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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.

 

"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!":

Gertrude Hoffmann's First Act

Oct 19, 2016 2:36 PM | 0 comments

This week, guest blogger Sunny Stalter-Pace marks the 50th anniversary of dancer and choreographer Gertrude Hoffmann's death with a post sharing some information about Hoffmann's early life and career. Stalter-Pace is writing a biography of Hoffmann and has used the Gertrude Hoffmann Collection here at the Brooklyn Collection as part of her research.

Gertrude Hoffmann (1885-1966) enjoyed a long career as a performer, choreographer, and producer. Brooklynology introduced the versatile vaudevillian in a blog post that’s now more than 5 years old; it followed that post with another on her most famous act, the scandalous “Vision of Salome” dance. Since October 21 will mark 50 years since her death in Los Angeles, now is a good time to look back on her early career. Her remarkable life on stage is outlined in a typed resume titled “Gertrude Hoffmann: Experiences and Credits” that is part of the Gertrude Hoffmann Collection at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Born Catherine Gertrude Hay in San Francisco, Gertrude Hoffmann changed her name several times early on. She was Kitty Hayes at the Alcazar Theater, then Gertrude Hayes at the Grand Opera House. (These stage names, plus the German character actress named Gertrude Hoffman whose career overlapped with hers, have made it tough to pin down some of the basic chronology of Hoffmann’s life.) She performed as a dancer in the pantomimes, operettas, and extravaganzas that were popular in the late Victorian era. As a member of the Belasco Stock Company, she supported stars of the day such as Florence Roberts and Eddie Foy.

Gertrude played the punningly named “Miss Judge” in the San Francisco tryout of The Night of the Fourth. When the touring company left for New York, she went with them. The show was a failure, playing a mere 14 shows at Oscar Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater. But one thing came out of it that was a success: Gertrude married the show’s music director Max Hoffmann in 1901.

In the early years of the twentieth century, Gertrude and Max worked in a touring stock theater group called the Bijou Musical Comedy Company. He wrote the songs, and she staged the dance numbers and performed in the shows. One collaboration was “Sadie My Creole Lady,” a song that debuted in the Bijou show called What Happened to Jones? On the cover of the song’s sheet music an illustration of the titular Sadie seems to make coy eye contact with the viewer. An inset photograph of Gertrude Hoffmann shows her propped on one elbow, reading on a bench. This is no modest ingénue, though: she posed in such a way that her legs, clad in striped tights, are exposed up to the knee. Gertrude’s tights – or lack thereof – would become an important sticking point in her later dances.

Source: Historic American Sheet Music, David M. Rubinstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Members of the Bijou Company traveled to Brooklyn on Labor Day weekend in 1902 to help open the fall season at the Orpheum Theater. The Orpheum was located on Fulton Street and Rockwell Place, near the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Gertrude Hoffmann appears on the top of the Orpheum Bill with fellow Bijou stock company member Little Chip and the New York Theater Ballet. They performed what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle termed a “novel singing and dancing act, ‘My Zulu Lu,’ which has been the hit of the summer season at the New York Theater Roof Garden” (August 31, 1902). This fake African number appeared on the same bill as a duo whose importance to African American theater cannot be overstated: Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, brother and sometimes collaborator of Harlem Renaissance man James Weldon Johnson.

Source: Wikipedia.

When she appeared at the Orpheum again in 1907, Hoffmann shared a bill with another innovator, cartoonist Winsor McCay. Hoffmann had established herself as a solo performer, one who focused on celebrity imitations. An advertisement in the Brooklyn Public Library’s Gertrude Hoffman Collection shows her as a dainty puppeteer. She sits on her suitcase, holding the strings that lead to celebrity puppets like George M. Cohan, dancer Adeline Genée, and vaudeville’s reigning bad girl Eva Tanguay. Individually they may have been more famous than Hoffmann, but she could bring them all to life onstage.

Source: Gertrude Hoffman Collection at the Brooklyn Public Library.

I’ve only touched on the first decade of Hoffmann’s more than forty years onstage. Some highlights of her later acts included counterfeit Russian ballets, snake dances, and acrobatic acts that would rival present-day Cirque du Soleil. But there was one constant from her early days. In a life otherwise marked by constant change, Gertrude married her music director Max in 1901 and stayed married to him until his death in 1963.

Source: Gertrude and Max Hoffmann Papers, Special Collections & Archives, Z. Smith Reynolds Library, Wake Forest University.

Sunny Stalter-Pace is writing a biography of Gertrude Hoffmann. She is an associate professor in the English Department at Auburn University, where she teaches modern drama, American literature, and critical theory. Her first book, Underground Movements: Modern Culture on the New York City Subway, was published by University of Massachusetts Press in 2013. Find her on Twitter at @slstalter.

Note: Previous posts on this blog had spelled Hoffmann’s name with only one N, but primary source documentation spells it with both one and two Ns. In this post, we defer to the expertise and research of our guest blogger, who determined it should be spelled with two Ns based on the spelling of Hoffmann's legal married name.

Brooklyn on film at the Library of Congress

Oct 12, 2016 4:40 PM | 0 comments

A couple of months ago, a colleague at the Brooklyn Museum Library tweeted that she had found a film reel in their collection with nitrate film. Since nitrate film is highly flammable and needs to be stored in special conditions in order to prevent it from catching fire, the library needed to identify the film quickly in order to decide whether or not to keep such a dangerous item. All they knew was the film's title, "Brooklyn Progress," the date range, 1933-1937, and that the content included a kind of tour through prominent Brooklyn sites.

