Signs of Spring in New York City

Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Daffodils in bloom between Shore Road and the Belt Parkway in Bay Ridge

The first signs of Spring are evident throughout the boroughs this week. While daffodils have been in bloom for a few weeks now, tulips are on the verge of opening, and many pear, cherry and plum trees seem to be at their prime.

The Spring colors have been striking. Here are some photos I have taken over the last week in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Tulips in Washington Square Park
A field of tulips in Washington Square Park prepares to open into a sea of yellow.
Narrows Botanical Gardens in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn
Daffodils and forsythia add a splash of Spring color to the Narrows Botanical Gardens between Shore Road and the Belt Parkway in Bay Ridge.
Cherry blossoms in Prospect Park
Cherry blossoms frame Grand Army Plaza at the entrance to Prospect Park
Prospect Park, Brooklyn
Though these trees have yet to respond to Spring’s mild temperatures, the residents of Brooklyn have. Many were out enjoying Prospect Park last weekend.
Pear blossoms in Red Hook
Pear blossoms on Conover Street in Red Hook.
Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn
OK maybe Spring isn’t everywhere. I couldn’t find a single Spring blossom along the Gowanus Canal from my vantage point on the Union Street Bridge.

 

Old World Traditions Alive in Brooklyn

Most stories about Brooklyn these days have to do with gentrification, displacement and hipsters. But during Holy Week, the streets of Carroll Gardens felt more like the heel of Italy circa 1920 than the land of cupcake stores and American Apparel.

Court Street Pastry displayed marzipan lambs in its windows since before Palm Sunday. On Holy Thursday, a bus led pilgrims on a traditional visit to several local churches. And on Easter Sunday, sidewalks were filled with tulips, hyacinths and hydrangeas for sale.

But the most impressive tradition was Sacred Heart and St. Stephen’s annual Good Friday procession through the streets of Carroll Gardens. I have wanted to attend this event since I moved here eight years ago; this year, I finally did.

What I imagined would be a walk through three or four blocks of the neighborhood was instead a two-hour trip that zig-zagged as far as Court Street, 4th place, Degraw and then back to the steps of the church. Leading the procession was a statue of the body of Jesus, encased in a glass coffin. This was followed by a statue of Maria Addolorata, or Our Lady of Sorrows, dressed in black and pierced in the heart with a sword.

The statuary symbolizing both the Body of Christ and Mary the Mother of Jesus, under the title of Our Lady of Sorrows, have been used in the parish procession for 60 years and have both been restored in recent years. In a scene only experienced by many in a movie, the two figures are carried on the shoulders of the faithful accompanied by singing and music as they pass through the crowded streets. In conclusion, the bearers that carry the statuary through the streets re-enact the death of Christ by having the coffin of Jesus met at the feet of Mary three times before returning into Church.

Congregation of Maria Addolorata

Women dressed in black carrying electric candles sang Italian hymns and prayed the Rosary in Italian, followed by a marching band playing traditional Italian hymns. Neighbors and surely scores who have left the neighborhood followed, often greeting old friends. And residents watched from their windows, sidewalks and front porches. 

It’s good to see that some traditions still thrive in Brooklyn.

Good Friday Procession, Carroll Gardens

Good Friday Procession, Carroll Gardens

Good Friday Procession, Carroll Gardens

Good Friday Procession, Carroll Gardens

Baklava at Waterfalls in Cobble Hill

Baklava at Waterfalls, Brooklyn

 

Last week, I ate dinner at Waterfalls on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. While I was impressed with all the dishes, from the fatoush salad with crispy bits of pita and faint scent of dill to the eggplant stuffed with ground meat and served over a light tomato sauce, the dessert took me by surprise.

Always wanting to try something new, I asked the owner what he would recommend, fully expecting him to suggest one of the more esoteric dishes on the dessert menu, such as basbousa. Instead, he recommended the one dessert I was quite familiar with, baklava. He did so with such confidence that I obliged, reluctantly. And when I had a taste, I could see why he recommended it without hesitation: The baklava was not sickeningly sweet as it can be in some restaurants. The flavors were delicate, and I could distinctly taste beyond the butter and honey to orange flower water in the pastry and the crushed pistachios that covered the baklava.

