Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bushwick 2 (Finally)

I really did not mean to be away from this for so long but a number of things conspired against me: work has been exhausting lately and after a walk home to Brooklyn from midtown each night, I’m not in any mood to sit in front of the computer and type even more; my beautiful 4-year-old nephew visited me on several weekends; I lent my camera to a friend for a long weekend; . . . and I think we had some rain.

And I really can’t say that I can pick up my train of thought easily either but I’ll see what I can do. I left off at that very pretty white frame church at Bushwick Avenue and Himrod Street. The Second Reformed Dutch Church of South Bushwick. Henry Stiles speaks about it in his History of the City of Brooklyn, published in 1870. The church was built between September, 1852 and February, 1853 (Himrod Street is named after the first pastor, Rev. John S. Himrod). According to Stiles:

“The edifice, which cost about $5,900 . . . , is a very neat and substantial frame seventy-five feet long by fifty-five feet wide, accommodating about five hundred persons, . . . and is situated in a new neighborhood (known as Bowronville), which is building up very handsomely, and which, in the course of a few years must become one of the most desirable locations in Brooklyn.”

For the further information I gleaned on the background of Bushwick, I’m indebted to an interesting and informative book called The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn, a collaborative effort by Citizens for NYC, Kenneth Jackson of Columbia University, and the Yale University Press. The second edition was published only five years ago so it's pretty up to date.

From what I gather from reading that book, I was right in thinking that Bushwick Avenue itself was a kind of showcase street. Bushwick was settled largely by Germans in the mid-1800s and became the center of the brewery trade in Brooklyn. By mid-20th century, Brooklyn had, according to the book, nearly 45 breweries and nearly all of them were in Bushwick. The last two Brooklyn breweries, Rheingold and Schaefer, closed only in 1976. And upper Bushwick Avenue became home to the brewery owners and other professionals; thus the large homes, some of which still remain.

Bushwick Avenue and Grove Street

As with almost all New York City neighborhoods, the population changed over the years. First the Irish, Polish, and Italians replaced the Germans, and later, when many of them moved to the suburbs, their places were taken mainly by African Americans and Puerto Ricans. And lately there is a grab bag of nationalities from Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, India, Hong Kong, South Korea, Southeast Asia, and probably every place else on earth.

A few weeks ago when I was talking to my sister about my walks around Bushwick she told me of when her car had been stolen from the Lower East Side back in the 1970s. Eventually the cops found it in Bushwick and asked if she cared to go over and check it out. I gather the car was almost a total loss and from what she said, Bushwick was almost a total loss at that time, too. The 1977 blackout hit Bushwick HARD. I was living in the city during the blackout and don’t remember now anything of what went on outside Manhattan, but I guess it wasn’t pretty.

Brooklyn’s Neighborhoods says that the housing stock began deteriorating after World War II and the neighborhood sunk steadily downward. But within a year after the blackout, almost 40 percent of Bushwick’s businesses had disappeared; whole blocks of the Broadway shopping area were burned to the ground. I guess my sister’s description of it as looking like a war zone was pretty much on the mark. Now I’m surprised that so much of the housing on Bushwick Avenue actually survived in such decent shape. Especially since Bushwick Avenue is only about a half block from Broadway for almost its entire length.

I found a web site with some harrowing pictures of the looting and fires in Bushwick during the blackout:

According to that site, Bushwick suffered more damage than any other neighborhood in the city during those few days and nights.

Bushwick Avenue and Menahan Street

That was then, this is now. Today it’s a thriving area and it’s not all due to the Williamsburg Effect or the newcomers of the past ten years or so. This seems to be mainly a home-grown prosperity. Knickerbocker Avenue, the main shopping street of Bushwick, reminds me a lot of 5th Avenue in Sunset Park, mostly Latin and choked with shoppers, a retailer’s dream. The housing, whether small apartment buildings or multi-family houses, is in good condition. There are blocks with obviously new homes built as a form of urban renewal, small two story brick houses, and a lot of simply ordinary housing going back years.

Looking down Knickerbocker Avenue from Myrtle Avenue

Also, like any neighborhood in New York there are great blocks, good blocks, some lousy blocks, but nothing any longer that resembles a war zone.

Stockholm Street from Wilson Avenue to Knickerbocker

Stanhope Street looking toward Knickerbocker

On that first walk, I kept going right to the top of Bushwick Avenue and down into East New York. I noticed at that time that the avenue changed a bit as I walked south (or south east) toward Broadway Junction. I think it was probably a bit above Lafayette that the avenue started to get a bit seedier; a bit more litter on the sidewalks and in the gutter, the fronts of the houses not quite as neat, everything just a bit more run down. Then, as I got closer to Eastern Parkway and Broadway Junction, the street began to improve again.

Calvary & St. Cyprian's Church, Bushwick Avenue at Menahan St.

Calvary & St. Cyprian's is a cute little church but the main reason I noticed it was my curiosity at how an Anglican-Episcopal Church ended up there. It seems just a bit out of place among the Baptists and Methodists and other evangelicals.

Some more new construction on the upper reaches of Bushwick Avenue near Piling Street.

Entrance to Evergreen Cemetery, Bushwick Avenue and Conway Street

At the very top of the avenue and forming the eastern end of Bushwick is a conglomeration of cemeteries, all melding into one another and stretching way over into Queens. Above is the entrance to Evergreen Cemetery, the one that abuts the avenue.

Nearing the top of Bushwick Avenue. Eastern Parkway Ext. is further along at the top of the hill.

Checking various maps, it seems that the block or so on the other side of this hill (shown below) doesn't belong to anyone. It could theoretically be a corner of Bushwick, East New York, Brownsville, or Cypress Hills, but no one seems to want it, it's an orphan. That's Highland Blvd. heading north to Jackie Robinson Parkway and Queens.

A local Bushwick landmark is St. Barbara’s Church on Central Avenue. The parish dates to 1893 and the present church building dates from 1922, which I find interesting. I could be wrong but I get the idea that the Spanish-speaking population only began growing in Bushwick around the 1950s, yet the church looks like it was plucked from a city in Spain or Mexico. It is a beautiful building and it’s enormous. I wouldn’t have credited the Catholic church with that much imagination in church architecture. Supposedly it was named not only after the saint but the daughter of a local brewer; perhaps he had some say in the architectural style.

Because the building is so tall and imposing and the street so narrow, it was difficult with my camera to get the church into one shot, except from a great distance. So I took it in pieces.

Bushwick is small enough to walk all around in an afternoon; I've been over there on several weekends and did manage a complete circuit and criss-crossing of the neighborhood on one Sunday afternoon. I took random shots wherever I walked. Below is Wilson Avenue looking down (west) from Myrtle Avenue. Wilson is another commercial strip running down Bushwick, one block south of Knickerboker (between Knickerbocker and Bushwick Aves) and not quite as busy as that avenue.

Irving Avenue from around Stockholm Street. This would be down near Maria Hernandez Park in lower Bushwick. Irving is one block past Knickerbocker as you walk toward Ridgewood. Another fairly pleasant and quiet street (though it was late on a a Sunday afternoon, who knows if it's always like that).

Some street corner evangelizing at Knickerbocker Avenue and Starr Street at a corner of Maria Hernandez Park.

Alfresco lunching along lower Knickerbocker Avenue across from Maria Hernandez Park.

I've been at this for a couple of hours now, Bushwick 3 coming up next(not as long as it took to get Bushwick 2, I hope).