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Pioneering Children's Services

Aug 13, 2009 4:36 PM | 0 comments

Children Reading at the Brownsville Children's Library, 1915

While students enjoy the final days of summer, we're preparing for another year of class visits and research projects.  We get so excited about our plans that we often forget our efforts are based on century-old standards that originated right here in Brooklyn.

In the early 20th century, both Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Children's Museum were pioneers in children's services.  By creating spaces that uniquely catered to children, they dramatically changed the way young people interacted with cultural institutions. 

In 1899, the Brooklyn Institute (now the Brooklyn Museum) opened the world's first museum for children in Bedford Park.  The museum offered free admission, allowing all of Brooklyn's young residents to take advantage.  The chief curator, Dr. R. Ellsworth Call, was a professor of natural history, and the museum's original collection reflected his interests with plants, specimens in jars and insects in display cases. Over time, other subjects were introduced, including an exhibit on the industries of Brooklyn.  The Eagle commented the exhibit would be helpful for children who would one day work in such industries - providing informal career development for young Brooklynites. 

Children's Museum, 1904 Atlas

The highlight of the museum was the classroom, where children could interact with the artifacts.  Teachers were encouraged to provide a formal lesson in the classroom during field trips.  If Dr. Call was free, he would stop by and help with the instruction.  As a service to adults who worked with children, the museum offered profesional development lectures for teachers who wished to learn more.

At Brooklyn Public Library, librarian Clara Whitehill Hunt was hired to supervise children's service as early as 1903.  Unlike Dr. Call, Ms. Hunt's expertise was children, and she did not wish to confine them to classrooms alone.  Her efforts to provide child-friendly areas and specially trained staff members resulted in the opening of the world's first children's library in 1914.  Although BPL had already offered children's reading rooms, this was the first branch for children only.  The building itself (now the Stone Avenue Branch) was specifically designed with children in mind.  The furniture was smaller, the windows were larger, and references to children's literature were used in the decorations.  A large fireplace surrounded by comfortable chairs was intended to provide a luxury that Brownsville children could not find in their tenement homes.  Upstairs, an assembly room was used as both a classroom for school groups and a meeting space for children's clubs and parent associations. 

Line of Children Waiting to Check out Books, 1914

Librarian Assisting Children, 1915The branch was a place to learn, and librarians rarely gave students the answers to their questions.  Rather, young patrons were shown where in the library they might look for their answers.  The Eagle praised this effort, stating it was important in "this age of intellectual laziness" to teach library skills.  As with the museum, the library offered professional development to adults who worked with children.  New librarians were trained by staff to address the specific needs of children, something that was not yet standardized in library schools. 

Both institutions proved to be immensely popular with school groups and the general public.  By April of 1900, the museum was open seven days a week with visiting hours in both the morning and afternoon.  The Children's Library offered equally intense hours, staying open until 9pm on some nights.  For the first three months of the Children's Library, an average of 1,500 children visited each day.  

The Brownsville Children's Library and the Brooklyn Children's Museum had a lasting impact on the ways cultural instutitons serve children.  Museums and libraries across the world asked them for advice on creating child-centered spaces.  Today, most libraries and museums have education departments that specifically offer object-based learning, personal inquiry and other opportunities that were proudly introduced to young Brooklynites over 100 years ago.

Panamanian Festival

Aug 8, 2009 1:43 PM | 2 comments

Panamanian Festival, Mount Prospect Park

There was a great deal of drumming and trumpeting behind the library this lunchtime.  I grabbed the division's big old digital camera and followed the music  through the back door to its source in Mount Prospect Park, right behind the library.  The park was filled with the food and sounds of the the  Panamanian Festival.  Not one but several marching bands, some in splendid white regalia, were parading around the circular path.  (Evidently the marching bands are quite active, because I soon found video footage of a similar group.) Skirting the colorful food stands I managed to take a couple of photographs before running back to work.

Crown Heights and Flatbush are well known as centers of Caribbean population, but there is less awareness of the Panamanian presence.  Many of Brooklyn's Panamanians are descendents of  the construction workers who went to Panama from Jamaica, Barbados and other Caribbean islands  to work on the massive canal project that started in 1904 and lasted 10 years. Writer Veronica Chambers, the daughter of Panamanians in Brooklyn, has described the experience of growing up a "secret Latina" as she calls it.

The Brooklyn Collection has clipping files on many immigrant groups, and Panamanian Americans figure on the list, although it must be admitted that the file is quite slim. In a 1996 Daily News article one member of  a Panamanian community group, the Panama Canal International Alumni Association, said "We are very dedicated to keeping up our Panamanian-West Indian heritage. To do it, we have to reach into the community and help others to keep the legacy alive."  Thirteen years on, if the festival out there is anything to go by, the legacy in Brooklyn is going strong.

