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How many guide books to New York City do you know that devote two pages to Brooklyn and think they have done a good job? Kevin Walsh, author of Forgotten New York, breaks this unsatisfactory mold, exploring the borough from end to end and uncovering corners even lifelong Brooklynites may not know.
Kevin Walsh is an urban explorer extraordinaore and the creator of www.forgotten-ny.com. He grew up in Bay Ridge and now hosts sold-out Forgotten New York tours throughout the boroughs.
Old directories have always seemed to me like snapshots of the past. Open one up and you are privy to all the people that lived for that period of time. The indexing of citizens: orderly, logical, alphabetical. From the early to mid 1800's the directories listed African-Americans in Brooklyn with "c" or "col" after their names, and I began to wonder how best to use this information. What about constructing a different snapshot--a snapshot of the African-American community during the civil war?
The year 1863 begins with Abraham Lincoln granting freedom to all slaves in the Conferederate states. The draft riots rage for three summer days in Manhattan and the Civil War enters its second year. With that backdrop, I wondered what was life like for African-Americans in Brooklyn? Where did they live? What kind of work did they do? Slavery was officially abolished in New York in 1827, so thirty-six years later, what opportunities were available? How did the African-American population form a community, and where was it? Did it have any bearing on the communities of today? A lot of research has been done on the community of Weeksville in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Would the directory confirm or contradict that work? I used the Google mapping program and The Brooklyn City Directory for 1863-4. It was compiled by J. Lain, published by J. Lain and Company located at the Post Office Building, Montague Street near Court Street, Brooklyn and 113 Fulton Street, New York. The price at the time was $2.50.
Brooklyn Collection volunteer Rioghan Kirchner and I began to compile, organize and enter the names of people long gone, early residents of this borough, who would be amazed by the changes in the city and country, and by the way their names would be used 146 years later. After a while a picture began to develop of of the geographic and economic make-up of the community.
One challenge was locating streets that no longer existed. Green Lane was one such location. With residents at 23, 24, 50, 52, 55, and 57 it was a crowded street, but nowhere to be found on any contemporary map. I eventually located it in the E. Belcher Hyde atlas of 1904--a very narrow street running parallel to Gold, between Hudson and Sands.
By far the most prevalent occupation listed for men was laborer, at about 15%. That was followed by seamen, porters and whitewashers. Almost half of all women earned their living as laundresses. But there were other occupations represented as well. James Williams who lived at 191 Pacific Street earned his living in crockery. Patrick Culp in Williamsburg was a cabinetmaker, and Emily Hunter, living in what's now known as Greenwood Heights, was a dressmaker.
As more and more names were added, the map slowly began to take shape. It was exciting to see Weeksville emerge as a community, and interesting to note the sizeable African-American presence in Williamsburg. There was also another large community located in downtown Brooklyn, close to the water for easily access to the ferry to Manhattan, as well as to jobs in the shipping industry.
This work in progress is my way of remembering all those men and women who 146 years ago, walked the same streets as we do now--people largely unrecognized and unheralded but who made their contribution to this borough.
Click here to view the map.
A recent arrival on our shelves is the Ledger of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Atonement at 239 17th Street near Fifth Avenue. This once pretty and active church is now almost a ruin. The ledger documents meetings of the vestry from 1887 to 1907, twenty years of growth and optimism in the life of the congregation. During this period, a new building was erected, an organ by Reuben Midmer was installed, and the arrival of the elevated railroad on Fifth Avenue caused the church to sue for annoyance and depreciation of property. They won a settlement of $5000 from the Union Railroad.
A sadder, and more lurid event occurred in 1894, when the Sexton, an insane Englishman by the name of Holt, murdered his wife by shooting her three times and cutting her throat with a razor. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle could do little better than blame the victims in its coverage, while the church ledger, in its first meeting after the event, notes with restraint the following:
"Moved and seconded that the vestry ratify the action of the junior warden in removing T. G. Holt from the sextonship on Aug 13th 1884."
I do not know if the Pentecostal Church that took over the building is still functioning. The structure on the right is now an empty lot; the top of the church tower is gone, making nonsense of the truncated structure below it. If things keep heading in this direction, it will probably not be long before the old Church of the Atonement finds itself in a collision with a wrecker's ball.
Former Borough Historian John Manbeck gave a lively illustrated talk last night in the Brooklyn Collection's Reserve Room, before a packed house. Using photographs from his two recent books, Brooklyn Historically Speaking and Historic Photos of Brooklyn, John covered the borough from end to end and back again with the ease that can only come from deep knowledge of his subject. He also signed copies of his books.
Some new pictures of Pigtown by E.E. Rutter that have made their way to us, started me wondering where exactly Pigtown was. I am now in a position to answer that question: it was, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of April 6, 1921, and allowing for some flexibility of boundaries, "that part of Flatbush which is bounded on the north by Malbone st., on the south by Midwood st., on the east by Albany Ave and on the west by Nostrand ave." The images show tracts of wasteland, ash dumps, garbage piles, stark new dwellings fronting empty blocks defined by crudely laid out streets, and a few scattered holdout shanties. Goats roam free, but at least in 1923 when these pictures were taken, not a single pig thrusts its snout before the camera. Malbone Street became Empire Boulevard in December 1918, after a disastrous subway accident associated the name "Malbone" forever in people's minds with death and horror.
Another name for the district that appears in early articles is "Oaklands", but Pigtown seems to have suited the character of the place rather better. In the 1880s, there were pigs, for sure. The residents of Flatbush were up in arms over the prospect of the development of a Hospital for Contagious Diseases near Pigtown. During the discussions, it came to light that in the vicinity of East New York Avenue there were in 1888 over one thousand pigs, a matter which had "agitated the health authorities for a long time." A Mr McKnight, a man with a gift for a colorful turn of phrase suggested that "it was straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel to kick at a few pigs and take in a hospital for contagious diseases..." However strong the arguments of Mr McKnight and his cohorts, the hospital was built, appearing on the Rand McNally map of 1912 on Fenimore Street between Kingston and Albany Avenues.
In 1891 a Pigtown pig was raffled and won by a Judge Sweeney, who lived west of Pigtown on Vernon, now Tilden Ave. It was stolen in the night by a pair of practical jokers who turned out to be a town constable and an assistant keeper of the hall of records. So much for the law-abiding citizens of Flatbush.
Pigtown does seem to have been a rough place. In 1896 a Thomas McCormack, known as the "Terror of Pigtown" smashed John Divine's nose, swallowed two live canaries in a Flatbush barber's shop, and then took five bullets in an argument with a Michael Lynch. We know that McCormack lived to continue his depredations, because three months later he is in the news again, his exploits exaggerated to comic book proportions. According to a larceny report of June 26, 1896, McCormack had taken not five but twelve bullets, seven of them remaining in his body.
Another Pigtown character of note was a Louis or Thomas Calandrilla who it was said could "swing every vote in the district." As his name suggests, Italians as well as Irish contributed to the area's population. They formed a mutual aid society, the founding of which was celebrated with a festival and a salute of guns on June 24, 1902. But by the 1920s, the reports of fights and burglaries give way to reports of plans for new development. The penitentiary closes, most of the goats are gone, influential members of the community form the Marconi Realty Corporation, and plans are afoot to rename the area "Crown Slope," a name that apparently failed to thrive. Roads are cut through the wasteland, sewers are laid, and houses are built that conform to the New York City building code. As one journalist writes in 1924, "It looks as if the Pigtown of 1916 is doomed...to merge itself into the surrounding middle class neighborhood and to be transformed into what perhaps maybe described as a more tidy and respectable, if less interesting Flatbush home section."