Brooklyn’s Home to the Gentry and the Not-So

October 5, 2008 at 9:53 pm Leave a comment

WITH its sedate, leafy streets, fine old homes and churches, lush gardens and lofty harbor views, Brooklyn Heights feels like a staid patrician neighborhood where time has stood still since the 1800s. But more has gone on there than its quiet streets and house-proud gentry let on. “The myth of the white-gloved ladies is that this was always a genteel neighborhood,” Jim Schmitt, an avid student of local history who has lived in Brooklyn Heights since 1976, said as we walked around there recently. “Absolutely not.”

Truman Capote lived in the basement of 70 Willow Street, above. Arthur Miller also lived on Willow for a time.
The Heights, roughly from the Brooklyn Bridge down to Atlantic Avenue and from the riverfront over to Cadman Plaza West and Court Street, has been home to immigrant and itinerant workers, hookers and muggers, artists and eccentrics, a prominent Communist, a comic-book superhero and a famous burlesque queen. Now, it’s a few minutes from Manhattan by subway, or a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, or by water taxi to Fulton Ferry Landing.

Brooklyn Heights was farmland before Robert Fulton’s regular steam ferry service at that landing made commuting to Manhattan easy in 1814. Soon after, enterprising Heights property owners (remembered today in street names like Pierrepont, Remsen, Hicks and Middagh) began to sell off plots for new homes, advertising the area to Manhattan’s wealthy as “the nearest country retreat.” The oldest houses still standing date from the 1820s, including 24 and 56 Middagh Street and 25 Cranberry Street. Over the following decades well-to-do businessmen and professionals lined the grid of new streets with homes and mansions of brick and stone in all the popular 19th-century styles.

The opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, and the advent of subway service in the 1900s, ended the neighborhood’s gilded age of exclusivity. With the docks below it and the Navy Yard to the north, a lot of streets, especially in the north Heights, were given over to rooming houses, storefronts, machine shops and factories. An El rumbled over Fulton Street (now Cadman Plaza West), where trolleys also ran past rows of tenements. Waves of working-class immigrants poured in, with a healthy sprinkling of bohemians.

Many of the old patrician families fled. Their large homes were subdivided into apartments, boarding houses or pocket hotels. The magnificent Herman Behr mansion at 82 Pierrepont Street, for example, has been the Palm Hotel, a bordello and housing for Franciscan monks. Bars and rowdy taverns crowded the streets, prowled by sailors and ruffians from down by the water.

Mr. Schmitt, the superintendent for several buildings in the Heights, has lived at 58 Middagh Street for 32 years. The plain brick structure, now apartments, was built in the 1890s as “a workingman’s boarding house, which is what today is called an S.R.O. hotel,” he explained, standing on the front steps. “It was itinerant dockworkers, ship workers, laborers, factory workers, mostly single men and a good deal of them with criminal records,” he said, which placed the house on the 84th Precinct’s list of troublesome addresses.

Frank Santos, a retired woodworker, has lived in the north Heights all of his 80 years. He was born and raised in a 16-family tenement at 8 Hicks Street, on a block later demolished to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. His father was a cabinetmaker from Spain. Their neighbors were Italian, black, Greek, Jewish, Irish, Chinese. Many worked in nearby factories, including the large Squibb pharmaceutical plant (now with a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Watchtower sign); the Brillo factory and Robert Gair box factory in Dumbo; and the Peaks Mason Mints factory at Middagh and Henry Streets.

“My mother used to get up on a chair to light the gas lights in the kitchen,” he recalled. “For the other rooms we used candles. Who the heck was going to go climbing over beds and all that to light the gas?”

The tenement had only cold running water. “In the wintertime you took a bath once a week on Saturday night to go to church on Sunday,” he said. “In the summertime the Fire Department used to bring out these sprinklers. You brought your soap and towel and took a shower right in the street.”

Mr. Santos attended the Assumption Roman Catholic elementary school, which was in the quaint redbrick schoolhouse (originally built as P.S. 8) next door to the Peaks Mason Mints factory. “My mother-in-law used to work at the factory,” he said. “At break time we used to go out in the yard, and they would throw candy down. Mason Mints, Dots, Black Crows.” Both buildings are now residential.

Starting in the first decade of the 20th century the neighborhood also became the world headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They bought numerous properties in the Heights in addition to the Squibb building, including the lavish Hotel Bossert at Montague and Hicks Streets; the Venetian-looking Leverich Towers at Clark and Willow Streets; and the Standish Arms (at 169 Columbia Heights), fictional home of Clark Kent (in Metropolis) and the setting for Willy Loman’s adulterous affair in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” (Miller lived in several places in the Heights, including 31 Grace Court, which he sold to W. E. B. Du Bois, and 155 Willow Street, with his second wife, Marilyn Monroe.) Recently, the Witnesses have begun to sell some holdings.

