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The Brooklyn Bridge Centennial: Party like it's 1983!

May 25, 2011 11:54 AM | 7 comments

May 24th, 1883 is a date that looms large in Brooklyn history; it is the birthdate of this borough's beloved icon, the Brooklyn Bridge.  Over the past 128 years, the bridge has been immortalized dozens of times over, in countless studied histories and gorgeous photography books that aim to capture both its cultural impact and its architectural grace.  The bridge's popularity extends far beyond this borough, as well.  On any weekend the bridge is glutted with tourists from all over the globe snapping pictures, and we've heard that even aliens like to visit this so-called "Eighth Wonder" of the world.

It would be redundant, then, to commemorate the recent birthday of the bridge with another history of its construction and its effect on our city.  That effort has been undertaken exhaustively since the very day of the bridge's opening, as the rambling Brooklyn Daily Eagle headline to the right suggests.  The entire newspaper that day was dominated by gushing praise of the new landmark and a thorough recounting of how it got there. 

Rather than rehash that entire saga, I'd like to instead turn back the clock just 28 years, to another moment in the Brooklyn Bridge's history: May 24th, 1983, when the city feted its beloved bridge with a centennial celebration extravaganza.


The official Brooklyn Bridge Centennial Celebration 1883-1983 brochure, produced by the 1983 Brooklyn Bridge Centennial Commission. It lists dozens of exhibitions, lectures, and performances that ran from May to October, 1983.  The cover image was created by Andy Warhol for the Commission.  This was a big deal!

As is often the case, a jaunt through our ephemera and photograph files turned up many fascinating scraps of history, all of them supporting my theory that Brooklyn knows how to throw a great party.



Dozens of local businesses and civic organizations sponsored the celebration, which ranged from an Historic People's Parade to art exhibitions inside the bridge's anchorage to a Kotter-esque "Welcome Back to Brooklyn Day" for expatriot Brooklynites.  A parade of ships passed gracefully under the bridge during the "Harbor Craft Salute" and, of course, the day's entertainment ended with a fireworks show large enough to rival that of the original opening day in 1883, when 14 tons of explosives were set off in an hour-long ecstasy of civic pride.

Purveyor of 31 flavors, Baskin-Robbins, invented a 32nd ice cream flavor for the occasion, Brooklyn Bridge Brownie.  In the image above we see then-Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden dishing the sweet stuff out to construction workers who were preparing the bridge and surrounding parks for the big day.

Never one to sit out on the fun, the Brooklyn Public Library got into the festive spirit by redesigning its seasonal bulletin to be reminiscent of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  You may notice a strong resemblence between this and the paper clipping at the top of the post.

The  U.S. Postal Service released this stamp to commemorate the occasion as well.  Only 20 cents to mail a letter!

The centerpiece of the centennial celebration was undoubtedly The Eighth Wonder.  Described as "New York City's first sound and light spectacle" in promotional brochures, the show was a 20-minute performance projected onto the Brooklyn Bridge itself.  Through "a combination of lighting, narration and special visual and audio effects" it told the story of the bridge's construction. 

The producer of Eighth Wonder, Francis Anne Dougherty (left) and the stars of the show, Farley Granger and Anne Jackson, on the birthday bridge.


Longtime residents of Brooklyn may remember vividly what this "sound and light spectacle" entailed, but for the rest of us the description is woefully scant yet also enigmatically intriguing.  Even YouTube fails to yield up a home video of the event.

I was able, however, to find this gem on YouTube--a composite video of several home films shot on and around May 24, 1983.  At about the one minute mark you can see lovely shots of the boat parade cruising serenely under the bridge; the fireworks show follows 45 seconds later. 

Happiest of birthdays to you, Brooklyn Bridge!  I'm looking forward to your 150th birthday party in 2033!  Maybe we can invite the aliens to that one?

Raising Brooklyn: An Illustrated Talk by Tamara Mose Brown, Wednesday May 25th, 7pm

May 24, 2011 10:39 AM | 0 comments

Tamara Mose Brown discusses her new book Raising Brooklyn which offers an in-depth look at the daily lives of women of Caribbean descent who provide childcare for white middle- and upper-middleclass families, examining the roles they play in the families whose children they help to raise. Though at first glance these childcare providers appear isolated and exploited -- and this is the case for many -- Mose Brown shows that their daily interactions in the social spaces they create allow their collective lives and cultural identities to flourish.