Regina Pacis and the Case of the Missing Crowns

Aug 5, 2009 3:37 PM | 14 comments

Regina Pacis Votive Shrine

In the midst of World War II, the parishioners of St. Rosalia's Church in Borough Park made a pledge:  if the war came to an end, they would construct "a lasting memorial to the ideal of peace."  By 1948 ground was broken for one the greatest churches in Brooklyn, a $1,000,000 devotion to the Queen of Peace - Regina Pacis.

Regina Pacis Votive Shrine, at 65th Street and 12th Avenue, was (and still is) a model of Italian Renaissance design. It was a two-story building with 1,500 seats on the main floor and 1,200 more in the basement chapel.  It was the second Catholic church in the country to have air conditioning (at a cost of $70,000).  The 150-foot steeple was topped with four spotlights that illuminated an engraved bronze cross announcing "Pax", or peace.  Two thousand tons of Italian marble were used in the building; sixteen stained glass windows told the story of the Virgin Mother, and fifteen Italian mosaics represented the Stations of the Cross. 

Dedication Ceremony

The development of the building was regularly reported in the paper, and its opening was greatly anticipated.  Archbishop Thomas Molloy presided over the dedication mass in August 1951.  7,000 of the 12,000 parishioners came that day.  By the end, the price tag had risen to over $2,000,000, much of it supplied by the parishioners.  But there was still one more feature to complete. 

Painting with Hooks for the Crowns

A large painting of the Virgin Mother and Child hung behind the altar, and hooks were installed for a special crown for Mary.  Instead of money, parishioners were to donate jewelry.  Many responded by giving family heirlooms and wedding bands, a thank you gift for the safe return of their loved ones from war.  So many gems were donated that two 18-carat gold crowns were produced, one for Mary and one for the baby Jesus.  They were estimated to be worth $100,000 and included 600 diamonds, rubies and sapphires.  In January 1952, the pastor, Father Cioffi, flew Crowns of Regina Pacis and Baby Jesusto Rome to have them blessed by Pope Pius XII in a private ceremony.  A coronation was held at Regina Pacis in May, making the shrine of peace complete. 

One week later, during a wedding, Father James Russo noticed something strange.  A six-inch hole had been cut into the gate that protected the altar painting.  And the security system was off.  Someone had stolen the crowns.

Replace the Crowns!The people of Regina Pacis were horrified.  The crime made the front page of the Eagle, and Time magazine reported the theft, making it a national story.  Parishioners started a collection to replace the crowns.  Brooklynites wrote editorials in the paper calling the thieves immoral.  The children of St. Rosalia's school prayed each morning for the return of the crowns.  A symbol of peace in post-war America had been taken away, and no evidence had been left behind. 

And then, after eight days, a mysterious package arrived at the rectory.  Inside were the crowns, almost perfectly intact!  Father Cioffi burst into the 10 a.m. mass the next day and announced their miraculous return.  Parishioners were overwhelmed:  some applauded, some prayed, some cried, and three fainted.

Faith is Rewarded

But who had taken them?  And who had returned them?  Had the thief felt the pangs of guilt?  Or did someone else find them and return them?  The Eagle announced the return of the crowns on the front page of the newspaper with three large photographs.  But instead of the headline announcing the return of the crowns, it read:  "SHRINE GEM THIEVES HUNTED."  The people wanted answers.

Only one lead was ever reported in the paper.  During the eight days, Ralph Emmino a 22 year-old jewel thief with suspected mafia ties was found shot to death on the side of the road in Bath Beach.  Many suspected that Emmino had either taken more than his fair share in a group crown heist or had been punished for stealing from a church -- an off-limits zone for mob business.  Other leads developed from there: one man reported seeing Emmino's car in the parking lot the night of the crime, and another claimed that two mysterious men asked him to deliver "a package" to Regina Pacis the day before the crowns appeared in the mail.  The Eagle reported that Catholic churches in Brooklyn refused to give Emmino, a suspect in the public's eyes, a Catholic burial.  But no actual evidence was ever found beyond the package itself.  The case remains unsolved.

As for the crowns, a second coronation was held in July.  A new security system and a night watchman were also installed.  Father Cioffi asked everyone to give thanks for the return of the crowns and to remember that forgiveness was important.  And with that, the people of Regina Pacis moved on... finally at peace.An Emotional Return

Woman kisses the Returned Crowns