The Narrows Botanical Garden

 

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The Narrow Botanical Garden is a small, hidden gem at the northwest corner of Bay Ridge.

 

There are many, many hidden gems in Brooklyn, and one small outdoor wonder that’s unknown even to many of its neighbors is the Narrows Botanical Garden in Bay Ridge. Tucked between Shore Road and the Gowanus Expressway just below Owl’s Head Park, this small but lovely space, now known as the Jewel of Bay Ridge, has an open field, two tiny rose gardens, a natural area with water features and a turtle sanctuary, a monkey puzzle tree, and keeps bees that produce one of the best honeys we’ve ever tasted.

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The garden has several water features in and near the natural area.

The Narrows Botanical Gardens is today and always has been a labor of love by Bay Ridge volunteers who founded the garden in 1995 and others who maintain it today. The parkland that holds the garden was created when the Belt Parkway was built between 1934 and 1940. The park at this locale was little used for decades, and became derelict, with trash, car tires, and other detritus littering the area. Then, in 1995, two area residents, Joan Regan and James Johnson, waded into the park and began cleaning it up. Their efforts soon attracted others, and within a year, they had established the Narrows Botanical Garden.

It was a simple restored park at the start, but through the years various features have been added, including a greenhouse for plant propagation, a cactus garden, a lily pond, and the small rose gardens. Support comes from local businesses, local politicians, and the city Parks Department. That support helps with covering costs, but it’s the volunteer corps that operates and maintains the grounds that is the true lifeblood of the garden.

An early autumn visit to the garden found volunteers manning the gate to the natural garden. There is no admission, but, like all non-profits, donations are always gratefully accepted. Several other volunteers worked at various spots, digging and making minor repairs. One gardener had just collected a batch of honey from the onsite hives and offered some to anyone who happened by. Delicious doesn’t begin to describe the smoothness and taste of that golden nectar. The garden itself had peaked as far as most of the flowers go, but there were a few late-late-season roses in the two rose gardens, the koi pond in the natural area was active, and the small Chinese garden area is lovely at any time of year. And, we were delightfully surprised to see that monkey puzzle tree thriving in the ground not far from the entrance.

Narrows Botanical Gdn Logo 72dpiA taste of honey won’t be offered at every visit, but if you’re a garden aficionado and find yourself in the Bay Ridge area, a stop by the Narrows Botanical Garden should be on your to-do list.

 

https://www.narrowsbg.org/about_us

 

 


 

 

Gowanus Open Studios

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Summer’s over. Many of our favorite outdoor Brooklyn activities have wrapped for the year: the great season of Celebrate Brooklyn! is long over, the public pools are closed, and Smorgasburg shuts down for the season within weeks. There’s still enough warmth for a few more barbies in the park or in your own outdoor space (if you’re fortunate in that way), but it’s time to start thinking about indoor leisure-time events.

GOS+2018+Poster 325WOne of the most exciting of those each October is Gowanus Open Studios, when artists from Atlantic Avenue to the Prospect Expressway and from Court Street to Sixth Avenue open their studios and galleries to the public. The Gowanus area is packed with dozens and dozens of artists and galleries, many of whom (260 at last count) invite us all in to their spaces to see their work and talk about their ideas and techniques. It’s a great opportunity to experience the who, the how, and the what of artistic creation.

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Collage, sculpture, and photography are some of what you’ll see at Gowanus Open Studios. Works here by (top-bottom) Kate Fauvell, Timothy Corbett, and Konstantin Dimopoulos.

If you’re an artist, it’s a great time to see what others are doing, and perhaps grab a dose of inspiration. If you’re simply an art lover, you might just find a piece that’s perfect for an empty space in your home. The weekend is a great way for families to introduce the kids to life as an artist and experience an artist’s work area (most of which will look like nothing they’re allowed to do at home.) You’ll meet artists at different stages of their careers, and the work varies from grand scale to miniature, and from painting to pottery to sculpture to assemblage and many others types of work. It’s very exciting, and for those who want to experience it all, two days is barely enough time.

