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Williamsburg: Then & Now

Aug 27, 2014 7:06 PM | 0 comments

Our collection of photographs by Anders Goldfarb are some of the most contemporary images in our holdings aside from those taken by Jamel Shabazz. However, unlike Shabazz who captures the personalities of Brooklynites, Goldfarb mostly captures the personalities of the borough's dilapidated buildings. In a 2012 interview with Goldfarb, Peter Mattei asked: "What emotion do you feel when you see these buildings? What makes you want to photograph them?"

"It's a form of compassion I think I have for the building," Goldfarb replied, "because they're old and the old as a rule tend to perish and I feel bad for them ..."

Goldfarb's explanation certainly holds true for many an old building in New York City and debates abound on whether gentrification is driving or repulsing this movement in Brooklyn's own neighborhoods. In a city increasingly obsessed with brownstones and loft conversions, my own inclination is to err on the side of preservation: that caring for these buildings is making a comeback. Lucky for us, the Brooklyn Collection possesses some great evidence to inform both sides of the debate, so you can decide for yourself. Our collection of Goldfarb's offers a fascinating smattering of photos from pre-gentrified Williamsburg. Situating these alongside current Google images of the same addresses offers food for thought on both ends of the spectrum:

Driggs and N. 8th Street, 1998

Apparently not much has changed for this old building, including the curtains and blinds!


Driggs and N. 8th Street, September 2013


Bedford between N. 7th and N. 8th Streets, December 1997

Here the pizza restaurant remains while the liquor store has been replaced by a hat shop (established in 1895 evidently, but not at this location!).

Bedford between N. 7th and N. 8th Streets, September 2013

Intersection of Throop and Lorimer Streets Williamsburg, February 1999


Intersection of Throop and Lorimer Streets Williamsburg, September 2013


Bedford and N. 5th Street, January 1997


Bedford and N. 5th Street, September 2013


Berry Street between N. 7th and N. 8th Streets, January 1999


Berry Street between N. 7th and N. 8th Streets, September 2013


Intersection of Bedford Avenue and N. 9th Street, 1987


One of my favorite comparisons ... it seems to sum up the transition in Williamsburg between 1987 and today perfectly.

Intersection of Bedford Avenue and N. 9th Street, September 2013


As the following photos show, buildings are not the only New York City relics that have endured a bit of a makeover since the 1980s and 90s:

L Train Williamsburg, January 1988

Some for the better ...

All Aboard, March 8, 2009 A. Strakey

... and some debatably for the worse.

East Williamsburg, March 18, 1989

Anders Goldfarb


Bedford Avenue near N. 9th Street, May 1995

Borough Park's P.S. 131, a trove of school history

Jun 19, 2014 9:34 AM | 0 comments

Last fall the Brooklyn Connections staff was approached by two enthusiastic educators from P.S. 131 who had recently discovered fascinating artifacts at their Borough Park school. They hoped to use the artifacts to inform a school history research project with a select group of 5th grade students in collaboration with Brooklyn Connections. Given our love of school history (see To Number a School, We Don't Need No Education, Brooklyn Schools: A Look at Ephemera and MoreWelcome to M.S. 57), it should come as no surprise to our faithful readers that we jumped at the opportunity. 

Hidden in the dark depths of a high and rarely seen shelf in an old art supply closet were a hundred or so Teacher's Record of Attendance and Progress of Pupils booklets from the 1910s - 1940s. Wrapped carefully in brown paper and tied with string, they had been left untouched since they were stowed there years ago. One could spend days poring over the information found in these booklets, all of it notated in beautiful handwritten script.

F.L.Thomas Teacher's Record of Attendance and Progress of Pupils, 1921.

Of particular interest to me was what we found inside the booklets: vital contact information for students (you can learn so much about Borough Park at the time from the names alone!), grading systems, punctuality protocols and how these all changed over time. What I haven't included here, though equally fascinating, is the Board of Education's (as it was previously referred to) instructions for using the booklets, which ranged from one page in 1921 to more than a dozen pages in 1947.

Marjorie W. Nichols Teacher's Record of Attendance and Progress of Pupils, 1947-8.

Also found at P.S. 131 were two treasured copies of the same photo album from the early 20th century; we couldn't pinpoint a date until we stumbled across a very subtle hint in this class photo -- Thursday, October 21, 1909 is written on the board.

P.S. 131 Photo Album, 1909.  

