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Film Screening and Discussion: "Battle for Brooklyn" -- Wednesday, January 28th, 7pm

Jan 23, 2015 1:04 PM | 0 comments

As part of Brooklyn Transitions, a series of programs and events about neighborhood change in our borough, the Brooklyn Collection presents the film "Battle for Brooklyn". This documentary is an intensely intimate look at the very public and passionate fight waged by owners and residents facing condemnation of their property to make way for the controversial Atlantic Yards project, the development plan that created the Barclay's Center (home of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team) and the Pacific Park apartment towers that are currently under construction. Shot over seven years and compiled from almost 500 hours of footage, "Battle for Brooklyn" is an epic tale of how far people will go to fight for what they believe in.


Photo from film: Tracy Collins 

The film starts at 7pm, with discussion to follow.  A wine and cheese reception precedes the program at 6:30pm -- tickets will be distributed at this point.

The program is held in the Brooklyn Collection, on the 2nd floor balcony level of the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.

The Mystery of PS 125

Jan 16, 2015 11:31 AM | 0 comments

Looking at Google Maps, it is plain to see that PS 125 in Brownsville has been abandoned for quite some time. When did the oldest school in the neighborhood close, and why? This researcher started this blog assuming that these would be easy questions to answer. It turns out there is no clear answer to either one.

From its creation in 1900, PS 125 was ill-equipped to handle the influx of Jewish, mostly Russian and Polish, immigrants streaming over the newly opened Williamsburg Bridge from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Four new schools opened in Brownsville between 1905 and 1912, yet this did little to alleviate overcrowding. According to a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, PS 125 was renovated in 1917 to include 38 classrooms, 13 of which were "activities" rooms dedicated to classes in drama, workshop, science, cooking, drawing, and other special skills.


PS 125 in 1908, seven years after it opened

A booming population combined with the politics of racial segregation paralyzed progress at the school. PS 125 emerged as a predominantly Black school between 1933 and 1940, when Black children went from being one-third to two-thirds of the student population. From 1940 to 1950 the Black population in Brownsville doubled due to a flood of migrants, mostly from the South. In response, the heavy-handed City Planner of New York, Robert Moses, initiated construction of the Brownsville Housing Projects, which increased the population density of the area. To this day, Brownsville has the highest density of NYCHA-owned buildings in New York City.

Schools in Brownsville were so jam-packed that many students never had access to a full day of schooling. By the 1950s, PS 125 had an enrollment of 767 students (30% over capacity). Around this time, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the waitlists for schools in the area were so long that some parents stopped signing their kids up for school entirely. PS 125, like other overburdened schools, operated in shifts. This made life hectic for parents with more than one school-age child trying to coordinate childcare and meals.


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1950

While Black schools were utterly congested, the white schools in the borough were nowhere near capacity. According to Brownsville, Brooklyn: Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto, a "1955 government report found that almost all elementary schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods were full or exceeding capacity, while 80,000 seats were vacant in predominantly white schools. The school board refused to enroll Black students in schools located in white neighborhoods, choosing instead to move students amongst overcrowded schools."


Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1950

The reality of racial segregation in Brooklyn appears most starkly in the New York City Planning Commission's Plan for New York City. It shows the "Utilization and Enrollment" at Brownsville schools from 1967-68. At PS 125, there were zero "White" students, 83 "Puerto Rican" students and 375 "Negro" students enrolled. Overall, students of color made up 97.6% of all students in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district at that time.


New York City Planning Commission's Play for New York City (3) Brooklyn, 1969
PS 125's statistics are displayed in the second row from the top

Racial tensions began to heat up further in the 1960s, as Black parents lead protests for more community control over school policies and practices. By 1968, the school had likely started the decentralization pilot program with a cluster of other schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district, as mentioned in the New York Times. This new program was designed to give predominantly Black neighborhoods more control and influence over how their schools were run.