And don’t forget lunch! Or dinner! Besides artists’ studios and light industry, Gowanus has a ton of great restaurants and food outlets, including Pig Beach, Runner & Stone, Monte’s, Two Toms, Dinosaur Bar-B-Q, Freek’s Mill, Table 87, Michael & Ping’s, Bison & Bourbon, Ample Hills Creamery, and many more. And let’s not forget the local breweries, Three’s Brewing, Strong Rope, and Other Half, all with tap rooms open to the public, and all three open during the Open Studios event.

The Gowanus Open Studios weekend is organized by Arts Gowanus, a non-profit organization that supports the Gowanus artistic and industrial enclave with the intention of building and promoting “relationships between individual artists, arts organizations, and the broader community” in order to strengthen the bonds between them and to “connect the world to the Gowanus community.” The open studios weekend is their largest event of the year. It’s not to be missed!

So, mark your calendar for October 20th and 21st. Hours are noon – 6:00 p.m. both days. Best public transportation is the F and G trains to Fourth Avenue, the R train to 9th Street or Union Street, and any of the many lines that pass through Atlantic Terminal.

See you there!

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Paintings and sculptures from (L-R) Joy Makon, Carol Adams, Christy Powers, Gerald Siciliano, and Joseph Burchfield, just a few of the artists you might meet at Gowanus Open Studios 2018.

 


 

Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg

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The shaded seating area at Smorgasburg Prospect Park, with vendor tents behind.

 

Who doesn’t like a good flea market? Gently used clothes, dishes, home furnishings, jewelry, art, antiques, and chatchkas offered by dozens of sellers at bargain prices. Who doesn’t like a fantastic food fest? Food to eat right now, with offerings from over one hundred vendors, all surrounding a large cluster of picnic tables. We all do, and Brooklyn is, as with so many things, a leader in both areas.

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From baseball gloves to African masks, vintage steel beer cans, and lettering, some of the many varied items for sale at the Brooklyn Flea.

Two great markets, Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, are provided by the Brooklyn Flea, a ten-year-old company that began with markets in Fort Greene and Williamsburg and has moved on to locations at Industry City, DUMBO, and Prospect Park, and is rated by numerous travel magazines and Web sites as one of the best open-air markets in the country and even the world.

We can remember the flea at both original locations, and we thought it was great then. We miss it still in Fort Greene, but have enjoyed the spiffy new surroundings at Industry City and the old architectural ingenuity evident under and around the Manhattan Bridge in DUMBO, long one of our favorite nabes.

The other big, regular event run by the Brooklyn Flea is the weekly Smorgasburg, a massive food event in the original East River State Park location in Williamsburg (Saturdays) and in Prospect Park (Sunday) on Well House Drive at Breeze Hill. For those who are just now checking out Brooklyn or those who somehow don’t know about this already, Smorgasburg is a monster food fair, with vendors selling an international mix of prepared dishes running the full gamut from poutine to vegan treats. A recent visit to the Prospect Park locale had us tasting delicious offerings from Jamaica, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, and ogling meats, sweets, and other delectables from many other vendors we noted down for next time. Everything is good, and it all tastes better sitting outside. But note that time is running out. Summer’s over, and Smorgasburg runs only through the end of this month. Miss it now and you’ll have to wait until April next year! (Dates below.)

Other important Smorgasburg notes: Pets are welcome, and at Prospect Park there’s a large area for parking bikes. We assume there’s bike parking at or near East River State Park.

Whether your passion is food or found treasures, weekends in Brooklyn can feed your individual frenzy for either or both. Visit the Flea and/or the Smorgasburg and satisfy your yearnings. You’ll have a great time doing it.

Brooklyn Flea
Saturdays, 10:00 – 5:00, Industry City, 241 37th St., Sunset Park
Sundays, 10:00 – 5:00, Manhattan Bridge Arch, 80 Pearl St., DUMBO

Smorgasburg
Saturdays, 11:00 – 6:00, April – October ONLY (Last event October 27 this year (2018)),                                             East River State Park, Williamsburg, Kent Avenue at N. 7th Street.
Sundays, 11:00 – 6:00, April – October ONLY (Last event October 21 this year (2018)),                                               Prospect Park Breeze Hill, off East Drive near Lincoln Road.

