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"Spread Love, It's the Brooklyn Way"

May 30, 2012 5:05 PM | 2 comments

First Connections Visit, October 2007. (Photo by Al Pereira)At the end of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, just before she clicks her heels three times, Dorothy takes a moment to say goodbye to those who helped her on her journey.  Each one played a unique role in her success, and she shares a brief moment with each.  But to the Scarecrow, whom she saves for last, she whispers just one short sentence, "I think I'll miss you most of all."

Ok.... maybe it's a little harsh for the other characters.  But we all know that feeling when we're saying goodbye.  There are many, many things we miss when we leave a job, move away or end a journey.  But there is always one thing, or person, that stands out from the rest. 

As I prepared for this, my final Brooklynology entry, I had many ideas for what to say.  But in the end, there was one thing that kept coming to mind--my constant gratitude and appreciation for having had the opportuntiy to work with the incredible young people of Brooklyn.

First Brooklyn Connections Visit, October 2007 (Photo by Al Pereira)

You see, I didn't have just one scarecrow on my five-year journey down the Brooklyn Connections road.  I had over 4,000.

Students at Hudde Junior High, Spring 2008Stereotypes tell us that middle school students are the toughest of all age groups to work with--they are dealing with emotions, hormones, peer pressure and other factors that make them an impossible audience.  Many educators refuse to even consider working with adolescents in this age range.

Personally, I can't imagine ever working with a different age group.  I'm not saying that these stereotypes don't occasionally ring true.  I've seen and experienced my fair share of middle school horrors in my time.  But even on the most difficult days, it was the students that kept bringing me back.

Student Reflections at International Studies Middle School, Spring 2008In the last five years, I have learned more from the students of Brooklyn Connections than I ever taught them--and they probably don't even realize it.  All of those emotions, hormones, peer pressures and other factors that make youth "impossible" also make them insightful, honest, brave and reflective. 

End of Year Event, May 2012.

I've seen the most cyncial students become fascinated by an archive--to the point where their questions completely derailed my lesson, in a good way.  I've watched a young girl have an "aha" moment as she sees similarities between her life and that of someone who lived a century ago.  I've learned to recognize the small signs that a student is beginning to look at his surroundings with new eyes.  Anyone who tells you that today's "plugged in" youth are simply beyond making such connections isn't looking hard enough.  The moments and signs are not easy to uncover, but they are most certainly there.

The students in the Brooklyn Connections program have reminded me what its like to live with passion--for life, for family, for friends, for community.  So many times, I have been struck by the way they can relate what they study to what they experience.  They look for that understanding in a way that we adults have long forgotten about.  I've seen projects that honestly touch on racism, sexism, economics, policitics and other "hot button" issues that many adults would shy away from.  I've seen a teacher moved to tears as a student described his admiration for his father, a Mexican immigrant and small business owner in Sunset Park.  I've heard students from Crown Heights admit that they've secretly yearned for a better understanding of the diverse--and sometimes divisive--cultures that inhabit their community.  I've watched as a 13-year old girl starts a class conversation about why her neighborhood of Brownsville is worthy of community pride and respect.

Student Presentations at IS 30, April 2012.

End of Year Event, Beginning with Children School, May 2012.For me, the biggest lesson I have learned is that so many young people in Brooklyn, and everywhere else, are just looking to have a voice.  I am proud to have helped create a program that strives to provide them with at least one form of outlet.  And I am so confident in this program that I am willing to leave it behind, knowing that it will continue to flourish and inspire (and be inspired by) the youth of Brooklyn as my career takes me further into the field of education reform.

In short, you only need speak with a student about his or her work to understand that there is far more to the story than the words on the page or the poster on display.  Brooklyn Connections is not about students' projects.  It is about the students themselves--who they were, who they are and who they will become.

