Friday, December 4, 2015


Plymouth Church was founded by 21 people in 1827 and its first minister was the fiery aboliltionist, Henry Ward Beecher.  The church is still open and operating at 124 Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights.

Plymouth Church was part of the Underground Railroad and the Beecher regularly gave sermons in which he appealed for financial donations to purchase the freedom of slaves.  He held mock slave auctions and women took the jewelry off their fingers, wrists, and necks and placed it in the offering basket. 

In the 19th century, the church was so well known throughout the country that Abraham Lincoln attended services at Plymouth Church in 1860.  His pew is marked with a plaque.  Charles Dickens gave a talk at Plymouth Church.  Mark Twain travelled to Europe for several months with a group of church members and chronicled their journey in his book The Innocents Abroad, which by the way, I highly recommend. 

Beecher’s salary was $100,000 a year – over $2,000,000 in today’s currency.  Considering that a Union solider earned $15 a month, this made Beecher quite a big cheese. Beecher’s powerful charisma especially appealed to women and he was prone to affairs with congregation members.  One affair, the one with Elizabeth Tilton, would become a public scandal and that wasn’t just because her husband Theodore Tilton was Beecher’s best friend.  How and why that scandal erupted has to do with the interwoven lives of the movers and shakers of Old New York. 

Henry Ward Beecher presided at the marriage of Elizabeth Richards and Theodore Tilton.  Beecher and Tilton together edited The Independent newspaper.  They were both ardent abolitionist speakers and sought-after on the lecture circuit – the 19th Century equivalent of TV.  They were both out of town often, but not at the same time. 

After the abolition of slavery, they needed other causes for their zeal.  Tilton became an intense advocate for divorce reform (making it easier to obtain) and women’s emancipation.  There’s some irony here.  Beecher was also supportive of the women’s suffrage movement, but not so much in favor of divorce reform.  He also spoke out against the concept of “free love” (he was against the idea that women should be allowed to choose their sex partners) which was promoted by some women in the feminist movement of that era.  The staunchest advocate for free love, Victoria Woodhull, made note of Beecher’s feelings.

Woodhull was a barely educated entrepreneurial type who worked as a medium and magnetic healer until she and her sister met the recently widowed Cornelius Vanderbilt who set them up at 44 Broad Street as the first female stock brokers – Woodhull & Claflins Co.  Soon after, the sisters created the first newspaper run by women Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.  And, for the hat trick, in 1872, Woodhull was the first woman to run for president.

But I digress.

Beecher was used to visiting the Tilton home and it didn’t appear out of line for him to visit Elizabeth when Theodore was away.  One thing led to another as it often can, and Elizabeth eventually confessed to her husband that she’d been unfaithful to him with Beecher.   Naturally upset, Theodore mentioned this affair to his friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who relayed the news to Victoria Woodhull who took it upon herself to publish an article about it in her newspaper and label Beecher a hypocrite.  Imagine that. 

Beecher was wise enough not to sue for libel.  However, Woodhull was arrested for mailing salacious material.  In other words, because she mailed out her newspaper to subscribers, and because the article was sexual in nature, she was jailed.  When Elizabeth Tilton was questioned and confessed her affair to the police Woodhull was released after a month.  [Adding more irony to the story, Theodore Tilton is rumored to have been a lover of Victoria Woodhull during his marriage.]

It took until 1875 – somewhere in the neighborhood of seven years – for Theodore Tilton to finally sue Beecher for “criminal conversation” adultery (basically meaning debauchery of Elizabeth) and “alienation of affection.”  At the trial, Elizabeth made a short statement of confession.  Beecher, however, declared in inimitable political sidestepping, that perhaps Mrs. Tilton had sexual relations with him but he had not had sex with her.  This sounds awfully familiar.  His lawyers argued for his reputation being ruined and that should Beecher be convicted, middle class values would be thrown into chaos.  More double speak. The lawsuit ended in a hung jury and Theodore dropped his suit.

Theodore Tilton moved to Paris leaving Elizabeth to live in poverty, scorned by the Plymouth Church congregation, and buried in an unmarked grave at Green-Wood Cemetery.  Beecher lived on in the same status as before, actually got a raise in salary, and there’s a big statue of him not far from Plymouth Church on Cadman Square in downtown Brooklyn (see above).


