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Our Firemen, 1887
2015 marks 150 years of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) bravely serving New York City. I am proud to say my brother-in-law is a FDNY firefighter who started out as a volunteer firefighter. For years, Brian responded to fires whenever the loud siren was rung at the Oceanic Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 in Travis, Staten Island. As Staten Island's oldest volunteer fire house, Oceanic received its charter in 1881 and is today -- out of the ten volunteer fire houses in the city (here's a bit more about that) -- one of only two recognized and dispached by the FDNY. Both are located in Staten Island.
Organized firefighting dates back to 1648, but it wasn't until 1731 when fire brigades were put into service and all able-bodied people were required to respond to alarms. Due to an ever-growing population, the volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York was established in 1737. The requirements: men needed to be "able, discreet and sober."
Our Firemen, 1887;
With the introduction of the steam engine, the need for men to pump water to extinguish fires were no longer needed.
Gradually volunteer fire houses were closed and replaced by paid companies. Today, the FDNY has more than 11,400 Fire Officers and firefighters. You can read the complete history of the FDNY here.
As for Brooklyn, the first record of organized firefighting in the city was in 1772, when six men were recruited to fight a fire near the ferry landing on Fulton Street. In 1785, seven men were appointed at a town hall meeting to be the offical firefighters for Brooklyn. In 1788 it was announced that all appointed firefighters would be exempt from jury duty and militia service -- needless to say, this resulted in men busting down the doors to sign up. 1785 brought the first organized fire house in Brooklyn.
During the Civil War, the City of Brooklyn replaced cisterns with hydrants, providing a reliable source of water to fight fires.
On May 5, 1869, the act to "reorganize the Fire Department of the City of Brooklyn" was passed (the previous attempt in 1858 was defeated), which made way for the paid fire department. With the passage of the act, four fire commissioners were appointed and firemen's salaries were set at $800 a year. The cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburg transitioned their volunteer fire departments into paid companies by 1870, followed by New Lots in 1886; Flatbush, Gravesend and New Utrecht in 1894; and Flatlands in 1896. The Brooklyn Fire Department merged with New York's Fire Department with the 1898 consolidation of New York City.
"In 1823, an act was passed incorparting the Fire Department of the Villiage of Brooklyn."
As a side note, a few months ago when I was on a tour at Green-Wood Cemetery, I came across the grave of William Chin(n). I was intrigued by the inscription on the stone: "In memory of William J. Chin, Private of Engine Co. No. 20 Brooklyn Fire Department who was killed by being thrown from a supply wagon while in the discharge of his duty as a fireman on the morning of December 28, 1889."
Grave of William Chin, Green-Wood Cemetery
Civil War veteran Chin served as a driver for the Volunteer Fire Department. According to the Times, he was injured en route to the Brasher Oil-Cloth Works fire on 18th Street and 8th Avenue when he was "thrown from his seat by the shying of the horses at a blazing log and the wheels passed over his chest." He experienced severe internal injuries and died shortly after on January 3, 1890.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 5, 1890
Emma Chin, his widow, sued the city for negligence, citing a defect in the street that led to her husband being thrown from his truck. The defense argued that the street was not in disrepair and that Chin was leaning over the dashboard reaching for a rein when he was jolted back as his truck hurried over to the fire. She sought $5,000 in damages in City Court but it was dismissed on January 21, 1891, after the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict (it was 11-1 in favor of Chin). A life-sized sculpted marble fireman marks his grave.
To round out this blog (and lighten the mood) here are some pictures of firemen in parades:
Volunteer Firefighters at the 1930 Parade
These men aged 80 and 92, respectively, are adorable in their uniforms!
"These eye-filling young drum majorettes strutted their stuff in the volunteer fireman's parde yesterday." Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 23, 1941
Check out those men checking out those women!
Thank you for serving and protecting us for 150 years!
