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Under the Expressway: Marking Time on Brooklyn's Third Avenue

Mar 7, 2017 5:54 PM | 0 comments

Blogger One More Folded Sunset and photographer Larry Racioppo are working on a series of pieces on Brooklyn's Third Avenue.  This is an excerpt from the first.  In future posts, they'll be interviewing businesses owners, uncovering art, and continuing to find inspiration in the avenue's changing landscape.

I'm drawn to city borders.  Not 'edge of town' divisions, but the ones inside the city limits, where infrastructure, for better or worse, creates some kind of boundary: a rail track, a highway, an elevated train line.  They're city landmarks, hardly ever for their architectural merits, but as barriers, and bold font strikes on a map.  Sometimes the route of a train line or highway creates a neighborhood, sometimes it hews to an older route, and sometimes it breaks the pattern of a long-established grid. Sometimes it divides communities forever.   As I walk in the city, I often follow elevated train lines. Partly it's a question of light - the shadows of the slatted tracks falling on the sidewalk or a building in the late afternoon - and partly it's the sound of the train juddering overhead.  And if you happen to be up there, the shift of the platform beneath your feet as the train arrives or departs brings the platform, the journey, the permanence of anything at all, into the slightest moment of doubt. And then life composes itself again.  Right around the elevated lines, things moves more slowly.  While Els in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn were dispensed with over half a century ago, in much of the city they're still the way of life.  From a train car, a ride on the tracks offers unparalleled views of the urban landscape.  I take the F or the D or the Q as much for the journey itself as for the shore at the end of the line: those views of sky and of rooftop, of ragged graffiti tags, of in-your-face encounters with cornices, upper-floor window drapes and every variety of store sign.  I take the train to escape the moraine of over-hyped territories farther north. It's a relief.  But I'd just as soon be down below, where life still accommodates knots of businesses resistant to rapid change.  The floating garment murals of the J & R laundromat, the clinking cocktail glasses of the Starlite Lounge, the Couch Potato of New Utrecht.  Miraculous survivors all, Julius Knipl would be reassured by all of them.  And borders like these make for a kind of infrastructure demimonde, where time and place are blurred at the edges.

Racioppo Gowanus Post

Away from the elevated subway lines, there are darker borders. Living close to Third Avenue, I dip into the sub-expressway stream regularly, especially in the nearby teens and twenties. And its waters are deep.  There's an overlay of history here.  A Lenape homeland is 'acquired' and farmed by Dutch & later other European settlers.  The area witnesses the Battle of Brooklyn. Paths become roads, then avenues; horse-drawn street cars become trolleys.  A grid fills in with housing and industry, and a succession of immigrants make their homes in the brick and frame rowhouses close to the bay. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Third is marked by the growth of the working waterfront and its attendant industries. The area is booming. By the early 1940's, Commissioner Robert Moses' Parkway arrives, and a by now flagging waterfront gets a shot in the arm from the production demands of World War II.  After the war, the area's economy sags again. The Parkway has helped to usher in the Age of the Automobile; a flight from city to suburb ensues. It also leaves Third both physically & environmentally scarred. For those immigrants who come to the neighborhood post-war, steady, well-paid jobs are thinner on the ground, and like the rest of urban America, by the 60's and 70's the area falls victim to economic and social turbulence. After a period of slow, steady recovery at the end of the century, the waterfront becomes once again a speculatory landscape, ripe for 'repurposing,' and bigger, outside players are ready to make moves on the area.  As a misguided realtor put it, blissfully unaware of a typographical Freudian slip, the area's "bourgeoning."

The avenue today is certainly softer than it used to be, and pictures of thirty years ago show as much.  Its transition continues, and commercial rents and property prices are booming.  Some of the older businesses are holding their ground, while others are closing or moving away.  There are fewer auto shops today, and the sex shops - video parlors and strip clubs - are thinner on the ground. Industry City, once dubbed by the New York Times "the Soho of Sunset Park," promotes a re-invented neighborhood, replete with co-working 'creatives,' and 'artisans,' and catering to expensive tastes. An $18 cup of coffee and a $600 marble dog bowl are yours for the taking here.  A developer-driven city plan for a sleek new BQX streetcar on Third is purported to help transit-starved lower-income residents, but many suspect other motives behind the apparent benevolence.  Some residents and businesses are buoyed by the new wealth coming into the area, while others fiercely resist the forces of gentrification.

