This post provides, in full, another insert we have written for a Noticing New York piece which is something of an extended idiosyncratic opus.
A recent Noticing New York post previewed a portion of another pending insert: See: Wednesday, March 9, 2011, An Insert Preview - Music Superstar Ethics: How Completely You Can Sell "You can say what you say, but you are what you are." Jay-Zzzzus! (Also, if you are keeping track you’ll be aware of some upcoming live performance’s that come with a Noticing New York recommendation:
Shepley Metcalf’s Fran Landesman show at the Metropolitan Room (two more performances this March):Where in the longer piece (Adding A few More Off Topic Notes (Or Are They Really?) does this insert come? It will be inserted after what is written about Jean-Paul Vignon and before the heading “Pasticheing With the Pizzarellis” under which heading there is Noticing New York coverage of two kings of England, one Roman emperor, the Academy Awards, and famous songwriters going to camp in the Adirondacks, not to mention Tony Bennet (except we just did).
Something Irresistible: New Songs by Fran Landesman
Music Director Ron Roy on piano
Chris Rathbun on bass, Gene Roma on drums
Sat March 19 at 7:00 pm
Sun March 20 at 4 pm
And Red Molly (with Pat Wictor) at the next First Acoustics event:
with Pat Wictor
March 19, 2011
All seats $30.00)
Here we go. . . .
Unitarian Incubation of the City’s Historic Preservation
In hosting the First Acoustics concerts in its space at low cost, the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation is performing what urbanist Jane Jacobs identified as an incubator function, that is to provide assistance to the gestation of fledgling new enterprises. Decades ago the First Unitarian congregation (its minister who was involved at the time being Donald W. McKinney) provided the same space to incubate the launch of a local movement that became pivotal for New York City’s urban planning, a movement which, by its example, has also had significant import far beyond the city borders. The undercroft of the Unitarian Church is where Otis Pratt Pearsall, then a young lawyer living in Brooklyn Heights, met and organized with others in the late 1950s to fight for a law or form of zoning that would protect Brooklyn Heights as a historic district. (See: Old Brooklyn Heights: New York's First Suburb By Clay Lancaster, Edmund V. Gillon, Jr., Heights History: Brooklyn Heights Historic District, by Homer Fink on 13. Sep, 2006 in History, Landmark Preservation, New York Preservation Archive Project, Sages and Stages: Historic Districts, October 20, 2004 How Brooklyn Heights Became Our City’s First Historic District by Christopher Anderson (email@example.com), published online 12-03-2005 and Battling for Brooklyn Heights, by Martin L. Schneider, Introduction by Anthony C. Wood.)
Crucial crew of 1950s Activists
The activists spearheaded by Pearsall included Martin Schneider (a producer for CBS News), William R. Fischer, Malcolm Chesney (an economist), Arthur Steinberg and Richard J. Margolis. Margolis, as publisher and editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press, provided a very essential form of support. In the 50s there were mimeograph machines but no blogs. (These days we do have blogs but the local papers have been bought up by developer (and Bloomberg) proponent Rupert Murdock and developer Forest City Ratner provides them with their office space. . . .apparently more cheaply than developer David Walentas did.)
Moses Supposes Erroneously
In the late 50s Robert Moses was breathing down the necks of these young activists and the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood with projects some then pending, some already underway, to tear down substantial portions of the Heights. Although there was enabling legislation for historic preservation already in place on the state level (the Bard Law enacted in 1956), New York City had not yet availed itself of this law to enact any actual legal protections. The group’s activism contributed significantly to the city’s finally adopting such historic preservation legislation. When it did so, Brooklyn Heights became the city’s first designated historic district in November of 1965.
Success went beyond that. Looking back, Pearsall wrote that one town meeting the group organized “was a major step in the downfall of Moses’s Slum Clearance Committee.” Let us go further and read into this that it was a major step in the downfall of Moses himself. It was an important time. The city was on the cusp of significant change in overall societal thinking about urban development. Moses had been in power implementing his mega-projects for multiple decades during which the city had suffered a sustained multi-decade downward slide in its population. The half-life of the negative effects from those projects persisted for years after their completion. This moment in history was the beginning of the end of an era when Moses in an accelerating decline would finally start losing most and then all of his power.
