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Welcome to MS 57

Sep 25, 2012 10:10 AM | 0 comments

Now that the new school year has started, Brooklyn Connections is in full swing again.  To prepare for the scores of middle and high school students we work with, over the summer I went through some of the most interesting lessons I taught last year--including one that was particularly exciting to a group of middle schoolers in Bedford-Stuyvesant.  After a lesson using primary sources including a rendering of their school, students from Middle School 57 became engrossed in the history of the building.  Thankfully, I had come prepared, and together, we were able to uncover something of the school's history.  After the lesson, I delved deeper, and here is what I found:

JHS 57 rendering

Rendering of JHS 57, 1954

Junior High School 57, located on Stuyvesant Avenue and Lafayette Street, was opened in 1954 and became the Board of Education's solution for an overcrowded Bedford-Stuyvesant school district.

Desk Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn, City of New York, 1921

Before JHS 57 was built, on the opposite side of the block on the corner of Reid Avenue and Van Buren Street, stood Public School 57, opened in 1885.  As buildings do, after years of use and neglect, the school fell into disrepair.

Postcard of Public School 57, 1900.  Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

In 1949, parents urged the Board of Education to replace the dilapidated, overcrowded school with another elementary school.  (Parents and teachers called for PS 26 located on Quincy Street and Ralph Avenue to be replaced as well, but that is a story for another post.)  The Parent Teacher Association (PTA) worked with local agencies to start a petition and letter writing campaign to Borough President Cashmore for a new school building.  He responded with claims that provisions to replace the ailing elementary school went back as far as 1928.

Brooklyn Eagle, November 26, 1950

After several years, the cries for a new school were heard.  The original plan was to tear down PS 57 and replace it with a new junior high school, JHS 57 on the same site. However, deconstruction of PS 57 took too long and JHS 57 was erected on the opposite side of the block on Lafayette and Stuyvesant Avenues. 

Construction for the $2,681,960, 1,687-person capacity junior high school began in 1952 and it opened in the late fall of 1954.  Building JHS 57 was part of a massive school construction boom with over $300,000,000 spent on New York City school consturction in the early 1950s.

Current location of MS 57 (formerly JHS 57)


Desks but no chairs Brooklyn Eagle, 1954                            

PS 57 was finally torn down in September 1954, but before deconstruction began, a group of 20 teen-age delinquents broke into the school and did a little demolition of their own.  The Eagle reported that the vandals "smashed almost every window in the three-story building, wrecked all electrical fixtures, and removed desks and chairs."

September 22, 1954 after the vandal attack

Today, Public School 26 is located across from the former site of PS 57, on Reid Avenue (or Malcolm X Boulevard) and Lafayette Street, behind Middle School 57. An apartment building now stands on the site of the former P.S.  57.


Now that we have the confusing geography of the school down, let's embark on the story of Junior High School 57's tumultuous tenure.

There have been numerous unflattering news reports as well as a book written titled, Welcome to MS 57: Four Years of Teaching and Learning in Bedford-Stuyvesant. In it, author Bob Moore describes his struggles as a new teacher at the junior high school in the early 1970s.  He reported students brought knives, regularly set off fire alarms and noted the racial divide between Caucasian and African-American students.  Prior to Moore's book, in 1967, PBS aired a documentary in partnership with New York University and the National Education Television about the school.  The Way It Is pointed out the problems with "ghetto education" according to the World Journal Tribune.  NYU student teachers attempted to rehabilitate the school with the support of two grants of over $450,000, which paid for more school staff, consultants, and curriculum revision.  After only a year, NYU abandoned the project, blaming 57's unsupportive administration.

In 1972, the Daily News reported the school was grossly overcrowded with over 2,300 students enrolled (remember it was a building intended to hold 1,687 people).  The school proposed a possible annex at the Sumner Avenue Armory, at 357 Sumner Avenue.  But before a final agreement was made, the plan was scrapped because the armory had serious building violations.

Armory early 1900s.  Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection











Inside the armory, 1913.  Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

During the spring of 1973, newspapers had a field day over accusations made by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) against the then Principal Sheldon Roach.  The UFT claimed Roach attempted to pit Latino and African-American students against each other and "indoctrinated the school with black separatist philosophies."  They also highlighted the poor conditions of the school, lack of discipline, and the high teacher turnover.

For decades, the school had been failing its students and teachers.  The Department of Education even went as far as to shut it down more than once.  During the 1989-1996 school years, JHS 57 was one of the poorest performing schools in New York State.  In June 1996 the school was closed, restructured and reopened the following September, enrolling only eighth graders.  It fared no better under this reorganization; it still had a low attendance record and students continued to perform poorly.  The school closed again in June 1997, reopened in September that same year as a smaller school for 420 students and was renamed Middle School 57, The Ron Brown Academy for Technology, Economics and Theatre Arts.

