The Last Wooden Sidewalk in New York Gone???

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 7.59.27 PM

I just got back from West Street. The last wooden sidewalk in New York was in front of the old American Hemp Rope Company factory on the south side of the street. It seems that they have paved it and the wood blocks are in a pile with other debris. Sad, because it is a piece of New York city history gone.

The image above is an older image of what the sidewalk was once like.

Advertisements

Dime Novel Publishers from Greenpoint

Greenpoint’s Francis Scott Smith rose from a humble printer to become a millionaire publisher and the firm he co-founded, Street and Smith remained remarkably prolific and profitable for over one hundred years. Street & Smith rapidly became a “fiction factory,” producing a wide variety of popular literature, including dime novels, pulp magazines, books in series for juveniles, fashion and homemaking magazines, comics, and adventure stories. Scott Smith was born in New York City into a poor family in 1831. He left school at the age of thirteen and was initially apprenticed to a grocer, but he did not like the trade and he eventually learned the printing trade. Although he had little formal education, Smith had a sharp eye for the financial side of the publishing business and in 1849 at the age of eighteen he was hired by New York publisher Amos J. Williamson to be the bookkeeper for the newspaper the New York Dispatch. While working at the Dispatch he met Francis S Street who was an editor at the paper. The two soon became friends and in 1853 together they bought a failing magazine. In 1858 they bought the Weekly Dispatch for $40,000 on credit and within five years they paid off the loan. Street and Smith were able to increase circulation of the Weekly Dispatch and at the time it became one of the most widely circulated New York City weekly newspapers.

The firm became one of the world’s leading publishers of dime novels. The company viewed fiction as a commodity, with Street & Smith editors dictating plots, character types, and other conventions to the firm’s stable of writers. As a result, Street & Smith authors, including such literary figures as Horatio Alger, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London were often disguised by house pseudonyms and wrote to carefully calculated formulae, with their respective products subject to extensive rewriting by Street & Smith editors.

Street & Smith illustrators worked under the same editorial constraints as did the writers. If an editor received unacceptable illustrations, the illustrator was told to “get busy and change them then and there.” Nevertheless, Street & Smith eventually became “an incubator where the greatest illustrators in the country were professionally born.” These included Harvey Dunn, Joseph Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell, Winfield Scott, Tom Lovell, Anton Otto Fisher, Amos Sewell, and N.C. Wyeth. The firm began publishing dime novels in the 1860s, then began shifting to pulps in 1915. For more than three decades the firm was one was one of the nation’s top pulp magazine publishers.

J.S. Olgive not only lived a Horatio Algerlike life, he even ended up publishing Alger’s novels. Olgive was born in 1843 in Scotland into a large family. The family moved to New York and Olgive became a carpenter in a Greenpoint Shipyard. Oligive however relentlessly pursued education and went on to finish a degree in Night School. He became a teacher, but soon became involved with the publishing arm of the Temperance Society where he learned the technical aspects of publishing.  He left the society and started his own firm in a tiny Manhattan office space, but the firm grew. Like F. Scott Smith. Olgive published dozens of dime novella s and Olgive’s main Idea was always to publish standard works at popular prices. He went on to publish hundreds of volumes of literature and died as one of the richest American publishers.

John “Sonny” Franseze, Feared Colombo Family Mafioso from Greenpoint

 

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 8.08.47 PM

John “Sonny” Franseze, the man in the  Greenpoint Star picture, was being temporarily let out of prison in 1967  for his mother’s funeral. He grew up at #346 Leonard Street here in Greenpoint and became one of the most feared mafiosi in New York. He is still alive and in prison at age ninety-seven. Franseze  is  reputed to have killed sixty men and arguably, Franzese has been famous as the current oldest active member of the American Mafia. He was ruthless. Federal Prosecutors allege  he also recommended that the best way to dispose of body parts was to dry them out with a microwave and grind them up in a garbage disposal. Franzese once  observed:

“Today, you can’t have a body no more…It’s better to take that half-an-hour, an hour, to get rid of the body than it is to leave the body on the street.”

He was arrested in the racketeering case in 2008 and was later freed on $1 million bail.

