“Hey Down in Front”

Last week they cut the ribbon on the new arena on Flatbush and Atlantic.  Phone booths around town have been promoting today’s opening date.

Montague Street phone booth, 2012; M. Jasper collection.

I have tickets for the venue’s premiere college basketball two-header, featuring the Kentucky Wildcats v. the Maryland Terrapins. I’ll be rooting for Kentucky, which was also the home state of Brooklyn historian Clay Lancaster, who penned the first landmark designation report for the LPC, on Brooklyn Heights, one of the adjacent neighborhoods to Downtown Brooklyn.

The intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic has again found itself in the crosshairs of sports, real estate and local pride.  In the 1950s, there used to be a ballpark that was almost built on the site for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who were taken to Los Angeles as the Nets have been from New Jersey.

Downtown Brooklyn is a curious area, both re-imaginable and steadfast to tradition, bordered by Flatbush, Atlantic, Court Street and Tillary.  As the prime office zone of Brooklyn, for most of the century the borough’s tallest building, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, stood on the outskirts of the business district where today the tallest modular building in the world is planned.

The geography of Downtown Brooklyn cannot get any bigger, because of three landmarked districts at each edge: Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene and Boerum Hill, plus the nexus coilings and byways at the exits for the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges.

But Downtown Brooklyn is posed to grow inside the minds of New Yorkers, with a new Skyscraper District launching up steel and glass, and a new recreation and residence hub launching in mass people to make transit and livelihood.

Downtown Brooklyn looking west from Williamsburg Bank Tower, ca. 1970; V1973.2.350, Photographic Collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Atlantic Avenue, ca. 1948; Downtown Brooklyn Development Association records, 1979.021; Photographic Collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.

The consequence of more traffic, however, may make the area seem smaller.  People who would drive in to the Harlem Globetrotters game or Leonard Cohen concert will be encouraged to save time and money on the train over the eternal city bane of parking.

In Satchmo, the autobiography of Louis Armstrong, the legendary jazz bandleader writes of growing up in the section of the port city of New Orleans he calls “Back o’ Town.”  It was the 1910s, and New Orleans also had an Uptown, Downtown, and “Front o’ Town.”

In topographical relation to the borough, Downtown Brooklyn is a nub of waterfront land toward the top west part of the island county.  Doesn’t it fit the mind and habitude of Brooklyners as a “Front O’ Town?”  And only perhaps to Manhattanites as “Back o’ Town.”

In 1853 the City of Brooklyn was consolidated by the absorption of outer territories known as Williamsburgh and Bushwick.  Borough Hall was built in the area and commerce has since revolved around it.

Borough Hall when first built in 1846; V1973.01.36; Non-photographic collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Brooklyn Bureau of Community Services Collection,ca. 1946, V1991.110.223; Photographic Collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Today, Front o’ Town is buoyed by visitor information maps and legends to the outlying areas.  I pass by these signs on my morning walk to work from Clinton Hill:

Downtown info map, Flatbush & Myrtle; M. Jasper collection.

MetroTech Center map; M. Jasper collection.

The 14 buildings of MetroTech Center have evolved over the last 30 years as the stretch of Flatbush extension sprouts sheer residential high-rises.

15 MetroTech Center; M. Jasper collection.

Myrtle and Flatbush Aves.

In 2008, New York University absorbed what in 1854 was established as the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute.  This move might have been Manhattan’s revenge on Brooklyn for creating a rival basketball team.  NYU-Poly has a Residence Hall named after Mr. and Mrs. Donald F. Othmer (1904-1995), who was hailed as “the Hoyle of chemical engineering.”  Othmer taught at Brooklyn Poly and was instrumental in defrigeration, explosives, and while at Eastman Kodak worked on solving flammability problems for the preservation of acetate movie film.  A devoted Trustee of Brooklyn Historical Society, the library was dedicated to Othmer in 1992.

An early reference to “downtown Brooklyn” in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle is found in an 1875 real estate ad for “houses on the Hill” on Dekalb Avenue. The location touts a primacy of transit access, encouraging future inhabitants to come “from OVERCROWDED UP TOWN, New York… from OVERCHARGED DOWN TOWN, Brooklyn…”

BROOKLYN EAGLE POST CARD, SERIES 20, NO. 115. / JUNCTION FULTON STREET AND DEKALB AVENUE ABOUT 1850. Site of the Dime Savings Bank; V1973.4.38 a-d; Postcard Collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Some blocks away on Flatbush and present-day Livingston is Labon’s Inn, a quaff-and-chat parlor.

Labon's Inn, ca. 1850; V1973.5.1262; Brooklyn photograph and illustration collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.

In 1929, civic leaders organized the Downtown Brooklyn Development Association (DBDA) to improve business conditions in the area.  BHS archives includes a rich collection devoted to the group.

“Approximately 50,000 persons gain their livelihood in the Downtown Area and are housed within it every working day.” DBDA recognizes covering 8 acres where thru-passers “consume daily at least one meal in the area.”

