Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Brooklyn Campaign Stop For Clinton

Clinton greets children at Small World Day Care Center in Williamsburg.
Clinton plays a game of Bocce at the Swinging 60’s 
Senior Center, also in Williamsburg.
In some ways 1992 doesn’t seem like so very long ago. A mere 19 years. But looking at these photos of a salt and pepper-haired Bill Clinton campaigning in Brooklyn on March 30, 1992, makes it feel like an age has passed. Back then 911 was nothing more than an emergency number and brick-sized car phones were cutting-edge. AOL was the bee’s knees.
Clinton with the Council of
Jewish Organizations in Borough Park

Clinton was the governor of Arkansas trying to tie up the Democratic nomination in a primary against Jerry Brown when he paid his visit to the borough. He went on to win it, of course, and to beat incumbent George Bush in the general election. In some ways, maybe things haven’t changed so much. We have, after all, had a Bush or a Clinton in every presidential election since 1988.

Photos are from AP; We ran these photos on the Eagle's "On This Day in History Page" today. You can always see the latest from that page here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

On The Lecture Circuit: Beer, Baseball Greats, and Brooklyn Paramout Theater

  • The Brooklyn Historical Society will once again host Urban Oyster's David Naczycz and Cindy VandenBosch to present "Brewed in Brooklyn: A History of Fermenting Barley in New York’s Favorite Borough." A free beer and cheese reception will precede the talk, scheduled for Thursday, April 7, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 or $15 for BHS members. They can be purchased here, and you should probably act quickly because it sold out last time. BHS is at 128 Pierrepont St. in Brooklyn Heights.

  • In order to properly kick off the baseball season, Green-Wood Cemetery historian Jeff Richman will be giving a tour of some of the baseball legends who are buried at the historic cemetery, such as Charles Ebbets (owner of the Dodgers), Henry Chadwick (who invented the game's scoring system) and the great hitter Charlie Smith. The tour is from 1-3 p.m. on Saturday, April 9. Tickets, sold here, are $20 or $10 for Historic Green-Wood members.

  • Long Island University in Downtown Brooklyn has organized a one-day conference about the Brooklyn Paramount Theater, which was bought by the university in 1950 and converted into a gymnasium. But during its time as a performance venue, the space saw a diverse array of stars, as succinctly summarized by LIU in their press release:

In addition to moving pictures, the theater also offered great vaudeville performers, and later, major stars like Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman. In the 1950s, the Paramount created a sensation with Alan Freed’s famous Rock ‘N’ Roll show with Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and others musicals stars. The Paramount was also a central place for jazz in New York. Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis are just some of the legends that performed on the stage.”

Panel topics will include "Bright for Day: Theatrical Lights, Show Business and the Transformation of American Popular Culture in Brooklyn" and "Performers and Audiences: The Making of New Americans and the Remaking of America in the Brooklyn Paramount and Other Theaters in Our Borough."

The conference will be at the theater, on the corner of Flatbush and Dekalb avenues. It is free and open to the public but reservations are required. Call (718) 488-1185 or email

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Harry Houdini's Brooklyn Lady

Harry and Bess Houdini pictured during the first year of their marriage. 
Today is the birth anniversary of Harry Houdini (March 24, 1874).

Although we may think of him as a solo act, for almost the entirety of his career, the great illusionist was assisted by his wife, Bess (Wilhelmena Beatrice Rahner), a Brooklyn girl of German descent.

Harry Houdini, 1899
They met at Coney Island in 1894, where Harry was doing an act with his brother and Bess was in a song and dance act called the Floral Sisters.

They were married within weeks of their initial meeting. The tiny and nimble Bess (at five feet tall) remained his performing partner until his death on October 31, 1926.

For ten years after her husband's Halloween passing, Bess held a seance at his grave. After that time she gave up, remarking, "Ten years is long enough to wait for any man."

She passed away in 1943 while on a train from L.A. to New York.

Top photo from Library of Congress/Right photo from AP

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sarah Bernhardt in Prospect Park


Here's a short but sweet video of Sarah Bernhardt — the Meryl Streep of her day (and it was a long day) — addressing a crowd of 50,000 people in Brooklyn's Prospect Park on July 4, 1917. She was advocating for French and American cooperation during The Great War, now known as World War I (we didn't have to number them back then).

The revered French actress of stage and screen was in demand all over Europe and America after her career took off in the 1860s. She acted continuously until her death in 1923, and this was even after one of her legs was amputated in 1915 due to a knee injury.

She performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, back when it was on Montague Street. On one of her trips to New York City, she had these kind words about the Brooklyn Bridge:

"Oh that bridge! It is insane, admirable, imposing, and it makes one feel proud. Yes, one is proud to be a human being when one realizes that a human brain has created and suspended in the air, fifty yards from the ground, that fearful thing...I returned to the hotel reconciled with this great nation. I went to sleep tired in body but rested in mind, and had such delightful dreams that I was in good humor the following day."

 The video is from Library of Congress

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On the Lecture Circuit: How to Boil Books and Fix Maps

You may have read a few months back about the Brooklyn Historical Society's discovery of an extremely rare map in their collection — a 1770 map of the City of New York by Bernard Ratzer. It's only the fourth copy known to exist. 

The map was in pretty tough shape when they dug it out, and so they enlisted the help of conservator Jonathan P. Derow, who employed such interesting techniques as boiling old, cloth-paper books in a pot so that he could use the resulting sludge to paint over repair lines on the map (The New York Times first uncovered this tantalizing detail).

Mr. Derow will be at the Brooklyn Historical Society this Friday, March 18 at 6 p.m. to speak about the process of restoring the map. Tickets are $20, or $10 if you are a Brooklyn Historical Society member. You can buy them here.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Brooklyn Dodgers Football Team?

From 1930 to 1944 there was a Brooklyn Dodgers football team in addition to the baseball team. In this AP photo, New York Giants halfback Tuffy Leemans breaks away for a four-yard gain against the Brooklyn Dodgers in a 1937 game at the Polo Grounds.
So much is known and talked about the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, but did you know there was a  Brooklyn Dodgers football team?

Bill Dwyer and John Depler bought the Dayton (Ohio) Triangles of the National Football League (NFL) from Carl Storck and transferred the franchise to Brooklyn. The football Dodgers played in Ebbets Field, just like their baseball counterpart, but their very first NFL game was away, vs. the Bears at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on Sept. 21, 1930. The game ended in a scoreless tie.

On Dec. 7, 1941, “a day which will live in infamy,” the Brooklyn football Dodgers were playing a game at the Polo Grounds against the New York Giants. Broadcasts of the game were interrupted by bulletins through which millions of Americans learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. During the second half, numerous public address announcements at the ballpark called military personnel and reservists to their units as America began the greatest mobilization in its history. (Incidentally, the Dodgers won 14-7.)

It was Nov. 30, 1930, that the Dodgers met the Giants for the first time and defeated them 7-6. But two weeks later the Giants beat the Dodgers, 13-0, at Ebbets Field, concluding a 13-4 season, the only one in which four New York-area teams (Newark and Staten Island being the other two) operated in the NFL. Green Bay took the league title for the second straight year, finishing 10-3-1, including a split of two games with the Giants.

On Oct. 22, 1939, the Dodgers played the Philadelphia Eagles in the first televised NFL game. The Dodgers won 23-14. A live audience of 13,057 at Ebbets Field far outnumbered those watching over NBC’s W2XBS.

The Brooklyn football Dodgers remained in the NFL until the 1944 season.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Is There a ‘Real’ Brooklyn?

Is “gentrification” “code???”

Yeah, it’s code for “more white people are coming, get ready for the revolution.”

Is it really gentrification when a neighborhood is being repopulated and developed after years of a declining population and high[er] vacancy rates than the city average?

What’s funny is that all the neighborhoods being “gentrified” were originally white/Irish/Jewish/Italian working class neighborhoods.

So if yuppies/hipsters/etc. are moving in now, is it really “gentrification” or just a cycle of life?

This exchange by commenters on the Brownstoner blog is just a taste of the ongoing, contentious conversation about gentrification that Brooklynites have been hashing out for a long time. Years before Jonathan Butler’s popular Brownstoner blog, there was a newsletter called The Brownstoner circulating Downtown Brooklyn, right around the same time a London sociologist coined the term “gentrification” in 1964.

For decades now, Brooklyn has watched its brownstone neighborhoods be refurbished and reclaimed by a well-to-do, educated “creative class” — a process that, however good the intentions, has priced out poorer residents, kicking up all the perennial wounds and injustices associated with issues of race and class.

Enter Suleiman Osman, a professor of American Studies at George Washington University who grew up in Park Slope. He has just released The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York.

Readers hoping Osman will deliver a verdict on gentrification will be disappointed. He is a self-declared “fence-sitter,” focused more on putting the complex phenomenon in a broader historical context, and defining the brownstoner movement within the “polycultural, polycentric and polyhistorical” world that is Brooklyn.

Osman puts the origins of the movement earlier than most other narratives, as early as the 1940s and 50s. The roots of this urban revival happened simultaneously with “white flight,” deindustrialization and urban decay, he says, and the story of gentrification has been largely “overlooked” by historians.