“At times...I feel an enourmous power in me - that seems almost supernatural. If this power is not too dissipated in aggravation and discouragement I may amount to something sometime. I can say this now with perfect equanimity because I am notoriously drunk and the Victrola is going with that glorious Bolero.” – Hart Crane
The poet Hart Crane may not have been a Brooklyn native (as so many of us aren’t), but his time here would radically change not only his life, but American poetics as well. Born on July 21, 1899 in Garrettsville, Ohio, Crane moved to the city when he was 17, after dropping out of high school. But it wasn’t until 1924, when he arrived at 110 Columbia Heights that he began to “live in the shadow of that bridge.”
From his new apartment Crane had a perfect view of the bridge which would become the topic of his most famous work. He wrote to his mother:
“Just imagine looking out your window directly on the East River with nothing intervening between your view of the Statue of Liberty, way down the harbor, and the marvelous beauty of the Brooklyn Bridge close above you on your right! All of the great new skyscrapers of lower Manhattan are marshalled directly across from you, and there is a constant stream of tugs, liners, sail boats, etc in procession before you on the river! It’s really a magnificent place to live.”
The bridge itself would grow to encompass Crane’s world, symbolizing his success, when Otto H. Kahn offered him $2,000 to compose an epic poem called The Bridge. He accepted but he was an undisciplined creator and the bridge was an elusive muse. An outsider who sought anonymous sex with sailors, Crane’s encounters often led to brutal beatings. Drinking heavily, struggling with the poem (he had an end but no beginning) and running out of money, Crane followed his lover Emil Opffer, Jr. to Los Angeles. But by 1928 he was back in New York, first at 77 Willow Street and then again at 110 Columbia Heights, before flitting off to Paris in 1929.
Paris was good to Crane and while he was there Harry and Caresse Crosby offered to publish The Bridge on their press, Black Sun Press. Upon accepting the offer, Crane started to celebrate, a bit too much, at Cafe Select. He argued with the waiters over the bill, then with the police, and was subsequently arrested.
Returning to Brooklyn, Crane came back to Columbia Heights, this time in a basement apartment at 130 where he finally finished The Bridge.
...Under thy shadow by the piers I waitedOnly in darkness is thy shadow clear.The City’s fiery parcels all undone,Already snow submerges an iron year ...
O Sleepless as the river under thee,Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descendAnd of the curveship lend a myth to God....
The poem won Poetry magazine’s Helen Haire Levinson Prize followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship for its author. Under the Fellowship, Crane headed to Mexico, ready to write, when tragedy struck. A trifecta of difficulties - his father’s death, his mother withholding his inheritance and an affair (probably the only heterosexual affair of his life) with the wife of his friend - led to a severe depression.
On April 27, 1932, crossing the Gulf of Mexico on the Orizaba, Crane was beaten up after making an unwelcome pass at a crew member. Just before noon, drunk and despondent, he walked into Peggy Cowley's cabin in pajamas and a topcoat and said, "I'm not going to make it, dear. I'm utterly disgraced." Accustomed to such remarks, she told him to go get dressed. He agreed, said goodbye, headed for the stern and climbed the railing of the ship. He shouted “Goodbye everybody!” and threw himself overboard.
Hart Crane was 32 years old. His body was never found.
After his death, his poem The Bridge would divide critics. It brought lofty comparisons to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland as well as deep criticism. The New Yorker found it, “an impressive failure. . .[that] varies wildly in quality, containing some of Crane’s best writing and some of his worst.”
But what did the poet think of his work, and about the majestic structure that so captivated him?
“The very idea of a bridge is an act of faith. The form of my poem rises out of a past that so overwhelms the present with its worth and vision that I'm at a loss to explain my delusion that there exists any real links between that past and a future destiny worthy of it.”