 

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Views from the Prospect Park Smorgasburg.

 


 

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum

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The exhibits at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum cover international arts, local natural sciences, and world cultures.

 

Young minds are curious. From babyhood, the blank slate that is our new-born brain begins absorbing all that we see, examining our hands, and feet, and the faces, the touch, and smell of our parents and everything else that we sense. If we’re lucky, as we grow, as we age, that curiosity stays with us. One way to maintain that level of absorption of our surroundings is to continue to explore new things. Here in Brooklyn we’re very fortunate to have an institution that is dedicated to nurturing the developing minds of our youngest.

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum, in Crown Heights, is the oldest and one of the largest institutions in the country and perhaps the world dedicated to feeding and developing the curiosity and creativity of children. From its beginning in 1899, the museum has presented science, the arts, and the natural sciences with the notion of learning by experience, providing interactive, hands-on exhibits that encourage visitors to take an active part in each. 

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Some of the 30,000 objects in the collection of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. At the rear is the entrance to one of the museum’s many workshop classrooms, the Color Lab.

Six permanent exhibits offer interactive experiences in nature, art, sensory play, cultural diversity, and more. The Neighborhood Nature exhibit includes dioramas of local plants and animals found here in Brooklyn. The Our favorite is World Brooklyn where kids can learn hands on what it’s like to work as a shopkeeper, baker, grocer, builder, and other vocations.

Many of the temporary exhibits introduce young people to other cultures, other eras, and other ways of viewing and interacting with the objects and materials around us. The museum offers many weekend workshops for kids, and educators and organizations can rent a Museum on the Go case for classroom presentations and activities. In addition, the museum offers after-school programs in the arts, culture, and science, and teen programs geared toward community interaction.

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum was founded in 1899 by the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (now the Brooklyn Museum), with the idea that children learn best by doing. Creating a place that offers children a chance to touch, operate, and become immersed in the offered exhibits was a revolutionary concept at the time.

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The world culture area offers a strip of “shops” displaying items specific to various places around the world.

The original building was an old mansion on or near the site of the present building in Brower Park, designed by the architect Raphael Vinoly and completed in 2008 with more than 100,000 sq. ft. inside and a large roof deck and garden. It is the only LEED-certified green museum in the city. Today, the museum boasts a collection of over 30,000 natural science and cultural objects that are either on display or used in the various programs and exhibitions. There’s something of interest for kids of all ages. We suggest you grab your kids and go see for yourself. (Note: Thursdays from 2:00-6:00, admission is free!)

 

https://www.brooklynkids.org/

 The Children’s Museum
145 Brooklyn Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11213, corner of St. Marks Avenue

Hours: Tue, Wed, Fri., 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., Thu., 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Sat., Sun., 10:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Admission: $11 except Thursday, 2:00 – 6:00, free/pay what you wish

 


 

Bottle Beach and Dead Horse Bay

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Bottle Beach at Dead Horse Bay. These bottles and other debris fall out of the landfill under the embankment behind the beach.

 

Many Brooklynites have heard of Bottle Beach, often called Glass Bottle Beach, the stretch of beach along Flatbush Avenue opposite Floyd Bennett Field just before the Marine Parkway Bridge to the Rockaways. It’s one of the most litter-strewn beaches you’ll find anywhere in the world, with every step falling onto not just glass bottles, but all manner of recrement ranging from pieces of animal bones to shoes to tables to refrigerators, the type of trash changing on every visit. Where does all this dross come from?

The water lapping onto the beach is known as Dead Horse Bay, and the beach’s dirty (literally) little secret is that its scattered detritus comes not from the waters of the bay but from under the sand on the embankments behind it. In the nineteenth century, horses were a big part of everyday life. By 1880, there were upwards of 100,000 horses in New York City, working as the engines for streetcars, drays, and coaches. Their utility was indispensable, but they posed huge health hazards, each one generating +/- twenty pounds of solid waste and a quart of urine per day. In addition to that problem, they often died in the street, from sickness or overwork, and a carcass often remained where it fell until it had rotted and dried out enough to be easily carted away.

