Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Churches of Brooklyn

A slight digression here that I intend to pick up on later, probably in the fall after my great trek is done.

Actually, a slight digression from the digression. There is a man named Ralph McInerny who teaches at Notre Dame and who also writes mystery stories. You might not know his name but you probably know the name of his most popular character: Fr. Dowling, if only from the TV series back in the 1980s. And no disrespect meant to Tom Bosley who is a fine actor and one whose performances I’ve always enjoyed, but the Father Dowling Mysteries on television bore little resemblance to the mystery stories they were based on. The stories are very good; and I say that as one who hasn’t been in a church in thirty years but for the funeral of relatives.

But one thing always intrigued me in those stories, which is that his characters, who are almost always Roman Catholic, always identify themselves to each other by the parish they live in rather than a particular neighborhood or part of town. Where I grew up in Connecticut no one would do this. This is either a Midwestern thing or Fr. Dowling’s town is so small it hasn’t any neighborhoods. But Ralph McInerny’s characters take their churches seriously.

Then I began walking around Brooklyn, which was once truly known as the City of Homes and Churches. You never did know a place with so many churches. Synagogues and mosques, too, but the churches predominate by a good measure. It seems like you can’t walk for a few blocks anywhere in Brooklyn without running up against a church. Sometimes they are hidden away among warehouses and small industries like St. Lucy’s Old Roman Catholic Cathedral on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg (above) or have a spire that can be seen for miles like St. Michael’s Church on 4th Avenue in Sunset Park; often they may be in a modest storefront. There is a block of Ralph Avenue in Bed-Stuy that is lined almost from one end to the other with storefront churches, Holiness Churches, Fellowship Churches, Churches in, through, by, and with Christ, and so on.

There are churches that look rooted in the soil for a century or more and churches that look like they were built the day before yesterday. There are churches prominent in Brooklyn history like the Dutch Reformed Church in Flatbush or Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights. Then there are the Kingdom Halls in various parts of town and the Brooklyn Tabernacle (of the world famous choir) downtown on Smith Street that is like a Brooklyn version of a mega-church.

And what I found was that I began marking my own walks by the names of churches I passed since they were often the most prominent landmarks. Where did I turn off Ft. Hamilton Parkway in Borough Park? Oh, yes, St. Catherine’s of Alexandra. Where did I turn to start my walk back the first time I was in Bay Ridge? Sure, it was St. Ephraim’s. Some have become like old friends because I pass them so often: St. Luke’s on Clinton Avenue near Atlantic Avenue; Cadman Memorial at Lafayette and Clinton; the Apostolic Faith Mission at Lafayette and Washington. And one of my favorites: Queen of All Saints at Lafayette and Vanderbilt.

I am intrigued by Queen of All Saints (left) because it takes up half the block between Vanderbilt and Clermont Avenues, the other half being occupied by a Masonic temple (below). Both buildings are enormous and compliment each other well though the church is in the French Gothic style and the temple wouldn’t look out of place among the federal buildings in Washington. I'm not familiar with Masonic temples but as what is sometimes called a "lapsed Catholic" I've seen my share of churches and I can't remember such an enormous combination of church and school in the same building. I gather they were both constructed around the same year, 1910-1911, and knowing the tender feelings the church has always borne toward the Masons, I have woven a fantasy with the Grand Master of the Masons and the Bishop of Brooklyn standing out on Lafayette Avenue, each urging his respective architect to add more height lest one be overshadowed by the other until finally, exhausted, they call a truce. No matter, the two together provide one of the more imposing sights in Ft. Greene.

Brooklyn could have one of the most diverse selections of churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship in the country and it might be interesting to see how many I can note in the coming months.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A kind of a rant about the river

The walk down into DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights, combined with my usual walks home from work over the Williamsburg Bridge have caused an idea to fester in my mind for a while. Why doesn’t Brooklyn have the kind of linked riverside park/path system along the East River that Manhattan does? Why don’t the neighborhoods along the East River have even the kind of riverside path that our friends and neighbors in Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton have?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I walked down to Bay Ridge over Memorial Day and discovered the walking/cycling/running/sitting path that runs along the Upper Bay north and south of the Verrazano Bridge. In the words of Brooklyn’s own poet, I loafed and I invited my soul. After a long, hot walk along 4th Avenue and then through the warehouses and dusty streets along 2nd Avenue, I felt my soul was refreshed when I came upon that walk along the bay.

