New York City – Some Recollections Of Old Brooklyn

THE Brooklyn of which I write is a different city from the one we know today, entirely different. The buildings have changed, the streets -have changed, and the people have changed, and there are a great many more families in the village than when I was a boy playing among its vacant lots and selling water around the Union grounds at a cent a glass, and when the water got very warm, dropping the price to “as much as you could drink for a cent.” The people do not seem to me to be so neighborly nor so approachable as the people I used to know on our block. On summer nights we all used to sit out on the front stoop and the young folks would start some popular song like “Wait Till the Clouds Roll By, Jennie,” or “Juanita, Soft Over the Mountains,’ or some other favorite. And all the other stoops would presently join in the singing, which made it a very enjoyable and neighborly affair.

Opposite my home on Marcy Avenue, I looked out upon the smiling acres of the old Wyckoff farm in the 70’s, and I consider myself among the few men-who were fortunate enough to witness the harvesting of a wheat crop on land in Brooklyn now covered with apartment houses in endless succession. In my day the city was seldom called by its real name, but was affectionately referred to as the “City of Churches” or the “City of Homes.” I think that that appellation is still to a large extent true of Brooklyn today.

It has always been a remarkable city in more ways than one. A few years ago it gave Taft a majority of 27,000 when all the rest of the country turned him down, and the next year it gave Hearst 57,000 majority while the rest of the state did exactly the reverse. The civic independence of Brookyn passeth all understanding. The same city that gave us Seth Low also gave us John F. Hylan, and until Brooklyn makes up its mind, we shall not know whether a League of Nations is a good thing or a bad one.

There seem to be two very distinct Brooklyns : the one forever a butt of ridicule at the hands of newspaper paragraphers; the other a city of intellectual accomplishment, of a cultured society and a home-loving and God-fearing people. Marshall P. Wilder made a whole lot of money out of his single reference to the building of a subway between New York and Brooklyn, which he said was constructed so that a New York man could go to Brooklyn without being seen. Chauncey Depew used to describe Brooklyn as being always between pleasure and the grave, because it lay between New York and Greenwood Cemetery.

A writer in the New York Sun on one occasion raised the question as to whether a Brooklyn man ever blacked his boots, and another correspondent replied to the effect that he had recently rode in a Brooklyn street car and saw a man who had not only his boots blacked, but his eyes blacked as well. Another observing citizen said he noticed an old lady coming out of the subway at the City Hall who stood somewhat bewildered at the crowds at the Bridge entrance. One of the policemen approached her sympathetically and asked her if she did not want to go to Brooklyn and she replied, “No; I have to go.” The cartoonists find it sufficient to draw a procession of baby carriages propelled by men along a border of rubber plants, in order to indicate Brooklyn. And so between the work of the dramatist who starts a play, “Why a Girl Leaves Home, and ends it with the next line, “Because She Lived in Brooklyn,” to the artist whose work I have just described, the city does not begin to get the credit to which it is entitled.

One has only to recall Brooklyn’s pre-eminent position in the field of educational work, her great and commanding influence in the religious world, her magnificent park-way and her many noble public improvements to appreciate her greatness and importance. I am told, and I believe it is true, that there exists nowhere in this world the equal in artistic beauty and magnificent conception to the Soldiers’ Arch at the entrance to Prospect Park. The genius who created this magnificent memorial also astounded the world by the brilliance of his work at the great World’s Fair in Chicago, where his fountain in the’ Court of Honor challenged the admiration of artists the world over. It is no small credit to this wonderful city that it was one of her native sons who created this imperishable work of art, and that Frederick MacMonnies played around the streets of Brooklyn Heights as a boy, grew up in the city, and found his talents acknowledged and recognized in the place of his birth before the world took him up.

So when one has under consideration such complex material, and so mysterious a body of men and women as constitute the great city of Brooklyn, he has a task of no mean dimensions. It is doubtless true that I am unable to refer to many two-story houses that have been sup-planted by a fifty or sixty-story structure, as in the case of New York. Yet if New York’s material progress is more manifest to the eye, so also is Brooklyn’s spiritual progress to the soul.

I shall therefore content myself with a sketch of Brooklyn as I knew it in the 70’s and 80’s, and try to pass in brief review some of the salient features of the city as it then appeared to me and more particularly the “E. D.,” and I will try to analyze the causes which, for some occult reason, imbued the W. D. with what seemed to me a sense of superiority.

Nothing I have ever encountered since these early days will equal the scorn and disdain with which a young lady from the Heights would remark to me upon learning of my residence, “Oh, you are from the E. D.” Nothing more was ever added. But it was enough. There seemed to be nothing left for anybody to do who came from the E. D. but to dry up and blow away. There was no use of protesting against this attitude, for in that case, the young ladies would simply change it to “You’re from Williamsburg,” and of course everybody knew that that was the last word in contempt. Undoubtedly, the Heights in those days corresponded to the best knowledge we now have of heaven. As it was, there-fore, impossible for a native son of the E. D. to aspire to residence on the Heights, so he did the next best thing and moved away. He has lived, however, to see the mighty fallen; and to observe unfortunately the once proud and cultured precincts of Brooklyn Heights brought to the level of ordinary everyday boarding houses.

They tell me that in the Park slope some of the glories of the Heights have been preserved, but I belong to a past generation—to the generation that was accustomed to the forest of masts that clustered ’round the docks—below the heights—to the clipper ships that bore the house flags of Brooklyn merchants from Java Head to New York in a hundred days. When these galleons disappeared there also disappeared a distinct era in the life of Brooklyn—never to return.