These are the last bits of evidence regarding PS 125 and its existence. This researcher has checked public databases and called people at the Department of Education, Department of Buildings, Brownsville Heritage House, Brownsville Community Board, a real estate company that works with the building's current owners, the President of the Brownsville Business Improvement District, and a friend who works at an architecture company, but have yet to find an official closing date for PS 125. (I'm thinking we should post a reward for such information, as it seems absolutely crazy that there is no known record of a public school's closing.) This researcher even took to Twitter to ask Brownsville born-and-raised artist Elaine Del Valle (@brownsvillebred) about the school, where her father worked as a janitor, but she wasn't sure. She thought maybe 1981, but didn't know the reason behind the closure.


"Brooklyn Tomorrow," 1964

Notice on the above map from 1964 that PS 125 is not even listed as an "existing" building where it would be located in the northwest corner of "Brownsville Housing." Perhaps it was already abandoned by this point, rendered structurally deficient, regardless of teachers' strikes or overcrowded classrooms. One can see that the residents of Brownsville had hopes of creating an "Educational Park" between Watkins Street and Rockaway Ave at Livonia Ave, surrounded by middle-income housing, though this dream never came to fruition.

Whatever the story of PS 125's closing, it remains a mystery! One thing is for sure, the journey to that non-answer provides an intriguing history of Brownsville's intense political past.

If you're interested in reading more about Brooklyn's schools and the fascinating stories behind them, check out these other Brooklynology blogs: The Mermen of Brownsville, Borough Park's P.S. 131, a trove of school historyBrooklyn Schools: A Look at Ephemera and More, We Don't Need No Education and stay tuned for our third blog this month on school history to be posted next week.

Also, don't be a stranger! Come visit the Brooklyn Collection and check out our current exhibition on "The Education of Kings" which will be up through February 13, 2015.


Come visit us at the Central Library in Grand Army Plaza!

The Mermen of Brownsville

Jan 8, 2015 10:30 AM | 0 comments

The Brooklyn Collection has rotating exhibits all year round showcasing gems from the Collection (including an annual exhibit of student work). Currently, we're exhibiting items relating to "The Education of Kings: A History of Brooklyn Schools!" It will be up in the collection until February 13th, so please stop by and check out the yearbooks, photos, and other rare and unique Collection items we have on display. 

In honor of our current exhibition, the Brooklyn Connections team has set out to detail the history of three Brooklyn Schools over the next three weeks. With that, I give you the first installment:

The Mermen of Brownsville 

In the fall of 2014, I worked with a group of 7th graders at Brownsville's PS 284 to explore the history of their school. The students already had a sense of their school's legacy; they have a large banner hanging outside that says, "PS/IS 284 - Over 100 Years of Excellence!" The building itself is imposing in a regal sort of way, as were many of the public schools built around the turn of the century. The schools were supposed to look as though they housed some serious knowledge acquisition. Having worked with some fantastic students, teachers, and librarians at PS 284, I can attest that there is still a ton of awesome learning going on. 

PS 66. 193-?. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

PS 66. 1908. Print. NYC Board of Education Collection. 

PS 284, originally called PS 66, started as a small wooden framed structure controlled by the town of New Lots, before Brooklyn annexed the area in 1886. By 1906, the Brownsville section of Brooklyn was rapidly expanding with an influx of Jewish immigrants from Manhattan's Lower East Side and the tiny wooden school house was no longer making the grade. The new tenements springing up were teeming with potential young learners, which led, in 1906, to PS 66's grand makeover. In the below image you can see the H shaped PS 66 (orange, signifying it being made of brick vs the surrounding wooden yellow buildings) between Osborn and Watkins and PS 125 (the subject of next week's entry) at the corner of Rockaway and Blake, a mere block away.

Desk Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn. New York: E. Belcher Hyde, Inc. 1921. Print. 

In early 1913, the school changed again, though this time in name alone.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 2 Jan 1913. 

