Monday, October 6, 2008

Monday Night in Marine Park: Brooklyn Historian Ron Schweiger's "Brooklyn: Then & Now" Slide Show at the Salt Marsh Nature Center

This evening we went to the Salt Marsh Nature Center overlooking Gerritsen Creek in Brooklyn's largest park, Marine Park, to a great lecture and slide show by the always-fascinating official Brooklyn borough historian, Ron Schweiger, on "Brooklyn Then and Now."

It's a long way from Dumbo Books HQ in Williamsburg to our old neighborhood but we made pretty good time via our usual route: we start with the fabulous G train to Fulton Street, the walk around the mysterious gated triangle park, down that gorgeous block of St. Felix, with BAM on one corner and the Williamsburg Savings Bank Building, One Hansen Place, on the next, into the Brighton line station below via elevator from the street; then we take the B train to Kings Highway, getting out the East 16th Street/Quentin Road exit, where we catch the B100 Mill Basin bus that we used to take right to our block.

We got off by the junior high on Fillmore Avenue and walked through Marine Park, around the oval path where our parents would run on, starting in the mid-1970s when they decided this would help them give up smoking. (Our dad won several races in New York and Florida and still walks about 5-7 miles a day in his eighties.) Inside the oval - we wouldn't call it a track - are the ballfields where we watched baseball, cricket and soccer games.

Crossing Avenue U, we went inside the Salt Marsh Nature Center, which opened in 2001. One of ten Urban Park Ranger Nature Centers in the city, it serves as an in-park community center for public education, recreational activities and environmental studies, and a starting point for walking tours of the salt marsh by Gerritsen Creek, a bird-watchers paradise with ducks, geese, cormorants, sandpipers, herons, egrets, red-winged blackbirds, and marsh hawks.

We sat in the back of the community room/classroom, near Smokey the rabbit's hutch and cage (the Grayson family for years has had pet bunnies: RIP Gwendolyn, Cecily and Misty, but Max and Harry are still with us) in a human crowd of around 25, mostly past the half-century mark.

Mark Kaplan of the Salt Marsh Alliance, started off the evening by mentioning the many programs at the Center and then introduced Ron Schweiger, whom most of the audience had seen before. (In the past year we heard Ron speak at the Lefferts Homestead on Brooklyn's Dutch farmhouses and on the Children of Abraham Peace Walk, where he spoke at the historic Temple Beth Emeth as both borough historian and president of the synagogue.)

Appointed borough historian by Marty Markowitz in February 2002, Ron has given his time to do hundreds of presentations. Anyone going to one of his talks can tell that Ron is a master teacher (he taught science at P.S. 219 in East Flatbush for 31 years and has been at Yeshiva of Flatbush for eight years now) and someone whose love of Brooklyn goes very deep indeed. He also wears numerous other hats in the community - for example, he's vice president of the Brooklyn College Alumni Association (we served on the BCAA board of directors for eight years back in '70s and early '80s). And he also has more Brooklyn-related sweatshirts than anyone who ever lived; tonight he had on a black one of the "built in 1917" Coney Island roller coaster.

On this evening, he brought perhaps sixty or so of his collection of vintage Brooklyn photos of streets, intersections and homes, along with pics he's taken in the past few years. Ron pretty much gets the sites from the exact same spot and angle, usually going there early on Sunday mornings so he can stand in the middle of a street and not get run over. The contrasts between then and now are amazing, both in the vast changes and the similarities between, say, 1908 and 2008. (Unfortunately, none of the pics used here are from Ron's collection, which probably runs to thousands of photographs.)

The first photo was of a corner that we and almost everyone in the audience recognized: the intersection of Flatlands and Flatbush Avenues, circa 1946. We didn't move into the neighborhood till a dozen years later but we could immediately make out the bank building on the northeast corner with its Dutch set roof - and Max's Men's Shop was there, albeit a storefront or two down from where it is today. The Marine Theater, of course, was still around, and a teenage girl was walking to St. Thomas Aquinas School, which some of our friends attended (we remember a terrific high school production of Anything Goes which we saw in its auditorium around 1969).

Closer to our time, a 1956 photo of the intersection showed a big-finned Cadillac, like the kind our father and grandfather drove, making what in more recent times would be an illegal left turn from Flatbush onto Flatlands.

Kings Highway was in the background of both photos, and Ron explained that what became Kings Highway and Flatbush Avenue were the two main trails of the Canarsee Indians and their intersection became the focal point of the Dutch colony of Nieuw Amersfoort, later the town of Flatlands. (We once learned all that stuff at P.S. 203, the Floyd Bennett School, from Miss Gura and Mrs. Elkin back in the Fabulous Fifties.)

Ron's recent photo of the Flatbush/Flatlands Avenues intersection included a girl carrying schoolbooks in almost the exact same spot as the schoolgirl in 1946, but going the opposite way. In a budget-cutting move, the Brooklyn Diocese closed St. Thomas Aquinas a few years ago but it's doing well now as the private Amity School.