Friday, November 20, 2015


In the early 1930s, Bill Wilson was living with his wife Lois in her parents’ house at 182 Clinton Street,  Wilson had college education and served in the Army during WWI.  He had already built a successful career on Wall Street when he came up with the idea of physically visiting and researching companies to make informed stock recommendations about them.  He'd made a fortune and lost it.

During the Roaring Twenties, Wilson made his employers, their clients, and himself quite a pile of money.  The 1920s was also the time of Prohibition, yet liquor, especially bad liquor, was as profuse as ever and more enticing because one had to visit a speakeasy.  Knowing the secret code elevated one’s status – perhaps only internally.  And Bill Wilson was a terrific drunk.  When he was drunk, he wasn’t always nice.  In fact, he insulted his bosses and their clients.  He was an embarrassment to himself, the company he worked for and his wife.  But as long as he predicted stocks that soared, he was a rock star, and therefore his behavior and his obvious psychological problems were ignored.

It was a high time - figuratively and literally - and everyone, including the local paper boy, was buying stock on margin.  Having a compulsive personality, Wilson invested heavily on borrowed funds and when the crash came, his lifestyle crashed with it.  And, worse for him, he was no longer a rock star to be lauded and tolerated.  He was fired.

On account of the stock market crash, Wilson and Lois lost their upscale apartment in Brooklyn Heights and moved in with her parents on Clinton Street.  When Lois’s mother died, her father remarried quickly and moved to another house in Brooklyn Heights, leaving his daughter and her dissipating husband to live in the 4-story brick row house he’d bought as a young doctor.

Had he developed a more resilient personality, he might have found a way to rebuild a stable life, but he turned to liquor during tough times and could spend days inebriated when he suffered an emotional blow. Wilson had a lot of help to recover, and he would do that for a time, but soon he’d relapse.  He was known to pass out on Schermerhorn Street near a speakeasy and not very far from the Quaker Meeting House.  In fact, he was on the street or in alleys in so many places in Brooklyn Heights, that a “Bill Wilson Tour” could be developed.

Finally, when the hospitals couldn’t help him, his wife’s yelling couldn’t help him, his own shame and destitution couldn’t stop him from drinking, it was the talking cure that saved him – talking to another drunk who had found and kept sobriety.   That, and surrendering his arrogance in favor of humility and seeking spiritual help.  Bill Wilson stopped drinking and wanted to help others.  His initial way of doing that was to invite drunks to live at the Clinton Street house, his wife Lois becoming chief cook and bottle washer, while he encouraged and aided men to get and stay sober.  At the house they experienced the gamut from fights to theft.

Wilson had lost his business reputation and could only get temporary mercy jobs from friends.  He decided to write a book and Lois took a job.  He and Lois lived on the edge from the meager contributions of the people they were helping, until finally unable to meet their mortgage obligation, the bank foreclosed on the house. 

Bill and Lois Wilson were homeless for a year – living with friends – until someone who admired their work made it possible for them to afford to buy a house in Westchester County.  The sales from the book eventually took off and the Wilson’s were able to live comfortably without financial worries. 

The house at 182 Clinton Street is still there and has a plaque on it letting the world know that this was where Bill W. started what we now know as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Post by Alana Cash

Monday, October 5, 2015


Photo by April

Great God, the only bridge of power, life and joy, the bridge that was a span, a cry, an ecstasy - that was America.'  Thomas Wolfe

I was only on the bridge once.  Some friends were visiting from Texas and we decided to walk from my apartment east of Prospect Park down to the bridge and across into Manhattan.  We took a slightly roundabout way, walking down Washington Avenue through Fort Greene, so that I could show them some of the architecture of Brooklyn and one of the oldest schools.  A walk that would have been about five miles became six, and by the time we walked into Chinatown in Manhattan and down to the Wall Street district was quite a bit longer.  But it was worth the walk.  It was always worth it.