He was born to Carmine “The Lion” Franzese and Maria Corvola, although his birth year is a source of confusion. Federal prison records say that he was born February 6, 1917. However, his son Michael Franzese says that his father was actually born in 1919. In the late 1930s Franzese joined the Profaci crime family (later named the Colombo crime family) under boss Joe Profaci. Franzese bore a close physical resemblance to boxer Rocky Marciano, one of his friends. His first arrest came in 1938, for assault. In 1942, in the midst of World War II, he was discharged from the United States Army because he displayed ‘”homicidal tendencies” Although never being arrested for it, court papers accused him of committing rape in 1947.

Franzese operated out of New York City and New Jersey and was involved in racketeering, fraud, and loansharking. He is believed to have been elevated to caporegime or captain in the Colombo family in the mid 1950s and by 1964 he had been promoted to underboss. In 1966, Franzese was able to avoid a conviction for murdering a rival and dumping the body into a bay.

In 1967, Franzese gained a financial interest in a new recording company, Buddha Records. The company became quite successful, recordings hits for acts such as Melanie Safka, the Isley Brothers, and Curtis Mayfield. Franzese used Buddha to launder illegal mob earnings and to bribe disc jockies with payola.

In March 1967, Franzese was convicted of masterminding several bank robberies. During the trial, the prosecution produced records claiming that Franzese had killed between 30 to 50 people. In 1970, Franzese was sentenced to 50 years in prison. In 1978, Franzese was released on parole but returned to prison in 1982 for a parole violation. In 1984, Franzese was released on parole again. Until 2008, he was never charged with another crime, although he would frequently return to jail on parole violations.

Some claim that he is the mobster who invented the “mob kiss.” It all started when John “Sonny” Franzese and Joey Brancato, both big guys in the Colombo outfit, bumped into each other one day on the corner of Lorimer Street and Metropolitan Avenue in Greenpoint, which is in Brooklyn, and they kissed each other on the cheeks. The only thing anybody on Metropolitan Avenue knew was that they had never seen it done before. The moment the men kissed, it became a street rule. This was at least fifty years ago. Immediately they were doing it on 101st Avenue in Ozone Park and Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach. Soon even legitimate citizens were doing it.

 

The Sweetwater Tavern, The Punk Rock Dive That Preceded The Eatery.

Screen shot 2015-04-21 at 2.38.48 PM Screen shot 2015-04-21 at 2.39.37 PM

I was sitting with a friend who I thought new Williamsburg. I was amazed that he did not know that before there was a Sweetwater Tavern before there was today’s super restaurant. Sometimes when I write about history I am not sure about the accuracy of my information, but I spent so much time there that I can vouch for all the information I put on the blog.

The place was the classic dive bar. It was grungy to the extreme. It was on a rough street that had meat packing plants and abandoned buildings, a far cry from the hipster shops that line North 6th today.

There was pool table in the back and toilets full of graffiti that often clogged up and stank to high heaven. The bar had a history that went back about ninety years and the tin metal ceilings and walls gave it real character. There was a pinball machine, which if memory serves was Big Buck Hunter. It was a gritty edgy place when Williamsburg was also gritty and edgy. How times have changed!

I hope that someone will respond to my blog and give me the exact years of Sweetwater’s existence. I want to say that I began to drink there in 1996 and this was the year that it opened. We had recently  moved to Greenpoint and there were no bars in Greenpoint you could go to that were fun. Sweetwater was a punk bar and I was never a punk, nor had to be.  I quickly made many friends who were punk musicians and punks, but  many were just great  neighborhood people.

It was the people who made the place and there was an amazingly diverse group of people who drank there, but not only got along, but were even friendly. Many of my Sweetwater friends from the 80’s are still my friends today. Simon Trolley who I believe still plays punk became a lifelong friend, even though he is a rabid Chelsea supporter. Kevin Fitzgerald later gave up drinking, but he was not just a good musician, but a good friend. Doug, Doctor Israel was a talented African-American musician whom all the ladies loved, but was totally down- to-earth and cool.

