“I was aware there was a new borough historian in Queens, and we started wondering ‘who are these guys and what do they do?’” said WNYC reporter Kathleen Horan. So this summer, the station is devoting a week to each borough, with the borough historian answering questions from listeners online at wnyc.org.

This week Brooklyn is in the spotlight, and anyone can post a question about Brooklyn for Mr. Schweiger, who will also be appearing on WNYC’s “All Things Considered” this Friday to address some of the queries that came in.

Speaking with Brooklyn Before Now Tuesday morning, Schweiger sounded pretty confident. “I first received questions online last night and there were nine questions. Right away I could answer six or seven of them. And the other ones I have to do a little research or refer the person to someone else.”

A retired science teacher and a lifelong Brooklynite, Schweiger has served as borough historian since 2002. He became interested in Brooklyn history after he and his wife moved to Victorian Flatbush as newlyweds back in 1969. He was taken with the beautiful homes and started looking into the history of the area and collecting old postcards and photos of street scenes. He now has more than 3,000 slides of Brooklyn and a substantial library of books.

“I’m standing in my dining room right now looking at my bookcase and everything on the shelves is Brooklyn. Everything Brooklyn is here,” he said.

“A great range of questions are already coming in,” said Kathleen Ehrlich, director of editorial operations for the wnyc.org. These days you can find out so many things just by searching the Internet, she noted, “but some facts are so unique or specialized that you can’t find them online. It’s nice to know that there are still some questions that need to be answered by human beings.”

In addition to Schweiger’s committed question-answering, wnyc.org has posted several other features about Brooklyn history, including a timeline of the borough, in which readers are invited to add any important dates that may have been overlooked, a feature article on Brooklyn-born composer Aaron Copland, and an extensive interview with Michael Shapiro, author of The Last Good Season: Brooklyn, the Dodgers and Their Final Pennant Race Together, about what the baseball team meant to Brooklyn. There’s also a list of blogs, books and newspapers about Brooklyn, and the “Ultimate Brooklyn Mixtape” — a list of songs about Brooklyn or by famous Brooklynites, ranging from “Stormy Weather” by the late Lena Horne to “Get Me Home” by the recent headline-getter Foxy Brown.

These features, Schweiger’s questions and answers, as well as the radio content about Brooklyn from this week will permanently stay on the station’s web site at www.wnyc.org/history.

But, if you don’t get your question in this week, all is not lost. You can send questions to Schweiger through the borough president at askmarty@brooklynbp.nyc.gov. They all get forwarded to the historian’s mailbox at Borough Hall, which he says he checks once a week.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

On This Day in History: Brooklyn Bridge Designer Dies

John Augustus Roebling, the brilliant engineer who designed the Brooklyn Bridge, died on July 22, 1869.

Roebling contracted tetanus after his foot was crushed by a ferryboat at the Fulton ferry slip in Brooklyn on June 28, 1869, where he and his son were surveying the site for the Brooklyn tower of the bridge.

After his toes were amputated, Roebling refused any conventional medical treatment, believing that pouring water over the wounds would cure them (a belief known as hydropathy.) He suffered immensely for several weeks before succumbing to the infection. The muscles in his face and neck became increasingly rigid, and his face locked into a haunting grimace. He was unable to speak or eat, yet his mind remained clear, entombed in his failing body. He reportedly wrote notes regarding his medical care and the bridge right up to the end.

John Roebling was born in Germany in 1806 and acquired his Civil Engineering degree from the Royal Polytechnic Institute in Berlin, where he also studied under the eminent philosopher Georg Hegel. Roebling came to the United States in 1831, and after a brief stint as a farmer, embraced his true calling. His projects before the Brooklyn Bridge included a railroad bridge over the Niagara River, a railway suspension bridge over the Kentucky River and a suspension bridge over the Ohio River in Cincinnati. He also became quite wealthy as a wire manufacturer in Trenton, NJ.

The Brooklyn Bridge was, of course, his crowning achievement, although he didn’t live to see it become anything more real than a design on paper. Roebling’s son, Washington Roebling, took over as chief engineer of the bridge, although he himself was also soon struck with serious illness. While working within the compressed air of one of the bridge tower’s caissons (a compressed air foundation) beneath the East River, Washington contracted “the bends.” For the rest of the bridge’s construction, he was bound to his bed and would send instruction to the site through his wife Emily. He was able to oversee construction from the window of his home on Columbia Heights.

The bridge was the longest in the world when it was built, which alone would have secured the opinion that Roebling was a genius. But the roadbed also had to run high enough to allow for river traffic, with its tall ship masts, to pass below. The height of the two river banks were of no help, being of a naturally low elevation, as opposed to say, a cliff, which would have made the job easier.

So, adding to its greatness, the bridge’s two gothic towers were taller than most any building in New York at the time (only the spire of Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan was higher.). They were some of the largest manmade structures on the continent.

