MACON STREET VS. CHARLIE CHAPLIN (1913)

In 1913, “Charlie Chaplin” was set to hit Bed-Stuy – in a big way. Let me explain. The residents of Stuyvesant Heights – 100 years ago – were concerned about any proposed construction developments that might encroach upon the way of life to which they’d grown accustomed. New people were moving into the neighborhood, new businesses opening up, and the residents felt they were losing control of what was going on around them. Specifically, they were justifiably troubled with the type of buildings the local developers might be planning to construct in their midst. In 1913, it was the movie houses. NOT IN MY BACKYARD! The construction of a “moving picture show” on Macon Street (near Lewis Avenue), was so unpopular, in fact, that its residents would take drastic measures against the proposal to build one “directly opposite the Public Library in Lewis Avenue.” The new theater was to go up on the northwest corner of Macon Street and Lewis Avenue, where a 3-story wooden structure (with a 2-story addition at back) had existed since the last century. Surrounded by their “fine residences,” the residents expected the lot to attract an establishment that would be more in keeping with the status of the neighborhood. When residents discovered, though, that the owners of the lot had given an option on the property to someone planning a movie house for it, they knew they had to act. A petition opposing the construction of a “moving picture show” went around, attracting numerous signatures […]

A CARIBBEAN HISTORY OF BED-STUY (2014)

“There is more serendipity in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.” Although that is not an exact quote from Shakespeare, it is close enough for my purposes. It very adequately lends a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to a chance experience I had a few years ago here in Bedford-Stuyvesant. FINDING AUNT CAR It was 2014 when I found a posting on a genealogical site by a woman searching for information about a relative of hers named Caroline Gill. Since, at that time, I had been researching the lineage of my home – a 120-year-old brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn – I knew that one of the previous owners of my house went by that name, so my interest was piqued. I responded to the APB-like message and gave what information I had, hoping for an exchange. As it turned out, that poster, Stacey Maupin Torres, had more information about Caroline than I had ever found. This she began to share with me in what can only be described as pages of beautifully descriptive prose. I could tell that there was love in her words and I consumed them with an avid interest. In one of her emails, though, she casually mentioned some information that I was sure that she didn’t know I already possessed. She told me that her “Aunt Car” had lived in a beautiful old brownstone at 738 Macon Street in Brooklyn – the house my husband and I had been living in […]

THE HIPSTERS OF WARTIME FORT GREENE (1864)

“I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Walt Whitman wrote this line at the beginning of the poem that later became “Song of Myself.” Whitman was a self-styled loafer. And, in the mid-1800s, loaferism was not a very popular pastime – excepting, of course, with the loafers. Loafers, to bring the term into a modern day focus, were the rowdy hipsters of their times – non-conforming, proudly different, and not at all afraid to show it. “…(T)he age abounded in loafers. There were literary loafers, Yankee loafers, French loafers, genteel loafers, common loafers, and country loafers, among others…” noted Michael Zakim a paper entitled, The Business Clerk as Social Revolutionary; or, a Labor History of the Nonproducing Class. “(L)oaferism was essentially a metropolitan phenomenon,” he continued, “haunting the city’s sidewalks, wharves, museums, and parks, and serving as a ready epithet for anyone needing to hurl an insult.” And insults and rowdyism seemed to be what they did best. The newspapers are filled in ante- and post-bellum times of accounts of loafers, how bad they were, and what the good, upright, and moral citizens were to do about them. “Loafers were known for cursing without shame and for smoking cigars,” Zakim noted. “They cared little for the law and exhibited a marked disregard for public life in general. They were eccentric, if not impudent, in their personal habits. They had a weakness for billiards and bar-rooms and were maddeningly self-satisfied, if not philosophically reclusive. And […]

THE FILTHY STREETS OF STUY HEIGHTS (1891)

“I have lived in Macon Street since Nov. 28, and there has not been a soul to clean that street during that time.” It happened then as it does now – people complain about the condition of their streets and their neighborhood, in general. The above quote was from 1891, back when Stuyvesant Heights was in the throes of a major construction expansion. Apparently, there were construction materials everywhere – filling the streets and clogging the sewers. “There are at least a thousand tons of sand and stone in the street with grass growing all over it,” the same commenter noted. “The sewer is filled up with sand.” It got so bad for this section of town – due to the relatively unregulated construction industry – that every time there was a heavy rain storm, the article continued, residents’ cellars were “flooded with one or two feet of water.” Ironically, our current 21st century Mayor’s Office declared a few years ago that the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant were among the dirtiest in the city. Specifically, the office noted that the cleanliness of 15% of our streets was “unacceptable.” Now that Bed-Stuy is a built-up section of our city, maybe we don’t have much of an excuse for the filth. But it must have been tough getting around in Stuyvesant Heights back then. You were lucky if your street had been laid with cobblestone and downright lucky if it had been resurfaced with macadam. Surely, some homebuyers – traveling to certain parts […]

THE BOY HOODLUMS OF HANCOCK STREET (1899)

If you were a boy hoodlum in “Bed-Stuy” back in 1899, then it is a good bet that you conducted your “outrages” along that stretch of Howard Avenue between Halsey and Hancock Streets. For it was there that a “small reign of terror” was “inaugurated” during this period, as small gangs of boys “armed with sticks and stones” prowled about the area with determined mal intent. A NEIGHBORHOOD COMPLAINS – THE EAGLE RAILS “The irrepressible and unregenerate young generation of boys in the vicinity of Howard avenue and Halsey street are making existence a heavy load to the law abiding population of that community,” railed the Brooklyn Eagle. “The choicest lot of hoodlums in the city have banded themselves together,” the paper continued “and use that block as a fixed center, from which they conduct a campaign of well planned outrages for a radius of many blocks around.” A CASE IN POINT Two boys, in particular, were reported to the police after having assaulted a “little 10 year old boy who was going to the grocery store for his mother.” The boys, a 14-year-old member of the Earle family living at at 73 Howard Avenue and a boy named Goldstein, living at 96 Howard Avenue, “led the charge upon the youngster, who was utterly unable to cope with such overwhelming odds, there being at least twenty boys under the leadership of the principals.” In the end, the boy was “knocked down, cuffed, kicked and beaten.” When this fact was mentioned […]

“GROUND TO PIECES” IN THE CUT (1914)

Martin Conly was the first to die by the cut in 1908. He and a boyhood “chum” were back from Coney Island at about 1 a.m. when the automobile they were traveling in ran into the low iron guard rail. Conly, the son of a prominent Brooklyn Democratic ward leader, was thrown from the vehicle and onto the tracks below. He was killed instantly. The Long Island Rail Road, which was not held accountable in court for the death, would later remove the light iron fencing and replace it with a thick concrete wall to prevent the same thing from happening again. Just a month later, though, before they could eradicate the danger – it happened again. Five young men, enjoying a “joyride” in a “large touring car,” heading north on Howard Avenue toward Atlantic Avenue, plunged into the wide trench and landed on the tracks “25 feet below,” just as a train was scheduled to pass. It was 2:10 a.m. It wasn’t until 27 December 1914, though, that an automobile would plummet into the cut while a passing train “ground to pieces” a man and his automobile. It had been traveling south on Howard Avenue towards Atlantic Avenue, when it crashed into the iron fencing. Unfortunately, the Long Island Rail Road had not found it necessary to build the same type “re-enforced” concrete wall on the north side of the cut (as it had on the south). MITIGATING THE CUT Today, the mitigation is noticeable – but just barely. […]

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