Afterward, I told the owner how pleased I was, that I have had baklava a hundred times but this was probably the best I had ever had.

If you haven’t been to Waterfalls, it’s worth a try, whether you know Middle Eastern food well or not. Be sure to bring your own wine. And be open to the owner’s suggestions.

St. George: Neighborhood of Possibilities

St. George, Staten Island
St. George, Staten Island

On paper, the St. George neighborhood of Staten Island seems to have it all:

  • Commanding views of New York Harbor and the Manhattan skyline.
  • A ferry, rail and bus transportation hub linking Manhattan to almost every neighborhood of Staten Island.
  • A complex of century-old municipal buildings designed by the architecture firm Carrere & Hastings.
  • A baseball field that is home to the New York Yankees’ minor league team, the Staten Island Yankees.
  • A 1920s-era vaudeville theater that seats 2,800 people and has, in recent years, hosted Tony Bennett, the B-52s, k.d. lang, Cyndi Lauper, Rosie O’Donnell and the Jonas Brothers.
  • A historic district encompassing 78 homes and a Roman Catholic Church designed in the Romanesque Revival style.
  • One of Staten Island’s two farmers’ markets 

It sounds like a great place to live and visit. But while walking through the neighborhood, I can’t help but feel frustrated. The Staten Island Yankees don’t sell nearly as many tickets as the Brooklyn Cyclones, across the Narrows. Many of the homes in the area are poorly maintained. A long promenade just East of the ferry terminal is full of crumbling, abandoned buildings, waiting to perhaps someday be the home of a National Lighthouse Museum. Most telling: The Staten Island Ferry is one of New York City’s most visited tourist attractions, and yet nearly all tourists who arrive in St. George turn around and take the ferry back. And I can’t blame them.

Last Saturday, I took a walking tour of St. George through the Municipal Art Society. Led by lifelong Staten Islander Georgia Trivizas, the tour brought about a dozen people along the waterfront and through the historic district. I was the only Staten Islander on the tour. The others were inquisitive, asking questions and trying to learn more about this borough. But I wondered whether they saw anything that would prompt them to return.

Better days should be ahead for St. George. It may soon be home to the world’s largest Ferris wheel and a 100-store outlet mall. Most Staten Islanders I know oppose the project. I have supported the Ferris wheel since the idea was unveiled last September. It will give tourists visiting Manhattan a reason to spend some time in Staten Island. They will ride the wheel and then enjoy our restaurants and views. (I was less sold on the outlet mall idea, until Trivizas pointed out on the tour that outlet malls in the New York City area are a huge draw for European tourists. I’d be more inclined to support a project that will draw tourists on foot than one that would draw locals by car—though I’m sure both will shop at the mall.)

Perhaps, too, the buildings that are designated to someday be the home of the National Lighthouse Museum will be put to good use. The promenade is gorgeous, leading to an old pier and new residential developments. But the space is desolate now, and wasted. Whether they become a museum—or shops or cafes, they have potential.

St. George has all the ingredients for a thriving, successful neighborhood, a neighborhood that people want to visit. Let’s build the wheel and restore the architecture.

View of New York Harbor from St. George
View of New York Harbor from St. George
National Lighthouse Museum
Promenade that soon may be home to a National Lighthouse Museum
Richmond County Bank Ballpark
Richmond County Bank Ballpark

Postcards of Old New York

Old New York postcards

Though not a huge fan of antique markets, I do love to look through old postcards. Last month, I spent at least a half hour looking through New York postcards at the Antiques Garage Flea Market.

I bought three, each sent between 1905 and 1912 (postage was one cent then). Each bears an image of a New York City landmark no longer standing: Coney Island’s Dreamland, the old Pennsylvania Station and the Hippodrome.

Today, we send pictures and notes instantly, to hundreds at a time via social media. Will these digital messages interest people in the 22nd Century as much as these early 1900s postcards interest me? Each is handwritten of course, and hand stamped with the date and even hour that the post office processed it. And 100 years later, I am buying three of them for $12 and holding them in my hands, reading the messages and admiring the almost-forgotten landmark images.