Cutting Edge Activism and the BHA as the Established Organ of Activism
Most of the crew of activists from the Unitarian undercroft were ultimately absorbed into the Brooklyn Heights Association, elected to its board as members. The activists had organized themselves as the “Community Conservation and Improvement Council” and the BHA very quickly initially constituted the “CCIC” in its entirety, a "special committee" of the BHA. Thereby the activists became the newest committee of the “oldest neighborhood association in the City.” Anthony C. Woods in his Preserving New York suggests that the activists formation of the CCIC was, however, important because the newcomers “were freed of institutional history” while the slow-to-react BHA “was fixed in its ways” and was slow to perceive the urgency of the unfolding threats.
What a difference a decade can make: The Brooklyn Heights Association is credited with taking an activist lead only a decade earlier. It was the BHA that in the early 1940s prevented Moses from running the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway straight through the middle of the Heights on Hicks Street. According to Woods, as that fight was fought it was even worried that the route Moses proposed for the BQE would result in demolition of- back to our starting subject- the First Unitarian Church. Maybe, in retrospect seeing what the church subsequently incubated, Moses may have wished he had succeeded in doing precisely that.* It was the compromise rerouting the BQE forced by the BHA that created the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.
(* In a similar twist, New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan on November 13, 2008 unveiled the details of her plan to retake for pedestrians much of the city street space Moses had turned over to cars with her Great Streets Plan at the AIA Center for Architecture on Greenwich Village's La Guardia Place where, as she talked, architect and urban design consultant Jan Gehl sat wondering at how the beautiful building in which they sat would not even have been there if the Greenwich Village community had not defeated Moses's plans for a ten-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway destroying Greenwich Village, SoHo, Little Italy and Chinatown. - That plan would have involved ramped clover-leafing midtown access from Fifth Avenue via Washington Square Park. See Gehl's essay "For You Jane" in "What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs.")
Beyond the Belief of Seeing?
There is a is a video about the history of designating the Heights as historic: “Brooklyn Is My Neighborhood/ The Story of New York’s First Historic District” produced by Martin L Schneider and Karl Junkersfeld and narrated by Mr. Schneider. (See: New Video: The Story of New York’s First Historic District, by brooklynheightsblog on 05. Apr, 2010.) You will note that Mr. Schneider is one of the original CCIC activists named in the list above.
The video has some fascinating images, including this rendering of a never-built multi-block “luxury” housing extravaganza Moses had planned to have replace a portion of Brooklyn Heights (see below). No wonder Moses’ policies were chasing people out of the city in droves!
Ready For De Mille’s Close-Up?
Can absorption into art and culture be a measure of the public’s overall appreciation of those urban environments which we succeed in growing or preserving? A very recent Brooklyn Paper article reporting about filming of a new film in the Heights, “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” has this to say:
Brooklyn Heights has long been Hollywood’s leading lady. Fabled for its gorgeous apartments, scenic streets and killer views of Manhattan, America’s first suburb has been a backlot for Hollywood’s great moments.It then goes on to list a few, including “Moonstruck,” and “The Age of Innocence.” It leaves out “Scent of a Woman”(OK that was really neighboring DUMBO) or many others like the B-Horror film “The Sentinel” (and didn’t at least one Woody Allen film use the Heights?). Though it mentions Jack Nicholson entering 57 Montague St. in “Prizzi’s Honor” (to go up to his apartment) if fails to disclose the cinematic legerdemain that when Nicholson walked out on the terrace of his apartment he was actually on the roof of 80 Cranberry Street five blocks to the north. (See also: January 12, 2010, Meet a true film celebrity — Brooklyn Heights, By Gersh, Kuntzman, The Brooklyn Paper- some of the BP’s recent article was a retread.)
To the best of our knowledge, Brooklyn Heights earns all its adulatory screen time without paying product placement fees like some corporately created “places” do. (See: Friday, May 21, 2010, Not So “Just Wright” (Because It Is after All “Not So Just”.))