Part of what was revolutionary in Roebling’s design was the use of steel wire as opposed to iron. Steel had not yet proven itself as the reliable building material we know it to be. The tension of these steel cables, with the profusion of smaller suspender cables radiating off of them to connect with the bridge floor, not only creates one of the most beloved and notable aesthetic features of the bridge, but also much of its stability.

“The way he designed it, the enormous structure was to be a grand harmony of opposite forces — the steel of the cables in tension, the granite of the towers in compression,” wrote historian David McCullough in his book The Great Bridge.

“A force at rest is at rest because it is balanced by some other force or by its own reaction,” Roebling had once written.

While it was being built, many New Yorkers were incredulous as to the bridge’s stability, since a structure of that magnitude had not been a part of anyone’s experience. But 127 years later, John Augustus Roebling’s design holds strong and is one of the city’s most iconic and beloved structures, which probably would not have surprised its designer.

He was quoted as saying in 1869, two years before his death:
“The completed work, when constructed in accordance with my designs, will not only be the greatest bridge in existence, but it will be the greatest engineering work of the continent, and of the age. Its most conspicuous features, the great towers, will serve as landmarks to the adjoining cities, and they will be entitled to be ranked as national monuments. As a great work of art, and as a successful specimen of advanced bridge engineering, this structure will forever testify to the energy, enterprise and wealth of the community which shall secure its erection.”

Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Historical Society

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Up & Coming: Whitman Tour

On Sunday July 25 at 1 p.m., a FREE tour of “Walt Whitman’s Fort Greene” will be given by local Whitman expert Greg Trupiano. You’ll learn all about the great poet’s intimate connection with the park. (It largely owes its existence to Whitman’s advocacy in Brooklyn Eagle editorials).

The afternoon will also include readings of Whitman’s prose and poetry and a walk to 99 Ryerson Avenue, the last existing building in Brooklyn that was a residence of Whitman’s.

Meet at the Fort Greene Park Visitor’s Center, top of the hill.
Information and Reservations: 718-391-8824

Forgive Me

Alright, so this isn't exactly Brooklyn, but it's just so cool I have to post it, even though you've probably already come across it yourself. Excavators at the World Trade Center site came across the remains of an 18th century ship! Stories like this just send my Indian Jones-loving heart aflutter. Very exciting. And hey, I'm sure a Brooklynite or two walked that deck, they just didn't know to call themselves a Brooklynite at the time. They were a settler of the marshy Wallabout Bay (near the present day Navy Yard), perhaps, or a farmer out in Vlacke bos, better known to us as Flatbush.

Anyhow, read up and enjoy!

18th-Century Ship Found at Trade Center Site [New York Times]

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Collecting Stories of Old Coney Island

If you grew up in Coney Island, or have memories of the early days — riding rides, eating food or perhaps falling in love? — then the Coney Island History Project (CIHP) would like to hear your story.

CIHP has announced a schedule of themed history weekends to jog your memory — from “Childhood Days” and “Romantic Coney Island” to “Thrills & Chills!” and “Under the Boardwalk & On the Beach.” Stop by for an interview with historian Charles Denson or other project staff to be recorded for the oral history archive.

Selected interviews will be made available on the web site as part of a “Coney Island Voices” exhibit during the 2010 season.

The project asks that visitors bring photos and memorabilia that can be scanned and added to the online collection. Whoever brings in what is deemed to be the best photo in each category will receive a set of historic postcards, vintage tickets and a signed copy of Charles Denson’s Wild Ride! A Coney Island Roller Coaster Family.

Interviews will be held at the History Project’s exhibition center on Surf Avenue under the Cyclone. Those with a story to tell can also schedule an interview in advance by emailing info@coneyislandhistory.org.

Themed History Weekends at CIHP:
Romantic Coney Island, July 10 and 11, 24 and 25
Childhood Days, July 17 and 18
Thrills and Chills!, July 31 and Aug 1
Neighborhood Coney Island, Aug 7 and 8
The Taste of Coney Island, Aug 14 and 15
Historic Coney Island, Aug 21 and 22
Under the Boardwalk and On the Beach, Aug 28 and 29

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Lecture on Draft Riots At Williamsburgh Library

New York Historian Barnet Schecter will be speaking on Tuesday, July 13 about the Civil War Draft Riots that took place in New York in 1863.

The lecture will be at the Williamsburgh Library (240 Division Ave. at Marcy Ave.) at 6:30 p.m., and is part of the library’s new lecture series, NOW: In History, which presents prominent authors, historians and experts on New York City. Each lecture is themed after a historic event that occurred during that month in the city’s history. Schecter is the author of The Devil’s Own Work: the Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight To Reconstruct America.

Draft Riots Touch Brooklyn [Brooklyn Eagle]