One tells a friend of a new address, 3 West 29th St. and hopes for a visit: “Thought sure I would see you this summer. See how popular you are. It’s dandy that you can go home for Thanksgiving.” Another talks about March weather: “Am feeling very well and having fine weather today changes sudden may not be tomorrow.”

I’d like to display these postcards somehow, but how—especially if I continue to collect them?  photo 1 (4)

Fairway in Red Hook Reopens

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Last week, a truck with a giant TV screen on the side of it drove down Court Street, loudly announcing that Fairway in Red Hook would reopen March 1, after being devastated by Hurricane Sandy. I didn’t think the publicity was necessary. And I was right.

This morning, two days after a grand reopening that drew Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Chuck Schumer, the auxiliary parking lot across Conover Street from the store was filled beyond capacity, with cars struggling to navigate the tight lot as they waited for fellow shoppers to unload their carts into their cars and free up needed spaces. Last year, the lot usually had a dozen cars at most on Sunday mornings.

A sign outside the main parking lot announced: “Established 2006 · Devastated 2012 · Reborn 2013 BROOKLYN STRONG(ER)” An employee at the entrance handed out free bottles of apple cider, thanking customers for returning.

The newly reopened Fairway has a new layout, which, while confusing at first, is far more easier to navigate than the old store. (Am I the only one who thought the old produce section was a frustrating maze?) To help shoppers find their way around the new store, employees handed out maps near the entrance.

Sandy’s storm surge damaged everything inside the store, overwhelming it with 5 feet of water. But the Civil War era building that houses Fairway is made of brick, so structurally, it remained sound. Here’s more about the building itself from current owners, the O’Connell Organization:

The 5-story Red Hook Stores, originally known as the New York Warehouse Co.’s Stores, was built by William Beard in the 1870s as part of the major expansion of storage and warehousing inside Erie Basin and along the Red Hook waterfront after the Civil War.

Like many warehouses of its kind, the building was set back from the bulkhead with the long façade facing the water so that ships could unload goods for storage directly onto the adjacent docks. The building’s dramatic brick façade features row upon row of arched windows with iron shutters. It’s heavy timber mill construction was typical of mid- to late 19th-century industrial buildings; massive square yellow pine columns fitted into cast iron “shoes” support heavy girders over 20 feet long.

Days after Hurricane Sandy, Fairway Founder Howie Glickberg showed hot air being circulated through the empty store so that he and his team could rebuild and reopen. He predicted that when Fairway did finally reopen, it would be stronger and more efficient, and customers would come in with smiles on their faces.

It appears his prediction rang true.

photo 2 (2)   Fairway, Red Hook, Brooklyn

Hoffman and Swinburne Islands Up Close

Swinburne Island

Created with landfill in the 19th Century, Hoffman and Swinburne islands are those mysterious tree-covered patches of land off the East Shore of Staten Island. They were built to quarantine immigrants (after Staten Islanders burned down two quarantine hospitals in Tomkinsville in 1858).

I look at the islands often while running on the FDR boardwalk, and I think of what they once were and of what they almost became—Robert Moses wanted to build dry land connecting them to the mainland of Staten Island. And I have always wondered what these islands look like up close.

Last weekend I was able to approach the islands, as part of New York Water Taxi’s Audobon Winter EcoCruise to see winter birds and harbor seals. The smaller Swinburne Island was the more interesting of the two, as it serves as a temporary home for some of the 300 seals that take up residence in New York harbor in the winter. Though none were on dry land, several seals were in the water, bobbing their heads up to take a look at the strange yellow catamaran that paid them a visit on a blustery Sunday afternoon.

You can see in the pictures below that Swinburne is also home to ruins. According to our guide (and some blogging kayakers), Hurricane Sandy took a toll on the island. Last year, the ruins of three buildings stood on the island; now only one and a third of a building stand.

The last trip of the season will be March 3. But if you miss that, New York Water Taxi also offers summer Ecocruises.