There we were on the top level of the bridge – the part totally given over to pedestrian traffic – with the wind coming off the river and the mystic rise of the steel cables like harp strings soaring above us.  The cathedral-like arches standing there more than a century and the wooden sidewalk like a shoreline boardwalk beneath our feet and the whole of New York Harbor in our vision.  Miles and miles of water with tankers anchored in the deepest parts, water taxis scurrying across from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and the Staten Island Ferry in the distance gliding past the Statue of Liberty.  Seagulls soaring and perched and light glinting on the windows of the buildings in all the boroughs – from this place, all five boroughs can be seen.    

Traffic, cars and trucks, cross the bridge on the level below the pedestrian walkway.  No trains cross on the bridge.  All train travel is on the Manhattan Bridge right next to it.  And actually, I preferred looking at the bridge to standing on it because any time of day in any kind of weather the bridge is beautiful to look at.  At night the string lights outline its main cables so that it’s always visible in the darkness.

Photo by Wallyg
Skateboarders, skaters, and cyclists also use the pedestrian bridge and they have the expectation that anyone on foot will get out of their way.  I was almost hit by an aggressive cyclist who screamed at me “MOVE MOVE MOVE,” then gave me the finger because I wasn’t fast enough for him.

By that time, I had lived in New York long enough to know that a Native New York bike rider would not have sounded like that.  The guy could have come from New Jersey, Illinois, or Wisconsin, but he wasn’t raised in New York City.  Not that New Yorkers aren’t rude, they sure can be, but they are so used to tourists and delays and dysfunction that the language might have been the same, but the tone of voice would have been very different, less bitchy and more dramatic, and I would have moved much faster.

But that is part of the rhythm of the City.  The millions of personalities that touch it every day.  And what I learned as I lived there, instead of just visiting, is that I must keep moving along, like the river, like the traffic on the bridge, like the subways and the escalators that descend down to them -- even when they break the feet keep moving down, keep moving.  The City feels indifferent because it keeps moving, but how else would millions of people be fed and sheltered and kept warm if the City stopped.

[Clips from Ken Burns’ documentary about the bridge can be found here: ]

Post by Alana Cash

Saturday, September 12, 2015


You took a walk on a Sunday afternoon and came to a nice neighborhood, very refined.  You saw a small one of these trees through the iron gate leading to someone’s yard and you knew that soon that section of Brooklyn would get to be a tenement.  The tree knew.  It came there first.  Afterward, poor foreigners seeped in and the quiet old brownstone houses were hacked up into flats, feather beds pushed out on the windowsills to air and the Tree of Heaven flourished.  That was the kind of tree it was.  It liked poor people.
Betty Smith A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The NY Parks & Rec Dept has a literary tour of Brooklyn – pretty abbreviated since it focuses on Brooklyn Heights.  I never participated in it, preferring to explore further afield, and almost right away after moving to Brooklyn I took my own literary tour.  It was not to see where an author lived particularly, but to see the part of Brooklyn described in Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  The appeal was the reality that Betty Smith created for life in Brooklyn as she was growing up.  The richness of the weather,  cultural mix, morality, survival of poverty and rise from poverty, neighborhood streets, and a child's thoughts about all of it.  Smith's love of Brooklyn was compelling – a place so difficult, dirty, rough, vulgar, violent and scary and yet so beautiful, passionate, creative, vigorous, historic, intense and fun.  You can’t know Brooklyn from the outside or a book. I had to experience it for myself.

I reread Smith’s novel just before moving to Brooklyn and made notes of the streets so that I could pinpoint Francie’s apartment building and other places that Betty Smith describes in the book, hoping somehow to capture a sense of what Brooklyn was like in the 1940s.  That tree by the way, that Francie called Tree of Heaven, is also known as ailanthus altissima.  It is everywhere in Brooklyn.  Surviving.

At the beginning, when Francie and her brother Neeley are carrying their junk and rags to sell at Carney’s, she names all the streets they pass as they walk down Manhattan Avenue – Ten Eyck, Stagg Street to Carney’s on Scholes Street.  After selling their rags, they walked further south on Manhattan Avenue past Meserole, Montrose, Johnson, Boerum, McKibbin, Siegel, Moore, Varet, and Cook to the nickel and dime store on Broadway.  The walk Francie and Neeley took is the now in the vicinity  of the Williamsburg Public Housing Buildings (blocks of them) and about a half-mile from the Williamsburg Hassidic community.

