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Third Avenue Series: At the VFW

Apr 4, 2017 5:45 PM | 0 comments

Blogger One More Folded Sunset and photographer Larry Racioppo are working on a series of pieces on Brooklyn's Third Avenue.  This is the second.  Click here for the first, and stay tuned for more.

Larry Racioppo, 2017

VFW Post #7096 has been at 804 Third Avenue since 1956.  When it opened, there were around ninety active posts in Brooklyn.  Today the VFW website lists fifteen. Post #7096 sits in the shadow of the Expressway, right around the site of the Gowanus village the Dutch settled almost four hundred years ago.  Before it was a VFW Post, Klonowski's Bar & Grill was here - one of the many waterfront saloons along the avenue. Today the building's windows are bricked in, and it’s hard to get a look through the small grilled window in the door. Unless you're a vet or an invited guest, you might have passed by hundreds of times without knowing what goes on inside. A knock on the door changes everything.

Larry Racioppo, 2017

Over the course of a couple of blustery winter afternoons, I sat at the bar at #7096 & talked.  I spoke to Christopher Leon, who has served as Post Commander since 2013, and Mickey Velasquez, who held the same post for a year, succeeding longtime commander Ken Dunn.  Both men are Brooklyn born and work close by, at the MDC.  Both saw active duty in Desert Storm, as Marines, and both have sons in the services.

When you step in the Post, you'll see it's been recently renovated.  The paint still looks fresh.  A fix-up was on the cards for years; the building was deteriorating and the back room, used for Post functions and party rentals, had become unstable due to water damage.  Before I visited the place, I'd read several accounts of a long and contentious dispute between the VFW and CBS (who owns the next-door property), but this was a story of the past, no longer up for conversation.

The work to fix things up was a hands-on effort by Post members, and donations from local businesses helped. Home Depot was especially generous.

Renovation of the party room – photograph courtesy of Christopher Leon

The renovated party room - Larry Racioppo, 2017

The back room is available again to non-members for party rental, and at the time of my visit it was set up for a lavishly decorated 60th birthday party.  The rental fees help with operating costs, but rooms like these serve an equally important purpose: they make a VFW Post a place not only for veterans, but also a central part of civilian life. Larry Racioppo remembers how important the Parisi-Torre Post #8903, nearby on 22nd Street, has been to his family:

My extended family has been having parties here as long as I can remember - christenings, first communions, confirmations, birthdays, etc.. St. John the Evangelist, our local church, where most of the religious ceremonies took place, was just a few blocks away. In 2009 my cousin Joe came up from Atlanta to have his 60th Birthday party here.

My Dad holding my nephew Michael at his Christening party, Parisi-Torre Post - Larry Racioppo, 1989

Color Wall, Parisi-Torre Post - Larry Racioppo, 2009

My Aunt Angie photographing my cousin Joe (center) and his old friends, Parisi-Torre Post - Larry Racioppo, 2009

I have to admit I wish I'd visited Post #7096 prior to its renovation.

Pre-renovation at #7096 – photographs courtesy of Christopher Leon

The bar at the Lukoski Post remains in place today, but the photographs and Color Wall, the jukebox, the arcade games and the pool table have vanished.  While some of the Post-related memorabilia will be back on display again soon, the machines are gone for good. I asked Chris if the jukebox, at least, was making a return, but he said no, it wasn't what the younger guys wanted any more. And he's right. The pictures show a cozy, clubby, paneled bunker of the 50's or 60's. They readily play tricks on the senses. Memories and nicotine have seeped into every square inch of the rooms, and just looking at these old photographs, my clothes seem to accrue the smell of cigarettes. It's a comforting sight if you're over fifty, but it's not a scene for a young veteran in, say, his or her twenties or thirties.

Behind the bar, Edward F. Lukoski Post - Larry Racioppo, 2017

Behind the bar, there's a copy of the booklet that commemorates the Post's opening.  Aviation Machine Mate Edward F. Lukoski, another Brooklyn native, who attended local PS 10 as a child, died in 1943 when the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Franklin was bombarded by Japanese aircraft. The booklet is a time capsule. The ads build a picture of the local businesses of mid-twentieth century South Brooklyn, with phone numbers bearing the SO South Brooklyn or ST Sterling exchanges. Candy stores, ship-scalers, taverns, delicatessens, appliance stores. The White Eagle Market (later Eagle Provisions) is listed, along with a score of other Polish businesses and family sentiments - a reflection of the neighborhood's sizable Polish population.