Research for the book was largely conducted in public parks and other public spaces of Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Collection, 2nd Floor, Central Library, 10 Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn NY 11238

Wine and cheese at 6:30. The talk starts promptly at 7:00.

From Records to Data: Seeing and sharing digital cultural heritage collections differently with Recollection. A Demonstration by Trevor Owens on Thursday May 19, 3 P.M. Dweck Center

May 17, 2011 11:09 AM | 0 comments

Recollection  is a free and open source web application for generating and customizing views, allowing scholars, librarians and curators to explore digital collections in novel and intuitive ways. This demonstration by Trevor Owens, Digital Archivist at the Library of Congress, will show how content can be ingested from spreadsheets, sets of MODS records, or RSS and Atom feeds, and then used to generate a range of interactive visualizations.

Funded by the IMLS CHART Project

Thursday May 19, 2011, 3:00 P.M.-4:30 P.M. Dweck Center, Central Library, 10 Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn NY 11238

Out in the Cold: Part II

May 16, 2011 1:45 PM | 4 comments

Before turning the page on Brooklyn's own polar explorer, I figured we might as well give the good doctor his full due and take a look at a few other items in our collection related to his life and work.

In going through the materials related to Frederick A. Cook one photograph jumped out at me immediately. Having lived in Bushwick and having worked at the DeKalb branch for 2 years, I was more than a little excited to find this:

Though the area surrounding it today looks different, there was no mistaking that this was the same three-story red brick mansion still standing in the shadows of the elevated JMZ line at the intersection of Bushwick, Myrtle, and Willoughby. It's speckled here and there with graffiti, has a number of ten-speeds locked up to its fences and posts, and is surrounded by a much taller chain-link fence -- but this is the house I always wondered about and which I saw nearly every day when living just a train stop away.  

In between rain showers on Sunday I took the train over to Bushwick to take some photos of the place as it looks now, and comparing it with the old photograph --more than a hundred years old, from 1909 -- it was easy to see how much of the building's appearance had remained virtually unchanged. But, as you can guess, the buildings around Cook's old home aren't something the adventurer was likely to have seen.

Though I do like thinking of Cook, famished from his Northern trek, settling into a booth with a Double Down and a Dr. Pepper to regale the members of the Bushwick Club with tales of Arctic madness and photos of Eskimos.

This arresting image is the only photo in our collection taken during one of Cook's expeditions; a note in pencil on the back reads: "Eskimo guides who were with Cook in the early part of his stay in Greenland."

And in looking for more evidence of the lives that were lived in Cook's old house at 670 Bushwick Avenue, I found an answer to a reader's query from a 1953 edition of the Eagle that shed some more light on the subject.  

Since it's hard to read (not to mention the editor got the address wrong -- he states it as being 607 Bushwick Avenue) I'll retype it for you here:

"A little history for you on the Dr. Frederick A. Cook house FOR Ben Harry Lisk in re his Eagle letter of Jan. 4. Premises No. 607 Bushwick Parkway, now Bushwick Ave., southwest corner of Willoughby Ave., also known as Section 11 Block 3191 Lot 31, being a three-story brick building with a two-story rear extension, on land 60 feet by [95?] feet was the house of William Ulmer, the owner of the William Ulmer Brewery, AND later of Dr. Frederick A. Cook. Transferred a number of times since 1920, the Giambalvo family became the owners until recently. Present owners, I believe, are now the Daughters of Wisdom, Inc., since Dec. 18, 1952. [sic.]"

Not surprisingly, William Ulmer, the prominent brewer and real estate speculator behind Ulmer Park, called this mansion-of-mansions on the so-called Brewers Row home. Below you can see some of the other housing stock across the street from 670 Bushwick Avenue.

But who were these other people listed as former residents of the house? Looking in our clipping files I was able to find wedding announcements for the Giambalvo children. Judging by information in the first article you see below, it looks like Dr. and Mrs. Pellegrino Giambalvo had indeed left Brooklyn for Hempstead by 1952. Here is the engagement announcement of their son, also a doctor... 

And the wedding notice for their daughter...

I couldn't find anything in the clipping files that definitively tied the Daughters of Wisdom to the 670 Bushwick address, but they were described as performing charitable work for children throughout the Brooklyn community, with a few small offices or clinics in the borough. Here is a photo of one of the Daughters answering the call.

Above the front door of the house today you'll find the numbers 670-675 and beneath them, painted in gold script, the words The Brunos.