The area is now filled with small discount stores with plastic brooms and mops in plastic buckets near the door with all sorts of plastic tubs and kitchenware in small front windows.  The tiny grocery store windows are completely covered with ads.There are little stores selling clothing, hair products and wigs, as well as a few botanicas.  It was easy to find the poverty and ugliness that Betty Smith described, as well as the cultural melting pot.  Many of the buildings were original, including the apartment building where Francie's mother scrubbed the stairs.  Looking at them -- rusty and grand -- gave me the sense of history, endurance, that permeates New York.  And like the hundred coats of paint on walls, railings, doors, the first layer is still the there.  All the layers are there – it just takes imagination to find them.
There are a few interesting things I learned in researching Betty Smith.  She didn’t finish high school and waited until her first husband finished law school before she started her secondary education and writing career.  She got divorced the year the book was published.  Although the book is about an Irish family, Betty Smith’s parents were poor German immigrants, and that change was made because the book was published during WWII.  I also found it interesting that after divorcing her first husband, Betty Smith moved to Chapel Hill, NC, home of the University of North Carolina where Thomas Wolfe went to study, much earlier in the century, at age fifteen.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


photo by Mike Roseberry
New York has been portrayed for decades in movies and in television crime shows – from Peter Gunn with its jazzy Greenwich Village 1960s vibe (now in syndication) to Blue Bloods.  I used to see the TV production trucks in Brooklyn quiet a lot, especially Prospect Park.  It’s a lot easier to manage auto and people traffic in Brooklyn than Manhattan.  Crime shows glamorize the criminal justice system – it’s just entertainment with good guys and bad guys, just make believe.  That was my attitude until I started researching for a crime novel. 

My interest in writing a crime novel started when I met retired homicide detective Louis Scarcella at a coffee shop one morning.  He was sitting with some friends and one of them started talking to me.  They found out I was new to New York and asked me to join them again for coffee.  They were all retired from their careers, as I recall, and met there every morning. 

I like to write in coffee shops, and several days later, I met them again.  When Louie told me he had been a homicide detective, I asked if he’d be interested in helping me write a crime novel.  He agreed.  Louie, as it turned out, was one of the most decorated and lauded homicide detectives in New York City and many of his cases had made headlines.  For several months we met once a week.  He talked specifically about his cases and snitches,  and I asked lots of questions about police procedure. 

Louie arranged for me to talk to other (non-retired) homicide detectives and police officers.  Everyone had various stories and were forthcoming when I asked questions.  There was one common issue that they all spoke about – the smell of a dead body.  One retired police captain I met at Lincoln Center told me that whenever he was at the scene of a homicide, he used to take his uniform off and worked in his underwear because even dry cleaning didn’t get the smell off his clothes. 

Louie also arranged for me to visit the morgue so that I could understand for myself what they were all talking about.  Inside the building, I could smell the morgue rooms from 50 feet away, and I simply can’t describe it.  I was inside the rooms for about 5 minutes and the odor lingered on my clothes until I washed them.  I have to wonder now, what people on the subway thought about the scent as I traveled home that day.

The bodies inside the morgue were unclaimed.  These were not murder victims; they were people found in their own homes or on the street that no one had reported missing.  The morgue attendant said they would be held there for a few months, and if they were still unclaimed, they’d get buried in a City graveyard.   

The front room of the morgue held bodies on gurneys – one of them was a woman whose bloated body was a light blue.  The interior room did not have drawers, but rather stacked metal bunks.  All of them full and all the bodies were mine-shaft black.  I had seen dead bodies before in car accidents, but that was in passing, dramatic, momentary.  This was more real.  This would eventually happen to me.

I decided to research the decay of the human body and found out there’s a body farm in Knoxville, affiliated with the University of Tennessee.  People donate their bodies to science and their remains are sent to the farm where scientists put the bodies in the trunks of cars, into water, into closed containers, in plastic bags, or under a pile of leaves and study how these different elements affect the decomposition process.  They pass this information along to forensics and police labs (among others).  This type of information helps a Medical Examiner to determine time and cause of death. 

