Finding Family Roots in a Carroll Gardens Church

Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen's, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen’s sits on Hicks Street in Carroll Gardens, just above the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

On my first real visit to New York, some 10 years ago, a leisurely walk through Brooklyn Heights and its surrounding neighborhoods brought me to Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in Carroll Gardens. Designed by Patrick Charles Keely in the late 19th Century, this Gothic revival church  suffered a devastating fire in 1951. By then, the parish was largely Italian American—as evidenced by the names on the stained-glass windows.

One of the stained-glass windows, however, stopped me in my tracks.

The name inscribed in the window is Crescenzo Orlando. My mother’s maiden name is Di Crescenzo. And her paternal grandmother’s maiden name is Orlando. Both names are common in the town my grandfather was born in, Guardiagrele, in Abruzzo, not far from the Adriatic Sea.

Though family members on both the Di Crescenzo and Orlando sides of the family tell me that relatives of ours worked on sewers and aqueducts in New York City around the turn of the 20th century, I have no evidence that anyone from the family settled in New York City. The Orlandos moved to Putnam Valley, N.Y., while the Di Crescenzos settled on the south side of Chicago.

Surely, however, there has to be some family connection, or at least a connection to Guardiagrele. A local historian suggested I look at neighborhood census records around the time the church was restored after its fire. But thus far I have not undertaken that task.

Only two years ago did our side of the family learn that my great great grandparents are buried in Putnam Valley. It was good to learn that I had a family connection to the state of New York. I’d love to find out whether I also have a family connection to Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen's
Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen’s stained-glass window

Turnstile Tour of Williamsburg’s Most Holy Trinity Church

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Though most known for its weekend tours of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Turnstile Tours also offers a tour of Williamsburg’s Most Holy Trinity Church in December and January. The tour benefits Trinity Service Center, a social outreach program of the parish.

This past December, I joined the Christmastime church tour, led by Turnstile founder Cindy VandenBosch and Most Holy Trinity’s Parochial Vicar, Father Tim Dore. Starting outside with an overview of the once-German neighborhood, the tour brought us inside to the Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine beside the altar, down to the crypt under the church, where the parish’s founding pastors are buried, and then all the way up to the dizzying tower (with an opportunity to step outside and take in the view of the Manhattan skyline in the distance).

The next tour won’t be until the end of the year. But in the meantime, check out the parish’s website. It is full of historic information about the parish and the surrounding neighborhood (including stories about tunnels, ghosts and an 1897 murder inside the church!).

Finally, though not part of the tour, Turnstile’s website tells us that this church is mentioned as a “miniature cathedral” in the 1943 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:

“Francie thought it was the most beautiful church in Brooklyn. It was made of old gray stone and had twin spires that rose cleanly into the sky, high above the tallest tenements. Inside, the high vaulted ceilings, narrow deep-set stained-glass windows and elaborately carved altars made it a miniature cathedral.”
– Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, published in 1943

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Staten Island’s boardwalk and Hurricane Sandy

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Dedicated in 1939 and renovated in the late 1990s, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Boardwalk in Staten Island’s South Beach neighborhood has been one of my favorite places to run for the last several years. But since Hurricane Sandy, which damaged many boardwalks in New York and New Jersey, the boardwalk has been closed.

As far as I can tell, the boardwalk itself is in good shape, but the storm pulled many of the ramps away from the boardwalk, twisted the guardrails that run under the boardwalk, and pushed a lot of sand inland.

The area has an interesting history that precedes the building of the current boardwalk. From the city’s website:

On June 30, 1906 the Happyland Amusement Park opened its boardwalk doors. Taking full advantage of the summer closings of most Broadway theaters, Happyland’s amusements, stage productions, and vaudeville shows attracted thirty-thousand visitors on opening day. The amusement park continued to draw summer crowds for many years with attractions like the Japanese Tea Gardens, the Carnival of Venice, and the shooting gallery. Though the boardwalk resort thrived throughout the 1910s and 20s, fires, water pollution, and The Great Depression (1929-1939) took their toll on the beachfront resort area and the crowds eventually disappeared.

In 1935 the beachfront property was vested to the City and underwent renovations as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) Works Progress Administration (WPA). Providing jobs for Depression era workers, the WPA also revived the community of Midland Beach. By removing the deteriorating music halls, carousels, and shooting galleries, the project made way for the present two and a half-mile long boardwalk. In 1939 it was dedicated to the former New York governor and president and has since continued to undergo periodic renovations and neighborhood improvements.

I asked some parks department workers today when the boardwalk might reopen, and they said Memorial Day. That’s a long way away, and I know many of us runners will miss the boardwalk between now and then, especially as the weather warms up in May and June. And it’s not just runners who will miss the boardwalk, but also walkers, cyclists and the fishermen who fish off the end of the pier in Ocean Breeze.

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Hidden Harbors Tour of Newark Bay

Bayonne Bridge at sunset

I could spend every weekend walking a new neighborhood of New York and still not know the city inside and out. Knowing that there is always another block or hundred to explore is what I love most about living here.

Recently I’ve taken advantage of some walking tours offered by the Municipal Art Society. Led by knowledgeable guides, many of them architectural historians, the tours have taught me a lot about Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Bushwick.

But last week I enjoyed a tour of a different kind—a boat tour of Newark Harbor. Hidden Harbors, working with Circle Line, offers boat tours of unconventional places that highlight the past and current working waterfront. Newtown Creek, Newark Bay, the Brooklyn waterfront, even a circumnavigation of Staten Island are among the tours offered every summer.