The area is continually cited as a blight to civic functioning.  As early as 1900, the traffic conditions in the area were noted to be treacherous.

Brooklyn Safety Council, ca. 1930; V1973.5.1118; Brooklyn photograph and illustration collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.

The 1929 DBDA reports that “the Downtown Commercial Area has been considered a Bonanza section by the three industries represented” by beggars, peddlers and “pullers-in,” the latter an old-timey “portal solicitation” by hawkers at the door of the establishment, a “nefarious practice.”

Better Business Bureau brochures, 1946-57; Downtown Brooklyn Development Association records, 1979.021, Box 1; Brooklyn Historical Society.

In 1931, the Brooklyn Evening Journal quoted Democratic Party boss John H. McCooey referring to the territory at the mouth of Brooklyn Bridge as “an eyesore and a disgrace to the city.”

Long’s Hat Store at 389 Fulton Street won top prize in a 1929 citywide Show Window Display Contest conducted by the Electrical Association of New York, Inc.  In 1936, the winners were Frederick Loeser & Co. at 484 Fulton, and William Wise & Son, Inc. at 288 Livingston St.

Annual window display competition, 1929-1936; Downtown Brooklyn Development Association records, 1979.021, Box 1; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Mr. Fulton, Flatbush & Fulton; M. Jasper collection.

They built an elevated train along Fulton Ave. in 1885.  The DBDA records at BHS detail the celebrations and visionary fundraising which hailed its demolition in 1942.

FULTON STREET FROM DUFFIELD, 1941; V1987.10.5, Percy Varian Photographic Collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Fulton and Smith Streets, 1941; V1987.10.10, Percy Varian Photographic Collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.

In 1996, a study by the Chamber of Commerce reported the median household income of shoppers at Fulton Mall was $25,800.  Binkin’s was still the oldest bookstore in the borough at 54 Willoughby:

Downtown Brooklyn : a plan for continued progress, 1996, Othmer Library, Brooklyn Historical Society.

The Brooklyn Civic Center, conceived in the decade following WWII, proposed to reinvigorate with court houses and statues a neighborhood of rundown tenements and “gypsy tea-rooms.”  The deteriorated state of the off-ramp areas of the Brooklyn Bridge was compared to a new plaza, never implemented, dedicated to George Washington:

Brooklyn Bridge plaza, 1931-1941; Downtown Brooklyn Development Association records, 1979.021, Box 1; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Brooklyn Bridge plaza, 1931-1941; Downtown Brooklyn Development Association records, 1979.021, Box 1; Brooklyn Historical Society.

As assessment was made for a Title I slum clearance project at Cadman Plaza. The below 1959 map shows Title I areas in black and vacant or “sub-standard” and “suitable for rehabilitation” in gray.

Cadman Plaza: slum clearance plan under Title I of the Housing Act of 1949, 1958, Othmer Library, Brooklyn Historical Society.

The Plaza is named in honor of Bishop S. Parkes Cadman, the progressive and popular “radio pastor” of the Central Congregational Church of Brooklyn. Cadman was a roistering polemicist and wrote books on Darwin and Memory.  It was Bishop Cadman who in 1913 quipped the nickname for the gothic Woolworth Building, the world’s tallest, as the “Cathedral of Commerce.”

Bishop Cadman illustrated bookplate; Emma Toedteberg bookplate collection, 2012.004; Brooklyn Historical Society.

In a 1941 letter to the Downtown Brooklyn Association, Brooklyn Justice Lewis L. Fawcett invests the memorial of Cadman with evangelical zeal as “a monument to the eternal religion such as we only see in old Europe… in which you feel you have the spirit of God.”  Justice Fawcett assures that the elevated structures adjoining the plaza will have been duly removed prior to the Dedication.

Cadman Plaza also includes a bust of William Jay Gaynor, the only mayor of New York to have been shot by an assassin.

William Jay Gaynor, Cadman Plaza; M. Jasper collection.

William Jay Gaynor, NYPL digital collection.

Today, Brooklyners visit the Supreme Court to report for jury duty or search probate records.

Supreme Court, Cadman Plaza; M. Jasper collection.

In the 1980s, downtown showed a majority of buildings built before 1945, some of which were built as part of past development projects.

Downtown Brooklyn : a report, Regional Plan Association, 1983; Othmer Library, Brooklyn Historical Society.

The year one : a brief statement of some of the activities of Downtown Brooklyn Association Incorporated during its first year, 1929, Othmer Library, Brooklyn Historical Society.

The year one : a brief statement of some of the activities of Downtown Brooklyn Association Incorporated during its first year, 1929, Othmer Library, Brooklyn Historical Society.