Even tamed from its harder-edged decades, Third's still got its own rich, particular presence, and the aging expressway's still formidable.  Ever-cautious, I race across its lanes, but if the light's against me mid-way, I have to admit I don't much mind. I like the expressway's dank median, sometimes so much that I'll miss the white light and have to wait all over again.  Look about: a bevy of trucks, an exterminator's van worked over in technicolor, a windscreen memorial to a lost driver. Look up: the girders do have a certain beauty, and the shade of green paint that coats them looks like oxidized copper.  Still, I can't believe they're capable of holding up the traffic overhead.  How does this hulk of iron & cement stay standing?  By all objective standards I should hate the expressway, but that's not entirely the case.  Against my better judgement it draws me in.

Much of the history of this area is well documented - its colonization, its Scandinavian heritage, its waterfront heyday, and the waves of colonists and immigrants - from Dutch through to Mexican & Central American - who have made this piece of Lenapehoking their home. But some of its history is vague in aspect.  The first Dutch house in Brooklyn was sited where exactly?  A nineteenth century streetcar stable partially survives a Moses demolition blitz, but fades into anonymity. Photographs record the demolition as it happens, but what of the photographer himself, who remains something of a cipher?  We'll look at a short stretch of the avenue, between Prospect and 38th, and observe its passage through time.  We'll see it through the shadows and the girders of expressway, and we'll walk with Whitman - "one of the few artists who could see past the infrastructure to the souls it carried" - for inspiration.

"When Commissioner Moses finds the surface of the earth too congested for one of his parkways, he lifts the road into the air and continues it on its way."-November 1, 1941, New York Times

Gowanus Parkway - BPL

At the opening ceremony for the Gowanus Parkway, the Times, effusive with praise, cast Moses as an Olympian, and in the process of planning and executing his parkway vision he certainly showed a Greek god's indifference to mere mortals.  Residents along the parkway's southern path pleaded for an alternate path, taking it along Second Avenue instead, away from the commercial hub of Third, but Moses had little sympathy.  He declared the area around Third "a slum," and suggested that using the existing structure of the elevated train line below 38th would be a money saver.  For Third Avenue residents north of 38th there was no elevated line; the Fifth Avenue El traveled down Fifth from Flatbush, before it swung over to Third at 38th.  In The Power Broker, Robert Caro's brilliant biography of Moses, Caro describes the effect the Parkway had on the Sunset Park community, but he pays less attention to the northern section of the Parkway route, and concentrates instead on the area from 38th to 63rd, defined as Sunset Park.  The issue of neighborhood names arises here. The date by which Sunset Park (below 36th or 38th) became a neighborhood name & not just a park is hard to call, though some sources have cited it as the 1950's or '60's. By most accounts though, the area above 38th was still South Brooklyn in 1940.  And before it was South Brooklyn, it was Gowanus.  Today the stretch above 38th is one of those moniker no-man's-lands. Is it South Brooklyn (outdated by now?), Sunset Park, or the newer Greenwood Heights? Today the Sunset Park border begins anywhere from 16th south. (Perhaps the Parkway & the Prospect Expressway markers were influential here.) Neighborhood names, it seems, are fiercely guarded, and today they fall victim to realtor appropriation & hyperbole, and the backlash to same.  They depend on standpoint - age, ethnicity, political persuasion, economic interest.  Where you live though, is largely a consequence of when you arrived on the scene.

The Sunset Park Caro focused on in The Power Broker suffered more than its South Brooklyn neighbors when the Parkway was built, in that the parkway divided a substantial residential community, west of Third Avenue, from the rest of Sunset Park, but all along the avenue's path the effects were catastrophic.  Extensive demolition took place around Hamilton Avenue, the northern point of the Parkway, and all along the east side of Third a more than one hundred foot slice of buildings was demolished.  Over 1,300 families were displaced.