In 2006, the school was listed on the School Under Registration Review (SURR) because it was one of the lowest performing schools in the State and was in danger of closing yet again.  Finally after three years of being on SURR, it was removed from the list in 2009.  MS 57 has certainly improved over the years due to dedicated administrators and teaching staff.  Today, the school serves grades 6 through 8 and the students are engaged in numerous extracurricular activities such as rapping and recording, capoeria, spoken word, dance, basketball, drama, visual arts, knitting and extra academic classes for math and ELA (English Language Arts).  They have also been a partner of Brooklyn Connections for the past two years.           

Projects completed by students at MS 57.  USS Monitor (top), Brooklyn Bridge (bottom)

MS 57 now shares the building with MS 385 Business, Finance & Entrepreneurship (also a past Brooklyn Connections partner) and the Academy of Global Finance High School.

"My Brooklyn", documentary screening and talk with Director Kelly Anderson, Wednesday, Sept. 19th, 7pm

Sep 17, 2012 4:11 PM | 0 comments

Our monthly programming series is back!  Please join us this coming Wednesday, September 19th for our first event of the fall, a screening of the new documentary film directed by Kelly Anderson and produced by Allison Lirish Dean, "My Brooklyn". 

MB trailer 2012 from Kelly Anderson on Vimeo.

"My Brooklyn" is a documentary examining Director Kelly Anderson’s personal journey as a Brooklyn “gentrifier,” and her efforts to understand the forces reshaping her neighborhood along lines of race and class. At the heart of the film is the Fulton Mall and the controversial plans to remake the shopping area.  You can read an interview with the director and producer in the Huffington Post.  The documentary recently won the Audience Award at the Brooklyn Film Festival, and we're very pleased to be screening it here.

A wine and cheese reception precedes the talk at 6:30 p.m, and the film will screen at 7pm.  Seating is limited to 40 people.  Tickets will be given out 30 minutes before the event.

All Wet

Sep 13, 2012 10:42 AM | 2 comments

From the windows in the Howard Golden Reserve Room here in the Brooklyn Collection you can see a wall. The wall, running behind the library from Flatbush Avenue to Eastern Parkway, features, along its topmost portion, a pattern of waves done in shallow relief. 

As much as someone can wonder about a wall, I've wondered about this wall. Why a watery motif? Does it mean anything? Whether or not directly related to it, I had a hunch that this design had something to do with what once stood on the grounds now occupied by Mount Prospect Park: the Mount Prospect reservoir. 

Here you can see the water tower and gate house of the reservoir, situated just behind the under-construction, ill-fated Almirall wing of the library.

But even if it is a wholly coincidental design, at least these stony waves serve the purpose of opening the (forgive me) floodgates on this post about the reservoir, the watertower that once stood there, and the old Brooklyn water works.

This pre-water tower lithograph of the reservoir is plate no. 51 in the 1867 book Brooklyn Water Works and Sewers: a Descriptive Memoir. The report, written by James P. Kirkwood, Chief Engineer, covers every aspect of the water works: supply ponds, conduits, pump-wells and engine houses, force mains, pipe mains, distribution pipes, and the two major reservoirs: the Ridgewood reservoir and the Prospect Hill (or Mount Prospect) reservoir. With 59 illustrations, this book, among others in our collection, is a great resource for learning about Brooklyn's early water works. Just by looking at the illustration above, you can see how the streets in this area have changed. If you can make it out, the reservoir is here bounded by: Flatbush, Underhill, Sackett, Grand, and President. Here's a map from 1855 that will give you a better idea of how the site was laid out:

Still listed here as Mount Prospect Square, the site would, in short order, become the Mount Prospect reservoir; the water works were commenced on the 31st of July, 1856 and water was let into the city on December 15th, 1858. As one Eagle article from 1867 put it, the Mount Prospect reservoir was really more a part of the distribution apparatus of the water works, whereas the Ridgewood reservoir, with a capacity of 167,000,000 gallons, served as the real water storehouse. But at a height above mean high tide some 28' higher than that of the Ridgewood reservoir, the Mount Prospect reservoir played a vital role in supplying water to those parts of the city, principally south of Atlantic Street (now Atlantic Avenue), situated higher than the Ridgewood reservoir. 


But even though Mount Prospect reservoir was situated on the highest piece of land in that portion of the city, it wasn't high enough for some groups of people: insurance companies, real estate agents, and firemen all wanted increased water pressure in the area in order to boost home prices and to aid in the prevention of fires. And so, in 1891, construction began on a pink granite Gothic tower designed by architects Henry W. Thayer and William J. Wallace.

Here in this illustration from a September 3, 1892 edition of Scientific American we can see Brooklyn's water-loving public out for an inspection of the newly completed water tower. Eight years later, this same publication would feature an article by George C. Whipple, biologist and director of the the brand new laboratory at Mount Prospect reservoir.

In his article Whipple goes to great lengths describing the equipment in place at the laboratory and the methods by which the water was analysed. If you're into Mahler bomb calorimeters and bacteriological examinations, then you just hit pay dirt! For the rest of us, it's nice to see some interior shots of the reservoir's lab.

But as always happens, things change. With the city expanding, new and larger sources of water -- Catskill water, to be precise -- were sought, making structures like the Mount Prospect water tower and reservoir obsolete.

