The First Gentrifiers

The symptoms of yellow fever are like those of a particularly nasty flu. Most people who contract it, usually from mosquito bites, will get over it within a few days. But then there are those who won’t, the 15 percent who will develop something much worse: the disease will attack their livers, turning their skin jaundiced; it will cause vomiting, rife with bile and dark with blood from internal bleeding, which is how yellow fever gets its Spanish name: vomito negro. It was one of the most feared diseases of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, having followed the slave trade out of Africa to sweep across the Americas. Ten percent of the population of Philadelphia died from yellow fever in 1793, when the city was the nation’s capital. Epidemics were common to nineteenth-century New York City, killing thousands; the disease inspired the creation of the city’s first board of health and its first collection of detailed data on mortality, and it helped enable local officials to battle more effectively the coming onslaughts of cholera, diphtheria, and influenza. During a yellow fever outbreak in New York in 1798, Washington Irving’s parents sent their 15-year-old son safely out of the city for his first trip to the Tarrytown region, which much later became the setting of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” In 1902, the disease did what “Boss” Tweed never could, killing anti-Tammany cartoonist Thomas Nast while he was working in Ecuador for Teddy Roosevelt’s administration.

Manhattan’s last yellow fever epidemic struck much earlier, in 1822. Brooklyn’s came in 1860, decades before the city would be incorporated into “the city,” though the disease didn’t disappear thereafter: eight cases, three of which proved fatal, appeared in the Navy Yard as late as 1878. Richard A. Proctor, cartographer of the planet Mars, succumbed to the disease in New York City in 1888. (Since yellow fever vaccination began in 1924, only two Americans have died from the disease—both of whom had traveled to South America in the 1990s without first receiving immunizations—though health officials still struggle to inoculate the populations of Africa and South America.)

A particularly bad breakout of yellow fever occurred in 1848-49 in a southwestern part of present-day Brooklyn, a farming village, then in the town of New Utrecht, called Yellow Hook, or Geelen Hoek, which took its name from the color of its coastal soil. (Hook is likely an Anglicization of the Dutch word meaning corner.) Some residents panicked and fled, and the disease was so feared and reviled that, by 1853, the story goes, locals met and agreed to change the community’s name, shaking off any association with the color. At that point, “yellow anything didn’t sound so good,” a local historian once told the Times. (A few accounts indicate that locals also found the name generally unattractive and were already looking for a change—that is, yellow fever’s role in the renaming has perhaps been overstated in modern times.) A local florist suggested “Bay Ridge,” after the waterfront area’s most prominent geographic features, and it’s the name residents, real estate agents and the city government still use today—and where the history of the neighborhood as we know it begins. It’s when the artists came.

Before the 1850s—and even for a bit of time after, as Bay Ridge wasn’t built in a day—the area bore no resemblance to the present neighborhood. Surviving prints and photographs from that era might as well be of any place else, because they look nothing like Brooklyn. There was no R train, no Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, no Belt Parkway. No one had even imagined such things. Hardly any roads had been cut at all. The area immediately surrounding Fort Hamilton, a sister village to the south that took the name of the military installation at its center, had begun to develop after the fort opened in 1831. But otherwise this was a farming community, a bucolic countryside, its green fields and hillsides dotted with homesteads and trees so magnificent they stuck in the psyches of its residents. The population was in the hundreds. There were no apartment buildings on Shore Road or Fourth Avenue. “Entering Bay Ridge it was an unpaved dirt road, very muddy in wet weather,” Frank Stout wrote in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1954, describing Fourth Avenue when his family moved there in the late nineteenth century. “Bay Ridge had no street lights of any kind, and a flashlight would have been handy on moonless nights, but not as yet invented.” Most of the great mansions of Shore Road were still to be built, and the road itself was still a picturesque country lane, lined with a low wood fence, often opening up onto the shore itself, before it had been extended with landfill, where there were beaches for swimming, ferry landings for travel, and shacks for fishermen. The automobile wouldn’t be invented for decades—and the vaccine against yellow fever wouldn’t be discovered for still longer.

“The Narrows is among the most beautiful spots about New York,” local residents wrote in the Times in August of 1856, “and the ride along the shore to-day, would present a most lovely landscape, bright in cultivation and blossoming with flowers—with no outward sign of the desolation and death which reigns within.” The area’s worst yellow fever outbreak on record had struck earlier that summer. Several weeks before that letter was written, quarantine ships had been moved from off of Staten Island, whose residents were indignant about the boats’ anchoring there, to a few hundred yards off what was then called Bath Bay, between Coney Island and Fort Hamilton. The first cases that year in what we now call Brooklyn were reported on July 29, and soon the infection spread up the shore. One account says a particularly heavy rainstorm and heat wave had created the perfect conditions for the proliferation of mosquitoes, which carried the illness ashore; another says the captain of the ship tossed overboard infected bedding and mattresses, which washed up on the beach.