And through that shadow, down on the ten-lane surface road beneath the parkway, rumbles (from before dawn until after dark after the opening of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel flooded the area with freight traffic) regiments, brigades, divisions of huge tractor-trailer trucks, engines gunning and backfiring, horns blasting, brakes screeching, so that a tape recording of Third Avenue at midday could have been used as the soundtrack for a movie or of a George Patton tank column.  And from above, from the parkway itself, came the continual surging, dull, surf-like roar, punctuated, of course, by more backfires and blasts and screeches, of the cars passing overhead.  Once Third Avenue had been friendly.  Now it was frightening.

The never bucolic Parkway became an Expressway in 1961, when it was widened, and redefined as an interstate.  This was all part of an expansion, through Bay Ridge, to the yet-to be-completed Verrazano Bridge, with more demolition & displacement along the way. Whatever its name, the roadway has never been popular.  A blight on the avenue, a danger to pedestrians and drivers alike, a source of noxious environmental damage.  For decades it's served as a symbol of transit failure: its design outdated, its structure degraded, and its capacity to handle traffic woefully insufficient. It's synonymous with bleak traffic updates on 1010 WINS.  For decades the community has demanded its replacement, and for a while a tunnel looked like a real possibility, but plans were ultimately shelved. 'Interim' repairs continue.

Color photos by Larry Racioppo, 1993. To read One More Folded Sunset’s complete post about the long history of Third Avenue, including more images from the Brooklyn Collection, click here, and stay tuned for more posts on Third Avenue.

 

Ina Clausen & Protest in Brooklyn

Feb 27, 2017 9:42 AM | 0 comments

Ina Clausen (center), 1957, Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

With the inauguration of Donald Trump in January, it seems that we have entered a renewed moment in the public sphere, with each week defined by protests, community meetings, and urgent calls to contact your elected officials. This moment, however, is not so very brand new -- there is of course a long and varied history of protest movements and resistance both in the United States and abroad. Given the current political climate, I thought it would be appropriate to mine the Brooklyn Collection for some local precedent.

I turned to one of my favorite special collections, the Ina Clausen Collection, for inspiration. A bit about the collection’s namesake, Ina, according to our online finding aid: Ina Clausen was born February 21, 1943 to Einar Clausen and Linda Hansen Clausen in Brooklyn, NY. She attended the Prospect Heights High School, where she was on the art staff of her high school’s publication, the Cardinal. Clausen graduated in 1960. In the late 1960s Clausen co-founded a women’s collective print shop at 573 Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn. The shop was called the Greenpoint Print Shop, and was supported by donations of equipment from David Dellinger, who published Liberation Magazine in New Jersey. At the print shop, Clausen designed and printed materials for several local activist groups, including the Southern Conference Educational Fund, the Southside Community of Greenpoint, the National Association for Irish Freedom, Yellow Pearl (an Asian-American organization based in Chinatown), Los Tintos Indios, a Red Hook-based Puerto Rican group, and several women’s liberation groups. Clausen served as president of the Greenpoint Print Shop until late 1972, when she and the other officers all resigned and turned the corporation over to another group. During this period and beyond, Clausen participated in local activist organizations, including the Flatbush Committee to End the War in Vietnam. She also designed and published informational packets to educate women about the Women’s Liberation Movement. Her work in this movement included contributions to the feminist journal Up from Under, which focused on working women.

Let’s take a look at some of the flyers, pamphlets and journals in this collection and hopefully walk away with some inspiration from ticked-off Brooklynites of the past.

Flyers from the Flatbush Committee to End the War in Vietnam.

 

Call for a Coney Island Boycott, 4 July 1968. "Don't risk being herded behind gates like dogs."

 

Cover of Feelings from Women’s Liberation magazine, which Ina helped to design and publish. This periodical focused on creative writing and poetry authored by women participating in the movement.

 

Poem entitled “I am a Sandwich” from Feelings magazine, written by prominent feminist Shulamith Firestone. Text reads:

"At midnight

Between covers

I turn into your sandwich

A fat one

Of pinklayered ham,

Of slicky kosher

Corned beef,

A squished mound

Of tuna,

But sometimes I can only make

A flat little hamburger

Needing too much ketchup,

Or a BLT on toast,

Too expensive,

And falling apart,

But well mayonnaised

For all that.

On rich days

For 10c extra,

I add the red dream

Of a libby tomato."