Though I wanted to knock on the door to see if any of The Brunos were home -- to ask them if they knew who Dr. Frederick A. Cook was, to see what they thought of this house, to invite them to join me for a Double Down -- I decided I better cut my craziness short and leave it at repeatedly photographing their home from multiple angles, making myself out to be the most lost and conspicuous tourist in New York City. So I went across the street to the tiny (.004 acre) park where a statue of Nike commemorates those Brooklynites from the 19th assembly district who died in World War I.

And as I was over there photographing the goddess, I saw a person appear in the doorway of the mansion. He was young, wearing a baseball hat, and carrying a yellow broom. He began sweeping the sidewalk in front of the house. Having finished that, he went back up the steps to the door, sweeping each step behind him as he went. Before I could get back across the street he was gone. I wandered behind the house to see what that two-story extension looked like. As far as I could tell it hadn't changed much since 1909. The whole back yard of the place looked pretty drowsy and overgrown. On the porch in a cage two white pigeons slept. In a small driveway behind the porch a red car was parked. Beside the car there was a dog house -- and not your classic wooden A-frame dog house but a plastic dog house molded into the shape of an igloo. It's no bronze statue of the goddess of victory, but as monuments to Frederick A. Cook go (whom Hugh Eames called "The Prince of Losers") it's a start.


Defying Fate: the macabre antics of Brooklyn's Thirteen Club

May 13, 2011 3:06 PM | 0 comments

"It never before looked as it did last night.  It never will again.  The blinds were drawn, the only light being from a dozen candles, which flickered in burnished holders, placed around a big coffin in the center of the room.  The walls were draped in black.  Grinning skulls beamed down upon the bones which were strewn along the coffin top, and the figure of a skeleton dangled from an invisible wire..."


Thirteen gentlemen in long black robes solemnly marched into the chamber and seated themselves around the immense coffin; their leader seated at the head, and a lurid skull at the base.  The stage was set for a funeral.  Not of a cherished friend or family member, but for what those in attendance considered an outdated nuisance--superstition. 


Being that it is, right now, a dreaded Friday the 13th, it seems a fitting time to tell the story of Brooklyn's own anti-superstition league, the Thirteen Club.  The group was organized "for the distinct object of shattering the rock which the dark ages left behind as a ghastly relic."  In less strident terms, it was a fraternity of young gentleman who threw eccentric parties with the goal of flaunting the advice of old wives' tales.  By breaking the rules of superstition and living to tell about it, they hoped to disprove all notions of bad luck.  At this funerary party described above, appropriately held on December 13th, 1883, members tempted the fates by dancing to the tune "See that My Grave is Kept Clean" before ceremoniously smashing a mirror.

The club was started in Brooklyn in 1882 with just 13 members, but its fame and reach quickly spread, so that by 1886 it boasted 550 members from all over New York City (who, at the monthly dinner, were split into groups of 13).  Sympathetic Chicagoans opened their own chapter in 1885.  The antics of club members appeared regularly in the pages of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle well into the 1920s.  More than an actual campaign for reason and logic, the club was largely an excuse for good-natured prankery, as these headlines attest:

June 13, 1906

June 13, 1913

December 14, 1922

Although early members of the club argued that women were the originators and propogators of superstition, by 1910, this quintessential boys' club was admitting the fair sex into its ranks.  An uncharacteristically serious and timely meeting that year was devoted entirely to the discussion of women's suffrage, with leaders from the League of Self Supporting Women, the National Woman Suffrage Organization, and the Women's Consumers League discussing their cause before the "usual anti-superstition stunts were done". 

Less noble was the club's "love feast" on January 13, 1921.  What was to be the annual ladies' dinner, with an address from the recently re-elected club president Col. John F. Hobbs, turned into what the Eagle described as a "wild orgy" which could only be controlled by the arrival of policemen.  Eight-term leader Hobbs was so disgusted by the proceedings that he resigned from his post on the spot.  Tellingly, the Eagle clippings about the Thirteen Club peter out within a year of that infamous night, leading me to guess that the group disbanded.  In defiance of the club's ideals, I'd like to suggest a superstitious reason for the group's eventual demise.  That fateful night in 1921, as drunken members wreaked havoc, the ceremonial "breaking of the mirror, with which the club defies superstition, was forgotten in the general melee."  Perhaps, in this case, not breaking a mirror brought on years of bad luck?