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Prior to being connected to the mainland, Barren Island (lower right) in Jamaica Bay could be accessed by walking through the marshland north of the island.

As people became more aware of how disease spreads, officials looked for a place to process the horses’ bodies and contracted the job to several “horse rendering plants” (read glue factories) on Barren Island, an isolated spot in Jamaica Bay. In addition to horses, the plants processed dogs and cats, cows, goats, pigs, etc., all commonly found throughout New York City and Brooklyn in those days. Besides glue, the factories turned out soap, fertilizer and grease. The island became known throughout the area as the most foul-smelling place in the state, and maybe the country. The workers who lived there with their families were considered somewhat less than human. The post-processing remains of the animals, mainly bones, were dumped into the bay, which along this stretch now carries the Dead Horse moniker.

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A factory on Barren Island, c. 1911. From the Brooklyn Collection of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Once Brooklyn became part of New York City, the island became a repository for trash as well as offal. Later, Jamaica Bay along the eastern part of Barren Island was filled in with sand dredged from elsewhere in the bay, connecting a few other islands together and to the mainland in order to build Floyd Bennett Field, which opened in 1930. The water around these islands had always been shallow and marshy, and the Dutch settlers walked through the bay water from one island to the next and back to the mainland, so filling in all those channels in was not a huge engineering feat. The western side of the former island continued to be used as a dump, and as Robert Moses bulldozed entire neighborhoods to make way for his expressways, many of the poorer homeowners and renters in the right-of-way areas were forced out with not much more than the clothes on their backs. The debris from these swaths of razed homes were sent to Dead Horse Bay, including clothing, furnishings, mementos, photos, and keepsakes, all of which now fall out of the sand banks and onto the beach along with the broken remnants of horse bones and bottles.

 


 

Pioneer Works

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There are so many reasons to love Red Hook: The waterfront, the many old warehouse buildings, now housing great modern shops and manufacturing companies such as German Kitchen Center

, the Red Hook Winery, Scanlon Glass, Steve’s Key Lime Pie, and Fairway, as well as more modern constructions like IKEA; the quaint nineteenth-century row houses along the narrow streets and the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal at Atlantic Basin; and the baseball and soccer fields and the large public pool at the Sol Goldman Rec Center. There are also many arts and community organizations, both commercial and non-profit, that attract visitors from all over the metro area. These include the Waterfront Museum Barge, The Brooklyn Waterfront Artist’s Coalition Gallery, and Added Value Farms.

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A group listening to an artist talk about his work at the Potoprens exhibit at Pioneer Works, September 2018.

One of the larger of the arts organizations is Pioneer Works, located in a former Ironwork factory at 159 Pioneer Street, at the foot of Imlay Street  between Van Brunt and Conover Streets. Pioneer Works is a cultural center “dedicated to experimentation, education, and production across disciplines. Through a broad range of educational programs, performances, residencies, and exhibitions, Pioneer Works transcends disciplinary boundaries to foster a community where alternative modes of thought are activated and supported.” In plainer English, the organization’s goal is “to make culture accessible to all.”

One of the ways it does that is through its Second Sundays events. Second Sundays is a free event series which provides the public free access to tour the space, visit the studios of current resident artists, and view the current exhibitions. There is live music, and the organization’s program leaders give hands-on demonstrations and programs in art, education, science, and technology.

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One of the twenty artists exhibiting work at the Potoprens show talks about his work.

The center offers classes in each of its different focuses, i.e., art, science, technology, and music. Many classes relate to the current exhibitions. Admission is free, though a reservation is required. A link to order a free ticket is on the page of each program, class, or talk.

Scientific Controversies (Sci Con) is a series of conversations between scientists on unsolved quandaries, hosted by Director of Sciences Janna Levin. Conversations can be on any scientific riddle, such as Swarm Intelligence, String Theory, Black Holes, or Dark Matter.