At the Greenpoint Print Shop, Ina published another more overtly political magazine entitled Up From Under. The Brooklyn Collection owns six editions of this periodical, which features long articles from different voices in the movement, as well as practical how-to’s for women and satirical cartoons or advertisements. Some selections from those editions:


 

Up From Under cover, Volume 1, No. 4, 1971.

 

"Somehow we survive."

 

"I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there, and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator." - Mother Jones, Labor organizer circa 1900

 

Activism for women in prisons.

 

Dissemination as a community effort.

 

Understanding history.

 

A practical how-to on changing a lightbulb. Others in this series include: fixing a flat tire, fixing a toilet, etc.

And this is only the beginning of the inspiration! The Ina Clausen collection is available upon request through the Brooklyn Collection.

Happy belated birthday, Ina!

Hattie "The Tree Lady of Brooklyn" Carthan

Feb 8, 2017 1:44 PM | 0 comments

“We’ve already lost too many trees, houses and people…your community – you owe something to it. I didn’t care to run.” – Hattie Carthan

Welcome to Black History Month at the Brooklyn Collection. As most of you know, many great artists, leaders, educators, activists and politicians contributed to Brooklyn’s rich and indispensable Black history. Today we thought we would highlight one of those activists, Ms. Hattie Carthan, a community leader and environmentalist who forever changed Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Hattie Carthan moved to Brooklyn from Virginia, and was once described as “the best thing ever transplanted to Brooklyn.” Considering Brooklyn’s transplant rate, that’s quite a compliment!

In the 1960’s, when blockbusting swept through her neighborhood, Hattie did her best to encourage her neighbors to form a block association. Sadly only seven people showed up to that first meeting. Undeterred, Hattie rallied those neighbors into creating a back-to-school party for the children and the following summer she used the funds that were raised from a pig and chicken roast and bought something she knew the whole neighborhood would appreciate: trees.

Four saplings were planted on Vernon Avenue. But that was just the tip of the iceberg for Hattie. By the time she was finished Bedford-Stuyvesant would have 1,500 new trees spread across 100 blocks thanks to her perseverance.

Hattie’s focus was not just on new trees. She watched over the old trees, too, and in 1969 she set her sights on a 40 foot transplanted magnolia tree, originally planted in 1885. Hattie not only saved the tree from bulldozing, she also got the City of New York to designate the tree as an official city living landmark the following year.

But Hattie still wasn’t done!  After saving the magnolia tree she set her sights on the three brownstones behind it and turned them into the Magnolia Tree Earth Center -  a conservationist’s dream, with nature programs for school children, summer work study, programs for seniors, a vegetable garden, a research library and even on-the-job training. The Magnolia Tree Earth Center opened on September 18, 1980 when Hattie, by then known as the “Tree Lady of Brooklyn,” turned 80.

 

The following year, Hattie was presented with the Brownstone Revival Committee’s first annual Genesis Award. By then the Magnolia Tree Earth Center was considered an environmental education institute.  From Hattie’s work blossomed the Bedford-Stuyvesant Beautification Program.

Hattie Carthan passed away on April 23, 1984. Her tenacious spirit and hard work not only revitalized Bedford-Stuyvesant’s greenery, it also gave the community an environmental center that flourishes to this day. To honor her work, Brooklyn Botanic Garden Research Center created a hybrid yellow magnolia, which they named in her memory and planted during the ceremony to honor her life.

And because she persisted, Hattie’s 40 foot magnolia tree is still with us.

 

If you want to learn more about Hattie Carthan, please come visit the Brooklyn Collection or check out our Ephemera collection and clippings file.

You Gotta Believe

Jan 31, 2017 2:37 PM | 0 comments

Swimming is one of the best ways of keeping physically fit, and can be enjoyed by people of all ages.  There are those that swim recreationally, and then there are those brave souls who test the limits of their capabilities by endeavoring to swim the English Channel.  One such person was Mrs. Betty Cohn of 120 Ocean Parkway, who became the first grandmother to swim the channel when she swam from France to England in 1951.

News of her swimming prowess was carried in newspapers around the world. like the Singapore Free Press, and Melbourne Australia's Argus newspaper where she said quite unequivocally,"My advice to all grandmothers is, throw away your rocking chairs and knitting needles and get into the water...I've been swimming 45 year, and I'd rather be in the water than on the land." 

Always training, she works out at the Hotel St. George gym.