In midcentury Truman Capote, who had a basement apartment in the big yellow house at 70 Willow Street, described the decrepit fringe of the neighborhood as an area where “seedy hangouts, beer-sour bars and bitter candy stores mingle among the eroding houses.” The city planner Robert Moses declared much of Brooklyn Heights a slum in the 1940s and proposed to obliterate it by laying his new Brooklyn- Queens Expressway straight through the middle of it. The Brooklyn Heights Association of homeowners, hanging onto the old elegance in the neighborhood’s core, fought for an ingenious compromise. The expressway was built in two tiers along the cliff facing the water, and its pedestrian esplanade, known as the promenade, opened in 1950 above it. Norman Mailer, who had a walkup at 142 Columbia Heights until his death in 2007, took in the sweeping views of New York harbor from the promenade.

Moses did lop off a large section of the neighborhood’s northwest corner for the expressway. Mr. Santos was a teenager when the city bought all the buildings on the last blocks of Hicks Street and demolished them. Where his family’s house stood is now a busy on-ramp.

“You just had to get out,” he said. “Everyone scattered. It ruined the neighborhood.”

The last block of Middagh Street was also razed, including No. 7, a house where W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, Paul and Jane Bowles and Gypsy Rose Lee lived together in various combinations in 1940-41. Among their guests were Salvador and Gala Dalí, Lotte Lenya, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. They mingled with rough characters from down on the waterfront, including a pimp named Snaggle-Tooth and a barrelhouse piano player called Ginger-Ale. When the group moved out, the novelist Richard Wright moved in.

Other writers associated with the Heights include Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, the novelist James Purdy and horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, who described 169 Clinton Street, where he had an apartment in the 1920s, as “unwholesome” and “furtive.”

Shakespeare and Dante’s sculptured heads adorn one of the neighborhood’s most handsome buildings, the 1881 brick and terra cotta home of the Long Island Historical Society, now the Brooklyn Historical Society, at Pierrepont and Clinton Streets. Its architect, George B. Post, incorporated modern steel pillars and suspension techniques he saw being used on the Brooklyn Bridge. But bowing to Victorian tastes, he hid the pillars behind ornate wood veneer, which still adorns the society’s beautiful research library.

Now lined with stroller-mom cafes and lunch-crowd restaurants, nearby Montague Street gives no hint of its wilder side. Bertram D. Wolfe, a founder of the Communist Party of the United States of America, lived at 68 Montague Street in the 1930s. High up in No. 62, the painter and underground filmmaker Marie Menken and her husband, the poet Willard Maas, gave notoriously wild parties attended by Andy Warhol and Edward Albee. Kenneth Anger stayed there while making his seminal underground film “Scorpio Rising.” Menken played the mother in Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s 1966 film “Chelsea Girls.” Albee is said to have used Menken and Maas as his inspirations for the squabbling couple in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Today Montague Street is home to Joe Coleman, an artist who moved there in 1994 after 20 years in the East Village. A painter known for his meticulously detailed portraits of serial killers and other nightmarish imagery, Mr. Coleman and his wife, Whitney Ward, live in an apartment that he calls the Odditorium. Wax figures of Charles Manson and the serial killer Richard Speck, John Dillinger’s death mask, a bullet from Jack Ruby’s pistol and a letter from the cannibal Albert Fish share the Ripleyesque space with some of Mr. Coleman’s paintings.

“The East Village that I came to know and love doesn’t exist anymore,” Mr. Coleman said. “I like it much better here. In the East Village they’re destroying all the beautiful old buildings. So escaping here seemed comforting.”

From Montague and Court Streets it’s a brief walk up to the broad expanse of Cadman Plaza Park. In the early 1960s, despite local opposition, Robert Moses destroyed several square blocks of old buildings to create the park and line its western edge with high-rises. One of the demolished buildings, which stood near the stop of the A and C subway lines, was the shop where Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” was first printed in 1855.

To ward off further destruction the neighborhood successfully lobbied to be designated the city’s first historic landmark district in 1965. Hundreds of old homes and other buildings were saved, and a process of regentrifying began.

It didn’t happen overnight. The Hotel St. George complex, which at its height dominated the square block between Henry and Hicks Streets and Clark and Pineapple Streets, was originally renowned for its grand ballrooms and a huge salt-water swimming pool. By the 1970s it housed a topless bar called Wild Fyre, and its elderly residents were preyed on by muggers.

“The crime was pretty bad back then,” Mr. Schmitt recalled. “For a long time it was kind of dicey walking around anywhere at night. Now you feel absolutely safe, but before the late ’80s you looked over your shoulder coming home from the subway.”

Mr. Schmitt noted that as far back as the mid-1800s Whitman went to Middagh Street to meet sailors. In the 1970s and ’80s, Mr. Schmitt recalled, muggers attacked gay prostitutes who met clients every night at the corner of Middagh and Columbia Heights.

Now children play in the nearby Harry Chapin Playground, named for the songwriter who grew up in the Heights and died in 1981. There’s no brass plaque marking the spot where Auden, Snaggle-Tooth et al. once cavorted just across the street.

New York Times


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