Not Only Contribution of Historic Preservation, but Historic Unitarian Contributions As Well
The Unitarian congregation has an even longer history of contributing significantly to the city and surrounding neighborhoods. In the 1880s the congregation gave a home to wealthy businessman and perspicacious philanthropist Augustus Graham although Mr. Graham never formally became a member of the congregation (in those days a “communicant”). It appears too that Mr. Graham, or Mr. Graham in conjunction with his ostensible “brother” John Bell Graham (together with John’s wife, Maria Louisa Graham) provided the church with a home as well.
Cover for a Sale
Augustus Graham was a benefactor to the church in various ways but it was John Graham Bell, his Presbyterian brother, together with Maria Louisa Graham, who bought the site for the church from Hezekiah Pierpont (that family later changed their name to Pierrepont as in the street named after them on which you can now find the church) and then the Grahams sold the land to a family that represented the church more openly. This interceding purchase by the Grahams is considered to have been a cover because it was feared that community hostility to the Unitarian religion (considered far too unconventional at the time) would otherwise have impeded a sale.
Covering a “Dark Secret”?
Augustus Graham’s not becoming a member of the congregation likely had to do with mysteries about his life that extended to his sexuality: Graham was probably gay or maybe even polyamorous. A deathbed confession to his banker about a “dark secret” revealed that he and his “brother” were not using their original given names and that they were not brothers at all, neither having the last name Graham at birth. In this regard, rumors had cropped up earlier that the two men and their handsome “widowed sister” Maria Graham Taylor, all living together in their Brooklyn home until 1829, were not related.
Tackling the History of Tangled Family Relationships
Augustus Graham it appears had begun life anew more than once. In England he was born in 1776 as Richard King. In America he married under the name of Augustus Graham in Maryland and had two children with Martha Cock. Augustus moved to New York when he met John Bell, who then adopted the last name of Graham, although Augustus continued to support the family he left behind. Eventually he did leave his surviving daughter, Elizabeth Rebecca Graham and her family a sum that made her wealthy after his death. (Elizabeth married a Mr. Chester Coleman.)
It is possible that Maria Graham Taylor, who lived with the “brothers,” was actually related to John Bell. She joined the two men in Brooklyn after they had already been living together for a while. Augustus and John ceased living together after Maria Graham Taylor died. John thereupon married his housekeeper Maria Louisa Thompson, and she is the woman who was on the deed with him when they acquires the land for the church. It is interesting to think that Unitarians felt they needed that cover to build in the community but that Augustus Graham’s reasons for refraining from formally joining the congregation were likely out of concern that it would be a taint to the religious community.
Seminal Benefactor of Burgeoning Brooklyn
Notwithstanding, Augustus Graham was well known as a seminal benefactor of the burgeoning Brooklyn of the time. Uniting their capital, Augustus and John first made money in businesses that included brewery and distillery operations. They may also have made money selling supplies for the troops during the War of 1812. Retiring from the brewery business 1822 and dividing their fortunes. Augustus then made much more money establishing an important factory in the white lead industry. Viewed now a pollutant, white lead was then a state-of-the-art coloring for paint. Augustus is said to have created the factory because he was “determined to use his money to create jobs for the unemployed.”
Also about this time Augustus, joined the radical temperance movement and took steps to found what would ultimately become the Brooklyn Museum: He started the Apprentices' Library to lure young workingmen away from gambling and grogshops with books, lectures and entertainment. The Apprentices' Library became the Brooklyn Institute and later the Brooklyn Museum. (With generational drift, the Brooklyn Museum now hosts a monthly singles-oriented “First Saturdays” evening event that, with wine and beer available for purchase, has a intemperate cocktail party aspect to it.)
A Naughty Brooklyn Museum Apologizing Naught (Bruce Ratner)
At this point we must fulfill our Noticing New York duty to point out how in 2008 the Brooklyn Museum besmirched the memory of Augustus Graham by awarding the Augustus Graham award to real estate developer/subsidy collector and eminent domain abuser Bruce Ratner.