The Board of Superintendents were considering names to substitute numbers for all public schools in NYC, specifically "Names of men - patriots, scientists, literary men and educators" as well as "names of streets and localities." The hope was that the names of those "who contributed to the welfare and progress of mankind" would inspire the students. Thus, PS 66 became PS 66 - the General Lew Wallace School.

Who is that, you ask?

General Lew(is) Wallace is this guy:

General Lewis Wallace. Library of Congress, Washington DC. 

Union soldier, governor of New Mexico, and author of Ben-Hur. My students were excited to learn that he was a man of many talents and, after we did some research on his myriad of accomplishments, gave their stamp approval to the union of PS 66 and Mr. Wallace.  A new structure and a new name did not mark the end of PS 66's evolution. The actual learning was the next thing to get a revamp. 

Even though we were building new schools and, as of 1903, had a city-wide curriculum (the consolidation of the five boroughs into today's New York City happened in 1898), we were still in the one-room schoolhouse mindset. We didn't have different periods or different teachers throughout the day, which amounted to lots of sitting and (presumably) lots of learning. In 1917, PS 66 would be part of the movement to change the way American children were educated. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 14 Dec. 1917. 

The Gary Plan was a product of the Progressive Era and the further industrialization of the United States. Created in Gary, Indiana, hence the name, the plan was also referred to as the "work-study-play" plan or the "platoon system." The 1907 educational philosophy called for new vocational facilities like carpenter shops and kitchens alongside playgrounds and pools to incorporate both vocational training and structured breaks. By moving the students around from work in a carpenter shop to study in math class to play on a playground, the school also used all of its classrooms on the constant, better utilizing space and shrinking class sizes.

This plan was tested in industrial centers across the country and, though it was thought to be a success in Gary, it received mixed reviews in other locations. When it came to NYC in 1914 it was not well received at all, as many parents did not approve of a) bringing the business world into their children's education and b) allowing their children playtime while in school. Playtime? Frivolous! What's more, it required incredibly expensive renovations. Regardless of the criticism, PS 66 was chosen for the experiment, which led the Brooklyn Daily Eagle to quip that it was chosen "because it was in Brownsville and seemingly no other reason." And the plan didn't come alone. When the plan came to Lew Wallace in 1917 it brought with it a carpenter shop, a printing office, a sewing room, a kitchen, a pool, a library, and a playground (that was actually just a closed off side street... but it was outside!)

PS 66 Swimming Pool. 1918. Print. NYC Board of Education Collection. 

Mrs. Kennedy, the principal of the school, was not entirely pleased. For one, the students were not put on the actual Gary Plan, in all its glory. They did not move around in "platoons," staying together throughout the day. The duplicate plan that they were adopting created irregular schedules starting some students at 8:30am and others at 10:30am. She stated that she "did not believe in the duplicate plan for the small children. They need to concentrate, instead of having so much movement. They are too young to have so many teachers... The duplicate plan, while it has certain advantages, has several disadvantages. One is that all day long children are in the playground outside or inside of the building. Being at play they are naturally noisy, and they disturb those in the classrooms on the first floor certainly." Again, the frivolity!

Mrs. Kennedy did enjoy the new facilities, but wasn't sure they were worth the cost. She also said that the library was a waste of classroom space, for all of her pupils were taught to use the catalog at the Brooklyn Public Library. PS 66 sits in between both the Stone Avenue Branch and the Brownsville Branch of BPL. It's interesting to think back to a time when people were fighting to keep libraries OUT of schools, as opposed to today's battles when we're begging to get them back INTO schools (and staffed). History, huh? 

Personally, I can't imagine what it would have been like for the young children of Brownsville to, for the first time, walk into their new pool facility. What a change from the public bathhouses and public pools they were used to! A clean and probably insanely chlorinated pool just for them! I will admit, the pool looks a tad bit terrifying in these old photos, but it's a pool none the less!

PS 66 Swimming Pool. 1918. NYC Board of Education Collection. 

