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HAPPY NEW YEAR, devoted readers and anyone who may have landed accidentally on my humble six-year-old blog.
For my first post of 2015, here’s a small sampling of seasonally appropriate photos from the Brooklyn Historical Society’s online photo database. It’s a tremendous resource, and great fun to search when you’ve got a free evening or it’s too damn cold to go outside.
The images in this post are lantern slides, glass transparencies to be viewed through a projector (called a ‘magic lantern’) that casts the image on a wall. They were all taken by Adrian Vanderveer Martense (1852-1898), a lawyer by profession and an amateur photographer. Martense documented houses, streets, and his friends and neighbors in Flatbush, as well as momentous events like the legendary blizzard of March 1888 and the moving of the Hotel Brighton in Coney Island in April 1888. He was a member of the Brooklyn Academy of Photography and served as its first recording secretary when it was established in 1887 (it later became the Brooklyn Camera Club).
Top: Adrian Martense, center, with pinhole camera, along with two other men and a boy on a tricycle, c.1880
Martense was descended from Dutch settlers who came to Brooklyn in the 17th century. His family’s land is now part of Greenwood Cemetery. Some of the photos in this post show a rural side of 19th century Brooklyn; others were taken downtown and show buildings that still exist. Most of these were taken on March 15, 1888, when Martense evidently set out to record the aftermath of the great blizzard in several different neighborhoods. And aren’t we glad he did?
Men standing at side of stage sleigh after blizzard
Men clearing snow from Flatbush Avenue train tracks after the blizzard
Children climbing into the back of a horse-drawn sleigh at Flatbush Avenue and Clarkson Avenue following the 1888 blizzard
Man standing in front of City Hall (now Borough Hall) and elevated train tracks after the blizzard
Man in front of coal and wood shop, as other men work to clear snow from the streets at Flatbush Avenue and Bergen Street
Horse-drawn carriage stopped in front of 7 Sutherland Sisters, on Clinton Avenue near the corner of Fulton Street, after the blizzard
People walking between piles of cleared snow at Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, following the blizzard
Horse-drawn carriage in snow-covered street, c.1890
Street car and horse-drawn carriage at Adams Street and Willoughby Street under the elevated train, with men standing on the sidewalk
This is just a tiny sample of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Martense collection; you can see them all right here.
LEAVE BROOKLYN FOR A LITTLE WHILE, you come back and find new things happening left and right. Reacquainting myself with my neighborhood after some months spent mostly out on the East End of Long Island, I’m aware of a definite and positive buzz.
Railroad tracks running along Atlantic Avenue near the newly opened Barclay’s Center. The building on the left is one of many vintage warehouses being developed as office space
Some of it has to do with the newly opened Barclay’s Center, below, long dreaded and much reviled in advance. My surprising assessment, now that it’s here: not bad. I was never enthused about the idea of a basketball arena at the intersection of Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, and Prospect Heights, fearing that with Bruce Ratner as developer, it would turn out something like the bland horror that is Madison Square Garden — especially when Frank Gehry dropped out as architect. But neither was I unutterably opposed to the project, since the area was already blighted, made up mostly of railroad yards that added nothing to the surrounding district, and it threatened to remain like that forever if planned projects kept failing to launch.
The surprising thing is that I don’t mind the architecture, by the Manhattan-based firm SHoP. It’s a rusty hulk, not necessarily in a bad way. It’s interestingly articulated and pleasing at night, when light shines through slots in the steel cladding. There’s a swooping marquee with a keyhole open to the sky that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and a new subway entrance with a sedum-planted roof. I find it less objectionable than expected at worst, exciting at best.
A new mural has appeared since I last looked on the side of the Mark Morris dance studio, part of the BAM Cultural District
Traffic is whizzing along Flatbush Avenue like never before, thanks to new lanes and personnel. There are complaints by neighbors, to be sure, about arena patrons peeing in the bushes of surrounding brownstone blocks. If urine is the worst problem, I’d say it’s been worth it for the economic engine this thing is likely to be. Vacant storefronts on the avenue are fewer. The Fulton Street corridor in Fort Greene is packed with newish restaurants and shops of a decidedly gentrified nature. Fulton Street! If I could tell you how inconceivable it was in 1979, when we bought an 1830s row house nearby for $36,000, that the neighborhood would ever be — not only desirable, but the essence of hip. We stepped over bums (that’s what we used to call them) on our stoop daily, couldn’t get Manhattan friends to visit, and traveled by bus to shop in Brooklyn Heights. Of course that was 33 years ago; but that’s how long it can take for a neighborhood to turn fully around.
