The Other White Horse Tavern

News of the recent sale of the building housing the White Horse Tavern has Greenwich Village preservationists worried for the future of that legendary watering hole. Did you know that Gravesend once had its own White Horse Tavern? It stood on the southwest corner of Avenue U and McDonald Avenue–its official address was 286 Avenue U–from the mid-1890s through about 1922. (The current structure on the site was completed in 1927.) The rare and possibly unique postcard below captures the place and maybe shows its owner, too. On his 1910 U.S. passport application, Bavarian immigrant Engelbert Schindlbeck (1868-1921), the proprietor, stood five-foot-six, with a broad forehead, blue eyes, proportionate nose, medium mouth, round chin, brown hair, fair complexion, and round face. That description seems to match the fellow standing front and center, at the corner of the White Horse porch, in dark suit and boater.


Circa 1911 postcard view of Engelbert Schindlbeck’s White Horse Tavern, 286 Avenue U, Gravesend, Brooklyn. (Collection of Joseph Ditta.)

Schindlbeck’s place catered to patrons of the nearby Gravesend Racetrack, offering food and drink below, with hotel rooms to sleep them off above. The track had closed by the time J.E. Reid, the wag who mailed this postcard, visited on July 31, 1911. He wrote: “A friend of mine and my self came down here Sunday morning [July 30]. We got lost, but will be back as soon as we find our way out.” Unlike the poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), whose heavy drinking at the other White Horse Tavern led to his early demise, we suspect Mr. Reid and companion made it out of Gravesend alive.

Screenshot 2019-03-10 at 10.16.49 PM

Google’s street view of the same corner as it looked in June 2018.

Copyright © 2019 by Joseph Ditta (



Filed under Avenue U

Sally Gil’s Gravesend


Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform. Fire Engine Company 253 (center), New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church (second from right).

Riders of the N train (a.k.a. the Sea Beach line) in southern Brooklyn have been tortured since 2015, when the MTA began work to revitalize the system’s nine crumbling, open-air platforms and station houses. Constructed between 1913 and 1915, the line remained largely untouched for a century, with maintenance limited to slathering on layers of beige paint in futile attempt to mask decades of exposure to vandals and the elements.


Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform.

To “expedite” renovations, the line shut down in stages, first the Manhattan-bound platforms, then the Coney-Island bound side. After nearly four years of being forced to ride several stops in the wrong direction to catch a train running the opposite way, things are finally nearing completion. At Avenue U both platforms are open once again and both station houses are looking better than ever, although the one at the southern end is not quite finished as of this writing.


Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform. Magen David Synagogue (upside down, at left), P.S. 95 (center).

I knew the MTA planned to include artwork as part of the Sea Beach improvements, as it had when it renovated the West End (D), Culver (F) and Brighton (B/Q) lines. Those stations are all elevated in this part of Brooklyn, so their artwork has taken the form of translucent panels that filter daylight through images and abstract patterns. Similar installations, but in mosaic tile, have started appearing along the N line, like the botanical-inspired splashes at 86th Street, and the big blocks of color at Bay Parkway, reminiscent of the Max Spivak mural uncovered at 5 Bryant Park in Manhattan.


Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform.

Imagine my happy shock one recent morning when, after boarding a Manhattan-bound N train at 86th Street and snagging a seat, the doors opened at the next stop, Avenue U, and I looked up to see Lady Moody’s House on the wall! The doors closed, leaving me slack-jawed and straining to see what else was there as the train sped away.


Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform. 62nd Precinct station house (center).

That night I couldn’t wait to get home to see if I hadn’t imagined it all. The station had no artwork the day before. But now, miraculously, it had fourteen mosaic tile panels, seven on the Manhattan-bound platform, and seven on the Coney Island side. Those on the Manhattan side show blue skies swirled with clouds and sparkly stars over a dark, asphalt-colored ground. On the Coney Island side, the sky is black and the ground a shimmery blue.


Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform. Masjid Al-Iman Islamic Center (right).

Sitting along the horizon on each panel, sometimes at ground level, sometimes floating askew, and occasionally upside down, are familiar buildings from Gravesend and the greater neighborhood. It’s fitting that I spotted the Moody house first, but I instinctively knew so many more sites. They’re all so realistically done that it’s hard to believe they’re fashioned from small tiles and not painted on canvas.


Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Manhattan-bound platform. Van Sicklen (a.k.a. Lady Moody) House (right of center).

