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.

Blue_Christmas_Wiltse_1893_watermarked

“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.

Blue_Christmas_Hicks_1893_watermarked

“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.

Blue_Christmas_Coney_Island_Creek_1893_watermarked

“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.

Blue_Christmas_Elephantine_Colossus_watermarked

“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 (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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

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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).

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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.

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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.”

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(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 (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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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 {https://goo.gl/maps/WpjKgMNrHMA2}.

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 (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Gravesend’s ’70s Toyland

I’d been picking my brain to think of an appropriate Christmas post when I suddenly remembered I had this flyer for Taverna’s toy offerings from around 1979. You remember Taverna’s, I’m sure, with their two stores at 222 Avenue U (south side, between West 5th Street and Van Sicklen Street, where Tre Fontane Restaurant is today) and 229 Avenue U (at the northeast corner of West 4th Street, in the building that originally housed the post office and, most recently, Rite Aid). You could buy anything at Taverna’s, from lawn chairs to socks, but for those of us who were kids in the 1970s, their store at 229 Avenue U was the go-to place for toys. I hope these images will inspire as much nostalgia in you as the do for me. I’d love to hear if you had any of these toys. I still have my “Strolling Bowling,” in its original box! Happy holidays, my friends, and all the best for 2017.  — Joseph Ditta

(Click on each image, then scroll down to the lower right and click “view full size.”)


Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Willy Wonka at the Avalon

The sad news of the death of the uniquely funny Gene Wilder reminded me I had this flier for the 1971 opening of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” at the Avalon Theatre, 1720 Kings Highway. Despite the invitation to “Meet the Wonkaplayers,” I doubt any of the stars appeared at the opening. The S.S. Wonkatania awaits!

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Flier for the opening of “Williy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” June 30, 1971, Avalon Theatre, 1720 Kings Highway, Brooklyn. {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

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Kings Highway in its heyday, looking east from the Brighton Line. Note the Avalon Theatre, at right. {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

A postcard view of Kings Highway in its heyday, looking east from the Brighton Line. Note the Avalon Theatre at right. {Collection of Joseph Ditta}


Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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