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“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.
“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."
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!