A shot of Kings Highway between East 13th and East 14th Streets (near where Quentin Road intersects) from 1912 [the photo above is near East 16th from the 1920s] showed it unpaved, with horses making their way through the streets. Every building there in his 1912 postcard - Ron had both the original black-and-white version (with the postmark showing) and a color postcard, painstakingly hand-colored by an artist in the days before color film - still was around in 2004, when Ron took his (color, digital) pic of exactly the same scene. Of course in 1912 there was no Burger King and no B/Q train el in the background.

Another vintage photo featured Sheepshead Bay Road in 1903, and it looked pretty bucolic. That was when two railroads ran through the area. The Brooklyn Flatbush Coney Island line - which later became the Brighton Beach Railroad and then part of the BRT (Brooklyn Rapid Transit) and then the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit) and finally the subway system's Brighton line) - ran on East 16th Street at grade level. And East 17th Street was the track for the Manhattan Beach line of the Long Island Rail Road. That explained why East 17th Street is so wide compared to other streets in the area.

Ron also explained that Jerome Avenue, the cross street, was named after Leonard Jerome, the owner of one of the two local racetracks that, along with the beach resorts, made southern Brooklyn the prime vacation spot in the nation for the very wealthy. (We did know that Leonard Jerome was Winston Churchill's grandpa.)

We greatly enjoyed seeing the Junction when the only house in sight was the Vandeveer Park real estate office and looking at Avenue U and Flatbush pre-Kings Plaza (as our dad had a store there, we were there for the groundbreaking ceremony and there on the first day in September 1970 but recall the old gas station on the corner) and reminiscing about beloved old landmarks like Ben Maksik's Town and Country - though we did have an absolutely horrible 1967 Thanksgiving dinner there with both sides of our family; we remember watching our twin stepcousins' mouths simultaneously open in disbelief when the waiter told us they'd run out of turkey.

Still, the highlights of the evening for us were Ron's many before-and-after photos of Victorian Flatbush: the gorgeous neighborhoods of Prospect Park South, Ditmas Park, Ditmas Park West, Beverley Square West, Fiske Terrace and West Midwood, all kind of suburban subdivisions of a century ago.

Again, the photos here we got from the web; they are only coincidentally photos from Ron's extensive collection. He and his family were renters for years there, and he was actually elected president of the local homeowners' association despite not owning a house.

Ron's been instrumental in making the case for a historic district there, and he played a huge role in saving the wonderful old-time station house at the Avenue H stop of the Brighton line (and, yes, the pot-bellied stove was still there when we began Brooklyn College in 1969).

Houses in Victorian Flatbush that sold around 1901 for $9500 or $10,000 recently have fetched well over a million dollars, Ron said. He discussed the developers who owned the land and created these houses, and Ron showed us photos of the houses under construction, when the just-planted sycamore trees in front of them were thin and reedlike and now are so broad and leafy that they create canopies over some blocks.

Above is a pic of a "Japanese Tudor" house on Marlborough Road that Ron showed. It's 1903 and a sign in the window says the selling price is $9850.

Above is the same house in 1940. Notice the modifications and the larger tree.

And above is 340 Marlborough Road in 2005.

Ron is the go-to maven when it comes to Brooklyn history and he's one of the biggest Brooklyn Dodgers fans in a land where they abound. (Naturally, he's got season tickets to Cyclones games and he showed us an old photo of what existed on the spot where Keyspan Park now stands, contrasting that with the ballpark of today.)

Showing some photos of Ebbets Field and the 1950s teams, Ron could name not only the players - not just the easy ones like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, and Carl Furillo but less famous faces like that of Billy Cox - but also each one's number! (Having lost most of our marbles, all we could recall was that Pee Wee was number one.)

We could go on and on about Ron's fascinating talk and photos; we couldn't believe that 80 or 90 minutes passed and we'll be sure to catch Ron again. We have to teach that morning, but on Saturday, November 1, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Ron will be giving a walking tour of Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach, sponsored by the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment, which has this on their website:

Take a walk along the water through these historic and colorful neighborhoods which were part of the largest and most popular resort in the United States a century ago. Visit sites of the old resort hotels and restaurants, where Diamond Jim Brady and Leonard Jerome came to the Sheepshead Bay Racetrack. We'll see the plaque for Vince Lombardi, the great coach of the Green Bay Packers, who grew up in Sheepshead Bay, and the NYC landmark in the Bay, Lundy's.

Walk across the historic 127 year old Ocean Avenue footbridge that has its own special history and then marvel at the mansions as we walk through the streets of Manhattan Beach and learn of its history.

As we waited in the autumn night chill across Avenue U for the B3 bus to take us to the Q train, we were very grateful to Ron Schweiger and the Salt Marsh Alliance for working so hard on tonight's program. Isn't Brooklyn wonderful!

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