Monday, April 25, 2016


When I first moved to New York, I read every book I could get my hands on that was about the City, both current and historical.  That’s how I learned about the Hunterfly Houses in Weeksville – a small section of Brooklyn considered part of Crown Heights and bounded by Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville.  Weeksville was described as a Pre-Civil War African-American community.  The homes still standing are on the Register of Historic Places and Weeksville is officially called Hunterfly Road Historic District.    

I found the address for the Hunterfly Houses in a well-respected guidebook.  It was about 3 miles from where I was living and I decided to walk there through Brownsville – traveling north on Ocean Avenue, continuing on where it turned into Empire Avenue, until I reached Utica St. and turned north.  That took me to the address in the guidebook, but not to the houses – because, guess what, that guidebook was wrong.  I asked people I met on the street if they knew where the Weeksville houses were and no one in the neighborhood seemed to know.  So I walked around for about an hour until I found them at 1698 Bergen Street which was not the addressed listed in the book.  The houses were closed on the day I walked up there – a fact the guidebook also neglected to mention – and they were surrounded by an iron fence with a locked gate, so I couldn’t even get a close look at the exterior or peer in the windows.  (I wrote a letter to the guidebook publisher later when I got home).

1698 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, NY
Weeksville was founded in 1830 by freedman James Weeks, and the wood-frame homes that are still standing (and restored) date from that period up to 1880s.  By 1850s, Weeksville was a thriving community of 500 people with a school, newspaper, cemetery (you have to wonder what is now built on top of it), old-age home, and a female doctor. 

The buildings still standing most likely constituted “town square.”  Certainly, they represent a rural life in Brooklyn which is almost impossible to imagine with every square inch now covered in concrete and brick.  That was my interest.  To see and imagine historic New York.  My family owned a farm in Arkansas – without running water or electricity until 1959 – and the kids went to a one-room school house.  That area of Arkansas has satellite dishes and paved roads now, but it still feels very rural.  So it was interesting to imagine Brooklyn without electricity or indoor plumbing.
Hunterfly Road (anglicanization of  Dutch “Aander Vly”) was an Indian trail that led from Bedford to Jamaica Bay.  As the City of Brooklyn grew and the grid for expansion laid out, Hunterfly Road began to be enclosed by construction of homes and buildings.  That’s how Weeksville eventually seemed to disappear.  It was rediscovered by a professor at Pratt Institute who was in an airplane taking a view of New York from the air.  That discovery initiated a movement to restore and preserve the houses at a cost of $3 million.  That seems like a lot since there are only three houses. 

There is now a 19,000 square foot Weeksville Heritage Center.  You have to wonder what the original residents of Weeksville would have thought of that.

Monday, April 18, 2016


I had seen men in the diamond district of Manhattan and on the subway with side locks, wearing long-sleeved white shirts, black pants, long black coats, and black hats.  In winter this clothing seemed warming; in summer I felt it would be unbearably hot.  This is the style of clothing of the Hasidic and there is significance to it.

There are several Hasidic communities in BrooklynBorough Park and Williamsburg are quite large.  The community nearest me was Crown Heights.  I wanted to learn the significance of the side
locks, and so one Sunday I took the Lubavitcher Tour - a walking tour of the Crown Heights Hasidic Community.
A group of use – four tourists and me – met the tour guide on Kingston Road, not far from the temple on Eastern Parkway.  When I reached out to shake the hand of the tour guide, he ignored it without a word of explanation.  I learned later on in the tour, that there is a prohibition about the different genders touching and strong segregation of men and women.  Perhaps he expected me to know this already.

First, the tour guide taught us about the different communities in Brooklyn, the importance of the rabbi and how he is chosen.  He explained one distinction between Hasidic Jews and other types of Judaism is that Hasidic men are not to shave the five corners of the head which includes the beard.  There are differing opinions on what the five points are (learned online), but one is very clear – the sideburns are not to be shaved.  They become ringlet side locks.  

We walked around the neighborhood a bit before we went inside the temple to the women’s section – upstairs and separate from the males.  There were windows in the room that overlooked the main temple.  The windows were covered except for a small opening at the bottom.  The tour guide explained that the women could “look down into the temple and pick out their husbands.” 

Marriages are arranged with strong guidance from the families for picking the right mate for life.  After a woman is married, she must cover her hair even at home.  In this community, women did not have to shave their heads, as I recall.  Although I have read that in other Jewish communities, the married women shave their heads and cover them with wigs.

The tour guide also explained the teffilin – black leather boxes attached to leather straps that get wrapped about a man’s head so that the box is on his forehead or wrapped about his arm.  The boxes hold parchment scrolls with verses from the Torah (to me, the first five books of the Old Testament) and are worn during prayer.

