Murphy’s on Calyer

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The bar on Calyer dates from some time around 1880. It is a gem of an old Irish bar that is still known to many locals as Murphys. The New York Times did an article on it, but they did not mention that even into the 1980’s the bar did not serve women in the front. There is still a divider that marked the woman’s side of the bar.

Temperance Movement in Greenpoint

Hi gentle readers,

Greenpoint these days is noted for its many bars, but a hundred and fifty years ago temperance was a huge cause in the area. There was a Temperance Hall on the Corner of Greenpoint and Franklin and there were several hundred people who were active in the Temperance Movement locally. I cam across this story of a big temperance rally in the New York Times in 1864.

NEW TEMPERANCE ORGANIZATION. — An assemblage of about 3,000 persons was gathered yesterday afternoon at the corner of Union-avenue and India-street, Greenpoint, to witness the inauguration services of Father Mathew T.A.B. Society No. 6. The society was organized on Monday evening last, and numbers ninety members. A procession half a mile long, with bands and banners, paraded the streets, and speeches and singing were had at the open air stand. The following gentlemen briefly addressed the throng: George J. Campbell and Christopher Stalvey, of Greenpoint; Isaac Marsland, Ira Buckman, D.A. Sutton, of Brooklyn; John McGrath, James Bagley, Robert Wilson, and Messrs. Dickinson and Kearney, of New-York. The temperance cause has recently been strongly reinforced in Brooklyn, E.D.

Saintly Catholic Priest from the Southside. Fr. Bryan Karvelis

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I came across the great story of a beloved and saintly priest from the Southside: Msgr. Bryan Karvelis. He was heavily influenced by the ideas of Dorthea Day and the Catholic Worker. He was a man who embraced poverty and was loved for

his charity and humanity.

Here is the NY TImes story about him.

They went in the rain to the old brick church on Marcy Avenue in Brooklyn yesterday to say goodbye to Msgr. Bryan J. Karvelis.

In one of the wooden pews sat a man who had adored him so much that he gave the monsignor his kidney in 1999 because, explained the donor, Pascual Chico, he needed one, and it seemed like the right thing to do.

In another pew sat Jose Luis Blanco, who was more than just a parishioner to Monsignor Karvelis. He was a friend — and a roommate. The priest had opened his rectory next door to struggling immigrants like Mr. Blanco, and they lived there with him over the years, rent free.

Near the back of the church sat Wilfredo Vargas, who had forged a friendship with the pastor as a teenager and, decades later, named one of his sons after him.

“He was like my father,” Mr. Vargas, 59, said. “I came from a broken home. Bryan was my surrogate father.”

Monsignor Karvelis, 75, died early Tuesday morning. The monsignor, whose health had been deteriorating for several months, had been a priest at Transfiguration Roman Catholic Church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for nearly half a century. He did what priests these days rarely do — he stayed put. He arrived in 1956 shortly after he was ordained, became pastor in the 1970’s and never left, turning down opportunities to go to other parishes.

His funeral yesterday culminated several days of mourning for Monsignor Karvelis’ fellow priests, friends, family members and parishioners that was rare for a small neighborhood church like Transfiguration. Beginning Thursday, hundreds arrived at the church at all hours as his body lay in state in a hardwood coffin. People stood in the aisles and along the back of the packed church during yesterday’s bilingual service. The mass was celebrated by the leader of the Brooklyn Diocese, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.

But it was not the pastor’s longevity that they came to remember. It was something more.

The monsignor’s life illustrates what happens when a man of God finds the right audience, or maybe the right audience finds him. The ever-changing congregation of Latinos — Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Salvadorans, Mexicans — had come to think of him as one of them, especially after he received a kidney from Mr. Chico, 65, a native of Puerto Rico who has attended the church for 30 years.

Yet it was also clear yesterday that Monsignor Karvelis’ absence, like his presence, would be immense. As people stood on the sidewalk outside the church, tears in their eyes, they found it easier to talk about the past rather than the future. Some said he had made them strong in their Catholic faith. Some said he had inspired them to work with the poor, to pray more often. Others simply said the church would never be the same.

“It’s hard,” said Carlos Bosch, 46, a computer consultant who has been coming to Transfiguration for about 20 years. “It’s hard for the community. There’s so many scandals around the church, and you find someone pure like him.”

Born in Brooklyn, the son of Lithuanian and Irish parents, Monsignor Karvelis lived simply, humbly, but acted boldly, extravagantly.

He moved out of the rectory in the late 1960’s, frustrated by the distance between him and the largely poor and Hispanic community that he served, and lived in an apartment in the Southside neighborhood for years. He later returned to the rectory, which he shared with about two dozen men at any given time, living and working most recently in one small room, the electric stove where he did his cooking behind his desk.

He learned Spanish so well that he sometimes stumbled when speaking English. He opened an AIDS hospice for Latinos around the corner from the church and established fraternities so people could discuss their faith in small groups.

One of his first projects was to combat the neighborhood gangs that were luring so many of the Puerto Rican youth. So he created a kind of alternative gang, forming social clubs that met at a youth center across the street. The clubs had names taken from the Bible — the Romans, the Corinthians. The teenagers wore sweaters with insignias, attended dances, marched in parades.