The places I recognize include

  • Van Sicklen House (a.k.a. Lady Moody House), 27 Gravesend Neck Road, built early 18th century, (a designated landmark).
  • Fire Engine Company 253, 2425-2427 86th Street, built 1895-1896 (a designated landmark).
  • New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church, 18th Avenue, built 1828 (a designated landmark).
  • Rear of the house at 2066 West 7th Street between Avenues T and U, as visible from Coney Island-bound platform of the Avenue U Station.
  • P.S. 95, 345 Van Sicklen Street.

Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Antonio Meucci monument (center), Stryker House (right).

  • Magen David Synagogue, 2017 67th Street, built 1920-1921 (a designated landmark); depicted upside down.
  • 62nd Precinct Station House of the New York City Police Department, 1925 Bath Avenue.
  • Masjid Al-Iman Islamic Center, 2015 64th Street, as visible from the Manhattan-bound platform of the 20th Avenue Station; depicted on two panels.
  • Top of the house at 2076 West 7th Street between Avenues U and T.
  • Top of the house at 30 Village Road North; depicted upside down.
  • Monument to Antonio Meucci (1808-1889), inventor of the telephone, in Meucci Triangle, at the intersection of Avenue U, 86th Street, and West 12th Street.

Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Hubbard House in silhouette (center).

  • Top floor and tower of the Stryker house, 346 Van Sicklen Street, opposite P.S. 95.
  • Hubbard House, 2138 McDonald Avenue, built circa 1830-1835 (a designated landmark); depicted in silhouette on three panels.
  • Avenue U station house of the Sea Beach Line.
  • Top floors of the houses at 71 and 75 Avenue U.
  • New York State Education Department sign (1938) at the Gravesend Cemetery (the original of which reads: GRAVESEND | SETTLED IN 1643 BY ENGLISH | QUAKERS [sic] UNDER LADY DEBORAH | MOODY ON LAND GRANTED TO | THEM BY THE DUTCH | GOVERNOR OF NEW AMSTERDAM).

Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Avenue U station house (left of center).

Architectural fragments–awnings, grill-work doors, and rowhouse cornices–are scattered among the panels, as are cups of coffee, a rainbow cookie, and loaves of bread. Tulips and other blooms breathe life into it all.


Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Houses at 71-75 Avenue U (right).

If you have not been to the Avenue U station for a while, go examine these whimsical mosaics for yourself. Go early and plan to miss a morning train. Or linger when you get home at night. I promise it’s worth it. See if you can pick out the images I’ve listed. And tell me if you spot others I’ve missed.


Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Masjid Al-Iman Islamic Center (left), New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church (center).

The artist, Sally Gil, who calls her work “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” was commissioned by MTA Arts & Design to create this permanent series using “found” places from the neighborhood to represent the diversity of its residents, present and past. She placed them along the horizon because that is where “the business of living happens.” As she explained by email, the objects in the mosaics “reference meaningful, mundane, iconic things and places in the neighborhood, all there for people to slowly (or quickly) realize they know.”


Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Hubbard House in silhouette (left of tulips).

Gil’s original, small-scale, mixed media pieces were enlarged and fabricated in glass by Mosaicos Venezianos de Mexico. The artist hopes her work will remind us how “every day we are making our place in the world, and the subway is the conduit that transports us. We live on a physical plane while dwelling in our thoughts and imaginations–the world of our own stories.” We all have the same goal, Gil continues, “To live peacefully, with what we need and want.”


Sally Gil, “Edges of a South Brooklyn Sky,” 2018. Sea Beach line, Avenue U station, Coney Island-bound platform. Hubbard House in silhouette (left), Gravesend Cemetery sign (left of center).

Copyright © 2018 by Joseph Ditta (


Filed under Art, Sea Beach Line

Blue Christmas

You might say I’m a sucker for a cyanotype. If you don’t know that word, it’s pronounced “sigh-AN-o-type,” with the accent on the “AN.” Cyan is really just a fancy name for greenish-blue. A cyanotype is a photograph printed using the same process for blueprints, those white-line architectural drawings on blue paper. But I don’t really care about the science involved. I just love them because cyanotype photographs are hauntingly beautiful. Sad, even. Or maybe that’s just me giving too much weight to their melancholy blueness. Take a look at these Gravesend beauties and you decide. The first three were taken by the artist Charles William Bauhan (1861-1938), or, possibly, his wife, Agda (also an artist), who lived in Gravesend, briefly, during the summer of 1893.