          

 

Her road to the English Channel wasn't all smooth sailing.  She had to back out of the competition in 1950 due to a lack of financial support.  But Mrs. Cohn was very determined.  "I'm sure I can do it, I have no fear"

To practice for the 21 mile test in stamina, she took on the  comparatively calm Hudson River in the summer of 1950 by swimming 12 miles from Palisades Park to the Statue of Liberty in 4 hours and 15 minutes.

Before her swim her grandchildren apply grease to lessen the affects of the cold water.     

 

Her husband and coach, Dr. Harry (doesn't care much for swimming") Cohn, applies eye-drops.

Afterward the ever confident Mrs. Cohn remarked, "I knew I could do it, now bring on the channel!"

 

                           

Betty Cohn takes off from Idlewild Airport bound for London with the well wishes from her granddaughter, Zena, grandson Michael, and her son Pvt. Bernard Cohn.

 

Looking like a modern day "Venus" Betty Cohn relaxes in the waters off of Cape Gris-Nez in France as she waits for more favorable weather conditions.

In August of 1951 with assurance, tenacity, and spinach and milk for nourishment, Mrs. Betty Cohn made history as the first grandmother to swim the English Channel.  Well Done!

 

"Fashion, Fashion, Who's Got the Fashion?"

Dec 20, 2016 10:52 AM | 0 comments

Recently, I had a to check a number of microfilm reels of the Brooklyn Daily Times. As I scrolled through the reels, a recurring comic feature caught my eye. Modish Mitzi features stunning fashion illustrations and the trials and tribulations of the titular Mitzi, a wealthy fashionista who always has to have the latest styles. With the help of her equally stylish friends Polly and Adelaide, and of course, the funds from her very accommodating father, Mitzi somehow manages to both navigate her socialite lifestyle and always be wearing the most up-to-the-minute 20s and 30s fashions while doing so.

This is the first panel of a comic that appeared in the January 5, 1928 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Times. Titled "Such a Few Little Bundles," the strip has Mitzi proudly showing Dad some of her purchases from the day's shopping trip. As you can see from the panel above, the strip's relatively light narrative is mostly an excuse for fashion and style commentary and detailed fashion illustrations to match.

This last panel from a strip titled "Not What's New, But What's Newest" shows a common theme of the strip: Mitzi always has the very latest fashions, even more so than Polly and Adelaide. In this comic, Mitzi generously gave her friends some bolts of "very new silk prints," but has of course kept the most cutting-edge fabric for her own dress.

I wanted to find out more about the comic and its author, Jay V. Jay, so I did some sleuthing. According to this blog about historic American newspaper comics, Modish Mitzi began in 1923 and ran for over 15 years. Allan Holtz, the comic historian who wrote about the strip, adds: "On top of that it even spawned imitators. A few other titles of this genre are The Stylefinder Family...and The Connoisseur. But easily the most bizarre of the lot is Comrade Kitty, which discussed proletariat fashions in the socialist newpaper The Daily Worker." Who knew that fashion comics were such a popular genre?

Most interesting of all, however, was a comment on Holtz's blogpost regarding the identity of Jay V. Jay. It turns out that the pseudonym actually represents three women who created the comic: writers Virginia Vincent and Jeannette Kienkintveld and artist Laura Johnston. According to the Women in Comics wiki, they even based the comic's three main characters on themselves:

Source: Washington Post, 2 March 1924

"Laura Johnston, artist...insisted upon being her own heroine because what was the use of being the artist if you couldn't give yourself the handsomest clothes?...Adelaide, the Catty Blonde, [is] Jeannette Kiekintveld, who objects to being called catty, and is overruled by the others who say that all blondes are catty...Pretty Polly [is] Virginia Vincent, who is the Younger Generation because she is two years the junior of the others." It was a thrill to discover that this comic which I found so beautiful and funny (I definitely detect a tongue-in-cheek tone to their treatment of Mitzi...) was created by three women.

For more Modish Mitzi, you can search Brooklyn Newsstand (as the comic was occasionally printed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle during 1934), come to the library and use our Local Newspapers on Microfilm collection, or simply browse the Barnacle Press website, which has a number of Mitzi strips posted online.

 For now, one more comic from the Brooklyn Daily Times titled "Mitzi Just Wears Herself Out!":