Henry Stiles who, according to historian Olive Hoogenboom, wrote the standard book on Brooklyn history says that Graham was deeply motivated by a concern "for the poor, the suffering, the young, and those" neglected "portions of the community" and his determination to secure for them a larger “share of the great moral and intellectual privileges.” The Unitarian congregation’s website (in an article by Ms. Hoogenboom) points out how this “made him a role model for that church's great settlement work, out of which grew the housing reforms of Alfred T. White.” All of this is quite incongruous with the likes of Bruce Ratner. The Brooklyn Museum has yet to apologize to the community for its errant and profoundly community-damaging award “honoring” Mr. Ratner, whose firm is now implicated in the illegal bribing of public officials for favoritism in two recent instances: with respect to his Atlantic Yards mega-monoply here in Brooklyn and buying approval for the $630 million, 1000-apartment, 81-acre Ridge Hill Forest City Ratner Project in Yonkers.
In addition to bequeathing a substantial amount of his fortune to support Unitarianism and being regarded as the founder of the Brooklyn Museum, Augustus Graham founded the Brooklyn Hospital and, traveling back to England at one point, he founded the Modbury Library and Scientific Institution in Devonshire, using his birth name.
Most of what I have reported here about Augustus Graham is from Olive Hoogenboom’s "The First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn: One Hundred Fifty Years" or other sources of her work I’ve linked to above.
Unitarian Seth Low, Another UU Link to the Historic Preservation Laws
However spurned in their arrival, the Unitarians went on to make more great contributions to the community. Congregation members Seth Low (born 1850) and Alfred Tredway White (born 1846) were friends, neighbors and members of two intermarrying families and two of the better known congregation members. Seth Low (actually Seth Low III in the congregation) was mayor of Brooklyn for two terms, president of Columbia University and was then the first reform mayor of the entire city upon the ouster of Tammany Hall following the power shifts resulting from the 1897 consolidation of Brooklyn with the rest of New York. His reforms in city administration are credited with making possible the wondrous original Pennsylvania Station (completed in 1910). Without his reforms that project would probably have been bled by graft and corruption down to something mundane. Donald Trump, who has expressed strong antipathy to New York’s historic preservation laws, has asserted that the creation of those laws was due to an indefensible overreaching of the real estate industry when it tore down Penn Station. (Demolition commenced in 1963.) So you might view this as another link between the Unitarians and the establishment of those laws, as if Seth Low had reached out over multiple decades to join hands with preservation activist Pearsall.
Unitarian Alfred Tredway White’s Multiple Contributions
Alfred Tredway White, Seth Lows’s co-congregationlist (no relation to me despite the fact that we have both worked to create many units of affordable housing), is famous for his housing reform movement work. He built affordable, innovatively designed housing for over a thousand working class families. Much of what he built is still coveted today for its beautiful (albeit low-cost) design. Some of what he built was destroyed when Moses put in the BQE. More of it might have been destroyed had that expressway not been rerouted. White also founded and supported the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The BBG has an Alfred T. White Amphitheater “that honors BBG’s first benefactor, Alfred T. White,” but its website has no other mention of White. It does, however, show him, (photo also below) unidentified, mustache and beard, in this picture of the laying of the cornerstone of the Laboratory Building in1916.
Here is more about White from Olive Hoogenboom:
Credited with cutting Brooklyn's infant mortality rate by half, White was also a founder of the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In 1878 he became the co-founder of the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities and was either its president or secretary for thirty years. . . . In 1893, while commissioner of public works in Brooklyn, White built the Wallabout Market which lasted until the nearby Navy Yard expanded during World War II.It was also under White that the Unitarians expanded to build their Willow Place Chapel in 1875/1876. The Unitarians had a second offshoot congregation in Willow Town (in a downhill corner of southern Brooklyn Heights) which was established for the purpose of doing settlement-style social work for immigrants who lived near the docks. (Many low income people once lived in what is now considered Brooklyn Heights.) The Unitarian settlement school was moved into the new building. The Willow Place Chapel is no longer owned by the Unitarians but it too still exists and it also provides community art-incubating functions. Since 1962 it has been the home of the Heights Players a local theater group that often does musicals (playing Frost/Nixon February 4-20, 2011). That group’s website informs us that after White died the chapel passed through city hands and was for a time a brothel during World War II.
