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Feb 19, 2015 1:32 PM | 0 comments

We hope that you'll join us next Wednesday, February 25th to hear Peter Thomas Fornatale and Chris Wertz as they present their new book, "Brooklyn Spirits and Cocktails: Craft Distilling from the World's Hippest Borough".  They'll be discussing the history of distilled spirits in Brooklyn, and the new ways that restaurants, entrepreneurs, and bars are bringing back old recipes and methods, while adding their own twist to the enjoyment of cocktails.



The talk begins at 7:00 p.m, and there will be a cocktail receiption at 6:30 to kick things off.

What's Up With Parkville?

Feb 18, 2015 1:50 PM | 1 comment

I have a confession to make. Up until this past November I wasn't a Brooklynite. I've been teaching students to love Brooklyn but, for the past six years, I've been living in Astoria, Queens. Now, don't go thinking I'm ashamed - I have tons of Queens pride. But, in the spirit of having a shorter commute and fewer (read: zero) roommates, I've moved to South Brooklyn. 

I mentioned to a friend that I'd moved to Kensington and, upon telling him what my cross streets were, he retorted, "No, you live in Parkville." Naturally, I was offended. First of all, I teach kids about Brooklyn's history so you'd think I'd have my neighborhoods down by now. What's more, you would think I would know my own neighborhood, right? 

Apparently not.

Parkville is one of those wonky neighborhoods that isn't often referenced because a) it is tiny and b) it is old and has since been swallowed up by other neighborhoods. So, I embarked on a tiny quest to learn a few things about my tiny new neighborhood. Want to know what's up with Parkville? Here, here's what's up. 

The neighborhood of Parkville sits just below Kensington and is often lumped in with it. The border streets are 18th Avenue to Avenue H and from Coney Island Avenue to McDonald Avenue. You can see an odd little diagonal street grid that goes against the more dominant perpendicular grid. Notice the red circle in the below image. 

"Brooklyn." Google. 12 Jan. 2015. 

And a close up.

"Parkville." Google. 12 Jan. 2015.

Parkville's history begins with the construction of the Coney Island Plank Road (now Coney Island Avenue). Though a path had existed for many years, an official road opened in 1850 to improve access to Coney Island, which, with the 1824 creation of the Coney Island Hotel, had become a popular tourist destination for the rich. Originally a wooden plank road, it was graded and turnpiked by 1860. The communities of Windsor Terrace and Parkville popped up along this scenic route as havens from the bustle of Brooklyn and pit stops on the way south. 

Toll gate on Coney Island Plank Road. 1857. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

Called Greenville until the 1870s, the land that would become Parkville was purchased by the Freeman's Association in 1852. They then bought the Ditmas farm to the north giving them about 114 acres of land to parcel and resell. 1853 brought graded tree-lined streets, wells, and a growing population. By 1860, Greenville boasted a population of 200.  

F.W. Beers Atlas of Long Island, N.Y. New York: F.W. Beers and Co., 1873. Print. 

During the 1870s Parkville gained more folks and thus needed more services. PS 92 was constructed to serve the neighborhood's youth. The school was later renamed PS 134 and was replaced by this hulking beauty in 1906.

PS 134. 1906. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

Around the turn of the century nearly 400 public schools were either designed or supervised by C.B.J Snyder. Snyder was the Superintendent of School Buildings from 1891-1923 and he introduced the very popular H-shape and designed some of NYC's most beautiful public school buildings. The inscription on the bottom right of the above photo reads "CBJ Snyder archt." 

St. Rose of Lima, one of the few Catholic Churches outside the then Town of Brooklyn, was also built in 1870. No longer did Parkville's Catholics need to travel into Brooklyn for mass. The current structure was finished in 1925 and today has services in both English and Spanish as well as both a Pakistani and Filipino apostolate.

St. Rose of Lima R.C. Church. 1932. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

Oh, and Mary Tyler Moore went to Sunday school here. So, there's that. 

The late 1870s brought the picturesque Ocean Parkway through the neighborhood. Designed by Calvert Vaux and Fredric Law Olmsted (of Central and Prospect Parks as well as Eastern Parkway fame), Ocean Parkway is known for having the first municipal bike lane in the United States (1894). Brooklynites have always been really into bikes

Parkville was part of Flatbush until 1894, when the then City of Brooklyn annexed the area. (Maybe Brooklyn was jealous of Flatbush's new bike path?!) Consolidation in 1898 would make Brooklyn into one of New York City's five boroughs and continue to swell its population with large apartment buildings popping up on Ocean Parkway in the early twentieth century.