One of the more well-known events sponsored by Pioneer Works is the annual Red Hook Regatta, in which homemade boats race along the Red Hook waterfront in New York Harbor.  The 2018 regatta, the fourth annual, takes place on September 28th. The race features two classes of boats, 3-D printed boats and general do-it-yourself boats. All boats must fit in a 2′ x 2′ x 2′ box. Electronic controllers are provided by Pioneers Works. Registration and controller-kit pickup ends on September 9th.  Full rules are here. Spectators can watch from Valentino Park pier from 1:00-5:00 p.m. The event is free, and there is catered food available (not free) and live entertainment during a half-time break.

Visit the center’s Web site for a complete list of current goings on.

Some History

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A picture of one of the steamrollers made at the Pioneer Iron Works near the close of  the 19th century. The building is now the home of the Pioneer Works cultural center.

The original Pioneer Iron Works factory opened by circa 1866 on Williams Street at the foot of Imlay Street, under the ownership of Alexander Bass. Ten years later the company was a leading manufacturer of tar kettles and steamrollers for road construction, and sugar production machinery and “temporary railroads,” the latter two products sold to companies in Cuba to be used on sugar plantations. The factory suffered two devastating fires, one in 1881 and one in 1906 but was rebuilt each time. The company closed in the mid-1940s, about the same time as the end of World War II, and the building was used for some time after as a storage facility for the Time Moving Company.

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Map detail from 1903 showing both William and Pioneer as the names of the street where the Pioneer Iron Works was.

William Street was renamed Pioneer Street around the turn of the twentieth Century. Maps from 1898 have the way named William Street. By 1903, both names, William and Pioneer, are used as the name. Eventually, William was dropped completely.

We’re repeat visitors to the center and to  Second Sundays, and can say it’s well worth a stop-by any time you’re in Red Hook, which we think should be fairly often.

Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer Street
Hours: Thurs – Sun, 2 – 7      Admission: FREE!

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The Coney Island Art Walls

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Out to Live, by Chris Stain, one of approximately thirty murals at the Coney Island Art Walls exhibit, through September.

 

Coney Island is known the world over as a summer entertainment magnet, famous for its teeming beaches, boardwalk food stands, and thronged amusements parks, as well as the more recent baseball games and weekly Friday night fireworks.

One of the lesser-known, but just as cool, attractions and a great reason to get yourself down to Coney Island soon is the annual exhibit called the Coney Island Art Walls. The art walls sit in an otherwise empty lot between Stillwell Avenue and W 15th Street and between Bowery Street (one block south of Surf Avenue) and the boardwalk, right behind Nathan’s hot dog restaurant. Now in its fourth year, the art walls were the brainchild of Joseph J. Sitt, founder of the real estate development company Thor Equities, which owns the land, and Jeffrey Deitch, an art dealer and former Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, who co-curates the event with Mr. Sitt.

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Just a few of the walls currently on view at the Coney Island Art Walls exhibit.

Mr. Sitt, who grew up in Brooklyn, refers to the annual exhibit as “…Thor Equities’ way of bringing life to an empty site in the core of Coney Island, while keeping the Coney feeling and stretching it in new directions.” He had the walls erected in 2015 for the first show, and they’ve been up since. As is most street art, the works are temporary, painted over when a wall is given to another chosen artist.

Mr. Deitch has been an artist, art writer, gallery owner, and curator for decades, including his stint at MOCA, where a special Art in the Streets exhibit drew record crowds. He’s now bringing that same street-art vibe to Coney Island each summer, and we’re grateful for it. This year’s artists include Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Sam Vernon, Shepard Fairey, Jane Dickson, Jim Drain, Skewville, along with many other street artists and muralists.

Besides presenting the murals, the Art Walls space hosts periodic events both public and private. The final month of the season will include the Quiet Clubbing Festival on Saturday, September 15th, with six DJs spinning their sounds from 7:00 p.m. until the wee hours. Everybody gets a headset that lets you choose which DJ you want to hear and the volume. LED robots and LED hula dancers are promised for the event. The special music events require tickets, for sale in advance or at the door until sold out.