From my research I learned that as soon as the body dies, the bacteria in the stomach begin to eat away at it.  The gasses these bacteria give off rise to the surface of the skin causing the entire body to bloat and turn a beautiful light blue (whick was the stage of the female body in the morgue).  Then, as the gasses dissipate, the body begins to turn black.  During the final stages of decay the body is black as coal (bodies in the back room of the morgue had decomposed to this level).  It’s a mixture of gasses from the digestive system, various glands, as well as the decaying blood that gives such a strong, distinctive, and unpleasant odor.

About once a year when I was living in New York, a body was found in an apartment because the neighbors reported the smell.  One time the police responded to a call from a Park Avenue building and found that a woman (70s) and her mother (90s) had placed a man in a trunk after he died.  The woman explained that her husband had always wanted to visit Arizona and she and her mother had intended to send the trunk there, but they didn’t know how.  I don’t know where the trunk was sent, but the two women were sent to Bellevue.

But I digress.

After I’d learned as much about body decomposition as I could stand, I asked Louie questions about trials and testimony, he recommended that I sit in on a criminal trial in Brooklyn or Manhattan.  So I did.  The first was not a trial, but a hearing.  A 23-year old man had shot another man at a party over a girl.  The boy’s mother and younger brother (wearing red colors) were the only people in the courtroom gallery besides me.  I wondered, why did he have a gun at a party, where did he get it, when did he get it, did he always carry it.  That’s when I remembered something a cop told me once – you have to make 100 wrong decisions before you get arrested the first time.

I sat in on two criminal trials – one was the trial of a man arrested for possession of crack cocaine, the other was a trial about gang assault on a police officer.  Those trials changed my thinking forever about crime TV and caused me to lose interest in writing a crime novel.  A criminal lawyer I spoke to told me that the criminal justice system isn’t about innocence or guilt, it’s about luck.  Luck about who’s on the jury, who’s the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney and what’s going on in their private lives.  You can be innocent and go to prison.  Guilty and be set free.  Luck.  Sitting in courtrooms of the criminal trials. I came to see the criminal justice system like an amoral perpetual-motion steamroller that squashes everything in its path. 

The man on trial for selling crack cocaine was on disability and testified that he worked for cash wages fixing cars.  He had four children, two of whom lived with him.  He asked someone to babysit for him while he went to visit a girlfriend and her teenage daughter.  The mother went off to buy vodka, the daughter went off to buy a soft drink, and he went off to buy some crack – just for his own personal use, he claimed.  He wanted to smoke a woolie – crack wrapped inside marijuana.  The woman who sold him the crack only had a few rocks, which he purchased and he asked her to go get some more.  She left.  He got arrested by an undercover cop.  I don’t know the verdict, because when the trial broke for lunch, I didn’t return.  The whole story was disheartening to me.    

In the other trial, the defendants were three men (23-24?) who had gone to Catholic school together and happened to run into each other at a bar on New Year’s Eve.  At least two of them were drinking heavily.  They had an altercation with an off-duty policeman who was not in uniform.  Differing versions of how that came about from either side, but all agreeing that the fight lasted about 45 seconds.  The men, who had no criminal record, were charged as a gang because New York law reads:  A person is guilty of gang assault in the second degree when, with intent to cause physical injury to another person and when aided by two or more other persons actually present, he causes serious physical injury to such person or to a third person.

They were all found guilty and two of them sentenced to fifteen years in prison.  The other one was sentenced to one year.

I stopped writing about crime.  

Over the past couple of years, several of Louie’s arrests and subsequent convictions have been overturned  – 8 so far – and those men who were in prison have been freed and given large payments of damages from the City (over $30 million so far).  Louie has been vilified, but I wonder about the prosecutors who worked those cases and ignored the flaws.  What about farther up the chain of command?  Who turned blind eyes in order to feed that perpetual-motion steamroller of the criminal justice system?  One person didn’t create this:

Monday, July 27, 2015


Evening is coming fast, and the great city is blazing there in your vision in its terrific frontal sweep and curtain of star-flung towers, now sown with the diamond pollen of a million lights, and the sun has set behind them, and the red light of fading day is painted upon the river - and you see the boats, the tugs, the barges passing, and the winglike swoop of bridges with exultant joy - and night has some and there are ships there - there are ships - and a wild intolerable longing in you that you cannot utter.