Desk Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn. New York: E. Beecher Hyde, Inc., 1921. Print. 

Out of curiosity I wanted to see when my building was built so went hunting for its Certificate of Occupancy. If you've never looked up your building you 100% should. Sometimes the NYC Department of Buildings shares amazing tidbits with you like this one:

Certificate of Occupancy. New York: New York City Department of Buildings, 1964. Print.

My building was built in the early 1960s and used to have an outdoor pool! It is most certainly gone now. Either that or I am completely oblivious to my surroundings at all times. 

While researching for this entry I stumbled across a few great stories about Parkville's residents. One stands out and that is the one I shall tell you now. Be forewarned, if you're squeamish perhaps you should just stop reading now. It's about to get a little sad and a lot bloody. 

One of Parkville's early prominent residents was named Mortimer Tunison. Mort for short. Mort became a fixture of the neighborhood when he opened a hotel on the corner of what is now Foster Avenue and Coney Island Avenue in 1860. You can see his establishment in bottom right of the below map: M.C. Tunison Hotel.


F.W. Beers Atlas of Long Island N.Y. New York: F.W. Beers and Co., 1873. Print. 

Mort's name pops up in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle a few times in the 1860s: he was an inspector for the Democratic Committee (though I don't know what that means), a witness to a shooting, hosted political meetings at his hotel, and was an all around standup guy. In 1866 a law was passed in New York State closing saloons on Sundays. The Excise law, as it was called, impacted many hotels and saloons on the Coney Island Road as Sunday was the most popular day for tourists to take the road and, because of that, the most lucrative day for saloon owners. Mort's hotel was clearly not just a bar; it served as a community center and thus it survived the law's passage. The Eagle commented that "There are still, however, a few good hotels on the road that can stand the pressure, and first of all comes the well-known establishment kept by Mortimer Tunison, familiarly known as 'Mort.' This is the headquarters not only of the roadman, but of all classes that patronize the road, and has all the requisite accommodations, drawing rooms, handsome gardens and shrubbery on the one side, for the accommodation of ladies and children, and on the other, the extensive piazza and bar room, where Michael Rickards presides."

Michael Rickards was such a well-known bartender that he actually had his photo published in the Eagle.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 23 July 1905.

He appears in the New York State census record from 1865 along with all the other residents of Tunisons:

Mort (50), Mort's (much younger) Irish wife Mary Ann (30), his daughters Harriet (16), Mary (9), and Rachel (3), his brother Samuel, Michael the bartender, as well as four domestics (three of whom were also Irish). 

New York State Census Bureau. Flatbush, N.Y. 1865. Print. 

Mort was described by friends as a man with a "singularly joyous temperament" who was "an inveterate practical joker. Nothing pleased him better than to get his friends into jocular entanglements." He was also quite the pillar of morality and was "intolerant of anything unseemly, and nothing of the kind was ever attempted at his place." It was said that men's wives and daughters were just as safe at Tunison's as they were in their own parlors. Alas, not even Mort's impenetrable parlor could save Mort from himself.

As Ocean Parkway developed, the Coney Island Road felt the effect. Many hotels and stores picked up and moved their business to take advantage of the well-traveled Parkway. Mort refused, and tried to keep his place of business exactly as it had been for the previous twenty years. Sadly, his finances took a hit as his rooms and bar sat empty. There is a good chance that Mort's attention lay not on his finances (or lack theirof) in the late 1870s, rather on his ailing daughter, Mamie. In 1876 she took ill with consumption, dying in the Spring of 1878. Mamie "was a beautiful and accomplished young lady, the light and life of the family circle." After her death, Mort's health began to deteriorate. He "became affected with a crossing in his eyes which entierly altered his natural cast of countenance and his family and friend were reluctantly forced to realize the fact that his once vigorous mind was disturbed." 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 30 Oct. 1879.

On the morning of October 30th, 1879, Mort's brother went to wake him. Upon entering his room "a shocking spectacle met his gaze. Reclining on the bed was the dead body of his brother, with a ghastly wound in the neck, from which the blood had poured in a thick stream over the bed and on the floor. An open razor, with which he had evidently cut his throat, was lying on the floor close to the side of the bed."


It is clear by the outpouring of kind words that Mort was to be missed. Sadly, his memory would become ever so slightly tarnished by an event that would happen a few years later in his old hotel. 