It's difficult to make sense of the class makeup at the time. Inspection of the albums show both mixed and single-sex classes ranging from kindergarten to high school students.


P.S. 131 Photo Album, 1909.  

Someone with an eye for design might appreciate the architectural details. I couldn't help but see hints of teachers' stern instruction, as students sit with hands nicely folded behind their backs or studiously engaged with a book at the front.

P.S. 131 Photo Album, 1909.

We were swept up in studying and marveling at these documents and photos, but our 5th grade students wanted to know more about the history of their school's building, so we moved on.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, February 1, 1909.

P.S. 131 was built between 1900 and 1901 by preeminent Superintendant of School Buildings C.B.J. Snyder. During his tenure (1891-1921), Synder was responsible for building over 400 New York City schools with innovative architecture allowing for cross breezes and natural light in classrooms, rooftop playgrounds and virtually fireproof structures (Epoch Times, September 5, 2012). And yet, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, overcrowding remained a constant problem. Despite Synder's advancements in making education more comfortable and accessible to New York City students, the Eagle offered this criticism: 

"The typical big elementary school now has forty-eight class rooms, with auditoriums, gymnasia and facilities for instruction in special subjects, like cooking, sewing and shop work ... But forty-eight room buildings will not reduce overcrowing quickly enough ... Is the sacrifice of outward impressiveness - even magnificence in many cases - too great a price to pay for haste in reaching the ideal of this administration to [sic] a seat for every child? It is high time that this problem of the quickest practical construction be given careful attention. In education looks are not everything."

Brooklyn Daily EagleJune 5, 1922.

I suppose it should come as no surprise then that the Board of Education published a call for proposals for the temporary construction of an annex to P.S. 131 a mere 7 years after its initial completion. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 10, 1908.

 P.S. 131 Photo Album, 1909.    

Temporary the annex was not. A generation later, in 1935, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle describes in great detail parents' complaints and concerns over the safety of the now dilapidated structure: 


"The annex is practically falling apart; the outer and inner wood is rotting away. There is no adequate heating facilities and children have informed me that the rooms do not warm until noon time. Ventilation is poor and the windows have heavy wire netting on the outside to protect the glass. This netting is locked and can only be opened by the use of a key, which the teachers in the individual classroom do not possess. In the event of a fire this means of escape is blocked ... it is unsanitary; the plaster is falling from the walls and ceilings and there is a distinctly unhealthy odor throughout the entire building. There is no lavatory in the annex and children are forced to cross the open court to the main building to reach one ... the water trough where the children are supposed to drink is exactly what the word implies, a place for animals to drink. The bottom of it is filthy and looks as though it had not been cleaned in months."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 2, 1935.

A surprise inspection of the annex by Mayor LaGuardia confirmed parents' allegations and resulted in an official promise to replace the dangerous building ...

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 5, 1935.

... but a failure to follow through. Parents spent much of 1935-36 lobbying to protest delays in the destruction and rebuilding of a new annex.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 5, 1935.

It took a full two years for the Board of Estimate to act on Mayor LaGuardia's promise and even then only after ongoing threats by parents to pull their children from the school.


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 10, 1937.

Finally, a confirmation from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in August, 1938 that the construction of the new annex was complete, adding 1,042 seats to the school:


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 28, 1938.

And here a plaque marking the addition found just inside the current structure:

Holt, Kaitlin. "Addition to P.S. 131 Plaque," January 8, 2014.

It's hard to look at P.S. 131 in 2014 and imagine the structure that used to exist behind C.B.J. Synder's original building. Today's 5th graders are working on an exhibition and accompanying tour they plan to offer fellow classmates on this and many other historical aspects of their school. With any luck I'll be invited to attend a tour myself and report back on their success. Stay tuned!

"P.S. 131 Annex, Brooklyn, NY." Map. Google Maps, June 9, 2014. 

Brooklyn Connections Educators Take on ABQ for NCHE Conference

Mar 31, 2014 2:00 PM | 0 comments

Earlier this month, Brooklyn Connections educators – Christine, Kaitlin and Brendan – descended on Albuquerque, New Mexico for the annual National Council for History Education (NCHE) Conference.




Excitement over this conference was twofold; well maybe three if you count the added bonus of temporarily escaping winter’s reach for a few glorious days …


Santa Clara, NM

… ok, twofold: 1) it offered the opportunity to replace our educator hats with those of students eager to soak up historical antidotes and best practices from colleagues around the country; and 2) Christine would accept the prestigious Paul A. Gagnon Prize, an award bestowed to the educator who contributes significantly to promoting history education in the U.S. You cannot imagine how proud we are of Christine and furthermore what her achievement says about the importance and relevancy of the Brooklyn Connections Program, and by extension the Brooklyn Collection as a whole – go Christine!