Gulls in Erie Basin
Gulls in Erie Basin
Passing under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
Passing under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
Hoffman Island
Hoffman Island
Swinburne Island
Swinburne Island
Swinburne Island
Swinburne Island

Locations from “Wiseguy” and “Goodfellas”

Though I had seen Goodfellas as a teenager, it was only this month that I watched the movie as a New Yorker. And as a student of New York City history, I immediately downloaded Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, the Nicholas Pileggi book on which Martin Scorsese based his 1990 film.

A former crime reporter with the Associated Press and New York magazine (and husband of the late Nora Ephron), Pileggi made it easy for me to pinpoint many of the book’s locations, from the taxi stand in East New York, Brooklyn, where, at the age of 12, Henry Hill began his work with Paul Vario, to Hill’s home in Rockville Centre, where he was arrested in 1980. Though much of the action takes place in Brooklyn and Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island make some appearances as well (for example, Jimmy Burke did time as a teenager at Mount Loretto Reformatory on the South Shore of Staten Island—the same Mount Loretto that Francis Ford Coppola used for exterior shots from the baptism scene at the end of The Godfather).

I made a Google map of locations mentioned in Wiseguy. You can access it here or see it below. Fans of the film might also be interested in this map assembled by Eater that shows many of the restaurants used in the filming of Goodfellas.

Staten Island’s Wild Turkeys: 5 Things You Didn’t Know

Staten Island turkeys
Wild turkeys along Seaview Avenue in Staten Island’s Ocean Breeze neighborhood

Did you know Staten Island had a turkey infestation?

Friends of mine on the other side of the country have a difficult time believing me when I tell them I have wild turkeys in my New York City neighborhood. But anyone who has ever driven down Seaview Avenue in Staten Island’s Ocean Breeze neighborhood knows that it’s true: Hundreds of wild turkeys roam the streets, sidewalks and front yards around Staten Island University Hospital.

The following are five facts about Staten Island’s turkeys that you probably didn’t know:

  1. They began as pets—nine of them. The Daily News reported, “Ocean Breeze’s turkey terror began in 1999 when a local resident liberated her nine pet birds at nearby South Beach Psychiatric Center.” Of course, since then, they have become a huge nuisance for residents, as Dongan Hills resident Marian Besignano of Alter Avenue told the Staten Island Advance last year:

    Mrs. Besignano recalls that the first sightings of wild turkeys in Ocean Breeze occurred about 12 years ago. “When we saw one big turkey and three babies, we called the Advance, and a photographer came and took a picture,” because it was so unusual, she said.

    She felt sorry for the birds, and fed them. “And the woman photographer from the Advance wanted to buy food for them,” she remembered.

    “If I knew then what I know now, I never would have fed them!” she said.

  2. They’re a hybrid species—and this makes it all the more difficult to find them a home. The Staten Island Advance reported, “The state DEC says recent photos of the turkeys here show feathering that indicates they are hybrids, likely a blend of domesticated turkeys and special captive-bred wild turkeys.DEC has so far been unable to find any facilities willing or able to take the turkeys that would be able to keep them separate from wild turkey populations,” the report continued.
  3. A local resident has offered to relocate them. Greg Ruggiero of Dongan Hills told the Staten Island Advance last year that he would donate $5,000 to cover their humane transport to a safe, new home (as well as a store-bought Butterball roaster for every turkey successfully relocated). But at the time the article was written, no facility could take the birds and keep them separate from others (see No. 2, above).
  4. They’re as famous as drunken baboons in South Africa. The humor website cracked.com ranked our infestation on a Biblical scale, up there with flying carp, hordes of African snails and other phenomena from the far reaches of the world.
  5. Our residents are split on whether we should harvest the turkeys and serve them at local homeless shelters. In October 2011, the Staten Island Advance reported:

    Less than a month before Thanksgiving, the state Department of Environmental Conservation released its long-simmering “Experiences and Attitudes Toward Turkeys: A Richmond County Survey,” conducted by Cornell University by mail and phone with 451 residents of Dongan Hills, South Beach and Ocean Breeze.

    A DEC spokesman was unable to provide a price tag on the survey — but here’s what was learned:

    Sixty-one percent of respondents reported seeing turkeys daily and 25.5 percent weekly.