In the end, the Progressive Era did drastically alter the way we educate our students: recess, class periods, diversity of instruction, etc. and we essentially use an abridged Gary Plan today. It might be fair to say that the Progressive Era changed the way we educated our students, as vocational education, art, and music are being defunded and stripped from so many of our schools. Needless to say, the carpentry shop and sewing room are long gone. However, the students at Lew Wallace made good use of the facilities when they were there (and they make great use of the ones they still have today). 

Even before the completion of the new facilities, the students at Lew Wallace were making a name for themselves. As of 1917, there were approx. 2,500 students (no, that's not a typo, it was a massive school), from kindergarten to 8th grade. The students were almost exclusively Jewish, from the surrounding tenements, but the teaching staff were comprised of many different races*: "Welsh, English, Jewish, German, New Orleans French, Swedish, Danish, and West Indian negro."

*They're referring to the early twentieth century version of race, what we'd call ethnicity today. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 18 May 1917.

The students were frequently lauded in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for their athletic prowess. That pool really came in handy, as all throughout the 1920s and 1930s the students of Lew Wallace were cited as champions in swimming as well as basketball. 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 5 Dec. 1926.

The mid-1940s brought huge changes to Brownsville and much of that change was centered in the area around PS 66. The Brownsville Houses were imagined and constructed, using both PS 66 and PS 125 as anchors (both schools can be seen in the below image). The creation of the Brownsville houses, coupled with a massive migration of African-Americans from the South and a movement of whites out of east Brooklyn neighborhoods began to change the demographics of the school and the surrounding neighborhood in pretty drastic ways. 

Face-Lifting for Brownsville. 1945. New York City Housing Authority. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

Brownsville Houses Take Shape. 1947. New York City Housing Authority. Print. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

By the 1950s, many of Brownsville's schools needed a serious update. There were plans to build an entirely new school that would have been PS 84, but those plans were scuttled by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. (I know, right? That guy was EVERYWHERE.) The majority of the money for the new building was appropriated for the creation of recreational facilities and, instead, PS 66 was to become solely an elementary school (it had evolved into a junior high by this time) and 'updated' at a cost of $750,000 (though the school was still coal heated until 1998). Its junior high students would attend other schools. But money troubles were just the beginning. Discussed in detail in next week's entry, the racial tensions and teacher strikes of the 1960s and 1970s were felt at the recently re-titled PS 284 (we renumbered our schools in the early 60s). The neighborhood had transitioned to a majority black and Puerto Rican population, while many of the teachers and administrators were holdovers from the neighborhood's early years. 

New York Times. 27 June 1967.

In 1967, there was an exodus, as issues of community control erupted in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood. In May of that year there had been a massive boycott of the school, many parents and community organizations favoring a staff that reflected the racial makeup of the students. During that boycott, only 164 students of the school's total 904 showed up for class. There are some great books on the decentralization experiment/crisis/movement - you can check them out at the library. (Come visit!) Despite the strikes, the learning continued.  

Today, PS 284 serves K - 8th grade students and shares it's building with another school (as is the way with many NYC schools), Leadership Prep Academy, a charter school. The pool is still in use in collaboration with an organization called Swim For Life that teachers urban children how to swim in an effort to prevent child drowning. And because swimming is the best.

PS/IS 284. eChalk. 5 Jan. 2015. Web. 

The school has outstanding programs and staff and it is working diligently to provide a safe enviornment where the community's students can succeed. I was incredibly happy to have the chance to visit their classrooms and am excited to report that our Brooklyn Connections students enjoyed delving deeper into the history under their desks. 

Next week: The Mystery of PS 125

Teddy Bears from Brooklyn

Dec 31, 2014 10:00 AM | 0 comments

The teddy bear has been a perennial gift favorite for at least a century. You may be surprised to learn that the invention of teddy bears is squarely rooted in Brooklyn. The holiday season is a good time to review the story of this adorable stuffed toy with which so many of us have a deep emotional connection.