Christine's Paul A. Gagnon Prize

The two-day NCHE Conference presented a plethora of breakout sessions equally devoted to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), an ever present thought in the minds of today’s educators, and using history, and specifically primary sources, to help students develop critical thinking and college readiness skills. Topics overlapped many of the new social movements curricula Brooklyn Connections is establishing thanks to the generosity of the David and Paula Weiner Memorial Grant, including gender, race and environmental issues. Topics of particular interest to Brooklyn Connections educators grappled with how to teach students to identify bias in historical dialogue, become self-reliant when searching for facts and make historical connections to self. It was especially pleasing to hear how valuable, if not completely essential, library and archival collections are to educators in their quest to teach these skills.

Day one’s keynote speaker, Patty Limerick, was a particular inspiration to us all. A faculty member at the University of Colorado, Patty candidly acknowledged the all-too-common fear educators encounter as they find themselves losing touch with new generations of students that don’t abide by the old order of learning (we can relate). However, she didn’t stop there; after admitting her fear and subsequent bitterness over the fact, Patty did what many of us don’t have the insight to do – she accepted it and made amends to cease judging and change herself to meet the needs of this new generation of students rather than sticking to what she felt comfortable with from the past (insert moment of pause).

Our intellect adequately filled we set off to satisfy some of our other appetites, including the following:




Sandia Peak Tramway

Santa Clara Pueblo

I think I speak for all the educators when I say how thankful I am for the experience.  We left the NCHE Conference with our tummies full of fine local cuisine and our brains full of new ideas and knowledge.  We look forward to putting our brains, at least, to good use back in Brooklyn!

Speakeasies Abound in Prohibition Era Brooklyn

Nov 21, 2013 3:41 PM | 0 comments

Prohibition has always held a certain level of fascination in my mind and, dare I say, I'm not the only one. Long has the era been immortalized by Hollywood through movies, TV shows and the fashion trends they inspire. However, living in the current day and age that we do one might find it difficult to navigate what's real from what's merely a romantic reinterpretation of a profound, if not completely befuddling, time in our nation's history.


 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 6, 1928.

The Morgue hosts not one, but three drawers stuffed with newspaper clippings from the prohibition era, but it was the recent discovery of the "Bedford Nest" file that piqued my interest. Located at 1286 Bedford Avenue, the Bedford Nest was one of Brooklyn's most infamous speakeasies. Close to a dozen articles detail the notorious raid on Bedford Nest proprietor and ex-dry (or prohibition enforcement) agent, Francis Conly.

Desk Atlas Borough of Brooklyn, 1929. 

Raided on Feburary 17, 1930, the headlines following the bust were littered with scandalous accusations, as if raiding an ex-dry agent wasn't exciting enough!

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feburary 24, 1930.

The three aforementioned policemen were later acquitted, having proven the checks were cashed by a third party who in turn cashed the checks at the Bedford Nest. It all sounds a bit dubious to me, but apparently the excuse carried some weight with the judge who deemed this chain of events legitimate according to the customs of the time.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 3, 1930.

Prohibition was highly unpopular with New Yorkers who made quite an effort to get their "hooch" despite the law. In fact, one Brooklyn Daily Eagle article went so far as to claim that it was unsurprising that "there had been no cessation of drinking in the State and that the number of speakeasies had been holding it's own, if not increasing" ("New York Speakeasies Under a New Attack," May 1, 1932).

The law was also unpopular among politicians including then-Governor of New York Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who promised to repeal the 18th Amendment if elected president in the 1932 election.


The New York Times, 1931.

In February 1933, Congress adopted a resolution proposing the 21st Amendment and in December of that year enough states voted to ratify the Constitution, effectively ending prohibition and just in time for New Year for these happy Brooklynites:

Court Grill, December 6, 1933
Brooklyn Collection

Unfortunately, relief didn't arrive soon enough for the Bedford Nest. In 1931 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that government agents seized $40,000 worth of property from Francis Conly, gutting the establishment of all its furnishings and ensuring "Brooklyn's ... most ornate speakeasy" remained a short-lived affair ("Act to Confiscate Bar Furnishings of Bedford Nest," November 23, 1931).


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 30, 1930.