Photo courtesy of One More Folded Sunset

As I turned the pages, I recognized just three places still around today: Our Lady of Czestochowa, Joseph Duffy Funeral Home, and the Bay River Liquors ("Brooklyn's largest liquor store").  The closely related spheres of spirits and the spiritual linger the longest.

Photo courtesy of One More Folded Sunset

The Post's new looks are a point of pride, but right now, the bar room looks too bare. Chris plans to decorate it and bring back some of the earlier displays, and add more recent contributions. He wants to liven the atmosphere of the place while still acknowledging its early history.  He wants to make it relevant.  Talking to Chris, you sense his resolve.  He's taken on his role as Commander with a good deal of energy, but it's a tough mission, nevertheless.

Post Commander Christopher Leon - Larry Racioppo, 2017

Today enrollment at the Post stands in the sixties.  Although the roster includes veterans from recent combat, recruiting younger members in any number remains a challenge. Somewhat ironically, the most recent recruit is a wheelchair-bound veteran of the Second World War. Mickey believes that demographics - the sheer numbers of troops who have seen active service in Iraq and Afghanistan - and the common period of time lapse between a veteran's military discharge and his or her joining the VFW will bring a boom in enrollment within the next decade, but Chris isn't so sure.

Looking back to older pictures of the Post in post-war decades - when veterans, spouses, children, filled the place -he'd like to recreate the same lively atmosphere, but he understands how different the pattern of family life is today. Now, in most households, both parents juggle the dual demands of career and family; as the parent of four children, three of them young girls, Chris shares the shuttles to swim meets, and after-school activities, and all the rest of the to-and-fro of modern family life.

Along with a busy family calendar, patterns of entertainment have changed too, and an older-style Post atmosphere doesn't work so well for younger generations.  Declining VFW membership is a national issue, and it's generally accepted that fresh approaches to Post operations are needed. These have included a focus on health and fitness (including pain management clinics), volunteer opportunities - like Habitat for Humanity, art therapy and displays of veteran art, public speaking classes, enhanced networking opportunities, and a conscious effort to welcome female veterans. Some Posts have had striking successes by reworking the old VFW model. Chris cites Long Island as having one of the nation's strongest VFW enrollments, with a tight veteran community support system, and the ability to draw in younger recruits, but in the city, the scene is sparser. Some of the urban Posts in booming cities may find other demographic challenges too. Post #7096 is sited in a waterfront neighborhood targeted for gentrification, and the cost of housing here is now well beyond the budget of many working and middle-class families.  As the neighborhood becomes more affluent, and younger, and older businesses fade, there's less connection to the older institutions. The area, like the Post, stands at a point of transition.

Mickey Velasquez – One More Folded Sunset, 2017

The longer I spent talking to Chris and Mickey though, the more respect I gained for their strength of purpose, especially their dedication to preserving the Lukoski Post, and meeting the needs of a new generation of veterans.  Take Mickey's life, for example. He believes he was destined for the military. His grandfather served in World War II, and his mother sang him to sleep (or so the story goes) with the Marine Corps Hymn.  When his parents went out in the evening to a show, or dancing, it wasn't a teenage girl who came to babysit for Mickey & his brothers, but Butch and Paul, Vietnam vets who put the small boys through their paces with military training workouts in the family basement. The kids loved it, and it was a surefire means to get them tired out & ready for bed with none of the usual while-the-cat's-away babysitting malarkey. By sixth grade, Mickey enrolled in Marine Corps cadet training, in Williamsburg, and as soon as he was old enough, he enlisted.  He served from 1981 to 2001, and from 2001 to 2014 he was in the Army National Guard. His unit was based at Battery Park right after 9/11.  Though he now lives in Staten Island, and could easily attach himself to a VFW post closer to home, he calls 7906 his "living room." He's as committed to the place as he is to the VFW values of "selfless service" No longer enlisted, he's still eager to give back to his community, and on call to serve the needs of his fellow veterans.  He can't envision life any other way.

The VFW's historical mission has always been one of advocacy - of lobbying for post-service benefits & support services for American veterans - and the Posts provide veterans with a local and caring support community. Given the nature of modern warfare, today's veterans have a greater need than ever. Next month, on April 28th, #7096 will be celebrating Patch Day, and the Post's 61st anniversary. Civilians are welcome to attend. Go visit - you'll be made welcome.  In an increasingly polarized and indignant America, it's more important than ever to take the time to open doors.

Head over to One More Folded Sunset for a verison of this post with a few more images included, and stay tuned for more posts in our Third Avenue series.

Miss Manhattan and Miss Brooklyn are back!