    But how to manage them presents a split decision: A combined 51 percent answered that harvesting some of their meat for local food banks is “very,” “moderately” or “slightly” acceptable.

    But 47 percent flat-out say no way.

So for now, the turkeys remain. They survived Sandy. They survive Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving. They even survive Hylan Boulevard. A few weeks ago, near Cromwell, I almost honked at the car in front of me for not moving when the light turned green—and then I realized, we were stopped to let the turkeys cross.

These reports include sporadic stories of the turkeys being angry or aggressive. Thankfully, among the dozens of times I have run past them on Seaview Avenue, none has tried to attack me. They either ignore me or walk away slowly.

A few years ago, I saw them outside my home on Delaware Street in Dongan Hills Colony. They hung a right at Dalemere, probably heading to the Chapin woods. I wonder what would happen if they had continued on and settled in the yard of a Todt Hill estate?

What Could Be More New York?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave a strong and moving tribute yesterday to his predecessor, Ed Koch. Among the many lines that caught my ear was this:

“As you know, Ed will be buried at Trinity Cemetery in Upper Manhattan. Just think about it: a Polish Jew in an Episcopal graveyard in a largely Dominican neighborhood. What could be more New York – or even more Ed Koch.

It reminded me of some notes I made several years ago while writing a story about Astoria’s Greek community for One magazine. On a single block of 30th Avenue, between 34th and 35th streets, I observed the following businesses, each with its own ethnic roots:

Go Wasabi, Alexandria Jewelers, Cyprus Deli, Thai Angel Kitchen, Aladdin Sweets and Delicatessen, Gandhi Haute Cuisine of India, Casablanca Hair Salon, Zen Nails, Flemings Pub, and the Law Offices of Latos, Latos and DiPippo.

Again, what could be more New York?

More on Astoria, one of my favorite neighborhoods for grocery shopping, in a future post.

Grand Central Terminal Turns 100

Grand Central Terminal

This 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal has been in the news for a few weeks here in New York City. While I missed much of WNYC’s reporting on the subject, I commemorated the anniversary by taking a 2-hour Municipal Art Society tour of the station yesterday, and by reading much of the 100-year-old New York Times special section, a PDF from the archives that the Times made available last week.

Here are five interesting facts I picked up in the last couple days:

  1. The Glory of Commerce sculpture above the 42nd Street entrance weighs 1,500 tons and was carried up in sections in June 1914. Designed by French sculptor Jules-Felix Coutan, the final, full-size piece was carved in Long Island City, Queens.
  2. The Grand Central Oyster Bar also turned 100 yesterday. Though, like the station, the restaurant fell into decline in the 1970s, it has been in almost continuous operation over the last 100 years. Having heard what the station was like in the 1970s, I couldn’t imagine a restaurant as nice as the current oyster bar being in the station. Sure enough, it wasn’t that great of a place to eat. Owner Jerome Brody describes the decline of the restaurant, before he assumed ownership in 1974:

    With the decline of the long-haul passenger train system, came the decline of the restaurant. It had no position among New York restaurants, and while thousands of commuters passed by everyday, very few went inside to eat.

    In 1974, when I was approached by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority to take it over, the old restaurant had been bankrupt and empty for two years, having become in its last days not much more than a sad, old coffee shop. Reluctantly, I inspected what remained of its former grandness. The elegant marble columns you see in the restaurant today were then painted aquamarine over wallpaper. The wall covering was yellow Cello-tex™. The furniture was upholstered yellow, in unsettling contrast with the red table cloths.

  3. Charles Mingus proposed to his second wife, Sue Graham, in the whisper gallery just outside the Grand Central Oyster Bar. I have never tried the whisper gallery, where two people can stand across the room from each other and hear each other’s whispers carried across the vaulted ceiling–but plenty of others were trying it yesterday.
  4. The use of ramps in a public building was fairly new. It was seen as an efficient way to move large amounts of people from one floor to the next, without the inconvenience (and danger) of stairs. The New York Times described the ramps in its Feb. 2, 1913 edition:

    The infinite pains taken in this respect is used as an illustration of the care taken in every detail. When it was decided that inclined walks should serve as the footways leading into the huge subterranean station, the idea was borrowed from the sloping roads that led the way for chariots into the old Roman camps of Julius Ceasar’s army–no pains were spared to arrive at just the proper angle of inclination.