Evan Hughes, in his book Literary Brooklyn, summarized Crane's death with the following:
"In his personal life, Crane was probably too well-aligned with the New York City of the 1920s. Of that time in the city, Fitzgerald wrote, "The catering to dissipation set an example to Paris; the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper; but all these benefits did not really minister to much delight. Young people wore out early." So it was for Crane, who crashed along with the twenties when the dark thirties came. In his work, however, Crane bucked the tide of his times. The roar of the capitalist economy held no appeal for him, and he set himself against "shorter hours, quicker lunches, behaviorism and toothpicks." But rather than embrace the pessimism of the poetic age of Eliot, he embraced an "ecstatic goal." His dramatic death, often mined for meaning, obscures his wider significance; he grew into greatness in an era that was out of step with his ideals."
It is once again upon us; that century-old ritual of courtly grace and sequins! Prom!
Prom, short for 'promenade,' has been around since the late 19th century. Starting at colleges, the dances served as a more egalitarian version of the ever-popular debutante balls cherished by the upper classes. The dances were fancy, but usually more high tea than black tie. Because proms served as socialite training grounds, it makes sense to see them listed in Brooklyn Life's "Dances" section along with the other society happenings. The magazine, published weekly for Brooklyn's upper crust and now digitized on Newspapers.com, had a section devoted to which fancy person traveled to which fancy country and another detailing which lucky young lady took a ride with which handsome young man (and his mother, inevitably). Think one step down from Downton Abbey, Brooklyn style. (Netflix, I'm going to need that show created. Thanks.)
Brooklyn Life Magazine 1915.
The only proms that appear in the news (be it the Brooklyn Daily Eagle or Brooklyn Life) around the turn of the century are those held at elite girls' schools. The first mention of a prom in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle can be found in 1897 in reference to the Packer Institute, originally one of Brooklyn's preeminent all-girls schools. Along with the Packer Institute, there are many refrences to the Berkeley Institute (now the Berkeley Carroll School). Girls High School makes an appearance in the early 1910s.
In 1915, Brooklyn Life described the Packer Senior Prom: "...the members of the class of 1915 transformed the gymnasium in which the dance was held into a bower of green with blue conflowers and yellow tulips intermingled, showing the class colors. In the library a cheerful fire was blazing, lighting up, with the glow of electric lamps, the couches and cozy corners around the room." The magazine also wrote that "preceding the Packer Institute 'Prom' on Friday evening of last week, Mrs. Horace L. Rutter gave a dinner for her daughter, Miss Kathleen S. Rutter, who was the head of the 'prom committee'" (Brooklyn Life Magazine 20 Feb 1915). Being on the committee looked great on a society resume and often netted you a beautiful photo in Brooklyn Life.
The Brooklyn Collection has a great collection of dance tickets from the early twentieth century, most from social club gatherings like the ones listed above in Brooklyn Life . The cards illustrate the popularity of dances and society parties and provide an interesting window into the social life of middle- and upper-class Brooklynites of the day. I was hoping to find a ticket or invitation to a prom, so I started flipping through the binders.
Apparently, there was always a reason to dance.
Third Annual Halloween Dance, Bath Beach Olympics, Inc. 1932. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
Dinner-Dance, Lincoln Social Club, 1938. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
Look! It's a "Lincoln Eve" dance! I'm throwing one of those next year.
First Annual Dance, Hob-Nob Club, 1938. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
And then I found what I was looking for:
Brooklyn Tech Junior Prom Card, 1932. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
An invitation to Brooklyn Tech's junior prom, held in the Jade Room of the Brooklyn Elks Club on Livingston Street. The attire is specified as "Informal - Red and Gray Collegians" and the cost is $1.50 per couple.
The 1930s and 1940s saw proms move into the mainstream, popping up at schools across the borough. As reported in the Eagle in 1943, "At Namm's party and fashion show held yesterday in the Colonial Room on the third floor the loudest applause was for a prom party dress of heavenly blue, the satin bodice trimmed with narrow pleating and the skirt of yards and yards of matching net. Priced at $16.95. A single string of blue pearls at her throat and a gleaming white gardenia in her hair completed this graduate's costume" (30 December 1943). The 1950s, with the rise of the "teenager," the suburban dream, and the disposable income, proms became more involved affairs replete with taffeta and tulle.