Brant  Vogel and his partner Jenn Steenshorne were the bar’s intellectuals and a really fun couple. Leeds Attkinson who recently passed was a friend in a band, if memory serves me correctly called “The Ken Firpo Rent Explosion” along with Karin Roach ( apologies she is married and I do not know her new name) and Travis Wendell who was as mad as he was brilliant. There was another terribly nice punk rocker named John Hvorka. There was the equally sweet  Killea a punk rocker who was from Minnesota. Finally, there were a number of English squatters who lived in the abandoned housing that was still there in Williamsburg. Becky and Pete were regulars as was a cockney called Gonk.

I could recall at least twelve other regulars whom I wont mention. Even though we were different we got along well with each other. They were very  many happy times I spent there.

One of the most interesting characters there was a Scottish enthusiast and die hard Glasgow Rangers fan  from Philadelphia called Eric “The Warthog.” I know that he had a proper surname, but I cannot recall it. Sweetwater had a largely punk jukebox, but if you were a regular they would put your disk on. Eric would always play the  “The Real McKenzies” song Loch Lohman and a collective groan would rise up from the punks with an expletive filled tirade something like this,” Who the “FuXY#xyxs” played that” Fuxswe2zing Scottish  crap.”

The bartenders were great. There was the deceased Howard O’Brien who hid the fact that he was a Harvard grad and that he was the smartest person in the place. He was fascinating to talk to.  Once I remember there was going to be a rumble in the back between the bikers and skinheads. Howard was outnumbered twenty to one. He went into the back and said, Sorry guys you cannot fight here take the brawl outside and he was amazed when they listened to him.

There was Michael Huckleberry who was a gentle giant who could always make you laugh. There was George who eventually became an English prof who wrote poetry and ran the film session on Sunday nights. There was Jake who was skateboarder. I got an inordinate amount of buybacks from them for which I will be eternally grateful.

Steve and Marina ran the place and were married, but their marriage and business partnership both fell apart.

I cannot recall now the year Sweetwater closed and became the restaurant. I want to say 2004, but I am not certain. I remember coming for the final evening and realizing that a huge number of my friends I made there.

The Williamsburg Trilogy of Daniel Fuchs

Screen shot 2015-04-19 at 4.09.32 PM

I was very eager to read Daniel Fuchs’ novel ” Summer in Williamsburg because I have a huge interest in Williamsburg. “Summer in Williamsburg” is the first volume of  his “Williamsburg Trilogy.” It was published in 1931, but it seems to describe the 20’s. Although I am hugely interested in Williamsburg culture and history I gave up at about page 280. It is today a forgotten trilogy and perhaps if you read it you will see why few people read it today. It does give fascinating insights into neighborhood history, but somehow I could not warm up to his protagonist and the plot did not seem to go anywhere.

the major achievement of “Summer in Williamsburg”  is to make the reader feel, even decades later, the emotional suffocation of a sensitive young person, like Fuchs, in such a stifling milieu.

That is, in fact, virtually the whole subject of “Summer in Williamsburg” — a textbook example of a first novel, revolving as it does around the emotional travails of the author’s delicate surrogate, Philip Hayman. Yet Fuchs manages to transcend the narcissism of the genre, at least in part, by making Hayman’s story just one element in a mosaic or montage of Williamsburg life. Hayman willingly cedes the spotlight to neighbors like Papravel, a suave gangster and extortionist, whose attempts to drive a competitor out of business form the novel’s secondary plot; and to minor characters like Linck the brutish womanizer, Cohen the gauche teenage Communist, and Tessie the novice adulteress. Each of the stories Fuchs has to tell, however, is equally dismal. The novel opens with a man committing suicide by gas, ends with a triple suicide and a death by fire, and hardly lets up in between.

More compelling than any of the stories in “Summer in Williamsburg,” however, is the hidden subject that we can now see more clearly: the author’s debate with himself about whether his artistic vocation is strong enough to rescue him from the squalor of his surroundings. “Everything here was petty,” Hayman muses. “People in tenements lived in a circle without significance, one day the duplicate of the next until the end, which occurred without meaning.” As he ponders how to live in such a world, he is torn between two role models: his father, idealistic, uncompromisingly ethical, but poor and defeated; and his uncle Papravel, seductively powerful, who masters the brutality of his surroundings by being still more brutal.

It just did not prove for me to be a page turner. Maybe the portrait is just too dismal.