Nothing immoral ever happened in Tunison's Hotel, but the same cannot be said for the National Hotel, the name by which Tunison's would go when it was sold to one Christopher A. Plath in 1883. Plath also owned the Palace House at 283 Bowery in Manhattan. Just so we're all on the same page, the Bowery was known for its dance halls, drinking establishments, and brothels in the 1880s. The National Hotel was managed by a Mr. and Mrs. Cole, both of whom had records for violating the Sunday drinking law. 

On March 15th, 1884, a Mrs. Mabel Robinson met her tragic end in the parlor of the hotel. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 15 Mar. 1884.

Slumped in a chair. Naked. Burned. 

Double yikes. 

The Eagle followed the story. Mrs. Robinson was separated from her husband (not the first time) and had fled to a friend's in Brooklyn. The reason for the separation was said to be Mrs. Robinson's love of the drink, though later reports claim it was actually her husband's drinking that caused the drama. Regardless, an unnamed informant reported that Mrs. Robinson had been at the hotel visiting her close friend Mrs. Cole for about a week before her demise and, during that time, she had allegedly 'entertained' a few gentlemen. That fact was never substantiated. It was also said that Mrs. Robinson had been seen wandering the neighborhood intoxicated and with a strange man the evening before her death. 

Mrs. Cole was the last person to see Mabel alive. And the first to see her dead! (It's like an Agatha Christie novel!)

Mrs. Cole's testimony appeared in the Eagle on March 17th, 1884:

I reside at present at Parkerville* L.I., at a place commonly called Tunison: had been acquainted with deceased about one year... I had just got into bed when I heard a scream; I ran downstairs at once and saw deceased running through the "green room" enveloped in flames; I ran to the kitchen and, procuring a pail of water, threw it upon her; after throwing the water upon her she arose and ran into the parlor, where I tried to pull off her burning clothing, but it was unsuccessful; I then ran upstairs and told Mrs. Hogan** who came downstairs with me to the parlor, and we there found deceased sitting in a chair dead; her clothing which consisted of a flannel petticoat, chemise stockings and knit undershirt, were still burning.

* Parkerville? I don't know what that's about.

**A friend staying in the hotel 

Mrs. Cole goes on to say that she discovered a shattered lamp in the kitchen and that she had locked the doors with Mrs. Robinson inside before retiring. With the facts as presented, three theories arose: Mabel let a jealous lover in who struck her with a lit oil lamp, a forlorn Mabel struck herself with a lit oil lamp, or Mabel knocked into a lit oil lamp on accident and lit herself on fire. All three theories involved an intoxicated Mabel.

The most accepted theory seemed to be the latter: a terrible terrible terrible terrible accident. Terrible.

So, that's Parkville. I know, right?

It is amazing to stand on the corner of Foster and Coney Island Avenue today and know that Tunison's Hotel once stood there. And as a final hurrah here is an actual picture of Tunison's! The image accompanied a nostalgic article about old Brooklyn. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 23 July 1905.

Needless to say, I am now super stoked to know that I live in Parkville and have been telling all of my friends about the history of my tiny neighborhood ad nauseam. 

Parkville Pride! I'm making t-shirts. 

A School for Girls and One for Boys

Feb 4, 2015 11:53 AM | 1 comment

It's doubtful that you've heard of James W. Naughton but very likely you have walked passed one of his magnificent buildings. Naughton, an Irish immigrant, moved to Brooklyn when he was eight years old. He became an architect after apprenticing in Milwaukee at the age of fifteen and upon his return to New York, he studied at the Cooper Union. In 1879 he became Superintendent of Buildings for Brooklyn's Board of Education and designed more than one hundred buildings, including Brooklyn's first high school.

Before Brooklyn had any high schools, it had grammar schools.  Central Grammar School, opened in 1878 (known later as Central School) was located on the corner of Court and Livingston Streets in Downtown Brooklyn. The coeducational school was organized for students who graduated grammar school and wanted to pursue higher education. The first floor had small stores while the upstairs housed fourteen classrooms. It didn't take long for the school to become overcrowded, and for years residents of Brooklyn urged for a better and larger public secondary education system.  In 1886 they got their wish when Girls High School was opened.

 Central Grammar School located on Nostrand Avenue between Halsy Street and Macon Street

Robinson's Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, 1886.

