I have heard that jenn Nielsen is making a documentary film about Irving Feller who used to have a furrier business on Manhattan Avenue. Here is a link to a times article about him.
I have neglected my blog for a while. I have been busy with publishing my book,” Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past.”
I will have information about the book in upcoming posts. I did, however, come across this interesting bit of info on renting in Greenpoint during the forties. If you are a renter today perhaps reading this post will make your blood pressure rise.
This information comes from a website called 1940’s New York. It states:
Greenpoint: In 1943, Brooklyn’s most northern neighborhood had a population of 53,994. 53,955 of those people were white. 4 black people lived in the neighborhood. Yes, you read those numbers correctly. Here’s another crazy number: rent for most families was under $30/month. Here’s how the Analysis described the neighborhood, which doesn’t sound far off from what it is today:
“Greenpoint is largely industrial. It contains a wide variety of plants, including foundries, machine works and chemical plants, along the waterfront and adjacent streets. Several warehouses and wholesale establishments are also to be found here. A densely crowded, low rent residential rea houses 53,994 people in old one and two-fmaily frame houses and in tenements. Manhattan and Greenpoint Avenues are the two principal retail business streets. There is a scattering of small neighborhood stores.”
I have friends who are paying $2,500 a month for a two bedroom. Wow, how times have changed.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.