Photo courtesy J.E. Molly Seegers

I offered to use Brooklyn Collection resources to try and identify the film, and lo and behold, I was able to find it in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle by using Brooklyn Newsstand:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 7, 1937

The film was created for Borough President Raymond V. Ingersoll's re-election campaign in 1937. The film's voiceover, according to the Eagle article, has this to say by way of introduction:

"This talking picture...takes the form of an inspection tour of the achievements of the present administration of Borough President Ingersoll and Mayor LaGuardia. Our two actors, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Citizen represent you in this film...Through their eyes you will see the accomplishments of the Fusion-Ingersoll administration in Brooklyn."

A few days later, the Eagle ran an op-ed called "Pictorializing a Campaign" by John A. Heffernan, which describes the film as "a new campaign method" and muses on the "political adaptation of the products of modern science to its purposes."

Photo courtesy J.E. Molly Seegers

Having identified the film, the Brooklyn Museum Library searched other collections to see if any other institutions held a copy, and found that only one seems to exist, at the Museum of Modern Art. So they decided to donate their copy to the Library of Congress's Packard Campus for Audiovisual Conservation. Read more on their tumblr here. Excitingly, the  experts at the Library of Congress identified the reel as the original camera negative. Due to its historical value, they plan to expedite the film's digitization, so hopefully it will be available for all of us to watch sometime soon.

Those of you who know a bit about BPL's history might recall that Ingersoll was instrumental in helping our Central Library finally get finished, but Ingersoll's "accomplishments" memorialized in the film would not yet have included a completed Central Library, as it was not finished until 1941. However, since Brooklyn Public Library is listed as one of the sites seen in the film, it's possible they visited the Central Library construction site, which could be very interesting to see. Or perhaps they visited some other library branches. Once the film is digitized, we'll be able to find out.

Borough President Raymond V. Ingersoll, center, signing construction contracts for Central Library on December 29, 1937. Also pictured are Philip P. Farley, consulting engineer to the borough president; Edwin L. Garnin, president of BPL's board of trustees; Francis Keally, architect, and Lauson H. Stone, BPL board of trustees member. Photo by Roy Pinney.

 

Tales of Another Cleveland Convention

Jul 29, 2016 10:15 AM | 0 comments

I was working with our clippings collection the other day and came across the subject heading "Red-Headed Legion." Intrigued, I decided to explore this organization further. The trail led me all the way to the 1924 Republican National Convention which, like this year's, was held in Cleveland, Ohio. But let me start with the legion itself.

"Red-Headed Legion Holds Rally of Nine" announced a headline in the June 9, 1924 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The nine who attended the rally comprised "four red-headed women, four red-headed men and one man with black hair and a red mustache." (The latter was allowed to attend because "a red mustache will qualify for membership.") Two of those attendees were radio personality Wendell Hall and his bride of four days. Interestingly, their wedding is thought to be the first that was broadcast live on the radio, which must be why the article refers to Hall's wife as his "radio bride." The brief article says little of substance about the Legion, but I did find an excerpt from The Volta Review stating that one of its purposes was "urging that a national organization be formed to end the ridiculing of red-haired persons." The Eagle notes that at the meeting, the Legion pledged to support Calvin Coolidge's run for president "because it is said he has a brick top."

A slightly more extensive column in the same edition of the paper goes into more depth regarding the political affiliations of the Legion: "Neither Washington nor Jefferson was really 'red-headed' when he got to be President, though both are claimed by the Legion. Time's brush modifies occiput color schemes...the red ideas of youth...depart year by year as redness of hair becomes less vivid." So Coolidge was perhaps not a true "brick top," and after all, the article concedes, he "needs no assistance from the Legion." If that was the case, why were there two articles about their assistance in the paper?

Perhaps the newsworthiness of the Legion was because the 1924 convention was "chilly" and "few high jinks pepped up the proceedings," according to writer Edwin Palmer Hoyt, Jr. (p. 310). Among these "few high jinks" in the city of Cleveland was a drink called the "Keep Cool with Coolidge Highball" (ice, pineapple and grape juices, and a raw egg--blech!) and burlesque dancers called the Keep Cool Kuties. Some of the Coolidge supporters at the convention itself were the Hometown Coolidge Club of Plymouth, Vermont; Wellesley College alumnae; and of course, the Red-Headed Legion of America, announcing its support "for obvious reasons." Otherwise, the proceedings were sober, and Coolidge won the nomination without much fanfare.

After the convention concluded, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, "Cleveland Frugal in All Convention Details" and further chided, "Decorations Meager." So meager, in fact, that there was not even a picture of Coolidge in the convention hall. Coolidge also preferred a non-confrontational style of politics, speaking on the issues rather than attacking his political opponents. While our current Republican nominee is known for his hair, the similarities with Coolidge's restrained 1924 convention end there. I can't imagine a small special interest group's support making headlines or ending up in the history books when it comes to this year's raucous convention. In 1924, Coolidge defeated John Davis by the second-largest popular vote margin in US presidential race history. Come November, we'll see if the 2016 candidate's very different approach will net the same result.

 

References

Hoyt, Edwin P. Jumbos and Jackasses: A History of the Political Wars. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.

Sobel, Robert. Coolidge: An American Enigma. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 1998.