Located at 475 Nostrand Avenue, Girls High School is the oldest surviving high school building that was designed to be a secondary school in New York City. Designed by the aforementioned James W. Naughton, it was intended to be the new Central Secondary School for both boys and girls, but there were too many students! Officials decided that only girls would attend the school and promptly renamed the building Girls High school. The boys would have to wait a few years for a second school to be constructed.

Girls High School

Girls High School, 1909

In the early days of Girls High School, there were no clubs, games or dancing. In fact, two girls who were caught waltzing in the basement were nearly expelled. It wasn't until 1902 that the school introduced clubs for its students. In addition to the strict rule of "no fun", girls were not allowed to read fiction during school days, nor were they allowed to check out books from the library. It was also against the rules to talk after they entered the building, especially in the hallways and auditorium. They were, however, permitted to talk during recess and lunch. Needless to say, this is a stark contrast from schools of today.


Girls High School Courses, 1897

Boys High School, located at 832 Marcy Avenue, opened on November 1, 1891. The building, with its giant red walls and high towers, looks more like a castle than a school.

Boys High School, 1911

In the spring of 1896, a scandal rocked both Girls and Boys High Schools. On the corner of Nostrand Avenue, a group of girls from the high school were talking to some boys from Boys High School. Of course, we know at the turn of the century girls and boys could not talk freely on the street to one another without some gossip ensuing. Principal Calvin Patterson overheard the "improper conversations" between his pupils and boys. He was so upset about the interaction that he punished the entire school -- he locked all the doors, ordered the girls to eat their lunch on school grounds and allowed no one off the campus without written permission. Furthermore, all 1,500 girls were instructed to "never flirt with boys" in order to have a "more dignified future." After this incident, the Times wrote an article titled, "Brooklyn school girls angry: They were said to have been forbidden to flirt." Patterson explained to the Times that he locked the doors to protect the girls from speeding trollies and to prevent "sneak thieves from getting into the wardrobes."

The Scandal of 1896

"Where are you going, my pretty maid?"

"I go to the High School, sir," she said.

"May I go with you, my pretty maid?"

"It's against my Principal, sir," she said.

Boys High School had a school newspaper, The High School Recorder in which students wrote short stories, covered athletic news, held contests and reported general goings on about the school.  In 1940, the editors of the paper were lucky enough to meet with Walt Disney.  Below is the telegram confirming Disney's visit to New York to meet with students and the article written for the school paper.

Girls High School handed out its last 150 diplomas on June 25, 1964. The Board of Education merged the two schools in the fall of 1974 by admitting the first group of girls to Boys High School. A brand new Boys and Girls High School building opened in February 1976 located at 1700 Fulton Street. Today, the landmarked Boys High School is home to Brooklyn Academy High School and the landmarked Girls High School is an adult continuing education school. Famous alumni of both schools include Lena Horne, Lylyan Tashman, Florence Eldridge, Isaac Asimov, Norman Mailer, Alan King, and Shirley Chisolm.

This is one of dozens of commencement programs for Girls High School that we have at the Brooklyn Collection.  Dates range from 1890-1941.

Boys High School report card, 1960.

If you have any memorabilia about Girls, Boys, Boys and Girls High School or any other Brooklyn school, consider donating it to the Brooklyn Collection!  And don't forget, there are only two more weeks to check out our exhibition: The Education of Kings: A History of Brooklyn Schools, which closes on February 13th.


Film Screening and Discussion: "Battle for Brooklyn" -- Wednesday, January 28th, 7pm

Jan 23, 2015 1:04 PM | 0 comments

As part of Brooklyn Transitions, a series of programs and events about neighborhood change in our borough, the Brooklyn Collection presents the film "Battle for Brooklyn". This documentary is an intensely intimate look at the very public and passionate fight waged by owners and residents facing condemnation of their property to make way for the controversial Atlantic Yards project, the development plan that created the Barclay's Center (home of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team) and the Pacific Park apartment towers that are currently under construction. Shot over seven years and compiled from almost 500 hours of footage, "Battle for Brooklyn" is an epic tale of how far people will go to fight for what they believe in.

Photo from film: Tracy Collins 

The film starts at 7pm, with discussion to follow.  A wine and cheese reception precedes the program at 6:30pm -- tickets will be distributed at this point.

The program is held in the Brooklyn Collection, on the 2nd floor balcony level of the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.

The Mystery of PS 125

Jan 16, 2015 11:31 AM | 0 comments

Looking at Google Maps, it is plain to see that PS 125 in Brownsville has been abandoned for quite some time. When did the oldest school in the neighborhood close, and why? This researcher started this blog assuming that these would be easy questions to answer. It turns out there is no clear answer to either one.