“Summer 1893 at Gravesend L.I.” The Bauhans rented rooms in this Dutch farmhouse from Homer Wiltse (that’s him, leaning on the gate). It stood on the north side of Gravesend Neck Road just east of P.S. 95, and was demolished around 1930 when the schoolyard was expanded.


“1893 | View looking east from window of above house. This house is said to be between 200 & 300 years old.” This is the so-called “Lady Moody House” at 27 Gravesend Neck Road. When the Bauhans lived next door, the Moody House was not quite 200 hundred years old; today it is in the ballpark of 300 and finally an official New York City landmark. The tower just beyond belonged to the Gravesend Reformed Dutch Church on McDonald Avenue, dedicated in 1834 and demolished late in 1893, not long after this photograph was taken.


“Coney I. Creek. | Gravesend | 1893.” That is probably Charles William Bauhan sailing on Coney Island Creek. He painted a small watercolor of the rear of the Coney Island Elephant (see the building below) from that vantage point on June 18, 1893, so perhaps this cyanotype was snapped the same day, possibly by his wife, Agda.


“West End at Coney Island.” This, my favorite cyanotype of all, shows Elephantine Colossus on Coney Island, near the intersection of Surf Avenue and West 12th Street. The Shaw Channel Chute went up around the Elephant in 1889, and both burned to the ground on September 27, 1896. This image probably captures the forlorn structures in their final years.

May your holidays be warm and bright! –Joseph

Copyright © 2017 by Joseph Ditta (

[I am sorry for the obnoxious watermarks, but these are unique images, and I’d rather not have them copied without attribution.]


Filed under Charles William Bauhan, Coney Island, Elephantine Colossus, Gravesend Neck Road, Gravesend Reformed Dutch Church, Lady Moody House

When everything old is new again

Signal malfunctions . . . Track fires . . . Sick passengers . . . Commuting by subway gets worse by the minute, so we New Yorkers moan. That is our god-given right. We pine for the good old days, when trains ran on time, free of “show time” acrobats and seat hogs. But our reverie might not reflect the reality of times past.

August 12, 1906, saw such jaw-dropping chaos in Brooklyn that our present-day gripes about public transportation must wither and die. That day, despite a court ruling that the collection of two fares for a trip to Coney Island was illegal, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (an ancestor of today’s MTA) demanded a second nickel–for a total of ten cents–from trolley riders once they passed Kings Highway on the various lines it controlled: the Sea Beach Railway (today’s N train), the Brighton Line (the B and Q), and Culver Line (the F).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The BRT’s uniformed “police” force ejected every passenger who refused to pay. With hundreds–maybe thousands–of riders out on the street, swarming the tracks, the cars could not move and did not move. For hours. The Culver Line, on Gravesend Avenue (the original name of McDonald Avenue), saw the longest back-up. In the frustrating crush, a girl fell into Coney Island Creek and drowned. (In the photos above, the BRT’s thugs are assembled at the Kensington Station, just south of Ditmas Avenue.)

An unidentified photographer (possibly Edwin Levick) positioned himself in a second-floor window of the Hubbard House, at the southwest corner of McDonald Avenue and Gravesend Neck Road (long since demolished), and caught the day’s mayhem at that intersection. It is hard to recognize our familiar, gritty, elevated-train-track-shadowed McDonald Avenue in these scenes from 1906.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The photographs were reproduced in a series of twenty-odd postcards that are highly sought by insane collectors (your webmaster chief among them) who will pay anything for even the crummiest copies just to complete a set. (I’m missing six. Maybe more. No one knows exactly how many cards there are.) I bought number 11 earlier this week and it arrived today, on the 111th anniversary of the “trouble.”

Just think of these striking images the next time your train is stuck on the bridge due to “congestion ahead.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(Sorry about the obnoxious watermark across the postcards. It’s to stop folks from copying images from this blog and posting them without attribution or my consent.)

Copyright © 2017 by Joseph Ditta (

1 Comment

Filed under McDonald Avenue

On the Avenue

The south side of Avenue U between West 10th and 11th Streets, Brooklyn, as it looked in September 2014. Courtesy of Google Street View {}.

