About Time: Fort Greene Way Black Then

•March 6, 2020 • Leave a Comment

                                                                 “About Time” 

                                                  Fort Greene: Way Black Then

 By S.Eric Blackwell

Abstract

“About Time” Fort Greene: Way Black Then, is an essay that features news articles recent and archival photographs, interviews and video footage of Fort Greene.  The essay will highlight the diversity and socioeconomic prosperity of one of New York’s oldest Black enclaves from the mid – 1800’s until 2010.  This project will also look back at some of the first Black-owned businesses as well as today like Franks Cocktail Lounge, White Funeral Home and recent success stores like Brooklyn Moon Café, and The Black Forest, Beer Garden, and Restaurant.

The project looks at Black movement Fort Greene during four periods,

1850–1920, “Black churches, Black schools and Black business”

1921–1950, “Slum clearance equals Negro removal”

1951–1980 “Landmarks Preservation and Caveat Emptor: The Creation of Fulton Mall”

1981– 2010, “Light, Cameras and Gentrification”

 

 

“About Time”

Fort Greene:  Way Black Then

Little is written about Fort Greene’s first Black population; however Seth Scheiner in Negro Mecca writes that by 1860 the Black population of Brooklyn was concentrated in two communities with 53.3% living in the Borough Hall/Fort Greene area (Scheiner 1965).

By 1850, the population of Brooklyn grew to nearly 100,000 and Fort Greene was still primarily a squatter camp. Urbanization began intensely by 1839 when the City of Brooklyn mapped the neighborhood into a grid pattern.  The northern end was initially a built-up working-class area, and the southern end was relatively undeveloped.  Reflective of this division is that Fort Greene Park was originally intended for the working class and the southern end was basically undeveloped (Blackwell 2008). Before Fort Greene developed as a middle-class residential district, it was home to some of the most notorious shantytowns in New York outside of the Five Points district in Manhattan.  Many of these “shantytowns” could be found along Myrtle Avenue, primarily in the footprint of what would become Fort Greene Houses.  While legend has it, the first “shantytown” on Myrtle Avenue was erected by a colored man by the mid 1800’s Irish presence had created a “Young Dublin” according to a Daily Eagle editor, Walt Whitman.  The first major development to have an impact on Fort Greene was the development of the Brooklyn Navy Yard (BNY) in 1801. The Yard had been inactive for several years.  Construction was not started until 1805, when the first six buildings were built, and Brooklyn did not receive its first commandant until June 1, 1806. During the War of 1812 more than 100 ships were built-in at BNY. BNY built ships that participated in the invasion and blockade of Mexico during the Mexican War.  BNY was on the cutting edge of technology of that era with the introduction of steam as a means of propulsion.  In the years before the Civil War BNY launched 21 major ships (Berner p 9).

The architectural structure of the buildings changes dramatically from frame houses in the late 1840s through the 1850s.  However during the Civil War era up until the late 1880s beautiful brick and brownstones were introduced to this area. Because of the close proximity to downtown Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, a rural landscape drew industry moguls, who tore down the suburban villas that had been erected for the middle class and built a mansion in their place. This is where Architect, Sir Charles Eastlake[1] designed some of the most popular buildings in the 1870s.  These buildings are of neo-Grec, Italianate and Second Empire styles which can be seen on South Oxford Street between Lafayette and DeKalb Avenues.

Simultaneously while this newfound industrialization was taking place, it was still in the early-mid 1800s and Fort Greene was primarily a squatter camp. Urbanization began intensely by 1839 when the City of Brooklyn mapped the neighborhood into a grid pattern.  The northern end was initially a built-up working-class area, and the southern end was relatively undeveloped.  Reflective of this division is that Fort Greene Park was originally intended for the working class and the southern end was basically undeveloped (as point out by Professor Blackwell during the lecture and tour (Fort Greene) on 6/5/08). Across from this housing complex is, where the Blacks (squatters) were located and the introduction to what is known as the “Projects” or today delicately put, “public housing” was born.

The BNY influenced the ecosystem of this area for years as numerous businesses and services sprouted to serve workers employed there. During the middle decade of the 19th Century, Fort Greene grew in rapid proportions.  Perhaps it was gentrification in the early stages, some could speculate, however in the middle of the 19th Century the section of Fort Greene known also Clinton Hill became more upscale, attracting barons of the day such as Charles Pratt,[2] who was a partner at Standard Oil,[3] and coffee merchant John Arbuckle (Freeman 2006).

During the middle of the 19th Century, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank became the tallest building in Fort Greene. This landmark tower was designed by the Halsey McCormack and Helmer architectural firm and stands 34 stories tall and is a compass and timepiece (four sided clock) for many to catch their bearings and find their way around Brooklyn.