Here is an interesting tidbit with an echo of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” mentioned here elsewhere: In her history of the church Olive Hoogenboom writes that White got along well with the children participating in their theatrical productions and “especially delighted them with his portrayal of Andrew Jackson at the battle of New Orleans.”
Otis Pratt Pearsall still actively soldiers on to protect the historic assets in and around the Heights. He is supporting a proposed new Brooklyn Skyscraper district, “the obvious extension of Brooklyn Heights historic district, and a bit of unfinished business from the days when he and neighbors waged war against Robert Moses . . ” (See: Brooklyn Sounds Off on Skyscraper District: Neighbors and developers weigh in on potential designation of downtown historic district, by Tom Stoelker, 12.15.2010) And he recently wrote to the Brooklyn Eagle elucidating how “Demolition By Neglect” should not be used as an end run around the Heights’ historic protections (See: Letter to the Editor: Why Was Heights Landmark Allowed to Deteriorate? 05-27-2008.)
In another link back to the Unitarians, Mr. Pearsall is currently a Trustee of the Brooklyn Museum. Mr. Pearsall also serves as a commissioner on the “New York City Arts Commission,” recently rechristened the “Design Commission” which change of name risks making a somewhat obscure agency unfortunately more so. The commission doesn’t deserves to be obscure, see: The Politics of Urban Beauty: New York and Its Art Commission, by Michele H. Bogart. (It seems that they decided to change the name of the commission just as soon as Ms. Bogart wrote the definitive book on it!)
At the commission Mr. Pearsall gets to work with James P. Stuckey, because this somewhat obscure little commission is where Mr. Stuckey somehow managed to wind up as Chairman after working for developer Bruce Ratner. Mr. Stuckey is best known to many as one of the early heavies in the Atlantic Yards mega-theft. Stuckey, was the predecessor to, MaryAnne Gilmartin at Forest City Ratner. Before his abrupt departure from that post he was, once upon a time, president of the city’s own Economic Development Corporation. The information he absorbed while working as a public official with the city should be assumed to have assisted Stuckey in designing the abuses of eminent domain and urban renewal pursued in connection with Atlantic Yards when he took his private sector Ratner job.
BHA Annual Meeting- Ravaged Educational Policies Critiqued by Ravitch
(Above, Diane Ravitch at the BHA annual meeting. BHA President Jane McGroarty is on the right.)
This year the spirit of the activist heritage of the Brooklyn Heights Association was more in evidence at the BHA’s annual meeting (Monday, February 28, 2011) than in recent years prior. The keynote speaker was Diane Ravitch, historian of education, Research Professor of Education at NYU, and author of the best-selling book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education” (New York: Basic Books 2010). Ms. Ravitch was also the once-upon-a-time spouse of our just departed New York Sdtate Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch.
Ms. Ravitch’s book very consciously pays homage to Jane Jacobs' great book (which also helped turn the political tide for Moses): “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” The Ravitch book, the subtitle of which is “How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education” takes aim at the Bloomberg school policies, including the charter school priviatizations (now figureheaded by Schools Chancellor Cathie Black) and G. W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind that have left Texas behind as now having one of the worst school systems in the nation. Ms. Ravitch attacked the statistics of the numbers-oriented Bloomberg/Black style approach and criticized the advent of a culture of educational blame and penalization in the system while a feel for true educational values are being shown the door.
Ms. Ravitch, a resident of Brooklyn Heights, is now making the talk show rounds so you are likely to catch her on something coming up, or you can see her YouTube style on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
(BTW: Not 100% related to Ms. Ravitch but I think one of the best contemplative hours about American education can be found on a prior-in-time This American Life: Episode 275: Two Steps Back, Originally aired 10.15.2004.)