After visiting the temple, we went to a place where men make mezuzahs.  A mezuzah is a small piece of parchment with a verse from the Torah printed or written on it.  Usually the parchment is inside a decorative case that is about 3 or 4 inches long and about ½ inch wide.  The cases are made of different metals and woods, and the ones these men were working with, were elaborately engraved.  The mezuzahs are attached to door frames, outside and inside the home, in a very particular way – usually tipped.

There is so much I’m leaving out because the tour was at least two hours, but eventually we headed back to the starting point and parted.

Shortly after that tour, I met a group of five Hasidic children in Prospect Park on afternoon.  There is a holiday that the children celebrate by offering blessings and these children were running around doing that.  Their guardian was a young man in his late twenties. 

One angelic little boy ran up to me joyously and gave me a blessing.  The man hurried over and asked me, “Are you Jewish?”  And I said, “No.”  The little boy was only supposed to dispense his blessings to those declaring themselves Jewish, but it had already happened and the little boy was so happy.  The man could see that I was happy too, and he said, “That’s all right.”

And I kept that blessing. 

Thursday, April 7, 2016


There is a small gate at the corner of Flatbush and Ocean Avenues, and when you pass through it, you enter a paradise of peace and beauty.  The trash and asphalt of the street are no longer visible.  The constant din of the City may continue, but somehow you don’t hear it.  The moldy, diesel smell of the streets is replaced with the smell of green – 1000s of trees, shrubs, and plants providing oxygen, most of them labeled with their names and genus.  This is Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a 52-acre sanctuary in the heart of the borough.  The Garden was created in 1910, the very same year that the house where I lived was built.

It’s flanked on the north by the main Brooklyn Library and the Brooklyn Museum.  Ebbets Field baseball stadium – now replaced by a huge, nondescript, high-rise apartment building – used to be two blocks away to the east.  To the west, right across the street, is Prospect Park a world away.  The Botanic Garden is fenced, iron fenced, and so there’s no itinerants walking through to get somewhere else.  No cars driving through, taking a shortcut to somewhere else.  No speed bikers yelling at you to get out of their way.  When you’re in the Garden, you’re there in nature for nature.

And to the south about a quarter of a mile, another landmark, is the house where I lived.

In the spring, the 100-foot avenue of cherry trees is in bloom.  Brides get married here.  Some others probably get engaged.  And there is a cherry-blossom festival – Sakura Matsuri – that celebrates Japanese culture and gardening with performances and other programs.  Festival days, you will find people in kimonos walking among the cherry trees.  You could be in Japan.

But cherry trees aren’t the only trees that are blooming there in spring.  There are apricot and peach trees, apple and nectarine trees, and magnolias.  It’s really nice.

Photo by Jeffrey O. Gustafson
There’s a Bonsai Museum at the Botanic Garden with over 350 bonsai trees.  Imagine seeing a lilac tree or wisteria blooming in miniature.  Or a fully-grown redwood tree a few inches tall.  I found it so surprising, I tried imagining bonsai people leaning against the trunk.

Photo by BerndH
There’s more – the Aquatic House and Orchid Collection has pools that hold ferns and mosses and orchids.  There are over 2,000 orchids at the Garden.  All equally beautiful.  My landlord grew orchids in the house – about 8 of them, I think – and I tried to learn the technique (purchasing plants from Trader Joe’s).  I just couldn’t get the hang of repotting and when to water, and so I failed.  I suppose it’s similar to baking bread – there’s a certain patience required and something clicks one day and you can do it. Altho I have learned to bake all types of bread, I haven't mastered the art of growing orchids.  And anyway,  bread dough doesn’t die right in front of your eyes.

Photo by Bettycrocker
The most serene part of the Garden for me is Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden.  There’s a large pond with enormous koi swimming in it.  The pond is surrounded by a pathway that is shaded by trees and there’s a shady gazebo for sitting, or leaning, to watch the fish glide by.

There are a lot of festivals and lectures and learning opportunities at the Garden.  One of them is a tour of the Shakespeare Herb Garden which holds every type of plant mentioned in a Shakespeare play or sonnet – including the poisonous ones. 

And then there’s the music.  The Garden includes music in many of their programs.  One winter, I attended a performance by a soft-rock/jazz band.  There was a man sitting near the band who was drawing on a computer.  When the band announced their last song, this man projected his drawings on the wall, sped up the slide-show, and it appeared that the people in the drawings were dancing along to the music.  It was very impressive.

Okay, so the main entrance to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is actually up near the Brooklyn Museum, so there’s two ways to get inside.  But get there.  It’s fabulous.  And open year round.  Tuesdays and Saturday mornings are FREE.