According to the Art Walls’ Web site,  the exhibition space is open every day from 11:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. through September, and admission is free. However, we went twice on Friday evenings and it was closed at 7:00. A mounted policeman told us it’s open during the day. On a third trip, on a Saturday afternoon, the space had been taken over by an event, which we could have attended for $60. (We didn’t.) Our advice is to get there before five o’clock on a weekday.

For more information on the music events, go here: http://donyc.com/venues/coney-island-art-walls

See you at Coney Island!

 


 

The Brooklyn Theatre Fire

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The aftermath of the Brooklyn Theatre Fire, which claimed the lives of at least 278 men, women, and children, many burned beyond recognition.

 

On December 5, 1876, upwards of 900 people were gathered in the Brooklyn Theatre enjoying a production of The Two Orphans, starring Kate Claxton and Harry S. Murdock. Claxton especially was a major star of her day, and the play, a melodrama in five acts adapted from a French play, would go on to be one of the most produced theatre pieces in the country well into the twentieth century. Just at the beginning of the final act, a cotton backdrop above the stage swayed close to a gaslight and caught fire. Several crewmen attempted to dowse the flames without stopping the show or sounding any alarms, but failed, and in the conflagration and ensuing panic that followed, at least 278 people died (an exact number was never determined). The theatre burned to the ground in ninety minutes.

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A post card depicting the Brooklyn Theatre, which opened in 1871 and burned down in 1876.

The Brooklyn Theatre stood on the corner of Johnson and Washington Streets (now Cadman Plaza East at this junction), directly across Johnson Street from where the U.S. Post Office building now stands. Built in 1871, the theatre was made mostly of wood, and was lit by gaslights. The auditorium rose three tiers high, including the first-floor Parquet Circle, a second-level Dress Circle balcony, and the Family Circle (the cheap seats) on the top tier. This third level was accessible by just one switchback staircase, and once upstairs, there was no way out except that staircase. Most of the dead had been sitting in this section of the theatre.

It was between the fourth and fifth acts that a crew member noticed the small fire in the rear fly area above the stage. Rather than evacuate the theatre, it was decided to put out the flames while the show went on. Most theatres at the time kept water buckets and wet blankets backstage for smothering small fires, and the Brooklyn Theatre had a hose tied into a dedicated water pipe. However, all those were on the deck and the fire, small though it was, was in the air, and when the curtain rose for the final act, the inrush of air from the auditorium fanned the flames, which ignited other scenic drops and the dry wood battens that held them, and the fire took off.

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A map, circa 1840, with the superimposed red area showing the location of the Brooklyn Theatre, which was built in 1871.

The performers onstage bravely tried to calm the audience as it rose and ran for the exits, but as the fire grew, the actors, too, ran to escape. Foolishly, Murdoch and castmate Claude Burroughs, a popular young rising star, went to their dressing rooms to grab warmer clothes than their costumes allowed, and both perished. Claxton and another actress, Maude Harrison, escaped through an underground passage that led from their dressing room to the box office on Washington Street.

Newspaper accounts of the fire describe horrific scenes of people being trampled, trapped, and jumping from windows, of which there were few, and ventilator outlets, and the collapse of the still-crowded and burning Family Circle tier into the middle of the ground level and on into the theatre’s basement.

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A report of the fire as published in the Brooklyn Eagle within days of the event.

The list of the dead includes not just adults, but many children and teenagers. Of the 278 known dead, 103 bodies were unidentifiable and were buried together in a mass grave in Green-wood Cemetery, where an obelisk stands today marking their final resting place.

The Brooklyn Theatre fire was at the time the worst public-assembly fire disaster in U.S. history, and today remains the third worst. A new fire code was instituted as a response, and included requiring theatres to have brick proscenium walls rather than wood, and to have a fire-proof house curtain. Those curtains, of course, were for almost 100 years after made of asbestos, now a known carcinogen and banned substance.