From its creation in 1900, PS 125 was ill-equipped to handle the influx of Jewish, mostly Russian and Polish, immigrants streaming over the newly opened Williamsburg Bridge from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Four new schools opened in Brownsville between 1905 and 1912, yet this did little to alleviate overcrowding. According to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, PS 125 was renovated in 1917 to include 38 classrooms, 13 of which were "activities" rooms dedicated to classes in drama, workshop, science, cooking, drawing, and other special skills.

PS 125 in 1908, seven years after it opened

A booming population combined with the politics of racial segregation paralyzed progress at the school. PS 125 emerged as a predominantly Black school between 1933 and 1940, when Black children went from being one-third to two-thirds of the student population. From 1940 to 1950 the Black population in Brownsville doubled due to a flood of migrants, mostly from the South. In response, the heavy-handed City Planner of New York, Robert Moses, initiated construction of the Brownsville Housing Projects, which increased the population density of the area. To this day, Brownsville has the highest density of NYCHA-owned buildings in New York City.

Schools in Brownsville were so jam-packed that many students never had access to a full day of schooling. By the 1950s, PS 125 had an enrollment of 767 students (30% over capacity). Around this time, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the waitlists for schools in the area were so long that some parents stopped signing their kids up for school entirely. PS 125, like other overburdened schools, operated in shifts. This made life hectic for parents with more than one school-age child trying to coordinate childcare and meals.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1950

While Black schools were utterly congested, the white schools in the borough were nowhere near capacity. According to Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto, a "1955 government report found that almost all elementary schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods were full or exceeding capacity, while 80,000 seats were vacant in predominantly white schools. The school board refused to enroll Black students in schools located in white neighborhoods, choosing instead to move students amongst overcrowded schools."

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1950

The reality of racial segregation in Brooklyn appears most starkly in the New York City Planning Commission's Plan for New York City. It shows the "Utilization and Enrollment" at Brownsville schools from 1967-68. At PS 125, there were zero "White" students, 83 "Puerto Rican" students and 375 "Negro" students enrolled. Overall, students of color made up 97.6% of all students in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district at that time.

New York City Planning Commission's Play for New York City (3) Brooklyn, 1969
PS 125's statistics are displayed in the second row from the top

Racial tensions began to heat up further in the 1960s, as Black parents lead protests for more community control over school policies and practices. By 1968, the school had likely started the decentralization pilot program with a cluster of other schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district, as mentioned in the New York Times. This new program was designed to give predominantly Black neighborhoods more control and influence over how their schools were run.

These are the last bits of evidence regarding PS 125 and its existence. This researcher has checked public databases and called people at the Department of Education, Department of Buildings, Brownsville Heritage House, Brownsville Community Board, a real estate company that works with the building's current owners, the President of the Brownsville Business Improvement District, and a friend who works at an architecture company, but have yet to find an official closing date for PS 125. (I'm thinking we should post a reward for such information, as it seems absolutely crazy that there is no known record of a public school's closing.) This researcher even took to Twitter to ask Brownsville born-and-raised artist Elaine Del Valle (@brownsvillebred) about the school, where her father worked as a janitor, but she wasn't sure. She thought maybe 1981, but didn't know the reason behind the closure.

"Brooklyn Tomorrow," 1964

Notice on the above map from 1964 that PS 125 is not even listed as an "existing" building where it would be located in the northwest corner of "Brownsville Housing." Perhaps it was already abandoned by this point, rendered structurally deficient, regardless of teachers' strikes or overcrowded classrooms. One can see that the residents of Brownsville had hopes of creating an "Educational Park" between Watkins Street and Rockaway Ave at Livonia Ave, surrounded by middle-income housing, though this dream never came to fruition.

Whatever the story of PS 125's closing, it remains a mystery! One thing is for sure, the journey to that non-answer provides an intriguing history of Brownsville's intense political past.

If you're interested in reading more about Brooklyn's schools and the fascinating stories behind them, check out these other Brooklynology blogs: The Mermen of Brownsville, Borough Park's P.S. 131, a trove of school historyBrooklyn Schools: A Look at Ephemera and More, We Don't Need No Education and stay tuned for our third blog this month on school history to be posted next week.

Also, don't be a stranger! Come visit the Brooklyn Collection and check out our current exhibition on "The Education of Kings" which will be up through February 13, 2015.

Come visit us at the Central Library in Grand Army Plaza!