Apr 4, 2017 9:30 AM | 0 comments

In January 2017, a new piece of art was installed at the intersection of Flatbush Avenue and Tillary Street, at the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. Two snow-white resin sculptures representing “Miss Brooklyn” and “Miss Manhattan” were hoisted above the busy street traffic on two slowly rotating “Lazy Susans” supported by a stem-like post. Now, as they steadily revolve in opposite directions, they enjoy a 360 degree view of the area from whence they were banished nearly 60 years ago.

The original “Miss Manhattan” and “Miss Brooklyn” were not rotating. Once upon a time, they were firmly planted near the granite pylons at the Brooklyn approach to the Manhattan Bridge.

The approach to the Manhattan Bridge (1940-50s). Brooklyn Eagle photo collection, Brooklyn Collection.

The Manhattan Bridge, the youngest among the three bridges connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn, was opened on December 31, 1909. It was built to alleviate the traffic load of the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges.  Unlike its immediate neighbor, the legendary and much beloved Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge was sort of a stepchild in the public imagination. With its eight lanes for train, horse-drawn and automobile traffic, it was designed to be a muscle, a working horse, a purely utilitarian structure. However, it caught the attention of the City Beautiful movement, and the Carrère & Hastings architectural firm was engaged to beautify the approaches to the bridge on both sides.

The City Beautiful Movement was a reform philosophy in architecture and urban planning that flourished in the United States in the late 19th-early 20th century. The founding idea of this movement was that the introduction of beautification and grandeur to urban planning elevated the spirit of the citizenry, promoted social harmony and helped increase the quality of life. The City Beautiful movement was never particularly strong in New York City though; its biggest mark was made in Chicago, Cleveland and Washington, D.C.  However, it is credited with interfering on behalf of the homely Manhattan Bridge.

Carrère & Hastings introduced its design in the Beaux-Arts style in 1910 and the plan was not only approved, but also lauded as the most artistic treatment of a bridge entrance attempted on this continent.  

The Manhattan end of the bridge featured a Beaux-Arts plaza with its signature arch and colonnade.  The arch was modeled after Porte St. Denis in Paris, and the colonnade after Bernini's famous colonnade that encircles St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican.  

Arches were very popular in those days. The Manhattan Bridge arch is one of only three remaining in the city now (the other two are the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch on Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn and the Washington Square Arch in Manhattan.)

The arch’s pylons are decorated with high reliefs by Carl Augustus Heber.  Two winged figures, female and male, represent “The Spirit of Commerce” on the left and “The Spirit of Industry” on the right. The “Buffalo Hunt” frieze by a celebrated sculptor Carl C. Rumsey is set in the center of the arch, just beneath the cornice.

The Arch with the Buffalo Hunt frieze by C.C. Rumsey. Photo by author.

"The Spirit of Industry" by C. A. Heber. Photo by author.

The Brooklyn gateway to the bridge was markedly more modest. It featured two white granite pylons, each guarded by allegorical female figures known as “Miss Manhattan” and “Miss Brooklyn” installed in 1916. The sculptor responsible for them was none other than Daniel Chester French, best known for his statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“Miss Manhattan” and “Miss Brooklyn” each weigh 20 tons, measure 12 feet tall and are made of granite, and the same model was used for both figures. This is where the similarities end.

“Miss Manhattan” sits haughtily with her right foot atop a chest of money (or jewels?); in her right hand she holds a winged globe reminiscent of a cross-bearing orb, an ancient symbol of authority; a peacock, flashiness and luxury incarnate, is by her side. (The peacock, in the belief system of the Ancient Greeks, also represented immortality/eternity.) The bows of three ships hint at the status of Manhattan as an important port and an international trade hub. She is all dignity, privilege and hubris. (Apparently, an original design for Miss Manhattan also included a royal crown, but it was overruled by the Bridge Commissioners as smacking of imperialism.)

Allegory of Manhattan by Daniel Chester French. Photo by Irving Herzberg (1967), Brooklyn Collection.

Miss Brooklyn’s demeanor could not be more different. Her expression is gracious, introspective and calm; she is surrounded by a church spire (Brooklyn to this day counts more houses of worship than any other borough); a lyre and a child with a book (a reference to the borough’s patronage of culture and education). The book on the child’s lap is massive. It must be a Bible, another reference to the borough’s spiritual thrust. Her head is adorned with a laurel wreath. In her hands she holds a tablet with the Dutch inscription “Ein Drach Mackt Maght” (“In Union there is strength”), a hint at the Dutch origins of Brooklyn and at the fairly recent New York City consolidation of 1898.