  5. For 25 cents, you could store your bags, and then change your clothes in a private dressing room, with a maid or valet to assist you. Again, from the Feb. 2, 1913, New York Times:

    Should the woman passenger want to primp us still more, or if she should want to return after a shopping tour to change her costume for a social function, she may have her suitcase or her trunk, for that matter, sent to a private dressing room, for the use of which, with a maid in attendance, she will pay 25 cents …

    The man with two days’ business or pleasure to crowd into one can reserve a dressing room at the barber shop, leave his suitcase there all day, rush back at 6 o’clock to get into evening clothes, with the aid of a valet if he wishes, all for 25 cents. A haberdashery adjoining the barber shop is ready to replace a lost collar button or supply anything else needed. Here, at least, men are accorded equal rights with woman.

And there you have it. If you want to learn more, join the Municipal Art Society on one of its weekly Wednesday tours of Grand Central Terminal.

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Which Two Presidents Were Sworn in in New York City?

123 Lexington Avenue
123 Lexington Avenue, where the United States’ 21st president was sworn in in his second-floor parlor. (Almost all pictures on this site are my own; this one, however, I borrowed from Google.)

Do you know the answer to this one? I almost stumped a history-know-it-all-with this question.

Those who know me know that I spend most Friday nights at Lee’s tavern, a decades-old bar and pizzeria by the Dongan Hills train station in Staten Island (more on Lee’s in a later post). Among the regulars at the bar is an older eccentric fellow whom we’ll call BW.

I had never had a conversation with BW prior to last Friday, but I had heard from others that he has a Rain Man-like knack for remembering dates and other trivia. He also has a reputation for annoying people with odd selections on the Internet juke box, like Old McDonald Had A Farm (to be fair, I’ll add that last week he played one of my favorite Frank Sinatra songs, “That’s Life.”)

Last Friday, he was at the end of the bar, chatting with a husband and wife. The wife turned around in disbelief and said to no one in particular, “It’s Friday night and they’re talking about Martin van Buren! Martin van Buren!”

As long as they were talking about a president from our state, I seized the opportunity to challenge them with some recently acquired New York City presidential trivia. I jumped up from my table, put my hands on their shoulders and asked them, “Which two presidents were sworn in in New York City?

Immediately BW spoke up: “Washington and …. and … Theodore Roosevelt?”

“Right on Washington, wrong on Roosevelt, but you’re on the right track.” (Both Roosevelt and the correct president, Chester Arthur, were from New York and took office in the state of New York after an assassination.)

With my hint and some more time to think, he finally guessed correctly—and for a bonus, without my prompting, he added the street where the swearing in took place: Lexington Avenue.

And there you have it. If you ever want to stump a history-know-it-all, you now have a good trivia question. And if you want to know more …

  • George Washington was sworn in at Federal Hall, 26 Wall Street, on April 30, 1789. The original building was demolished in 1812. The building that stands there now, once the United States Custom House, is now Federal Hall National Memorial.
  • And Chester Arthur was sworn in in the front parlor of his home, on the second floor at 123 Lexington Avenue (between 28th and 29th streets) by New York Supreme Court Judge John R Brady. The building is now home to Kalustyan’s, a specialty Indian food store.

In her fascinating account of James Garfield’s assassination, “The Destiny of the Republic,” (which I am now reading) Candice Millard describes the swearing in:

That morning, Arthur had received a telegram from Washington warning him that Garfield’s condition was perilous. Still, he had not been prepared when a messenger had knocked on his door late that night. Just a few hours later, he found himself standing in his parlor, its green blinds closed to the newsmen gathered outside, with a New York state judge standing before him, swearing him into office. By 2:15 a.m. on September 20, Arthur had become the twenty-first president of the United States.

Lee's Tavern, Staten Island, NY
My Sam Adams (in a Heineken glass) at Table 6 at Lee’s Tavern, Staten Island, last Friday night, just before my conversation with BW.

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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