And sad to say (because it was such a pretty tower), but we at the library were the ones who dealt the mortal blow to Thayer & Wallace's landmark.

Commissioner John J. Dietz of the Department of Water Supply concluded that the excavations undertaken to build the library would undermine the foundation of the tower and so, for safety's sake, and since the tower was so little used, it would have to be demolished. The wrecking company in charge of tearing it down announced in the Eagle that the Connecticut pink granite used to build the tower would be made freely available to anyone who wanted it. So I wonder...we have a piece of the old Jersey prison any of you out there have a piece of the old water tower?

Brooklynites at the 1948 National Republican Convention

Sep 4, 2012 12:24 PM | 0 comments


While reviewing some photographs for the new Project CHART website I came across this photograph of Brooklynites at the Republican National Convention in 1948.  The most enduring image from this election shows Truman holding a newspaper that announces, erroneously, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” But I had never given much thought to events in the election prior to that misstep.  One of the things that interested me specifically about the picture below was that these people were clearly campaigning for Governor Dewey--the convention did not begin with a presumptive nominee as it does today.

Brooklyn Eagle, June 24, 1948


These days it is very rare to see more than one candidate speak at a party’s convention, but in 1948 the Republican Convention was still very much up in the air and debates were an important part of the process.  There were three serious candidates for the Republican nomination at the start of the convention in Philadelphia: Robert Taft, Harold Stassen, and Thomas Dewey, but many others were given opportunities to participate in debates. The Brooklyn Eagle even included a score sheet the week of the election so that readers could keep up with how many delegates each state won, and how their favorite candidates were doing after each vote.


Brooklynites were particularly charged in this election since Thomas E. Dewey was the governor of New York State at the time and the Brooklyn Republican Party had played a large role in getting Dewey elected in 1946.  Brooklyn Republicans were also a powerful force in the national party.  Brooklyn had eighteen delegates, which was more than twice as many as several states.  Also, unlike many other counties, King’s County Republicans were united for Dewey, who in his days as a Federal Special Prosecutor had successfully incarcerated mobsters such as Dutch Schultz and  Lucky Luciano.  The Brooklyn Eagle anticipated the power of Brooklyn’s presence at the convention: “Their voting strength on the convention floor will be the largest single unit in New York State’s 97-man delegation.  It is expected that it will lead the floor enthusiasm for Governor Dewey.”


When the Kings County delegation arrived on June 21st 1948, they carried the Dewey banner.  Whether by accident or design the Brooklyn Delegation set up their headquarters in the Benjamin Franklin Hotel which was also the headquarters for Dewey’s biggest rival, Senator Taft.  Kings County Republican Leader John R. Crews said “We are not concerned that this is Taft’s headquarters, we’re for Dewey and everybody knows it.”

 Brooklyn Eagle, June 21, 1948


Crews may not have been concerned that they were stationed in Taft’s headquarters, but Taft should have been.  On June 22nd, two members of Brooklyn’s delegation crashed an early morning speech Taft was giving to a breakfast group.  They quickly began distributing printed copies of the Kings County Republican News which was filled with Dewey photographs and pro-Dewey headlines.  They were quickly ejected from the meeting by hotel cops, but that didn’t stop them from distributing 5000 copies of their newspaper around the convention. 

Brooklyn Eagle, June 22, 1948

Dewey did end up winning the Republican nomination after three rounds of voting, and most experts agree the King’s County delegates had a lot to do with it.  

Not everyone in Kings County was a Republican though.  The Democrats had a much smaller convention in Philadelphia due to Truman being the incumbent and presumed nominee.  Brooklyn still managed to have a large presence there as well, showing that not everyone in the county supported their governor or the Republican Party.  The delegates even carried signs with the lofty message “Brooklyn to be the all Democratic Boro.”

Brooklyn Eagle, July 12, 1948


Both Truman and Dewey were moderate, which created a very tight political race, and rifts in both political parties.  The Democratic Party was so divided that it broke into three separate factions.  Because of the Democratic split, top Republican officials believed that all Dewey had to do to win was avoid major mistakes.  Dewey took that advice to heart and spoke only in platitudes, avoided controversial issues and stayed very vague about what he planned to do in office.  Truman spent a great deal of his campaign ridiculing Dewey and the Republican controlled Congress without response.  When he called Congress a “Do Nothing Congress” Dewey opted not to respond again, which drew great criticism and further alienated him from his party.  Senator Robert Taft, his former opponent, fought back against these comments while pushing a very conservative agenda for the party.  It’s difficult to say how Taft would have campaigned if he had been the nominee, but it would have been difficult for him to take a less aggressive approach than Dewey did. 


Despite being the front runner in all the polls up to the election, and winning both Kings County and the State of New York, Dewey lost the national election to Truman by a large margin. While it is difficult to know how much influence those Brooklyn Delegates had, or what would have happened in a general election between Robert Taft and Truman, Brooklyn’s powerful presence at the convention certainly made its mark. 


Amanda Cowell, CHART Project Coordinator.