An early 20th century family photograph of Brooklyn-born sculptor Frederick MacMonnies' daughters Betty and Marjorie, flanked by their governess and their good friend, the teddy bear.

My research was spurred, oddly enough, by a work of fiction. Karen Hesse’s “Brooklyn Bridge”, the 2008 Newbury Award winning novel, tells the story of the Russian immigrant Michtom family, who claimed to invent the popular toy. A search through the pages of the Brooklyn Eagle turned up the real life inspiration for the book, toy-maker Morris Michtom.  



Michtom owned a confectionery and novelty store in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. The old Brooklyn city directories for 1902 - 1908 list Morris Michstrom, a cigar seller, at 404 Tompkins Ave (this address also appears in Karen Hesse’s book).  Michtom's stuffed creation was reportedly inspired by a cartoon published in 1902, which depicted President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a tethered bear cub.

 

The cartoon was based on a real story of a botched bear hunting expedition attended by Roosevelt in Mississippi. When the hunting dragged on for ten days without a bear sighting, the frustrated hosts, in order to please their important guest, found a bear cub and tethered it to a tree. Roosevelt refused to shoot the captive beast, saying that he "drew the line" at killing a young animal. Spurred by the story, Michtom's seamstress wife sewed a 2.5-foot-tall jointed bear by hand and they displayed it in their store. It quickly became one of their most popular items. The legend continues that Michtom sent a bear to the White House, requesting permission to name the toy Teddy Bear, and that he received a reply from the White House granting the permission. In 1903 the Michtoms approached a wholesaler, the Butler Brothers, with their toy bear. The Butler Brothers bought Mitchom's entire stock, launching his toy-manufacturing career. The Michtoms went on to found the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company in 1907.

The Ideal Novelty and Toy Company eventually expanded beyond stuffed bears to manufacture dolls, action figures and board games. “Celebrity dolls” such as Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin, as well as Wetsy Betsy, Naughty Marietta, Flossie Flirt and hundreds of others were all in their roster of popular toys. In 1951, the Christmas offerings from the Ideal Toy Company included a doll that could change the facial expression from joy to sorrow at a twist of a knob under her bonnet.

It should be noted here that another name pops up in any research of teddy bear history -- Steiff.  Margarete Steiff, of Germany, is often described as the “mother of the teddy bear”. Suffering from polio as a child, she spent most of her time sewing. She made her first stuffed animal, a pin cushion shaped as an elephant, in 1880. After that, she made the whole farmyard of animals, and her brother and nephews helped her build a toy-manufacturing empire. The first evidence of stuffed bears made by Steiff goes back to 1903, when it was shown in the Leipzig Toy Fair. It was spotted in the Steiff pavilion by an American toy buyer and he placed an order of 3,000 bears to be made for the American market. It appears that the Steiffs did not call them teddy bears at that time, but rather bruins or simply bears. The Steiff bears were used to decorate the wedding reception for Roosevelt's daughter in 1906. When someone asked the breed of the bear, one of the guests reportedly exclaimed, "They’re teddy bears, of course!"

While it may be difficult to pinpoint which came first, the "teddy" or the bear, I suspect neither the Steiffs nor the Michtoms would stake the claim for this talking teddy, which “presided” over Theodore Roosevelt’s birthday anniversary celebration at Roosevelt Savings Bank (Gates Avenue and Broadway) in 1950.

 

Free From Freakish Ideas

Dec 19, 2014 1:21 PM | 2 comments

Parties, man. The worst. Who do you invite? Or more specifically, how do you invite everyone except for that guy? New Year's Eve parties? The worst of the worst. A day already filled with expectations, topped with anticipation, with a dash of nostalgia and/or regret. Thank goodness there are people who are paid to tell us what to do and what not to do to avoid garish social faux pas. Marie Manning, writing under the pseudonym Beatrice Fairfax, wrote the first newspaper advice column in the New York Evening Journal in 1898. The format proved an instant success, with other columns written mainly by women popping up in subsequent years. Naturally, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle needed a column, too. 