Notwithstanding the superciliousness of society on the Heights, the young ladies and young gentlemen in the E. D. contrived to exist and amuse themselves after a fashion, even if it was perhaps a simpler fashion. In the circle in which I moved, one of our favorite dissipations were surprise parties. We met at each other’s houses and from there marched in a body to the home of one of our mutual friends who was popularly sup-posed to be in entire ignorance of the intended festivities. Occasionally this surprise was a great success and our young friend was caught wholly unprepared. Some-times she had her hair done up in curl papers just ready to go to bed, and other times she was helping mother wash up the dishes after a supper later than usual. But in the majority of instances, news of our coming leaked out in some way and the family was carefully prepared for our reception, and simulated with more or less success, unfeigned surprise at the appearance of the party.

The invitations were quite informal, the dignity of engraving not even being considered. You were cordially invited to meet at the residence of Miss So-and-so to attend a surprise party, and there was always a post-script which read, “P. S.—Please furnish oranges,” or apples, or cake, as the case might be. After a while this modest request was omitted and the invitations then read “Gents assessed 25c.” This was considered quite an advance in the social scale and a very distinct improvement over the plebeian method of bringing your contribution in a paper bag. With the gradual growth of wealth and culture in the eastern district, however, this primitive method of entertainment gradually decreased until it ceased altogether, and thereafter the hostess provided all the refreshments and you were simply expected to honor them with the pleasure of your company. I have been to many gatherings in many parts of the world since those green and salad days, but I have yet to recall one which lingers in my memory with greater fragrance and with more lovable association than the various nights that I spent in the old E. D. the guest of a surprise party where I furnished oranges, or cake, or candy.

The next great popular form of entertainment was undoubtedly the Sunday parade on Bedford Avenue in the afternoon. It must be remembered that everybody who aspired to be anybody, belonged to one of our churches, and that all of these churches had Sunday school in the afternoon, which terminated at four o’clock. At that hour, by common consent, all the young people gravitated to the Avenue, and as there were about a dozen churches in the immediate neighborhood the stream of promenaders grew to quite respectable proportions. By common consent it was given up to the younger element, and I remember with what pleasure and excitement I would doff my hat to sundry and various young ladies whom I had met socially during the week or previously. It was a moral certainty almost that if you were anxious to meet any particular young lady whom you had not seen recently, you could accomplish your purpose quite naturally on Bedford Avenue. The Avenue ended at the fountain, which marked the beginning of Fourth Street. Fourth Street, I understand, has since been added to Bedford Avenue, and no longer enjoys a separate existence.

The residences on both sides of the Avenue were of a very substantial character, and were occupied by families quite equal, if not superior, from the point of means, to their more lordly neighbors on the Heights. There were many famous homes on the Avenue, that of Mrs. Knapp’s being among the better known. Mrs. Knapp’s interest in St. John’s Church and in all musical affairs in the eastern district made her magnificent home the headquarters for many delightful receptions and entertainments of this character, and around this home centered much of the social life in the eastern district.

Upon one occasion, General Grant, then in the very height of his popularity, was a guest of Mrs. Knapp, and I remember that the event was chronicled as of the highest importance. Practically every man of eminence in the eastern district was invited to meet the General and in that neighborly way we had all the rest of us considered that the General was our guest as well as Mrs. Knapp’s, but only Mrs. Knapp had the proper kind of house and one sufficiently large in which to do proper honor to so prominent a citizen as the great Union General.

Anniversary Day was a red letter day in the annals of the Eastern district. That was another little difference between the Eastern District and the Western. We always had our children’s parade a week or two earlier than the western division. Exactly why this was so I do not remember; at all events, we children looked for-ward to this celebration with an interest that I cannot possibly describe. Nothing in my life that I can recall, before or since, ever equalled the anticipation with which I looked forward to the Anniversary parade. I belonged to Dr. Edward Eggleston’s church on Lee Avenue, corner of Hewes Street, and I was a member of a small military organization which was attached to the Sunday School, and was known as the “Christian Endeavor Zouaves.” We were gorgeously arrayed in red shirts and blue trousers, with a red stripe down the sides. We wore the regulation Grand Army cap, trimmed with gold braid, and carried a wooden gun. For months before the parade we were drilled in the manual of arms and on this day of days a space was cleared for us in front of the Fountain and there we went through our evolutions to the delight and amazement of our friends and relatives.

Exactly why we should have had a military organization attached to a church I have never been able to ascertain, especially to the Church of Christian Endeavor, which Dr. Eggleston always wished to have called the Church of Christ the Carpenter. My own theory was, however, that it was due to the fact that our Captain, A. G. Brown, who kept a shoe store on Fourth Street, was an ex-army officer of the Civil War and felt impelled to keep up the military spirit and to keep alive the patriotism inculcated by his strenuous experience with the Boys in Blue. The gallant Captain has long since gone to his last reward, but I always look back on his efforts with kindly recollection. He certainly cured me of stoop shoulders and a tendency to smoke cigarettes and imparted to our particular set a truly military air, which was of vast benefit to us in promenading Bedford Avenue Sunday afternoons.

I cannot close these recollections of the Anniversary without trying in some way to express, however feeble, the anguish and the unmitigated grief which was the portion of every scholar when Anniversary Day turned out to be a stormy one. No doubt many of the girls and boys of that day have since then passed through many of life’s disappointments and perhaps the cup of sorrow has been pressed to their lips more than once. I hope not, but the common experience is to the contrary, and yet I make bold to say that I doubt if ever any sorrow or any disappointment in a sense was keener or more deeply felt than a rainy morning on Anniversary Day. We were a tired, foot-sore and weary lot of children when the parade was over, but the ice cream and cake served out to us in our Sunday Schools was a rich reward for all our exertions. As we were all decked out in our most expensive finery, and looked very pretty, I think our parents felt fully recompensed for the trouble that they took as their share of the holiday.