And so I close this blog entry not with my own words, but theirs.  I share this video not because I want to promote the program --there will be plenty of time for my successor to do that--but because it is the best possible way I can think of to show who I will "miss most of all":


Holidays, Observed and Otherwise

May 25, 2012 10:00 AM | 0 comments

I've recently had the great pleasure of preparing for cataloging our Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs documenting local celebrations and holidays.  With Memorial Day just around the corner, I'd like to share some images of Memorial Days past in Brooklyn. 

Children barely contain their excitement as the 1941 Memorial Day Parade marches down Eastern Parkway.

The holiday traces back to the years after the close of the Civil War.  An Eagle article from May 20, 1870 describes the meeting of a group of citizens who were then considering observing Decoration Day, a holiday created by Major General John A. Logan, head of the Union veterans' group the Grand Army of the Republic, in 1868.  Decoration Day was celebrated by decorating the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers at the end of May, when flowers were blooming.  While the holiday may seem uncontroversial now, it caused a stir in those early years after the war -- being that it was created by the Grand Army of the Republic it was construed by many as salt in the still-open wound and a cause of further divisiveness between the northern and southern regions of the newly reunited United States. 


Ronald Lent, 9, shakes the hand of Thomas Barker, 93, a Civil War Veteran, in the 1931 Memorial Day Parade.

An Eagle editorial from 1871 argued against the nationalization of the widely observed holiday for this very reason, citing instances in Arlington, Virginia where those trying to decorate Confederate graves were "repelled by bayonets and greeted with contumely and outrage."  The tension was alleviated somewhat as the Civil War receded in public memory, and in 1917, following the devastating World War, the holiday was expanded to honor all American veterans of war. 

Above and below, Boy Scouts place flags by the headstones of American soldiers at Cypress Hills Cemetery, in 1953.

While many do still honor the holiday's history as a day to remember our fallen soldiers, it is perhaps more broadly known as the kick-off to summer, a day to be spent grilling out in the park or hitting the department store for big discounts.  The Memorial Day Parade that once marched down Eastern Parkway to the Soldiers and Sailor's Memorial at Grand Army Plaza is still celebrated annually, although it has been removed to Bay Ridge

The 1952 parade passes through Grand Army Plaza.

If our fervor for big brassy Memorial Day parades has diminished over the years, it has completely evaporated for other, less fortunate Brooklyn holidays of the 19th and 20th century which are now all but forgotten.  One such is the ambiguously named Anniversary Day, which was celebrated on the first or second Thursday of June and has since morphed into Brooklyn-Queens Day.  Although the day is now known merely as a day that children throughout the New York City school system inexplicably have a day off from classes, the holiday originated as a day to celebrate the founding of the Protestant organization the Brooklyn Sunday School Union in Brooklyn in 1816 at the Sands Street Church. 

In that era, leaders of Brooklyn's church community were appalled by the debauched attitudes of the borough's children, who were described by the historian Henry Stiles as openly engaging in "card playing, profanity, and other vices" on Sunday afternoons. Operating then much like a mission, the Sunday School Union hoped to show these still-salvageable youth the error of their ways.  By teaching them to read, they were also, and not at all incidentally, teaching them to read the Bible, which served the larger effort of gathering new believers to the faith.

An 1885 print from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper depicting an infant class on parade.

The Anniversary Day Parade was born 13 years after the founding of the Sunday schools, when the schools' 400 pupils marched around Brooklyn Heights.  It grew quickly from that humble beginning -- the 1890 parade saw 13,000 participating children and by the 20th century more than 100,000 children from all over the borough paraded annually through Prospect Park to mark the occasion on the first Thursday of June. 

But the holiday was of course also contentious, being that it effectively created a school holiday to celebrate a specific religious group.  Adding to the controversy was the consolidation of New York City in 1898 -- after that point, theoretically, at least, a school holiday in one borough had to be a school holiday in all boroughs, or not be observed at all.  A helpful timeline from Gothamist, with articles culled from our Brooklyn Daily Eagle website, traces the debacle over Anniversary Day, which marched on through the years despite wrangling between the Board of Education and the Brooklyn Sunday School Union.  Queens schools joined in the holiday in 1959 by an act of state legislature, and the day was rechristened Brooklyn-Queens Day.  However, the joy of an extra day off from school for no discernable reason wasn't extended to all boroughs until 2005.  Some churches still mark the day with parades, although the practice is not nearly as widespread as it was in its heyday.

