Category Archives: streets

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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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).

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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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Greetings from Gravesend

There are picture postcards of virtually every community in the country, however small. In some cases they provide the only photographic documentation of a place. Many older views have become scarce and command high prices from collectors. The six Gravesend scenes below were published between 1907 and 1911 by “F. Johnson,” who was very likely Frederick Van Kleek Johnson (1875-1930), keeper of a general store. It’s hard to imagine such a countrified institution existing in Brooklyn, but Gravesend remained a quiet, rural neighborhood into the 20th century, as these postcards attest. You may have seen some of them separately, but here’s the complete set.

1_Johnson_Gravesend_Village_Road_North

[1] Village Road [North], Gravesend, N.Y., ca. 1907-11 {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

[1] Frederick Van Kleek Johnson’s general store occupied the building at the left in this view of Village Road North looking east from Van Sicklen Street towards McDonald Avenue. It stood where Lady Moody Triangle is today. The street names “Village Road North,” “Village Road East,” and “Village Road South,” were not set in stone early on; they were often lumped together under the directionless “Village Road.” Today’s Village Road North was once called “Ryder Place” for the many Ryder family members who lived there.

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[2] Firehouse and Town Hall, Gravesend, N.Y., ca. 1907-11 {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

[2] Gravesend’s last town hall, at 2337 McDonald Avenue (southeast corner of Gravesend Neck Road), went up in 1873. The building held an auditorium on the second floor, a courtroom on ground level, and four basement jail cells. After the City of Brooklyn annexed Gravesend in 1894, the structure housed the predecessor of Fire Engine Company 254. It was demolished in 1913.

3_Johnson__Gravesend_M_E_Church

[3] M. E. Church, Neck Road, Gravesend, N.Y., ca. 1907-11 {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

[3] This small wooden chapel at 14 Gravesend Neck Road began life as the Sunday School / lecture room of the Gravesend Reformed Dutch Church (GRDC). It was built about 1854 near the northwest corner of McDonald Avenue and Gravesend Neck Road, just south of the 1834 sanctuary of the GRDC. When the congregation moved to 121 Gravesend Neck Road in 1893/94, it took the lecture room to the new site to house services while the new church was under construction. In 1899 the little building was sold for one dollar to the fledgling Gravesend Methodist Episcopal Church (GMEC) and moved — for the second time — to the southeast corner of Gravesend Neck Road and Van Sicklen Street. After the GMEC disbanded in 1914, the building housed the Coney Island Pentecostal Church, which replaced it in 1937 with the current stone structure on the site. The latter building is now the First Korean Church of Brooklyn.

4_Johnson_Gravesend_P_S_95

[4] Public School No. 95, Gravesend, N.Y., ca. 1907-11 {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

[4] Gravesend’s first school opened in 1728 near the southeast corner of McDonald Avenue and Gravesend Neck Road. In 1838 it moved to the east side of Van Sicklen Street, north of Gravesend Neck Road, and has remained there, in changing buildings, ever since, eventually coming to be called P.S. 95. The 1888 schoolhouse seen here stood opposite Lama Court, just beside the modern (1915) brick structure of P.S. 95 (at 345 Van Sicklen Street). It survived until a 1939 addition to the newer building forced its demolition.

5_Johnson_Gravesend_Van_Sicklen_Street

[5] Van Sicklen St., looking North [from Avenue T], Gravesend, N.Y., ca. 1907-11 {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

[5] An item in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of July 30, 1899 described two newly-completed houses on Van Sicklen Street, near Avenue T, “costing $1,700 each and standing on plots 55 x 111 feet.” They were very likely nos. 194 and 190 Van Sicklen Street, seen at the left in this view looking north towards Avenue S from Avenue T. They were constructed by the carpenter Peter Wyckoff Johnson (1833-1900), who, incidentally, was the father of Frederick Van Kleek Johnson, publisher of these postcards. No. 190 Van Sicklen (second from left) was recently demolished and replaced by a monstrous McMansion. (I’m sorry if it is your monstrous McMansion, but it has no place on this historic street!)

6_Johnson_Gravesend_Ss_Simon_Jude

[6] Sts. Simon and Judes [sic] R. C. Church, Gravesend, N.Y., ca. 1907-11 {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

[6] The first mass of the Roman Catholic parish of Ss. Simon and Jude was celebrated in a barbershop at 321 Avenue T on Christmas Day, 1897. In 1898 the cornerstone for a permanent church was laid at the northeast corner of Van Sicklen Street and Avenue T. That sanctuary was consecrated in 1899. The current church went up in 1966 on the site of the adjacent rectory (northwest corner of Avenue T and Lake Street), and the old building was demolished for a parking lot after the new one was dedicated in 1967.


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

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Filed under Avenue T, buildings, churches, Gravesend Neck Road, Gravesend Reformed Dutch Church, postal history, Ryder family, schools, streets, Village Road North

Holy Corner

There has been a house of worship at the southeast corner of Gravesend Neck Road and Van Sicklen Street since 1899, when the short-lived Gravesend Methodist Episcopal Church began holding services there in a frame chapel bought from the Gravesend Reformed Dutch Church. (That little chapel moved around a lot in its long life. Click here for the full story.) The Gravesend M. E. Church disbanded in 1914 and its building at no. 14 Neck Road sat vacant for a time. Later it housed the local boy scout troop. Eventually it was acquired by Reverend Giuseppe Greco for his Italian Pentecostal congregation, “Assemblea Christiana Radunatu Di Jesu” (Rallied Christian Assembly of Jesus). In 1937 Reverend Greco replaced the wooden chapel with the current stone sanctuary on the site, calling it (inexplicably) the Coney Island Pentecostal Church (an inscription on the building reads “Coney Island Christian Church”). Reverend Greco’s flock moved in 1979 to the vacant Gravesend Reformed Dutch Church at 121 Gravesend Neck Road, now called Trinity Tabernacle of Gravesend. The stone church at 14 Neck Road is now home to the First Korean Church of Brooklyn, a Presbyterian congregation.


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

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Filed under buildings, churches, Gravesend Neck Road, Uncategorized