Why are our souls not refreshed in Williamsburg or Greenpoint or along the shore around the Navy Yard? We are handed piddling little pocket parks that most people probably don’t even know about, anyway, unless they stumble upon them accidentally, and we’re expected to be grateful like poor Oliver Twist with one helping of gruel. Meanwhile the high-rise co-ops shoot up blocking what view of the river we might have had as the "mid-towning" of the riverfront continues.

Kent Avenue is beginning to look more like 6th Avenue in Chelsea every day with the glass and steel and brick behemoths lining the roadside. These days one of the few places you can get a decent view of that stretch of the river is from the Williamsburg Bridge and the city has made certain you can’t enjoy that by enclosing you in a wire cage

from one side to the other. Don’t think about trying to take a picture of the Manhattan skyline or the Williamsburg shore from the Williamsburg Bridge unless you want your photo to look like something produced by the Futurists or Constructivists: Lower Manhattan through a Mesh Screen.

For anyone wishing to taste the delights of the riverfront there are always the large attractive parks between and around the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges (above), including a state park, but this is a long walk from Williamsburg or Greenpoint; there is a small park behind a new apartment building on Kent Avenue(co-op or condo or whatever) just south of Broadway (below) (if you don't miss the small gate or mistake it for private property since the park sign isn't too visible, or if you're even walking along Kent Avenue at all), and Williamsburg’s sop, the riverfront park on Kent Avenue north of Grand Street (along with the vest pocket park at the foot of Grand Street). I hear they are planning a sliver in Greenpoint, too. But these are insignificant compared to the length of the river's shoreline.

And don’t let me start on the Navy Yard. One would have thought that when the federal government relinquished control of the Navy Yard to New York City, the city might have found something better to do with it (or even additional to do with it) than immediately hand it over to a private group for a gated business/industrial park. I wouldn’t be surprised if the security in place there now is stricter than when the Navy occupied the place.

Just think of walking from Williamsburg to Prospect Park or the central library at Grand Army Plaza as I do on a weekly basis, or even a walk over to Fort Greene or Clinton Hill. You descend Clymer Street and see across the street an inviting open gate and a roadway. On city maps this is shown as Washington Street, the same Washington Street that goes through Clinton Hill on its way to Eastern Parkway and the Brooklyn Library and Brooklyn Museum. You walk to the gatehouse and inquire if you can walk through. No, I’m sorry but you must have proper ID to go in. So you turn back and trudge your weary way down Kent Avenue along the sun baked sidewalk to the BQE and turn to walk down Williamsburg Street and then Park Avenue until you come to Washington Street once again. And you look back through that gate at the apartment house at Clymer Street and think, if only. But we only pay the taxes, right? And no doubt there is a latter day Manhattan Project underway that demands the strictest security. Maybe guard dogs and razor wire next.

P.S. Speaking of loafing and inviting our souls, I would recommend a copy of Leaves of Grass to anyone wanting to wander the streets of Brooklyn. It gives one perspective.

Almost There

As I suspected, most of this blog is going to consist of re-walks, but that’s okay. I started on my project of walking the borough of Brooklyn back in March; at least the genesis of the idea was my walk of March 14 down Prospect Park West to Windsor Terrace, Green-Wood Cemetery, and the top of the hill at McDonald Avenue. Simply put, everything else comes from my curiosity about what was at the bottom of that hill.

On the following weekend—or the nearest following one with decent weather—I went on to the bottom of that hill into the Kensington neighborhood and on successive weekends rambled through the neighborhoods around there, meaning that vast swath of Brooklyn south of Prospect Park. I walked down Ocean Avenue and back up Ocean Parkway. I walked Bedford Avenue from Williamsburg past Brooklyn College into Midwood, over to Coney Island Avenue and back up to the park.