A fascinating footnote to the fire concerns Kate Claxton. As noted, she was a popular, highly regarded actor at the time of the fire, but just months later, she traveled to St. Louis to perform in a show there, and just after she arrived, her hotel burned down, with Claxton making another last-second escape. Thereafter, many actors refused to join any show she was in, and superstitious audiences fearfully avoided her performances. Her career was irreparably damaged.

 


 

Where’s the Hill in Boerum Hill?

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Boerum Hill offers many boutique shops of all kinds along Atlantic Avenue.

 

Boerum Hill might be Brooklyn’s most quietly popular neighborhood. For decades it was considered a great place to avoid at all costs, and even today many people raise their eyebrows at the area’s mention. For those who have taken the plunge and moved here it is a calm oasis of city living, a peaceful alternative to the more hectic pace associated with the its surrounding neighbors: Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Fort Greene, and Downtown Brooklyn.

The neighborhood is bounded by Schermerhorn Street on the north, angling down Flatbush Avenue and Fourth Avenue on the east, Warren Street on the south, and Smith Street on the West. Most of the residential streets are lined with one-to-four-family brick or brownstone row houses dating from the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. In addition, there are two mid-rise housing projects built after World War II and a raft of new condo buildings along or near Fourth Avenue on the East side of the nabe. It is consistently in the top five on lists of the most expensive neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

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Many of the buildings in the area are landmarked, and these storefronts provide a taste of what the neighborhood was like fifty or more years ago.

Location is everything, and Boerum Hill is perfectly situated near shopping, dining, entertainment, and transportation. There are stylish storefronts all along Atlantic Avenue between Smith and Nevins Streets; Smith Street is lined with restaurants and watering holes, as well has having a variety of clothing stores and delis; Fulton Mall is just above Boerum Place in Downtown; and the Barclays Center, BAM, and the Fort Greene cultural district are just across Flatbush Avenue. At that same location is Atlantic Terminal, with a full-scale shopping mall and the Long Island Railroad’s Brooklyn terminal and MTA subway hub for the B,D,N,Q, and R trains. The A, C, and G trains are at Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street, and the F and G are at Bergen and Smith Streets.

When the Dutch first arrived in the Boerum Hill area it was populated by the Lenape and Merechewick [spelling varies with sources] Indians. The area was eventually divided into parcels with Dutch owners with now-familiar names such as Bergen, Van Brunt, Cortelyou, Rapelje, and Boerum. England took over new Amsterdam in 1664, but the Dutch families in Brooklyn remained as citizens and landowners in the now English colony of New York. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the area had been further subdivided, but remained mostly farms and mills. During the revolution there was heavy fighting all around the area, in Park Slope Bed-Stuy, Gowanus, and Brooklyn Heights, but other than troops passing through or manning fortifications, not much happened in what’s now Boerum Hill. The nineteenth century was the major period of development throughout the northern half of Brooklyn, with the grid laid out, streets named—many carrying the monikers of those Dutch settlers–and today’s housing stock erected. The area became a magnet for immigrants, and waves of German, Irish, and Italians came into the neighborhood from the 1850s through the first half of the twentieth century.

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A Mohawk atop a steel girder high above Second Avenue, the Chrysler building behind.

The 1900s saw the rise of New York’s steel-and-stone skyscrapers, including the iconic Woolworth, Chrysler, and Empire State Buildings. A number of the ironworkers on these buildings were Mohawk Indians from Canada, who were adept at traversing through the steel-beam superstructures high above ground. A large contingent of Caughnawaga Mohawks lived in Boerum Hill during that time, concentrated between Smith and Nevins Streets from Bergen to Schermerhorn Streets. The Mohawk population grew so large that the local stores began carrying products specifically for them, including grains and ales from the Caughnawagas’ home in Canada, and the Cuyler Presbyterian Church held services in the Mohawks’ dialect. This enclave became known as Little Caughnawaga. There are descendants of these workers living in the area today, and, tangentially to our focus, Mohawk Indians still work in the ironwork industry, including being active in the rebuilding of the World Trade Center after the September 11th attack.