Those too small to walk had to be pushed...

... or carried.

In addition to thousands of adorable children in 18th-century get-ups, the parade hosted many distinguished guests throughout the years, including the evangelist Billy Graham, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, President Howard Taft, and then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower, pictured right, in 1948.   

Our ephemera files also contain programs and sheet music for the celebration, along with an informational pamphlet explaining the purpose of Anniversay Day titled, fittingly, "Why We March."  This handy guide lists quotes from distinguished personages past and present, including Henry Ward Beecher, Mrs. Herbert Hoover, Governor Herbert Lehman, and Brooklyn's own poet laureate who said, "The sight of these pleasant girls and boys, marching athwart the city in every direction, was a sight to make a man's heart grow gentler and more sympathetic.  Blessings on Sunday Schools, and on all other schools, too!"  

That's certainly high praise, but I can think of at least one person who was not so thrilled with the Anniversary Day festivities:

 Enjoy your upcoming Memorial Day weekend! 

Byrd's Eye View

May 24, 2012 10:00 AM | 0 comments

Admiral Richard E. Byrd, October 17, 1932

Much has been written about Richard Evelyn Byrd, the scientist and explorer who led courageous voyages to Antarctica and daring flights over the Poles.  Although he was not a Brooklynite, he was no stranger to the borough and his travels were well documented in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle over the course of two decades.

Floyd Bennett, 1928

Prior to his noteworthy southbound trips, Byrd was a Naval Aviator.  In 1926, he went on leave from the Navy, and with Brooklyn resident and aviator Floyd Bennett at his side, took off to attempt the first flight over the North Pole.  The men left from the Brooklyn Navy Yard on April 5, 1926, on an expedition funded by a slew of investors including, Edsel Ford, John D. Rockefeller and Vincent Astor.  Although many were suspicious of his claim, he was celebrated upon his return as the first pilot to fly over the pole.  In spite of skeptics, both men were awarded the Medal of Honor and Byrd was declared an American Hero. 

Medal for distinguished public service, 1930

Through the course of his career, Byrd received several awards including medals from the Civic Forum (above), American Industry, Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America and the Public School Athletic League.

A lesser-known explorer, Frederick Cook, resident of Bushwick, was involved with a similar North Pole scandal, claiming it was he who first set foot on the pole--although the laurels for that accomplishment went to Naval Rear Admiral Robert Peary.   

With the feat of flying over the North Pole behind him, Byrd prepared for his first voyage to Antarctica in the fall of 1928. He amassed 4 ships, 3 planes, 95 dogs, 650 tons of supplies, and 42 men.  The main purpose of this expedition was to map a large part of the continent.  While in Antarctica, he made the first flight over the South Pole and established a research base called "Little America," nine miles off the coast.

Byrd's vessel U.S.S Bear in "Little America," 1940

In 1930, while in Brooklyn, Byrd was honored by Brooklyn Borough President Hesterberg at the dedication of the municipal airport, Floyd Bennett Field.  The Field, named for Byrd's comrade, Floyd Bennett, was New York City's first municipal airport,  and was used by many notable aviators such as Amelia Earhart and Howard Hughes.

Howard Huges stepping out of his plane at Floyd Bennett Field, 1938

Following the dedication, Byrd was the guest of honor at the Brooklyn Bond Club's luncheon and was honored at a dinner hosted by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and the Brooklyn's Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce at the St. George Hotel. 

Byrd shaking hands with Brooklyn Borough President Hesterberg, 1930

The following year, he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute for his explorations in the Antarctic and advancements in science. 

Polytechnic Institute Graduation, June 18, 1931

In 1933, Byrd returned to Antarctica. He spent five months alone in a hut 120 miles south of "Little America" to study inland temperatures.  After two months of isolation and as the temperature reached 72 degrees below zero, he began to feel ill.  Although his messages back to base camp indicated his health was good, he was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, presumably from his stove and lamps. 