(from the short story No Door by Thomas Wolfe)

This excerpt from No Door seems to take place at a home in Brooklyn Heights on the palisade that faces the old docks on the East River and the skyline of lower Manhattan.  It’s the place where photographers take those panoramic photos of Manhattan for postcards and posters.  There’s a park with a wide sidewalk with benches.  You saw it in the movie Moonstruck when the grandfather took his dogs to howl at the moon. Nannies take children there in strollers and prams during the day.  Lovers patrol at night.

Of course, at the time Wolfe was describing the East River docks, there was still a great deal of manufacturing in Brooklyn, and the waterfront was much different.  There were many ships moving in and out of the docks with longshoremen on the wharves loading and unloading goods stored in the warehouses that are now renovated into condominiums.  

While he was writing the novel, Of Time and the River, Thomas Wolfe lived at 5 Montague Terrace, directly across the street from the houses that line the palisade (W.H. Auden lived two doors away at 1 Montague Terrace).  These houses were built by Wall Street tycoons who thought it more convenient to take the ferry to the Manhattan Battery in the morning than to drive down to Lower Manhattan from a house on Fifth Avenue. After the 1929 crash, many of the houses were abandoned, boarded up.  Brooklyn itself fell into a decrepit state and didn't recover until the 1980s.

But Wolfe was not living in Brooklyn Heights when he wrote No Door.  At that time Wolfe was living in the basement of a house at 40 Verandah Place.  The area was referred to as South Brooklyn then.  Modern realtors renamed it Cobble Hill.  Here’s what Thomas Wolfe wrote about his basement apartment on Verandah Place:

Well, you say, living alone in South Brooklyn has its drawbacks.  The place you live in is shaped just like a Pullman car, except it is not so long and has only one window at each end.  There are bars over the front window that your landlady has put there to keep the thugs in that sweet neighborhood from breaking in; in the winter the place is cold and dark, and sweats with clammy water; in the summer you do all the sweating yourself, but you do plenty of it, quite enough for anyone; the place gets hot as hell.  (from No Door)

In the photograph, you can see that the basement windows on the homes on Veranda Place are about 8 inches tall.  One hopes that the ceilings are higher because Wolfe was 6’5” and liked to stand as he wrote, using the top of his refrigerator as a desk top.

Thomas Wolfe captured New York more passionately than any writer I can imagine, describing mundane places, like the subway, with such accurate intensity that it can be felt as well as imagined:

Thus we streamed down from the free night into the tunnel’s stale and fetid air again, we swarmed and hurried across the floors of gray cement, we rushed and pushed our way along as furiously as if we ran a race with time, as if some great reward were to be won if we could save two minutes or as if we were hastening onward, as fast as we could go toward some glorious meeting, some happy and fortunate event, some goal of beauty, wealth, or love… (from Death the Proud Brother)

Thus, he engages us in the frenetic pace of the city.

The Parks Department gives literary walking tours about Brooklyn.  You can find more about the tours here:

post by Alana Cash

Saturday, July 18, 2015


In the summer, the Parks Dept. of New York offers all kinds of free entertainment – Central Park offers Shakespeare in the Park, concerts and a one-day Jazz Festival among other events.  I went to one concert in Central Park.  It was too much like going to a baseball game with people milling around, coming and going all the time – hardly worth the effort or expense.

I much preferred the Celebrate Brooklyn! concerts at the Bandshell in Prospect Park partly because I’m lazy – this being closer to home – and mainly because this was a smaller venue. Also FREE. The Bandshell was located at 9th Street and Prospect Park West, almost directly on the other side of the park from where I lived.  The days are really long in New York in the summer, so it was still light out when the concerts started and I rode my bike around Circle Drive to listen to the concerts from the road.  And it was perfectly safe to ride the bike back around Circle Drive when I was ready to go home

The Bandshell always had really fine artists performing [blue grass musician Rhiannon Giddens and Willy Nelson are a couple of the performers this summer] so it was really enjoyable.  The park personnel set up folding chairs roped off from the cheap seats (the grass).  They even had a seating chart, which I found amusing.    Generally the seats were filled, and there were loads of picnickers around them on blankets on the grass.  