Other people, however, love it. Here is what  Johnathon Lethem, the author of “Motherless  Brooklyn” had to say about the Trilogy.

There’s nothing on my shelf I flip open for inspiration as often these days as Daniel Fuchs’ three novels about Brooklyn, set and written in the 1930s: Summer in Williamsburg, Homage to Blenholt, and Low Company. They were last reprinted in 1961 in one volume by Basic Books as 3 Novels (I noticed two copies on the Strand shelves last week, hurry!), then in paperback from Berkley Medallion in 1965 — a moment of rediscovery now as forgotten as the original publication. Fuchs published in The New Yorker, was a buddy of Cheever’s at Yaddo, and somewhere John Updike compared him to Willie Mays for the ease of his effects, but unlike Willie Mays he’s nearly vanished from the record books. In the Williamsburg trilogy his grittily enchanted, Dickensian vision of Brooklyn bubbles forward on a jetstream of vernacular babble — his characters jabber in poetry, compressed and glinting, warmer than Don DeLillo’s Bronx argot in Underworld, less tragic and neurotic than that of Henry Roth’s Lower East Side Jews in Call It Sleep, but worthy of them both, and of the sprawling, teeming immigrant culture he made his subject. Fuchs’ Williamsburg is full of Communists and bookies, wanna-be Edisons hoping to make a fortune, young lovers trysting in McCarren Park on hot nights, Talmudic scholars, jewelers, and crooks — he wrote a world, now a lost world. On plot summary, two of the three books would seem crime novels, but the muddled schemers and righteous bullies Fuchs depicts are embedded in his fundamentally comic vision of endurance and suffering, their outbursts of brutality falling like weather or fate. Fuchs’ genius is for the unlikely reverie stolen in a moment of outward tumult, for the glint of sunlight between tenement roofs, the marriage proposal whispered under a screaming neighbor’s window, the trapped butterfly thrilling a sweaty carload of subway passengers. His sensitivity to the place of the movies in his city dwellers lives — my favorite is the ten-year-old who’s in love with Marion Davies — as well as his talent for dialogue, probably made Fuchs’ defection to Hollywood inevitable. He spent most of his career there, resurfacing to write sweetly humble introductions to the republished volumes, then one last novel in 1971. A natural.

Another Piece of Polish Greenpoint Disappears- The Wedel Candy Shop is Closing.

E_Wedelsw2

The monster that is gentrification continues to devour Polish Greenpoint. The Wedel candy store on the corner of Manhattan Avenue and Meserole Avenue has offered Polish people, like my wife, a slice of home. When she was a little girl she loved to go to the store and get her favorite chocolates. The store has survived for about twenty years serving the new rapidly declining Polish community in Greenpoint. I heard that Wedel could not pay for the new lease because the new rent was simply exorbitant. Wedel is soon to be a piece of history like so many other area shops. Shops like Wedel, which defined the Polishness or Greenpoint are being replaced by shops of large corporations. When I moved into the area twenty years ago Manhattan Avenue was a quirky combination of mom and pop shops, many of which catered to the Polish community. We will miss the shop. I would always buy her valentine candy there and she loved Ptasie Mleczko (Polish)which  is a soft chocolate-covered candy filled with soft meringue (or milk soufflé).

Before Wedel dies lets trace its interesting history. Founded in 1851 by Karol Ernest Wedel (1813-1902), the company and its products became known in most of Central and Eastern Europe. The logo of the company is based on Karol Wedel’s signature. His son Emil Albert Fryderyk Wedel (1841-1919) apprenticed in candy and chocolate factories in Western Europe before inheriting and expanding his father’s business. His descendant Jan Wedel (d. 1960), the last member of the Wedel family to own the company, was considered “the Willy Wonka” of pre-war Poland. In 1894 the company moved its main factory from Szpitalna street in Warsaw. In 1934, during the time of the Great Depression, Jan Wedel opened a second factory in Praga, one of the most modern in the Second Polish Republic. The company was also known for its very generous social welfare policies. As one of the first in Europe, it had its own creche, kindergarten, hospital and cafeteria, and rewarded its best employees with no-interest housing loans; its model was highly acclaimed by the Polish Socialist Party.  Hence prior to World War II, Wedel became a successful private company, with shops in London and Paris.