It’s turned. The other night, my sister and I met at No. 7, a bar/restaurant that comes by its retro feel honestly; it’s part of a great row of old wooden storefronts where Greene Avenue meets Fulton. After a fancy gin cocktail — muddled blueberries and elderflower liquer, don’t ya know — we repaired to the cozy Cafe Lafayette around the corner, where I had a very satisfying couscous dish for a few dollars. Then we hied over to the newest performance space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (above, the main Opera House), the BAM Fisher, below, a 1928 building refurbished and expanded to accommodate more of BAM’s uncompromisingly avant garde productions. We saw ‘Elsewhere,’ part of the New Wave Festival, billed as a cello opera. All I knew going in was that it was about women, and the tickets were $20. It was both exhilarating and disturbing, a combination of movement, sound, spoken word, projections, performance art, and bizarre imagery. The good news: it was only 70 minutes long and we left laughing.
The high-rise development of lower Flatbush Avenue, near the Manhattan Bridge, is creeping northward. A sliver of skyscraper at #29 Flatbush, below, is still crane-topped but already very tall.
Soon the 1929 Williamsburgh Savings Bank, below, for decades the tallest building in Brooklyn at 29 stories, will be eclipsed by many others. So it goes. As long as the architecture of the brownstone neighborhoods is protected (and for the most part, it is), I’m generally in favor of what seems like real progress. Where the Barclay’s Center is concerned, I may never go to a Nets or Islanders game, and I’m not one for huge arena concerts, but so far, I’m a fan.
Mansard roof with dormer windows, Prospect Place. You can see them in the row of brownstones on the left in the second vintage photo, below.
IF I COULD HOP into a time machine and go back to Brooklyn in 1914, I would. I’m not sure how long I’d stay; I’d want an open return ticket, just in case I missed some things about the 21st century.
But old photographs, like the ones in this post from the site Brooklynpix, which claims the most comprehensive collection of vintage Brooklyn photos anywhere, are sure a balm for eyes tired of bad contemporary architecture, ugly cars, brash advertising signs, and lately, heaps of garbage on dirty snow.
Above, an undated view of Flatbush Avenue looking north (toward downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan) from Prospect Place. The buildings are crisp and uniform, the signage tasteful. Of course, it was all relatively new back then, this area having been developed mostly in the 1870s and ’80s. Below, the same block today.
Prospect Place in 1914, looking east from Flatbush Avenue, below, had trees and lovely striped window awnings. The turreted building on the right, once a real estate office, is now a burrito place.
Below, the same block as it looks today (I couldn’t get exactly the same angle as in the vintage shot without standing right in the middle of Flatbush Avenue, which would be foolhardy). The six-window-wide brownstone, third from the left in the contemporary shot, below, is the one in the left foreground of the view above.
It’s easy to match up the red building with the Romanesque arches in the picture, above, with the same one in the 1914 picture below, a slightly different angle on the same block.
If I’m not mistaken, the shop with the barber pole in front, above, is now a hairdresser’s. Some things never change.
BET YOU CAN’T GUESS — unless you noticed the tags– the location of that rustic-looking barn, above. Well, I’ll tell ya. It’s the Prospect Park Zoo here in Brooklyn. I went there yesterday for the first time in years (first time ever without children in tow).
I was in search of a subject for a photography workshop I’m taking at the new 92Y Tribeca. The assignment: to take an animal portrait that captures “something essential” about the subject, ideally a “magic moment” — and to try and get beyond the “awwww…how cute” factor.
That is almost impossible when you’re dealing with alpacas, like the pair above. For purposes of the class, I had to reduce the final number of images to three (all of one animal), from about 100 shots I took of sea lions — fast shutter speed required — and various other creatures.
African pygmy goat (didn’t get his name)
Ultimately, I zeroed in on Bonnie the Cotswold sheep, below. I had to eliminate many shots of her for my class presentation, because the awww factor was just too great.
Fortunately, I have this blog, so even though it’s off-topic, please indulge my sharing a few of my ‘extra’ shots. And do get over to the Prospect Park Zoo. You’ll probably feel, as I do, that you’ve made a lot of new friends.
I NEVER MIND A GOOD SNOW DAY. It’s a guilt-free chance to stay home and make soup, clean closets, go through old photos — all of which I did yesterday. But by Snow Day 2, I get antsy. Come on, Mayor Bloomberg!! Would you believe that the streets of my Brooklyn neighborhood, Prospect Heights, are still not plowed two days after the storm?
Even the mighty Flatbush Avenue, above, was unplowed yesterday afternoon, when I ventured around the unshoveled corner for juice and magazines.
Mounds of snow have such a pretty way of emphasizing the graceful lines and details of brownstone architecture. That’s my block, below.
On Park Slope’s Sixth Avenue, below, as on most of the area’s streets, it was like the 19th century, but without the horses.
Now this fellow had the right idea…