December 24, 1922

From 1922 to 1934, Ms. Helen Decie wrote Brooklyn Daily Eagle's etiquette column. Ms. Decie (after all, one must always use a formal address until requested otherwise) was a no-nonsense kind of lady, hence the title of her daily column: "Etiquette." She answered questions and offered general tips, never shying away from the really tough issues like who gets to enter the car first (the driver, followed by the oldest) and mourning veils: "The continued wearing of a mourning veil is entirely a matter of personal choice. No convention is so often disregarded nowadays as is the old-fashioned 'prescribed period.' Usually a widow wears black with a long veil at the funeral and with a short veil for a year afterward. Thereafter, if she is 'still young,' she may go into colors if she pleases" (18 Sept 1930). Golly, thanks!

Ms. Decie didn't pull any punches (not that a lady would ever punch, slap, or commit any act of violence, as those are displays of the uneducated classes). You have a friend that is superstitious? A) "As a matter of good breeding it is vulgar to be superstitious; as a matter of common sense, superstition is blank foolishness..." (22 Aug 1930), and B) rethink that friendship.

And don't ever let Ms. Decie catch you speaking ill about a hostess behind her back.

 

September 17th, 1927

After all, "Hospitality is one of the most ancient and sacred of social traditions. When a guest gossips about the affairs of a host or hostess, or permits herself even to criticize the household arrangements, she is doing what no well-bred woman would do, and thereby stamps herself as a disloyal, ignorant and vulgar troublemaker whom every hearer instinctively distrusts and dislikes" (27 Sept 1927). 

Needless to say, Ms. Decie isn't to be trifled with. When planning your holiday parties this season, it might be wise to heed her advice. 

For starters, leave your Christmas decorations up and add bells cut from cardboard that say "Happy 1934!" or, "Happy 2015!" as the case may be. As for entertainment: "Ask your more musical guests to bring their music. Time the musicale - including Christmas songs and New Year songs - with interludes of conversation, from 9 to 11, when refreshments are served." (27 Dec 1933). For party favors, jump in your time machine and check out B. Shackman's at 906 Broadway (which is now a furniture store).

 

December 28th, 1926

If, at your New Year's party, you feel like your dance partner might want to take a break but is too gentlemanly to ask, Ms. Decie suggests you let him know that you "require a moment's rest." Good to have code words during tense social interactions. 

December 29th, 1928

And, on the (very) off chance you're throwing a masquerade party, but you don't want to shatter the illusion by answering the door in costume (but not mask, as a lady does not answer a door masked), why not have your mother or some other relative receive your guests? Such logic. She also suggests that you harken back to a more youthful time and forgo New Year's Eve parties. Bring back Saint Sylvester's Day, which the day was called previously and, in many countries, still is. Sylvester supposedly both baptized Emperor Constantine and cured him of leprosy. Sounds to me like as delightful a reason as any to celebrate with bonbons and turkey, two dishes often suggested as holiday party foods. 

October 2nd, 1927

"Etiquette" has hundreds of entries. In 1934, the column changed hands and went to Ann Deveraux who wrote "Tips of Etiquette" until the paper's demise. Looking back at old newspapers often sheds light on customs long past, some of which might make a welcome return. If you're interested in perusing the daily life of Brooklynites, you can head to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Also, Newspapers.com also has digitized magazines dedicated to the upper echelon of Brooklyn's society, Brooklyn Life and its later incarnation, Brooklyn Life and Activities of Long Island Society, for hours and hours of high-class perusal. 

The Brooklyn Collection wishes you a happy and healthy holiday season full of proper parties.

Oh, and yes, you can serve finger bowls at a formal dinner. Finger bowls, small bowls with water for the dipping and cleaning of fingers after the fruit course, come out just before dessert. One will dip their fingers, gently touch their lips, and dry with a napkin. But don't put ice or perfume in the water. That would simply be foolish.