"Prom Delights." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1949. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle documented a few 1950s proms, like the one below at Prospect Heights High School.
McNamara, C.E. "Seniors Take Over." Brooklyn Eagle 1954. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
Sadly, proms aren't always fun and games. For one, someone always cries at prom. Always. But, in all seriousness, there is certain antiquated feel about many of the customs involved in the evening. Aspects of prom feel very traditional and tradition can sometimes get in the way of progress.
You might recall the 2010 story of Constance McMillan, a lesbian student in Mississippi who asked to attend her prom with her girlfriend who was also a student at the school. The school board refused to allow her to attend unless she came alone or brought a male date. In the end, the school board cancelled the prom entierely. Just last year there was a story of the first integrated prom in Abbeville, GA. The battle for inclusivity has also been fought right here in Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle 22 April 1920.
In 1920, six young women were told they could not attend the Girls High School prom because of the color of their skin. One of those young women had a fairly famous father: W.E.B DuBois. When DuBois was notified that his daughter was barred from the dance, he and other parents and distinguished community members went to speak with the principal, Dr. William L. Fetter. The paper reported that the concerned parents "got no satisfaction from him." The parents then went to see the superintendent who was "astounded when he learned the facts of the case." Thus, the principal was given an ultimatum: cancel the prom or integrate it.
Dubois' daughter attended the prom.
The last paragraph of the article reads: "A suggestion was made that in leiu of the prom, a theater party be held for the colored girls, but that was voted down." Youbetcha it was voted down! Separate is not equal, not then, not now.
Every morning the Verrazano-Narrows bridge greets me and every evening it says goodnight, the lights twinkling like the city’s own stars. It’s one of the best things about living in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. (The worst thing being the very long R train ride home.)
When I first moved to Bay Ridge, the bridge was an anchor of sorts. It told me, when I accidentally got off at the wrong subway station, which way was home. Walk this way, it said. Toward me. I might be biased but I think it’s a prettier than the George Washington; more elegant than the Brooklyn Bridge. Bigger than the Manhattan and sharper than the Williamsburg.
And it recently turned 50.
But the bridge, designed by Swiss-born engineer, Othmar Ammann, and the brainchild of master builder, Robert Moses, had a long difficult journey to formation: legal disputes, protests and, sadly, the deaths of three workers.
First there was dispute over what to call the bridge. The Italian Heritage Society launched a lengthy campaign in support of naming the bridge after Giovanni da Verrazano. Staten Island residents, feeling their borough was underrepresented, wanted it named the Staten Island Bridge. The neutrals pushed for The Narrows. In the end, the officials compromised with Verrazano-Narrows.
Who was this Verrazano anyway? Giovanni da Verrazano was an Italian explorer who, in 1524, was commissioned by the French to find a shorter path to Asia in the ship La Dauphine. It’s said that once Verrazano reached what would become North Carolina, he continued north; hit Sandy Hook and eventually the Hudson River. However, he miscalculated and thought the New York Bay was a big lake, turned around and went back to France. Eighty years later, Henry Hudson sailed in and, well, the rest is history.
So why the dispute? First off there was the possibility that Verrazano was not really an explorer but in fact a privateer who just...stumbled upon the mouth of the Hudson. (He was, in fact, tied to the pirate Juan Florin!)
[Fun fact: Verrazano gristly death came at the hands (literally) of Jamaican cannibals. I hope the fact that he’s got his own day (April 17th is Verrazano Day) helps him rest easier.]
Once decided on a name, there was the much bigger issue of spelling. One R? Two Rs? One Z? Two Zs? The Italian Historical Association of America had some very strong feelings about this issue. His name, in Italian, is spelled with two Zs but NYC and Governor Rockefeller decided on just the one, based upon the spelling found in early manuscripts and encyclopedias. The dispute over the Single or Double Z even lead to one courageous volunteer painting an extra Z on the sign announcing the planned construction site. And the Staten Island Chamber Physician actually quit his post over the naming issue.