Allegory of Brooklyn by Daniel Chester French. Photo by Irving Herzberg (1967), Brooklyn Collection. 

The model for the pair was the legendary Audrey Munson who is considered to be America’s first supermodel. She posed for many famous sculptors and photographers. For Daniel Chester French alone, she modeled twelve times. Incidentally, she was also used as a model by C.A. Heber when he created “The Spirit of Commerce” for the Manhattan side of the bridge.

Meanwhile, the years went by, and the Manhattan Bridge continued to be a “poor relation” to the Brooklyn Bridge. Despite heavy use and an apparent design flaw, the bridge suffered from neglect and irregular inspection and maintenance and in the end required several costly repairs. Its slow aging coincided with the rapid growth of private car ownership and increased flow of traffic.

Enter Robert Moses and his ambitious plans for dramatic restructuring of the city’s thoroughfares. Robert Moses, to this day, remains one of the most polarizing and controversial figures in the history of New York City. He became a major force in the city's planning in 1924 and remained unstoppable for some forty-four years. Under his supervision, New York and its environs acquired, among other things, a functional system of parkways, highways, bridges and parking spaces which accommodated the ever growing fleet of personal and commercial vehicles. For all the good he has done for the city (he is credited with building, throughout his career, 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units across all boroughs of the City of New York and surrounding areas), his legacy is tainted by his overt racism and deliberate planning that marginalized minorities. He is also responsible for the destruction of several city landmarks, such as the original Penn Station in Manhattan and Ebbets Field stadium in Brooklyn.

Robert Moses. Photo: Brooklyn Eagle photo collection, Brooklyn Collection.

The Manhattan Bridge – forever in need of an upgrade – had the bad luck of finding itself in Moses’ way.

The early 1960s marked the beginning of the end of Moses’ career when his plans started to meet with more and more resistance from city officials and citizens. As a result, three of his bombastic, larger-than-life crosstown projects were among the few that he was not able to push through. Had one of them, the Lower Manhattan Expressway, also known as “Lomex”, succeeded, we would have lost the Manhattan-side entryway to the bridge. During the reconstruction in the early 1960s two decks were reinforced to be able to carry trucks weighing up to twenty tons. Another level was designated for cars only. The approaches were to be reconstructed to provide access on the Manhattan side for the newly projected Lower Manhattan Expressway and on the Brooklyn side for a new interchange with already existing Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

In 1961 Moses filed a request with the Arts Commission of the City of New York for permission to remove and destroy both entryways to the bridge. That would mean the loss of all art - architectural and sculptural - which had been adorning the entryways for nearly 50 years. In his application he described it as “ornamental and architectural masonry”. One of Moses’ arguments was that art created a distraction for motorists. A public outcry immediately followed. Preservation advocates cited the commission paid by the city to the creators of these artifacts: Rumsey received $15,000 for the “Buffalo Hunt” frieze (worth $335,000 in 2017 money); Heber, $10,000 for his winged allegorical reliefs ($225,000); French, $8,000 ($180,000) for each of his sculptures.

The Arts Commissioners were also reluctant to grant the permission and they pushed the vote back in order to find an art institution willing to take custody of this “masonry.” The Brooklyn Museum stepped forward. It expressed interest in accepting the two “Misses” and the Rumsey frieze.  

Eventually, the plans for Lomex were scrapped and the Manhattan-side entryway narrowly escaped destruction. It was eventually landmarked (in 1975) and underwent renovation in 2000.

The two granite maidens were removed from their original location and installed by the entrance of the Brooklyn Museum in 1964. Upon inspection, they were deemed to be in decent shape and required only a thorough cleaning.  Their new home happened to be a fitting place for the work of Daniel Chester French, since his sculptures - allegorical figures of Greek Epic, Greek Lyric Poetry and Greek Philosophy, as well as the pediment – had already graced the museum’s façade. (Another piece of art produced by Daniel Chester French in Brooklyn, the Alfred T. White Memorial, can be found in the nearby Brooklyn Botanic Garden.)

Brooklyn Museum circa 1910, well before the "maidens" arrived. Photo: Brooklyn Eagle photo collection, Brooklyn Collection.

Brooklyn Museum, 1967. The allegorical figures of Brooklyn and Manhattan have already found their new home here. Photo: Irving Herzberg, Brooklyn Collection.

The new renditions of Miss Manhattan and Miss Brooklyn are created by Brian Tolle, famous for his Irish Hunger Memorial in Manhattan. Serett Metalworks company is responsible for the monument’s “hardware”, the post and pivoting platforms. 

Welcome home, ladies!