None of the picnickers had a bottle of wine, like you might find at the Hollywood Bowl in LA, because it is illegal in New York to have an open container outside.  This includes your front porch, a backyard party, or hanging out of your own window.  Incredible as that seems, I learned about it when I got a “Summons” (a traffic ticket) once for riding my bike the wrong way on Circle Drive on a weekday at a time when the gates had been blocked so cars could not drive inside the park (Circle Drive is a one-way street surrounding the park).  At any rate, I had to appear at a special court to “answer” the Summons. 

A group of us were told to enter a room where a cop asked us if we wanted to pay the fine or go upstairs for a lecture and not pay the fine.  Those of us who were not in a hurry – which was almost everyone – chose to go upstairs.  When we were upstairs, another cop asked us what we had done to receive a Summons.  Everyone except me had violated the open container law.  One man stated he was on the sidewalk leaning on his own car.  Another said that he was at a party in a friend’s back yard and a neighbor had called the police about the noise.  When the police arrived, they told everyone to quiet down and they had to choose one person to get the Summons for the open container violation since they were drinking outside in the back yard.  I was astonished.

Here’s the best part – when the cop asked me to say what I had done and I said, “I was riding my bike going the wrong way in Prospect Park,” he said, “WHAT!”  Then, he dismissed my Summons (and everyone else’s too) and we all went home.  

Back to the summer concerts.  There were also concerts in Coney Island on Thursdays at an outdoor venue near the Cyclones Stadium.  They usually had vintage R&B bands and people actually danced.  I was only there once after spending time at the beach, and I don’t think they have those concerts in Coney Island anymore.

What they do have now at Coney Island is “Burlesque at the Beach.”  Folks take classes to learn how to perform burlesque with big feathery fans and whatnot, then at the end of their class, they perform at a sideshow on the boardwalk.  

You can find more about that here:

post by Alana Cash 

Monday, July 13, 2015


For me, the best festivals in New York are held at Italian churches – the Giglio Festival in Williamsburg, 
Brooklyn  (July) and the festival of San Genarro in Little Italy, Manhattan (September).  By far, the most exciting is the Giglio Festival which has been going on for almost 130 years.   The festival centers around a 72-foot statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel that rests on a four-ton steel frame (more about this later).

I’m not Catholic, but this is the closest to an “Old New York” festival that I can imagine and I went to it every year.  First of all, an entire block of the street in front of the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel gets blocked off and then lined with booths selling all kinds of food and souvenirs.  Songs by Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and Mario Lanza play all the time, except when a live band plays or during the “parade” of the Giglio.   

People who grew up in the neighborhood come from all over for a reunion with their neighbors.  In talking to them, I get a sense of what this part of Williamsburg was like fifty and sixty years before.  I heard about stickball games and who was a two-sewer hitter or even three-sewer hitter (hitting the ball past 2 or 3 manhole covers – which were 90 feet apart).  They talked about doo-wop street corner groups, some talked about the Dodgers and the Giants, others about how safe and clean it used to be.  You feel a loyalty, a sadness, a loss.

There’s a look to the people – a lot of the women have big hair and tight clothes, the men wear square-hemmed shirts that are not tucked in, and their hair is greased and combed back over their scalps.  One year I was there, a man dressed in soft yellow casual clothes stepped out of a black Mercedes.  People gathered around him, the men shaking his hand.  He was important.  Maybe a politician, maybe a community leader.  I imagined him as the don of the mafia that controlled that area.  I didn’t ask.  Why ruin a fantasy?

Every half hour, the statue is “paraded.”  A priest and a full band climb onto the steel frame.  The priest gives a blessing to the crowd.  Then a host of men surround the statue and pick up that four-ton frame on their shoulders to sally it down the block, grunting and straining.  The first time I was at the festival was the first time I heard someone say “Madon’ (a mild Italian curse that’s short for “Madonna”).  The rest of the crowd cheers them on.  The men parade the Giglio until they just about collapse – maybe 25 feet or so.  The next half hour when it’s time to carry the statue, a new group of men jump in to do it.