Yesterday, Jose Gonzalez came to Transfiguration wearing his purple-and-gold Romans sweater. “I think he saved me from getting into trouble,” said Mr. Gonzalez, 59, a retired police officer.

Mr. Gonzalez sat near his old club partner, Mr. Vargas, who has a son named after the pastor. Mr. Vargas, a retired deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said he could not imagine what would have become of his life had he not bumped into the monsignor one day on the street when he was about 13 years old. “I wouldn’t have had much of a life,” he said. “I can say that unequivocally.”

Near the end of the service, Bishop DiMarzio suggested that the monsignor would be a possible candidate for consideration for canonization. The applause was loud and long.

Grahams Polley Forgotten Philanthropist of Williamsburg

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Doing research today I came across the amazing story of Grahams Polley, the man who started free primary school education in Williamsburg. When he died at only age 44 ten thousand Williamsburgers came out to pay his their respects. According to a Brooklyn Eagle account there was not a dry eye amongst the ten thousand.

He was born into poverty in 1816 and according to his employee never learned to write his own name. He started out working in a rope works, but he ended up as a bank president and one of the five richest men in Williamsburg with a fortune of $40,000

It was not his money that won him hearts, but his charity. At a time that the rest of Brooklyn did not have public schools he financed the founding of five public schools in Williamsburg, including one for black children, something almost unheard of in the 1840’s He was moved by the suffering of the poor, probably because he could recall his own childhood poverty far too well. The race, creed or color of the poor did not matter to him, he bestowed his largess on anyone who was in need.

He gave principals carte blanche to buy what they needed. Polly spent large sums of money buying school books.  He secretly gave the principals money to buy winter clothing and shoes for the indigent. He rewarded kids with good behavior with books and took care of sick teachers. Polley took whole schools on outings paying for it all. He purchased paintings, pianos and organs for the schools, but never wanted to take credit.

He even hosted a May Day festival for the students in the schools all at his own expense.

He loved the teachers who worked in his schools and hosted receptions for them.

During the depression of 1857 he set up a store to help the poor eat. His generosity meant that he spent $6,000 more than the store took in.

Half a century later his pupils could not forget him and wept at recalling his many acts of charity.

What a man!

Why I wrote “Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past”

Someone asked me a fair enough question the other day, Why did you write your book?

There are a lot of different answers, but one that I can give is that I believe that Greenpoint’s story has never been fully or

properly told. Before I begin to discuss the gaps in books about Greenpoint let me do a quick roundup of books related to

Greenpoint history.

“History of the City of Brooklyn” by  Henry Reed Styles. This is an early book, published in 1869. It does a fine job of relating early Greenpoint history,especially the colonial and revolutionary period.

The seminal work, Historic Green Point, was written about a hundred years ago in 1919 by William Felter, a local high school principal. This work was commissioned by the Green Point Savings Bank. Felter traces three hundred years of Greenpoint history. He has a breezy  conversational style and worked a lot with primary sources, especially Dutch ones. Born in the 1860’s he could still  interview a lot of people who had seen the development of the area from the time of Bliss.

I used him as a source, but there are a few problems with his work. He was commissioned by a bank who wanted a positive and rosy picture of Greenpoint history. He airbrushed out of history the fact that industrialization had destroyed the environment and the fact that it had also bred slums like the dangertown area. He also paints a sympathetic picture of slavery ( Greenpoint had almost two hundred years of bondage by the way!) Felter also does not hold Dirck the Norseman guilty for the massacre of Native Americans. Finally,  he leaves out sports heroes like Jake Kilrain or the famous Eckford baseball club from his account.

“Memorable Greenpoint” by Virginia Felter

This book fascinated me. I have often wondered how she was related to William Felter. She was a historian ahead of her time. Perhaps she never went to school, but she developed a method of using oral history as a source and there is a much clearer picture of  everyday life  and simple people in Greenpoint than in William Felter’s work. A book worth reading.

Armbruster’s Eastern District. This is a great starting point for learning about Greenpoint. What I found fascinating was his catalogue of buildings on each street. Armbruster was a great compiler of information.

“Norman Street”   by Ida Susser. This book was written in 1982 when crime and racial conflict were serious issues in Greenpoint. Susser addressed many of the same issues all American cities were confronting: the rapid slide of black, white, and Latino working-class families into poverty as manufacturing jobs fled the urban north, cutbacks in governmental aid programs, and the spread of arson-for-profit as neighbor- hoods that were then marginal appeared to absentee landlords to be more valuable for the insurance claims they could file than for the tenants they might hope to find. It is a good snapshot of Greenpoint in its day.

What I tried to do is to create a history that went beyond a superficial description  of events. I wanted to capture the reality of people’s lives at certain moments in local history.  Some people have called what I have written historical fiction because I imagine how characters might have felt or thought in some situations, but all the historical characters and events  are true. The picture that I paint of Greenpoint is sometimes unflattering, but it is also  much more nuanced and complex than the upbeat image William Felter tries to depict. I portray how the Standard Oil cartel devoured Astral Oil and how the massive level of oil refining led to the destruction of our environment. I also discuss the rise of organized crime and the emergence of slums and political corruption- two dark chapters never written about  in  Greenpoint history before.

My book leaves gaps in Greenpoint history and I have already gotten grief over that. The gaps are there by design. I wanted to go deep into the lives of historical characters and eras, not superficially portray every important event in local history.