But more than the name, most of the protests regarding the bridge came from the residents of my neighborhood, Bay Ridge. In Bay Ridge, the bridge was not a sign of progress but a harbinger of very real destruction. Eight hundred buildings would be leveled. Seven thousand people would have to find a new place to live. It was a difficult reality for the residents of Bay Ridge, one that was elegantly captured by Gay Talese in his book, The Bridge:
“Most people in Brooklyn did not, in 1959, understand the good part, and so they held on to their homes with determination. But sooner or later, within the next year or so, they let go. One by one they went, and soon the house lights went out for the last time, and then moving vans rolled in, and then the bulldozers came crashing up and the walls crumbled down, and the roofs caved in and everything was hidden in an avalanche of dust – a sordid scene to be witnessed by the hold-out next door, and soon he too would move out, and then another, and another. And that is how it went on each block, in each neighborhood, until, finally, even the most determined hold-out gave in because, when a block is almost completely destroyed, and one is all alone amid the chaos, strange and unfamiliar fears sprout up: the fear of being alone in a neighborhood that is dying…”
Construction began in 1959. By '63, three workers were dead. In protest, 300 of their fellow builders refused to raise a 400 ton roadway section into place until they were given saftey nets to work over. After five long arduous years (and $325 million), the bridge opened at 3pm on November 21, 1964.
And what a bridge it was!
It surpassed the Golden Gate Bridge as the largest suspension bridge in the world, with a 4,260-foot-center span between two 693-foot towers. The towers are twice as big as the Statue of Liberty! And the bridge is so long that the two towers needed to be angled away from each other to account for the curvature in the earth. Each of the cables contains 26,108 separate strands of galvanized steel wire, each about as thick as a pencil. There is enough wire on that bridge to circle the globe six times!
The opening ceremony was a huge event, attracting dignitaries such as Mayor Robert Wagner, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and “master builder” Robert Moses. The ceremony was capped off with a Navy flotilla including a submarine, two destroyers and three destroyer-escorts passing under the bridge with whistles blowing.
Open day toll: 50 cents. Ah, the good old days!
The Brooklyn Collection is pleased to be joining forces with our counterparts at the Brooklyn Historical Society this spring to offer new programs exploring the fun and fanciful side of our borough's history. *Note that two of these three programs are happening at the Brooklyn Historical Society (128 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights) and some do charge an admission fee.
Extreme Brooklyn Trivia: All Star EditionThursday, April 16th, 6:30pm at the Brooklyn Historical Society$10 General Admission / $5 for BHS and G-W MembersReserve tickets>>The result of an unprecedented détente between two trivia titans, the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection and the BHS Trivia Masters are joining forces to present the mother-lode of Brooklyn-inspired trivia, while raising the bar to the heavens for all future pub trivia competitions. This multi-round, multi-media competition is not for the faint of heart, but should be edifying (and fun!) for nerds of all abilities and Brooklyn lovers of even the most recent vintage.
The Othmer Library at Brooklyn Historical Society
Brooklyn Collecting BrooklynWednesday, May 13th, 6:30pm at the Brooklyn Historical SocietyFree! But you can reserve your spot here>>Wednesday, May 20th, 6:30pm at the Brooklyn Collection (Central Library at Grand Army Plaza)Free! But you can reserve your spot here>>Brooklyn Historical Society and Brooklyn Collection archivists get together to reveal behind the scenes tales of our Coney Island collections. We’ll have an array of historical artifacts ranging from wax replicas of Nat King Cole’s head and hands to vintage photographs of Coney Island's nighttime Mardi Gras parade (and much, much more) on display to illustrate the stories of the what, who, when, and how we acquired these seemingly obscure items. This is a two-part series so attendees will see up close some of our prized Coney Island collections in the Othmer Library at Brooklyn Historical Society and in the Brooklyn Collection.