When he returned from this trip, President Roosevelt commended him for his contributions to twenty-two separate sciences. 

Byrd riding in a car with President Roosevelt, 1939

November 1939, with the North Star sailing from Boston, the greatest Antarctic expedition of its time was underway.  This was the third voyage to the continent for Byrd to observe the weather, make seismographic recordings, map out the coastline, and claim territory for the United States.  The crew of 63 brought a 55 foot, 12 ton snow cruiser designed by Dr. Thomas Poulter, which would carry eight men, an airplane, and could withstand temperatures up to 80 degrees below zero. 

Dr. Thomas Poulter shows the model of the snow cruiser he designed, 1939

Byrd's snow cruiser, 1939

Byrd's routes to Antarctica, New York Times, December 30, 1946

 Upon returning from his 1947 adventure, one member of Byrd's team brought home a souvenir for the Central Park Zoo, a penguin named Seejee.

Not the penguin brought to the zoo, but an Emperor Penguin in the Antarctic, 1940

The Glory of Brooklyn's Gowanus

May 22, 2012 3:07 PM | 0 comments

Tomorrow evening Wednesday May 23rd, the Brooklyn Collection will host photographer Leslie-Arlette Boyce and numerous other artists as they talk about the  Gowanus Canal and the influence this historic waterway has on their work.  This event starts at 7:00, with a wine and cheese reception as well as distribution of tickets at 6:30. Seating is limited to 40. 



The Rainone Family Papers: Italian Americans in Brooklyn

May 17, 2012 6:13 PM | 0 comments

How do people decide what to keep for posterity? Why hang onto the 1932 guidelines for Civil Service exams, a letter from an Italian gentleman you never even met, a dinner invitation, a letter congratulating you on a job well done? These questions came to mind forcibly as I worked briefly this week with a small collection donated to us by the Archives at Queens Borough Public Library a couple of years ago.  This small collection of papers belonging to several members of the Rainone family, and their brother-in-law Ernest Morra, throws light on the immigrant journey of an Italian-American family living in Brooklyn in the early to mid-twentieth century. The family patriarch, Carlo Rainone, had worked as a barber to support a numerous family, allowing his son Michael to advance into a career in medicine, while the four girls who did not marry all seem to have found gainful employment in offices or educational settings.

Is this Louis Rainone? Who is the little girl?

For whatever reason, each family member kept papers that were important to him or her: for son-in-law Ernest Morra, documentation of his business successes was paramount; for son Michael Rainone, his certification as a doctor; for daughter Lucy, her writing; for Julia, a few personal letters and some photographs sent by a relative named Louis Rainone; and for Adelina, invitations to events celebrating her long working life.

Picture of German cemetery somewhere in North Africa sent to Julia by Louis.

Another of Louis's World War II pictures

Fragmentary and superficial as they may be, these documents allow us to see the trajectory of a family from Italy to Brooklyn and Queens, from working class to lower middle class occupations, and to note the different degrees of success that were likely for the men and women of the era.  That's making the best of what one otherwise might call a bad job; for so random are these scraps of text, these photographs without captions, that they seem to call out, "Name me!" "Explain me!" Clearly little planning went into the compilation of this material. We do not know what other legacies these people left; but in the sad detritus of five lives richly lived for all we know, we catch only a fleeting glimpse of the striving, the successes and disappointments, the hope and promise of youth turning into decades of employment in the same job.

With the meteoric rise of interest in genealogy, we are more aware now of the value of family and personal papers. For those wishing to select, arrange and preserve their family memories, excellent resources are available, such as the Northeast Documentation Center's Hints for Preserving Family Collections or the National Archives and Records Administration's Caring for Your Family Archives

Little did I know it then, but around the age of ten my own fate as a librarian/archivist was already sealed--I went through my family's entire photograph collection writing names on the backs of images, in pencil.