And last week’s tour was unconventional. Yes, we did a quick loop under the Brooklyn Bridge at the start of the tour, and on our way back to South Street Seaport, we were given a closeup view of Lady Liberty—but we were also treated to views of Red Hook, a tugboat repair shop on the North Shore of Staten Island, barges in the Kill Van Kull, the container port in Newark Bay and a “teardrop” Sept. 11 memorial hidden off the coast of Bayonne.

The entire tour was narrated by two guides who shared a wealth of information about the past, present and future of New York’s port. And the boat, Circle Line’s Zephyr, offered indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a full snack and drink bar.

Hidden Harbor’s tours wrap up next month for the year. I look forward to taking another tour with them next year.

The port at Elizabeth, New Jersey
The port at Elizabeth, New Jersey
Bayonne Bridge from Newark Bay
Bayonne Bridge from Newark Bay
Statue of Liberty at sunset
Statue of Liberty at sunset

Old Mr. Flood, and the Fulton Fish Market

The reading for my summer “City Life in Fact and Fiction” class at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies included a short story and short novel by Joseph Mitchell. Both “Up in the Old Hotel” and “Old Mr. Flood” are set in the Fulton Fish Market, which closed shortly after I moved to New York City. I am sorry I never made it to the market in 2005, just to see what it looked like (though I understand the market had seen its height long before my parents were even born).

The Hartford Hotel setting reminds me of an evening I never experienced at the end of my first ride on the Coast Starlight, Amtrak’s Los Angeles-to-Seattle route. I was travelling alone on a North American Rail Pass in December of 2000. Vancouver, Jasper, Winnipeg, Toronto and Chicago were on my itinerary, after a short stay in Seattle. My plan was to stay at a hostel in downtown Seattle, but a heavy, middle-aged Montana man I met on the train almost convinced me to go with him to Ballard, a neighborhood of Seattle on the Puget Sound’s Shilshole Bay. He invited me to hang out at a bar that would likely be filled with old fishermen.

Looking back, I imagine the bar probably looked like Montero’s in Brooklyn Heights must have looked 40 years ago. I was almost sold, but decided against going to this strange neighborhood with a strange person. I stuck to my downtown Seattle plan.

But back to “Old Mr. Flood.” The title character believes fish is an elixir that will enable him to live to 115. His description of food reads like something that could have been written in the 21st Century. My favorite passage:

“Fish,” he says, “is the only grub left that the scientists haven’t been able to get their hands on and improve. The flounder you eat today hasn’t got any more damned vitamins in it than the flounder your great-great-grandaddy ate, and it tastes the same. Everything else has been improved and improved and improved to such an extent that it ain’t fit to eat. Consider the egg. When I was a boy on Staten Island, hens ate grit and grasshoppers and scraps from the table and whatever they could scratch out of the ground, and a platter of scrambled eggs was a delight. Then the scientists developed a special egg-laying mash made of old corncobs and sterilized buttermilk, and nowadays you order scrambled eggs and you get a platter of yellow glue.

Now ever since starting these stories, I have been eating fish nonstop. In one evening at the Jersey Shore, I ate 9 oysters, 6 clams, 6 shrimp and a 1.25-pound lobster. Today, my lunch was a fried haddock sandwich from Marino’s Fine Foods in Springfield, N.J. Yesterday’s lunch was canned cayenne-spiked sardines on a roll (healthy and sustainable!). Two Saturdays ago, I bought sea trout from the fishmonger at the farmers’ market in Staten Island (I told him about Joseph Mitchell and paraphrased the passage quoted above).

If only New York City still had fish restaurants like those Joseph Mitchell writes about. Sloppy Louie’s, Sweet’s and Libby’s, Gage & Tollners and Lundy’s are all, sadly, closed. Thankfully, we have plenty of fish markets around, as well as some great seafood spots in Astoria.

The sea trout below was from the farmer’s market was excellent, broiled simply with olive oil, sea salt and some diced olives and tomatoes.

Sea trout from American Seafood at Staten Island Farmer's Market
Sea trout from American Seafood at Staten Island Farmer’s Market

New York Nights

I have indulged my interest in New York City history by taking some classes at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. As I begin this post, I am sitting in French Roast at Sixth Avenue and 12th Street, killing time before my evening class, City Life in Fact and Fiction. I want to share here a short passage from one of my readings for class. The English-born travel writer Stephen Graham wrote a book about traveling around Manhattan at nighttime. From the chapter of New York Nights titled Exterior Street:

It is five a.m. Something of the burden of the city has been lifted. The air is light. The heart seems freed. I am happy to be walking. I love the space and the quietness. I have got rid of the idea of going to bed, got rid of the routine of daily life. New York and its millions, its wealth, its mysteries are mine. There is a sense of conquest. The bustle has died down and I am still walking. The majority of people are asleep–but I am not the least sleepy. … Whoever would know the poetry of New York must walk in it after-midnight hours, see the red light come out on the Metropolitan tower preliminary to the striking of the hour … enter the Central station at four a.m. and see it anew, deserted, silent, beautiful as on the morning of Opening Day; see the City Hall at dawn hanging down from on high like the sky’s apron.

Though the city has changed drastically in the 85 years since that passage was written, it SO makes me want to walk all night through Manhattan. I have witnessed sunrises here, but only when rising early for a winter race in Central Park—never after staying up all night. One of these days …