 

Fort Greene:  The Untold Story

Fort Greene’s Black population was fostered by and the result of several chains of events that occurred upon Lincoln’s election in 1860. First came, South Carolina’s secession from the Union, and this brought on the Civil War.[4] The residents had not given their full vote to Lincoln, however, they were strongly pro-Union and in favor of abolition. New York State had outlawed slavery in 1827. Brooklyn’s first “Colored” school, is situated where the Walt Whitman Houses are today, opened 20 years later. Shortly after that in 1857 Abolitionist formed the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.  Black accomplishments are almost always denied, yet some facts slip through; Things like the principal of Coloured School No. 1 (P.S. 67) in 1863 was a Black woman and in when it opened in 1847 one of the teachers on the original log was a Black woman named Gertrude Johnson the great aunt of current Ebony and Jet publisher John H. Johnson.

By 1882 Dr. Phillip A. White became the first Black member of Brooklyn’s Board of Education. The village of Weeksville[5] near Schenectady Avenue, where some Fort Greene Blacks relocated, also produced the first Black police officer in New York City.

 

 

In the early 19th century, free Blacks in Brooklyn began to organize social and mutual benefit societies, including the Brooklyn African Woolman Benevolent Society (1810), which established the first free Black school in Brooklyn; the Brooklyn Temperance Association (1830), the Brooklyn African Tompkins Society (1845) and the Colored Political Association of the City of Brooklyn and Kings County. Begun by newly emancipated African Americans in communities such as Weeksville, these organizations were essential in advancing education as well as political and activist efforts. They also helped family members in crisis, providing a variety of social services, from burial costs to caring for the sick, elderly and orphaned. Many early Brooklyn churches sponsored charitable societies, fraternal and sororal orders, social and literary circles, and political associations.  At the turn of the century, Brooklynites developed local chapters of national organizations such as the National Urban League (1913) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1914). www.weeksvillesociety.org/members-of-the-garn

 

 

Fort Greene:  The Untold Story – “Moving On Up” – Past as Prologue

Meanwhile, the former squatter’s area beyond Myrtle Avenue toward the Navy Yard, was described in an 1890 New York Observer article as “principally tenements and small dwellings,” where the Irish and “colored population existed.”  These poor neighbors were relegated to the other side of the park (Hancock 2005).

A few years later in 1894 Mr. Hiram S. Thomas, a wealthy Black man from upstate New York, purchased one of the newly built townhouses on Fort Greene Place, then known as an “aristocratic thoroughfare,”. His purchase was viewed by many of the white residents of Fort Greene Place as a calamity and they held several indignation meetings according to a front-page Daily Eagle, article dated October 1, 1894. It was rumored that the first woman doctor in Fort Greene Mrs. Emma Andiron, wrote a letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, warning that if Mr. Thomas were to be permitted to live in the neighborhood, it would “depreciate the value of our property.” According to building records, Mr. Hiram S. Thomas and his family never occupied the building, selling it less than two months after he’d purchased it (Hancock 2005).

 

Published: October 3, 1894

Copyright © The New York Times

 

Fort Greene’s impact on the Black population of Bedford Stuyvesant is evident in the movement of Black churches started in Fort Greene and eventually relocated to Bedford Stuyvesant as the Black population expanded further eastward.  The Bridge Street AME church originally on Bridge Street, and the Concord Baptist originally on Concord Street.

During a 20 year span from 1960 – 1980, professional Blacks (Spike Lee included) came to the area and restored it according to the specifications of the Landmark Preservation Commission. Gentrification is written all over Fort Greene. Unfortunately, once this process starts, the privileged folks come to inhabit the land and “the Blacks relocated.” Conversely, a few Black residents and business owners have managed to keep their heads above water and remain in the community of Fort Greene; one such place is Franks Cocktail Lounge.

On the other hand, you have more businesses like DARE Books who can’t afford the rent in order to stay in Fort Greene and have been forced to close its doors after providing cultural insight to the African American Community for over two decades.

 

 

Fort Greene Gentrification Style

 

Once upon a time, gentrification was distinctly depicted, as a process that took place in European villages, where entrepreneurs would rebuild Victorian Homes.  It was a process of rebuilding, but it didn’t include displacing local residents; in fact, the rebuilding took place in deserted areas.  It was kind of like Portland Oregon, where the city had been like a ghost town before the capitalist decided to rebuild and bring it back to life.

Today gentrification includes the displacing of long time community businesses and residents. Gentrification’s brute impacts are multifaceted, affecting different people differently and even the same individuals in different ways. More than not, those most threatened by gentrification are likely to be underprivileged, underserved and blindsided by ill effects of urban renewal.

The writer Colson Whitehead lamented about the change in his neighborhood, he stated, “Soon enough, you’ll be able to go to Amazon and order a starter kit for these transformations: Gentrification in a Box. The contents include one economically depressed neighborhood, a bargain compared with other places in the city; one wave of artists looking for a place to hang their easels and sleeping bags; one handful of the young and priced-out; one dozen lucky landowners and real-estate speculators rolling dice; one gaggle of new businesses looking for a foothold. If you can afford it, the Deluxe Edition comes with a branch of Corcoran, for that extra-fine, glossy finish” (Colson 2004).