On Memorial Day weekend on two successive days I walked out to Bay Ridge, to the Verrazano Bridge, up into Fort Hamilton, Dyker Heights, and into parts of Bath Beach and Bensonhurst. That weekend, I walked 5th Avenue through Sunset Park and thought Sunset Park would never end. As far as I can tell right now I have walked the entire length of Fort Hamilton Parkway, Bedford Avenue, Eastern Parkway, and all of Flatbush Avenue except the very end from Avenue V to the Belt Parkway, but I will remedy that before summer’s end. I have to, since I believe that Flatbush Avenue is the only roadway that crosses the entire borough of Brooklyn from the East River to the Atlantic Ocean and I would like to say that I’ve walked its entire length. Bedford Avenue comes in a brave 2nd, I believe, but it ends at Manhattan Avenue in the heart of Greenpoint and doesn’t go all the way across that neighborhood to the Queens line. I celebrated the 4th of July by walking Bedford Avenue from it’s end (or beginning) in Sheepshead Bay to my home in Williamsburg.

The 4th of July was also the day I walked out Flatbush Avenue almost to the end, from there wandering through part of Marine Park and into Gerritsen Beach and from there to Sheepshead Bay (and so back home by Bedford Avenue).

For the past two weekends I have walked the neighborhoods off Eastern Parkway. I was going to say “explored” those neighborhoods but I don’t have time for that when, sometimes, I don’t have any idea of exactly where I am going or how long it will take to get there (and back home again). Last weekend I decided to walk out Eastern Parkway to its end, which I knew would be at Broadway Junction. From there I took Broadway back to Williamsburg.

Yesterday (Saturday, July 18), I wandered around Weeksville. Weeksville is a community founded in Brooklyn by black freedmen in the early 19th century. It is in a part of Bed-Stuy between Eastern Parkway and Atlantic Avenue around Utica and Rochester Avenues. I hadn’t time to do much more than walk through the area yesterday to get the lay of the land and will be going back there later. In connection with Weeksville, I just found out that PBS has an online video series on New York City called “The City Concealed,” that I haven’t seen. The link to the Weeksville segment is: http://www.thirteen.org/thecityconcealed/2009/03/10/weeksville/. I haven’t seen any of them and don’t plan on seeing them at least until I have finished my walks. For the time being I want to discover things for myself. Watch it if you’d like.

Today I took in DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Redhook, and parts of Gowanus and Boerum Hill. That wasn’t as difficult as it sounds because they all lie pretty much next to one another along the East River and Upper Bay. I hadn’t been in Brooklyn Heights in, probably, twenty years and had never been in the other areas. Having lived in Williamsburg for eight years, I was astounded at the quiet in the Heights and Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens. Was it just Sunday or is it always like that? Astonishing. You could almost hear the bees buzzing in the flowers for the silence.

From what I could see today, Redhook looks like it consists of the Redhook Houses, a vast, sprawling complex of redbrick apartment houses; Redhook Park and the Redhook athletic fields, a vast, sprawling complex of baseball fields, soccer fields, handball courts, and parkland; warehouse buildings . . . and Ikea.

From there I walked home by way of Gowanus and Boerum Hill, both the kind of quiet, out of the way neighborhoods that appeal to me.

I am tired from so much typing. I wanted to get in the giglio feast at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel nearby me in Williamsburg and even start adding photos, but I haven’t the energy right now.

I hope to pull this blog together soon. The walking takes up so much energy that there isn’t a lot left over for writing.

Anyway . . . as far as I can tell, I have yet to get to and through Gravesend and Coney Island (and more of Borough Park, which I really just skirted back in May), and also what I guess would be the far eastern end: Flatlands, East Flatbush, and Canarsie.

I’d also like to get down to Floyd Bennett Field and into Mill Basin, for completeness sake if nothing else, and then perhaps spend the autumn filling in the blank spaces.

Friday, July 10, 2009


I know it’s a cliché, but this is definitely going to be a work in progress. I have no idea where it’s going.