The festival lasts for several days, and I totally recommend going on the days or nights that the statue will be paraded.

More information here:

post by Alana Cash

Saturday, July 4, 2015


When I realized that Revolutionary War battles were fought on the same ground that I walked every day, and seeing the Statue of Liberty every time I took the subway over the Manhattan Bridge into Chinatown, Independence Day took on a new meaning.  To celebrate, I liked to stroll through Prospect Park where General Sullivan battled the British back while George Washington escaped across the East River into Manhattan.

The park streets are closed to traffic on holidays and weekends and instead are filled with bike riders (some of them travelling at Tour de France speed), as well as families with kids and strollers.  Some people liked to get out on the lake in paddle boats and canoes.  Some fished from the lakeshore – although I can’t imagine eating anything out of that lake.  The Prospect Park drum circle was active.  Extended families and their friends from all over Brooklyn arrived with barbecues and cooked from morning till the park closed at dusk.  

Down at Coney Island, the birth of our country is celebrated each year with the Nathan’s Hotdog Eating Championship.  The winners generally eat over 60 dogs, which is difficult to imagine unless you actually see it happen.  Hotdog eaters have to qualify to enter.  There are 12 cities around the country that have preliminary contests (mostly in June) and those winners go to New York for the national championship.  It’s a big deal.  There’s even a Hall of Fame.

Starting a bit before 10 pm, for the second year, there’s a fireworks display at Coney Island specially for 4th of July (there are regular fireworks displays every Friday on the beach at Coney Island during the summer, which is a great treat if you happen to be at Cyclone’s Stadium for a ballgame).  But I preferred to stand on the window seat in my apartment and watch the fireworks launched over the East River.

After the major (and legal) displays, fireworks continued to go off in the neighborhood until the early morning hours.  Some of them were possibly cars backfiring and some possibly gunshots judging by the constant sirens during the night.  But eventually, about 3 am, things got quiet enough to sleep.

post by Alana Cash

Saturday, June 20, 2015

THE OLD STONE HOUSE – circa 1699

The Old Stone House was built in 1699 as a Dutch farmhouse by the Vechte family.  The original house burned down in 1897, but was rebuilt of the same stones.  The house is still standing (336 – 3rd Street) and it’s worth a visit because one of the major battles of the Revolutionary War took place around it.

Control of The Old Stone House was a measure of who was winning that Revolutionary War battle.  256 men died in that battle and were buried in a mass grave at what is now the southwest corner of 3rd Street and 7th Avenue.  The gravesite actually stretched to 4th Street, which is now a block of row houses turned into apartment houses where apartments rent for around $4,000 a month.  One has to wonder if the graves of hundreds of men who died bloody deaths and are buried underneath them, gives off some kind of eerie vibe in those homes.

The Old Stone House is now managed and maintained by the New York Parks Department and welcomes visitors.  They’ll tell you that it’s not only a memorial to the Revolutionary War (and there are lots of war memorials in New York City), it used to be a clubhouse for the Superbas baseball team.

The Superbas – later known as the Brooklyn Dodgers – played at Washington Baseball Park (long ago torn down) which was built between 4th & 3rd Avenues and 1st and 3rd Streets in Brooklyn – near the famous Gowanus Canal.  The Gowanus Canal is renowned for being so heavily polluted that at one point the EPA actually demanded it be cleaned up, which may have happened.  (It’s hard to tell).  The baseball park was built next to The Old Stone House and the players used it as their clubhouse and a place to store their gear.  The Superbas used to play the Boston Beaneaters, who eventually became the Boston Braves. 

The Dodgers got that name because when the Superbas started playing at Ebbets Field – near the intersection of Flatbush and Ocean/Malbone Avenues – people had to dodge the trolley cars.

Besides being a place of interesting historical value, The Old Stone House hosts events, parties, and weddings.  The King’s County Fiber Festival will be held at the Old Stone House in October.  Artists, dyers, knitters, crocheters, quilters, and weavers will be giving exhibitions and demonstrations.    

post by Alana Cash