To many Gravesenders the phrase “on the avenue” — as in “I saw him on the avenue” or “she went shopping on the avenue” — refers to one avenue in particular: the neighborhood’s main drag, Avenue U. In proper Brooklyn parlance the word “avenue” is pronounced “aven-yoo,” not “aven-oo.” That should make “Avenue U” come out as “Aven-yoo Yoo,” but it doesn’t. Instead it’s pronounced “Aven-uh Yoo.” Don’t ask why. (Some snoots do say “Aven-oo You,” but they’re too fancy for me.)

My ancestral stretch of “the Avenue” is the south side of Avenue U between West 10th and West 11th Streets. Except for two houses at the corner of West 10th Street (80 and 82 Avenue U), the rest of the block is taken up by an attached row of eight three-story brick apartment buildings–nos. 62-78–designed in the vaguely Tudor style that was popular in Brooklyn in the mid-1920s. Each building has five apartments: two each on the upper stories (front and rear) and one on the ground floor, behind the storefront. The front apartments have four rooms (living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms) and the rear apartments have three (living room, kitchen, and bedroom). Except for the corner building (no. 62), which is three windows wide on Avenue U, all the rest are four windows wide. And the corner building’s apartments are entered from 2101 West 11th Street; the other buildings have alternating pairs of side-by-side entries on Avenue U.

Outside Tony’s Luncheonette at 62 Avenue U, when the Mets won the pennant, 1969.

For decades the block was anchored by two establishments: Tony’s Luncheonette, at 62 Avenue U, on the corner of West 11th, was once called the Mayflower Luncheonette, or something like that. (If it ever had a sign with that name, it was long gone by my time.) Tony was Anthony Salerno, known to the neighborhood as “Tony-the-Mutt” because of his terrible betting record. Losing streak aside, he flipped the tastiest greasy-spoon burgers in the world. But I digress.

The other store, the Varacalli grocery, was run by three generations of that family at 70 Avenue U. It was the archetypal no-frills place that stocked everything under the sun. You could buy toilet paper there in any color you liked so long as it was white.

Armand Varacalli in his grocery store at 70 Avenue U, around 1949

My maternal grandparents and their three children occupied the third floor rear apartment at 66 Avenue U. My mother’s older sister married into the Varacalli family next door, at no. 70 (for some quirky reason, the addresses skip from 66 to 70; there is no 68 Avenue U). My aunt still owns that building, and although she now spends most of her time on Staten Island, she holds the title of longest resident of the block, somewhere in the ballpark of seventy-five years.*

My grandparents moved to West 8th Street in the mid-1960s and stayed there until about 1979, when they moved back to 66 Avenue U–this time to the ground floor apartment. My grandmother remained there until her death in 1995. That year, my mother’s brother, feeling nostalgic, commissioned our cousin, the innately talented, self-taught artist Matt Fontana (born 1940), to create an idealized picture of “the Avenue” (below).

Matt worked from memory and from photographs (compare the snapshot of Tony’s Luncheonette, above, with his rendition of the storefront). He compressed the view a bit, and moved some things (the mailbox, for instance, was really across West 11th Street), but artists have license to do that. All the people are real–the woman seated is my grandmother; next to her sits Joe “Bucko” Varacalli; the guy in the gym shirt is my cousin; the woman entering the door is my mother’s sister; and that’s me, supposedly, sitting profile near the door. The lady leaning out the window is my grandfather’s aunt, Angie Marrano. She actually lived one floor higher in a different building (there’s that artistic license again), and would send down money in a basket on a string for us to pin on St. Anthony when the procession went by. Then she’d haul up the prayer card we got for her dollar.

Pastel fantasy of Avenue U at the southeast corner of West 11th Street by Matt Fontana (b. 1940).

My uncle surprised me last Thanksgiving with this priceless picture. I never lived on “the Avenue,” I only “hung out” there, but when I stare at this scene the stories I’ve heard a thousand times swirl in my brain. Like the one about Signora Ernesta, the hundred-year-old lady (give or take). Or Chubby, the dog who terrified everyone. Or Chubby’s master, Ida, who forced my anemic mother to eat spinach sandwiches. Or the time Tony-the-Mutt served Angie Marrano a cherry-topped sundae that was largely shaving cream. But I digress. Again. Sue me.

*UPDATE: My aunt Jay died today, Saturday 1 July 2017, aged eighty, taking with her the title of Queen of the Block. R.I.P.

Copyright © 2017 by Joseph Ditta (

Leave a comment

Filed under Avenue U