Jan Wedel made plans for World War II, and the company managed to continue production during the first few years of the war; it also started producing basic foodstuffs such as bread for starving Warsaw, and was the site of the underground teaching.[9] Despite the family’s German ancestry Wedel refused to collaborate with the Germans, and did not sign the Volksliste; increasingly this led to him and his employees being persecuted by the Nazis.[10] The war devastated Poland and the company; the buildings at Warsaw were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising.[9] After the war, Wedel rebuilt the factory, only to have the communist government nationalize the company.[7][9] The Wedel plant itself was renamed ’22 Lipca’ (22 July) after the Communist ‘Independence Day’ (PKWN Manifesto), although even the communists chose to retain the Wedel brand name, with products bearing both the new and old logos (particularly as after 10 years of not using the logo, all attempts at exporting proved futile).[7][10] The company was reprivatized in 1989 after the fall of communism in Poland.

120 Jackson Street, the Settlement House in a Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Threatened with Destruction

Screen shot 2015-04-12 at 1.53.47 AM Screen shot 2015-04-12 at 2.00.49 AM

There is very little that is deemed historically significant these days, especially if it blocks the construction of high rise condos for the one percent. The latest historic building in the developers’ crosshairs is the settlement house at 120 Jackson Avenue, which is mentioned in Betty Smith’s sensational novel about growing up in Williamsburg “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”  Evidently the building, which has served the community since 1901 is in danger of being leveled and since it is neither a landmark,nor in a historical district it can happen quite easily. The building serves as a link to one of the great novels ever written about Brooklyn and to one of Brooklyn’s great writers Betty Smith who described Williamsburg poverty without pulling any punches.

The settlement house on Jackson Avenue was started just after the turn of the century by a local principal in an effort to shield the area’s children from the effects of poverty and to teach them skills. Upper class Brooklynites volunteered in the settlement house and an anonymous donor put up money to buy the building.

Born on December 15, 1896 Brooklyn, New York to German immigrants, Betty Smith  grew up poor in Williamsburg and had to combine a job and school. She managed to  go to Girls High School at night to complete her secondary education. One of the most formative influences on young Smith was the time she spent at the now threatened  Jackson Street Settlement where she learned to sew, dance sing  and where she got her first taste of dramatics.

In 1943 she published “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and it was an immediate success that soon was made into a film. A 1945 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article described her return to the settlement house and the pride that the directress took in the success of its most famous pupil.

The tree that serves as the chief metaphor for the book  grew in the back of the settlement. She placed it in the back of her building, but the tree actually grew in the back yard of the settlement house. In the courtyard of the third apartment building in Williamsburg where the Nolan family lives throughout most of Smith’s novel, a tree is growing out of the cement. The opening chapter of Smith’s work  explains that the tree is a Tree of Heaven. It only grows in the poorest of neighborhoods and it grows no matter how poor the circumstances. It can thrive in cement and without water or fertilizer. The tree represents the tenacity and strength of the poor inhabitants of the neighborhood, who survive with little food or money. Like the tree that receives so little care and nourishment, the people of the Williamsburg neighborhood survive and often thrive in such extreme poverty that many people live without adequate food, working only the most menial jobs, earning a pittance, and wearing threadbare clothing, through which they feel the biting cold. The people survive with the hope that the next day, week, or month, their lives will be better. No matter how badly they are beaten down, they continue to survive and they continue to hope. In the final chapter of Smith’s novel, Francie observes that the Tree of Heaven is still alive. It has been chopped down and the stump set on fire, but Francie notices that the tree is not dead. It has sent out a new branch and is surviving, just as the Nolan family has survived poverty and death and is now being given a new chance at a better life.

The 1945 Eagle article also mentions that the tree was cut down because of an infestation of caterpillars, but grew back. It was  also at the settlement that Francie, the protagonist, saw the personification of education and refinement in the person of Ms. Jackson whom she described,” Miss Jackson can live in the middle of a dirty neighborhood and be fine and clean and like an actress in a play; someone you can look at who is too fine to touch.”

I fear that we will quickly destroy Brooklyn’s soul and we will be left with a bunch of soulless condos. We have to preserve our history or we will be robbed of it.