BHA- Litigating: Brooklyn Bridge Park
Another important part of the evening vis-a-vis the BHA’s actions to protect the community was BHA President Jane McGroarty's report on the BHA's lawsuit (in conjunction with the Fulton Ferry Landing Association and the New York Landmarks Conservancy) against ESDC for its behind-the-scenes maneuvering to remove a portion of the Brooklyn Bridge Park from parkland designation without public knowledge or community input. (See: Groups Sue to Stop Transfer of Tobacco Warehouse to St. Ann's, by John Del Signore, January 18, 2011, St. Ann's Warehouse Gets Green Light on Tobacco Warehouse, By John Del Signore, February 15, 2011 4:24 PM and Review and Comment: Unfortunate Lawsuits, by Henrik Krogius, 01-26-2011.)
As Ms. McGroarty made clear, the lawsuit is not about opposing the immediate possible result that might be facilitated by such a demapping which, for the time being, involves a transfer of the St. Ann's Warehouse theater across the street into the now unroofed and open air Civil War-era Brooklyn Tobacco Warehouse. Instead, it is a matter of process. The first Gothamist article linked to above quotes a lawyer for the plaintiff’s putting it this way: “city and state officials ‘launched a secret plan to remove the Tobacco Warehouse from the park’s map so that it could be given to a private organization for free and for its sole and permanent use.’” After extensive public hearings on a park that was defined as including these acres those officials wrote to the Federal Government’s department of the interior without public notice or disclosure to request a demapping of the acreage. The plaintiffs have the support of a number of elected officials including State Senator Daniel Squadron whom the Gothamist quotes commenting on the lack of transparency and community input as saying, “If true, the issues being raised today are disturbing and call the process into further question; they must be dealt with swiftly.”
The BHA is walking something of a fine line with the park and park officials: A year ago the Brooklyn Heights Association was essentially promoting the officially touted version of the park at its annual meeting when it invited park designer Michael Van Valkenburgh to be its keynote speaker.
I’ve been informed that not all of the (some of them very powerful) board members of the BHA are pleased with the lawsuit and consider it, for instance, an attack on the integrity of ESDC-employed Brooklyn Bridge Park president Regina Myer. The Henrik Krogius “Review and Comment” article from the Brooklyn Eagle linked to above is essentially a promotion of those critiques of the lawsuit, calling the lawsuit “much ado about very little” that “impugns well-intentioned officials.” Krogius speaks up for Ms. Myers, saying, the park’s realization is "finally began progressing impressively two years ago under Regina Myer’s dedicated leadership.”
Noticing New York has another viewpoint: See: Monday, May 24, 2010, Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth? An Examination of Brooklyn Bridge Park in Terms of the Politics of Development, Part I . Ms. Myers has a history of being on the side of development and developers. It was she who made the city’s presentation of Atlantic Yards to the City Planning Commission and she was also central in the effort to substantially upzone Brooklyn’s downtown.
BHA- Atlantic Yards
And, of course, the BHA, as a member of the Brooklyn Speaks coalition of community groups, is now finally also involved in litigating against ESDC’s nefariously orchestrated approvals of Ratner's Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly before Judge Marcy Friedman. (More from those "well-intentioned officials" Mr. Krogius spoke up for above?)
BHA Community Service Awards- History to Blog About
With Tom Stewart (from Channel 13) as master of ceremonies the BHA also presented community service awards for to the Brooklyn Heights Blog and Riverside Tenants Association. (Tom Stewart's wife is the wonderful cabaret singer Maureen Kelly Stewart who will be performing as part of the First Acoustics 2011/12 season.)
The award to Riverside Tenants Association is for their fight in the courts to block the destruction and removal of a garden courtyard that is part of one of the masterpiece buildings for which we have Alfred Tredway White to thank. (The developer/owner want to put in a parking lot.) As the Brooklyn Heights Blog puts it:
. . . to preserve the Riverside Apartments, on Columbia Place between Joralemon and State streets, and, in particular, for the ongoing struggle to save the courtyard between the building and the BQE, and its grove of mature trees.And the BHB recorded the award on video- If you are enamored of governmental acronyms you will have fun:
Historian and Unitarian Universalist Congregation member Olive Hoogenboom.