When the Brooklyn Dodgers sought to relocate in the 1950s, Dodgers President Walter O’Malley, a former General Counsel for the ball club, brainstormed the idea of a stadium enclosed by a translucent roof, where weather conditions would not cancel a day at the ballpark and better lighting could be arranged for night games.   “There is psychological reasons [sic] in favor of translucent material rather than concrete construction to properly set the stage for the playing of a game that is traditionally an outdoor one.” O’Malley’s papers are collected at BHS, which include correspondence with the Owens-Corning Fiberglass Co. regarding technical details, where O’Malley suggests the finished structure might be a new “wonder of the world.”

O’Malley reached out to hypermodernists like Eero Saarinen at M.I.T., who designed Idlewild Airport, Norman Bel Geddes, the Art Deco master, and even R. Buckminster Fuller, the philosopher architectonicist, who lived in Forest Hills. O’Malley was intrigued by Fuller’s article in American Fabrics on the concept of the Dymaxion.  Fuller’s idea, among others, is to provide the best fully usable structure at least cost to the consumer of Spaceship Earth. In his letter, O’Malley admits that the price of the faux-open stadium exceeds the Dodgers budget.  “Baseball companies unfortunately, do not have the resources of the large industrial companies.”

Maybe if Bucky had designed the new stadium the Dodgers would have been accused of taking L.A. to Brooklyn rather than taking Brooklyn to L.A.

City Construction Coordinator Robert Moses suspected O’Malley of trying to finagle city funds designed for public use to build the new stadium. O’Malley evaded the suggestion and appealed to Moses’ concern by reiterating what he said at “our luncheon meeting” about the public purpose problem of parking.

Walter O'Malley letter, 1953; Walter O'Malley papers, 2004.003; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Good parking was a prime moving force for Moses, as it has become in the opening of the new arena.  But Moses wasn’t sold:

Robert Moses letter, 1955; Walter O'Malley papers, 2004.003; Brooklyn Historical Society.

He insisted that “the establishment of a new Dodger stadium is not of itself and by itself, a public purpose.”  But for the next fifty years the public of Brooklyn thought otherwise.

O’Malley despaired that horseracing would surpass baseball for New York sports fans, since the turf “found a way to get State legislation and financing for a super-colossal proposed racetrack.”  Plans were also put forth to relocate the stadium to various points in Queens.  This might have been more an affront to Brooklyners than the move to L.A.

Brooklyn Dodgers airplane in flight, ca.1955; V1991.52.1, Photographic Collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Today’s Atlantic Yards project roiled over similar development of antiquated mass transit and land use, the way that the Brooklyn Bridge killed the ferry business but blighted surrounding neighborhoods.

Brooklyn Bridge construction, 1874 Beers Atlas, Othmer Library, Brooklyn Historical Society.

See the pre-developed intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush in 1983, cited as ripe for “visual improvements:”

Downtown Brooklyn : a report, Regional Plan Association, 1983; Othmer Library, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Today one can get burgers, franks and thick shakes at Shake Shack on Adams Street, which must have fit the bill of visual improvement.

The corridors of Downtown Brooklyn may sometimes seem unsightly and inhibit a visual writability besides the ads for children’s dentists and underwear spreads for pretty big and tall ladies, yet such a madcap civic predicament both makes secret the old architectural touches and grandstands the strike and rush of moving life.  Anyone whose routine demands the threshold of Downtown knows it, beating sparks from the shoulders of Court Street stenographers, Jay Street bus drivers, Fulton Street shop barkers, Macy’s counter girls, NYU Polytechnic maintenance workers, Lawrence Street souvlaki-slingers, records room clerks in teeshirts and sneakers, lunch hour jurors, office furniture truck drivers, Schermerhorn Street bailmakers, City Tech students, process servers eating 99cent slices, the crazy man on a tirade at the halal wagon outside the Transit building…

Joraleman Street, Borough Hall, 2012; M. Jasper collection.

Downtown Brooklyn, 2012; M. Jasper collection.

Homage to Downtown Brooklyn, 1967, V1993.7.1; Photographic Collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.

Fulton Mall, 2012; M. Jasper collection.

Fulton Mall, 2012; M. Jasper collection.

Homage to Downtown Brooklyn, 1967, V1993.7.3 Photographic Collection, Brooklyn Historical Society.

The saga of Atlantic Yards has been dispatched to a creative and exhaustive parameter on numerous hotwires.  And don’t forget that the New York Islanders will still skate the island, and face off in the team’s new digs against the New Jersey Devils opening game next month.

Andy McCarthy

About Andy McCarthy

Reference Librarian, Brooklyn Historical Society, Othmer Library.
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3 Responses to “Hey Down in Front”

  1. Beth says:

    Loved traversing Brooklyn with a real “Man about Town”. Assassins, quaff-and-chat parlors at the “Front O Town” in traffic known to be treacherous, what more could one want? Oh, I know the Wildcats coming to town. Thanks for the picturesque commentary on a fascinating subject.

  2. Rick says:

    The guy that wrote this article is brilliant! One of the best pieces on Brooklyn geography and history that I have ever read. Someone should hire this fellow as Borough Historian.

  3. bonnie says:

    This writer is good! Great info.

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