All this interesting Boerum Hill history, it has to be noted, didn’t happen in Boerum Hill. The neighborhood is named for the Dutch settler Simon Boerum, who at one time owned much of the land in the area. We’ve heard that back then there was some sort of rise near what is now Carroll Park (in Carroll Gardens) called Boerum’s Hill, but the Boerum Hill name wasn’t applied to the current neighborhood until the 1960s. Until then this section was part of what was generally known as South Brooklyn; in the 1800s, residents called it North Gowanus, and in colonial times the eastern end was a wet, marshy section of the Gowanus creek waterway. There was never a hill here.

Boerum Hill housing stock copy

The residences in Boerum Hill are mostly one-to-four-family brick or brownstone row houses, many with decorative railings, on tree-lined street .

 


 

The Hotel St. George

 

1 Hotel-St-George-Brooklyn-Vintage-Photo-NYC-2

The magnificent Hotel St. George at the height of its glory, taking up an entire city block in Brooklyn Heights. View here is the corner of Clark and Henry Streets.

 

Mornings and evenings in Brooklyn Heights, hundreds (thousands?) of commuters pass through a giant relic of what once was a glorious, spectacular gem of a hotel. The Hotel St. George operated for eighty years at Clark and Henry Streets, experiencing periods of broad expansion, opulent glory, and wild popularity before slipping into decline, decay, disaster, and demise.

Postcard strip copy

Postcards from the glory days of the Hotel St. George, featuring (top to bottom) the Bermuda Terrace restaurant, the Italian Village, the Colorama Ballroom (“Now Superbly Air Conditioned”), the Stardust Room, and the pool.

The Hotel St. George dates to when Brooklyn was an independent city. The initial building opened in 1885 on Clark Street, and by the 1920s had grown to an immense complex of eight buildings that took up the entire block of Henry, Clark, Hicks, and Pineapple Streets. At its zenith it offered 2,632 guest rooms, had 1,000 workers, and reigned as the largest hotel in New York City. Its unmatched grandeur included a 168,000-gallon salt water pool, a grand ballroom (one of 17 in the hotel) dubbed the Colorama for its 1,000 multi-colored light bulbs and which could hold 3,000 dancers, and dining rooms that could feed 7,000 people at the same time. Those lounges sported exotic names such as the Bermuda Terrace, the Egyptian nightclub, the Stardust Room, and the Italian Village. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the hotel’s glamor attracted the glitterati of the day and elite members of the arts, society, and politics, as well as everyday New Yorkers for weddings, celebrations, and elegant nights out through the end of the 1940s.

The hotel had permanent residents as well as transients. Suites were advertised in the early days at rates of $240 – $280 a month for four rooms. The pool was built along with what became the Tower Building and was open to the public at just ten cents for an all-day admission, drawing people from across the city. The subway station at the building entrance opened in 1919 and made the pool an easy destination to get to for families coming from as far away as the Bronx and Queens.

During World War II and the Korean War, the hotel served as housing for soldiers and sailors passing through New York as they shipped into and out of the country. (The Brooklyn Navy Yard is not far from the hotel.) Soon after, the hotel slipped into a long decline along with the rest of the borough and city during the middle-class flight to the suburbs in the decades that followed the wars. The complex was sold five times during the 1960s alone, and by the mid-70s, the pool was shut down and drained, entire floors had been closed, and the full-time staff was down to just forty employees. The remaining hotel buildings staggered through the 80s and in 1995 a huge fire destroyed the original Clark Street building.

The four Western buildings, those being the Tower, Grill, Pineapple, and Cross Hall, were parceled off to a developer who converted them to luxury rentals, but the buildings were not well managed, and tenants brought complaints and suits against the owner. In 1982, the owner converted the Tower and Grill buildings to co-ops, and those buildings have thrived since. 

Gutted after fire

The gutted interior of the Clark Building after the horrific fire in 1995.

The pool room has been converted to a two-tiered gym and smaller pool, and the Eastern end of the hotel, along Henry Street, is now a dormitory for local college students.

These days, the many commuters that rush through the former entrance of the hotel to grab the subway that runs under Clark Street to Manhattan, just one stop away, have little, if any, knowledge of the storied  and glorious past of the once-fabulous building.