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.