Professor Sanchez brought up this point as well, when he stated that when gentrification takes place you can no longer find the products you are accustomed to buying from your local bodega.  It is very disconcerting to not be able to shop at the corner bodega for your comfort foods, and beverages. It’s confusing to go to the corner Bodega and it’s owned by an Arab family instead of a Hispanic family.  Just when you were comfortable learning a few choice words in Spanish, now you have to train your ear to understand a totally different dialect, you have to get used to another culture, and you have to accept that this ex-bodega will no longer be your safety net, security blanket, and your “comfort food.”

Freeman took a poll of neighborhoods that have been gentrified and came up with these answers, “Gentrification has its good—because it brings police protection to the neighborhood; it brings up property value; it creates additional amenities such as boutiques and restaurants,” (Freeman 2006).  However, Professor Blackwell’s provocative statement rings true when he quoted Willie Tolbert, “Give me back my Ghetto.”

 

 

Works Cited

Berner, T. F. (1999). The Brooklyn Navy Yard (Images of America). Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing.

Blackwell, S. E. (2008, May 6). Brooklyn’s Community Tradition. New York.

Eastlake, S. C. (1847). Methods and Materials of Painting of the Great Schools and Masters. New York: Brown and Green.

Freeman, L. (2006). There Goes the ‘Hood’ “Views of Gentrification from the Ground Up.”. Philadelphia,, PA: Temple University Press.

Hancock, C. R. (2005, December 1). Rich Man/Poor Man. The Booklyn Rail .

Sanchez, J. (2009, January 29). Lecture: Cinema and the City. Do The Right Thing Production Notes . New York.

Scheiner, S. (1965). Negro Mecca: A History of the Negro in New York City, 1865-1920. New York: New York University Press.

Whitehead, C. (2004, May 3). “Don’t You Be My Neighbor”. New York Real Estate , p. 1.

[1] Eastlake although a renowned painter himself, was also one of the world’s foremost experts on the techniques of painting. He devoted several years traveling throughout England and Europe where he searched through museums, monasteries, universities, and libraries steadily gathering a collection of rare manuscripts from which he was able to reconstruct the technical secrets of the great painters of the past and use them in his architectural design.

[2] Charles Pratt became an advocate of education and founded and endowed the Pratt Institute which bears his name.

 

[3] Standard Oil was established in 1870 by John D. Rockefeller, founder and chairman. What made it so unique was that it was predominantly an American, integrated oil producing – refining, transporting, and marketing company.  It was the world’s first and largest multinational corporations until the United States Supreme Court in 1911 broke it up into 34 companies because of the breaking of Anti-Trust Laws (deeming it a monopoly).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Granada Hotel(R) (1927) was a 16 story building; a luxury hotel, in fact, for the rich and famous.  However, by the late 60s and early 70s, it transformed into what was known as the eyesore of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and its patrons.  It became a welfare hotel for the homeless changing its name to the Brooklyn Arms. Sad to say this hotel (I personally witnessed) became a roach and rat-infested hotbed for the economically challenged. Families who were victims of a fire or a Slum Lord became regular residents. Then drug entrepreneurs came in to be their savior inspiring some to leave the planet for a moment or permanently (and in turn, they made a fast dollar for themselves) and the inception of the Rockefeller Laws ensued giving birth to repeal to what is known as the Drop the Rock Campaign.  BAM and its patrons didn’t see these residents as victims but as nothing more than a ghastly eyesore. On the other hand, the Brooklyn Arms subjects saw BAM and its patron’s as high and mighty snots peering down on them. This set the wheels in motion for a permanent remedy… and so this Fort Greene legacy came to an unceremonious (forgotten) close, in 1994, thus (ironically) becoming the parking lot for BAM and its patrons.

 

[4] The American Civil War (1861–1865), also known as the War Between the States and eleven Southern slave states declared their secession from the U.S. and formed the Confederate States of America. The Union included only the freed States and the five slaveholding States led by Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party. The Confederacy was led by Jefferson. Southerners feared losing control of the Federal Government to antislavery forces.  Finally, all slaves in the Confederacy were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, which stipulated that slaves in Confederate-held areas, but not in border-states or in Washington, D.C., were free. Slaves in the border-states and Union-controlled parts of the South were freed by state action. The war produced over a million casualties (3% of the population), including over a half-million soldier deaths.

[5] Weeksville was a village founded by Blacks who were freedmen in the borough of Brooklyn, New York.  It was named after James Weeks, an African American freedman who purchased the land in 1838 from another freed Black man.  This neighborhood today is known as Bedford-Stuyvesant.

 

Fort Greene Black Then and Now

•January 23, 2020 • Leave a Comment

img_4715Artwork: Ajamu Kojo

Negro in Fort Greene

•October 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

See full article from The Brooklyn Eagle which appeared October 1, 1894

Below: 131 Fort Greene Place