A little background. I moved to Brooklyn from Queens in June of 2001, against my wishes and as a result of a series of unfortunate occurrences. Like Irina in The Three Sisters dreaming of Moscow, for eight years I schemed and plotted to return to Queens. It wasn’t to be. Earlier this year during one of my regular visits to the central library of the Brooklyn library system (at Grand Army Plaza) I happened to borrow a few books on the history of Brooklyn and immediately became hooked. I thought, “This is a pretty interesting place.”

I really like to walk. I’ve walked New York City since I moved here in the late 1970s. And since I grew up in nearby Connecticut and have visited the city since I was a little kid, I guess you could say I’ve been walking New York City in some manner for most of my life.

As far as transportation goes, my preferences are: 1 walk, 2 bus, 3 subway. Of course I take the train for convenience and speed like anyone in New York who has to get to work and isn’t hip enough to pedal a bike, but I do walk home from midtown to Williamsburg each evening that isn’t pouring rain or bone-chilling cold, which is to say that I enjoy walking and would think nothing of walking around the borough of Brooklyn to see what’s what.

So, I walked to the library one Saturday in late winter when the temperature had spiked and we could all wander around in shirtsleeves for the first time since the previous fall, and I decided to take a walk past the park (Prospect Park that is) to a neighborhood I had always been curious about but never been to: Windsor Terrace. It is the terminus of the B69 bus that I take up Vanderbilt Avenue to Grand Army Plaza from the BQE on cold winter days. I walked down Prospect Park West for the first time (maybe) and found what amounted to a small village in the middle of Brooklyn. I kept walking and found the gate to Green-Wood Cemetery; I kept walking past that and found myself at the top of a hill on a street called McDonald Avenue. At that point, I felt like one of those medieval Irish monks drawing maps of the known world and was ready to slap on the label “Here be Monsters.” For someone who usually has a pretty good sense of direction and loves maps, I had no idea where that road was headed and decided it was plenty for one afternoon.

(I discovered something entertaining on that first walk but it will keep.)

A week or so later I wandered over to the same neighborhood but this time kept going down the hill and walked as far as Church Avenue through a neighhborhood called Kensington and took that street around and back to the park.

A week or so later than that, I walked a little further and was struck by an idea: why not spend the spring and summer walking the borough of Brooklyn? By that time I had become a thorough Brooklyn-phile and thought that it might be a nice way to celebrate my "conversion." Also, it seemed like a nice way to get a tan (that was before I knew how much rain we would get over the next few months).

I am not trying for some kind of Guinness Book record; I am not trying to emulate the fellow I heard of who is walking each and every street in Manhattan and photographing it. I just like to walk, I have the time to do it, and I am curious.

In fact, I wouldn’t even have thought of this blog except that a friend who used to live in Brooklyn but has returned to upstate Connecticut suggested it and said she would definitely read it if I started it. So, here it is, Mary Susan, at least a beginning.

Like I said above, I have no idea where this will go. I find that I enjoy Brooklyn more and more each time I walk out into it, but I can’t say I am going to fill the blog up with historical background or cute stories of times past . . . unless I do, which is to say, life happens and whatever shows up here shows up here.

I carry my digital camera with me everywhere and would like to pop in photos of where I walk and maybe even videos, but we shall see. I'm no Alfred Eisendtsadt.

I guess the main thing you should know is that, at least in some ways, I am pretty naïve when you get right down to it. Maybe many people who have grown up in Brooklyn or lived here many years would (if they even happened upon this blog) react with a bored ho-hum, but I’m like a little kid on Christmas morning when I walk through a new neighborhood. You should have seen me when I accidentally discovered Ebbets Field Houses. Wow!

Another thing you may have to get used to if you find this blog and return to it is that I can get pretty digressive and am liable to maunder on for paragraphs about something that may interest a couple of people in the world. So, you can fast forward or go back to the latest reality TV show.

Full disclosure, as the media types here in NYC like to say (though you have more than likely figured it out by now): I began my walks back in February or March (as far as I can remember) but I am only beginning this blog in July. However, have no fear; since I love to walk, I see no problem in retracing my previous walks. And I’ll just use whatever I find in my journal or memory to supplement what I find that is new.

Stay tuned . . .