While postwar America saw middle-class city dwellers fleeing to the suburbs, there was another contingent that ran toward the city, in search of “the authenticity they felt was lacking in the new university campuses, government complexes and corporate skyscrapers they worked and studied in.”

They were looking for a “real neighborhood.” And more than finding them, they invented them, Osman argues.

There was no Cobble Hill or Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn’s history, but the newcomers excavated Brooklyn’s past and selectively used what they found to create a new sense of place. Their mascot: the Victorian brownstone.

But behind this was a set of values that also helped reinvent American liberalism, contributing to the collapse of the Democratic New Deal coalition. 

“Suspicious of the metanarratives of highways and urban renewal master plans, brownstoners and their allies championed voluntary service, homeownership, privatism, ethnic heritage, history, self determination and do-it-yourself bootstrap neighborhood rehabilitation,” Osman writes.

“This new localist version of liberalism unintentionally dovetailed with a national conservative movement that was similarly hostile to government regulation and regional planning. The result was a new type of anti-statist politics with origins in both the right and left.”

Gentrification is not unique to Brooklyn, or even New York. Osman points to Boston’s Beacon Hill, Chicago’s Lincoln Park and Georgetown in Washington, D.C. as other famous examples, and argues that such movements were taking place even in smaller cities. He cites a 1976 Urban Land Institute study that found versions of “brownstoning” in a majority of the country’s 260 cities with populations of 50,000 or more.

But by the 1990s, as Brownstone Brooklyn became dotted with cafes, chic restaurants, boutiques and yoga studios, did it lose the authenticity it worked so hard to create? Yes, critics argue. But it begs the question, what is the “real” Brooklyn that we’re trying to protect?

After reading Osman’s book, it’s clear there’s more than one answer to that question. Preferring the more organically developed, historic streets of Victorian Brooklyn, brownstoners protested large-scale, centralized developments such as Concord Village. But it was these now-cherished brownstone homes that were the culprit a century earlier.

“When one has seen one house he has seen them all, the same everlasting high stoops and gloomy brown-stone fronts, the same number of holes punched in exactly the same places,” Osman quotes a late 19th century writer as lamenting. “The new brownstone and trolley grid inspired 19th century eulogies for a real and imagined agricultural landscape,” Osman writes.

What is the real Brooklyn? Osman tells us that it might be that question itself that needs to be questioned.

Suleiman Osman will be discussing The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn at Greenlight Bookstore (686 Fulton St.) in Fort Greene with Laurie Cumbo of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) on March 14, at 7:30 p.m.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

MacMonnies 'Civic Virtue' To Be Taken In by Green-Wood?

Our friend Frederick MacMonnies is back in the news. Though he is long dead, the artist's 1922 sculpture "Civic Virtue" just keeps making headlines. The piece, which depicts an enormous male figure standing over prostrate female figures, was intended for the fountain in City Hall, but was exiled to Queens. There were complaints as to how women were portrayed — trampled under foot as the symbols of vice and corruption.

Renewed calls that the statue has no place in the city's civic space prompted Green-Wood Cemetery to speak up on its behalf. They have expressed interest in taking the sculpture and restoring it.

"We could not stand by idle and see a major work by one of America's greatest sculptors be allowed to turn to dust," Green-Wood President Richard Moylan told the Daily News.

Maybe the move will help New Yorkers bury the hatchet once and for all. Several of MacMonnies' family members are interred at Green-Wood, which would make it a suitable home for the piece. It would be quite an addition to the cemetery's already exceptional sculpture collection.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Remembering Duke Snider

AP photo
A fond farewell to the "Duke of Flatbush." The beloved Duke Snider was a key member (center fielder) of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers — the one and only Brooklyn team to bring home the World Series championship to Brooklyn.

So sacred a figure is he to the borough that Borough President Marty Markowitz has ordered the flag atop Borough hall flown at half-mast.

Snider also has the distinction of hitting the very last home run ever hit at Ebbets Field.

He is pictured above in 1954 with Willie Mays, center fielder for the Giants (then, like the Dodgers, still a New York team). Baseball fans loved to compare and contrast the merits of New York's triumvirate of great centers - Snider, Mays and Mickey Mantle, who played for the Yankees. Snider was usually estimated at third-best, but he's always been the favorite among Dodgers fans.

Dodger Duke Snider Remembered [Brooklyn Eagle]

When Players Like Duke Snider Were Also Neighbors [New York Times]

Dodger Duke Snider Was a Star Among Stars in the Golden Age of New York Baseball [Daily News]