An 1833 engraving by W.J. Bennett depicting a quarantine on Staten Island.

In any case, “[t]he residents of Fort Hamilton all fled,” General Paul A. Oliver, stationed at the base at the time, wrote more than 50 years later. (Many maps, including the MTA’s, still identify the southern half of Bay Ridge as “Fort Hamilton,” though most residents don’t call it that.) Oliver was one of the authors of the letter in the Times, as well as president of the Fort Hamilton Relief Society, formed to help those suffering from yellow fever. He watched many of his neighbors die, including almost one entire family named Bergen (New Utrecht was littered with homesteads belonging to Bergens), Dutch farmers who lived on 46th Street near Third Avenue: John V. and Phebe Bergen, 49 and 51 years old; John’s sister, Ann Lott, 52, who had attended John’s daughter Margaret, 21, who also died, as did her siblings Sarah, 22; Theodore, 19; and Debart, 17. Lefferts Bergen, 67, of the same address, also died, as did his son Michael, 19. Two unnamed German employees of Michael Bergen were the earliest victims of the 1856 outbreak.

Walking by the water one day during that harrowing summer, Oliver thought to look in on the fishermen and their families who lived along the shore. “I entered one house, where one member of the family was upstairs ill, and another below,” he wrote, “and the sickening spectacle presented itself of the vomit of the persons in the upper room leaking down through the floor upon the bed of the person below.” The epidemic lasted until November, when the first frosts arrived. Roughly 40 people had died of a population the Times estimated between 350 and 600—that is, between 7 and 11 percent. Even today, when the area boasts a dense urban population of 80,000, 40 deaths within a few months from an untreatable infectious disease would surely provoke alarm.

Back then it certainly did, and it put the real estate market in flux. “The wealthy people in this vicinity have nearly all fled,” the Times reported in September 1856, “leaving their property in many instances entirely unprotected, and the place presents the appearance of a plague-stricken spot.” Earlier outbreaks, before residents had ditched the name Yellow Hook, had had a similar effect. “The Yellow Fever which swept the area in 1848-49 drove some of the older families out,” Jerome Hoffman writes in Bay Ridge Chronicles. And that’s when a cohort of artists, artisans, and art professionals moved in.

They had become attracted to the area’s natural beauty and took advantage of the newly available land, settling upon the old Ovington family farm, situated roughly between present-day Third and Seventh avenues, Bay Ridge Avenue (69th Street) and 72nd Street, where they established a colony in 1850. The area’s “fine forested slope [was] in fact an ideal locality for homes of people of means and artistic taste,” Charlotte Rebecca Woglom Bangs writes in her invaluable 1912 history, Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus. These 50 or so incorporated under the name of the Ovington Village Association; Charles Parsons, a Currier and Ives lithographer who would eventually become art director at Harper and Brothers, then the largest publishing house in the country (and a precursor to HarperCollins), served as president. Other members included the miniaturist Otto Heinigke (whose son of the same name, raised in Ovington Village, designed the still-extant stained-glass windows of a couple of local churches and is sometimes mentioned among experts of vitreous arts in the same breath as Louis Comfort Tiffany); the lithographer George Schlegel, best known for his cigar boxes; and the engraver Samuel Valentine Hunt. It was “the Brooklyn version of Greenwich Village,” borough historian James A. Kelly told a gathering of needleworkers in October 1952.

The Ovington family achieved distinction over the next few decades: assistant New York City chamberlain Henry Alexander Ovington, who sold the farm—which he had owned as a place to summer—had three sons, including Edward and Theodore, who owned and operated a notable chinaware company in Brooklyn. Theodore’s daughter Mary White Ovington became a noted civil rights activist, co-founding the NAACP and serving twice as its president. And Edward’s son Earle became the first airmail pilot in the United States in 1911 when he transported a bag of 640 letters and 1,280 postcards ten miles, from Garden City Estates to Mineola, in a single-seat plane; he stowed the cargo in his lap, and “dropped it within reasonable proximity to the post office,” according to his 1936 Times obit. That’s “dropped it” as in literally: because he couldn’t land with the mail on his knees, he had to toss the bag from the plane; when it landed, it broke open, littering the airfield with correspondence that the waiting postmaster collected. Garden City named a street after him.

The Athenaeum in Bay Ridge, ca. the 1880s.

The eponymous village’s main street also bore their name: Ovington Avenue, whose western terminus by 1860 was the local concert hall, the relatively short-lived Athenaeum, which the residents of Yellow Hook also used. A photo by George Bradford Brainerd from the late nineteenth century, which survives in the Brooklyn Museum’s archives, shows a long three-floor building bordered by empty fields, surrounded by a white picket fence, with an imposing mansard roof and elegant church windows on its tall second floor. In its lifetime, it wasn’t used just for music: it “housed social events, fairs, festivals, and other activities as well as being a library and post office,” Peter Scarpa and Lawrence Stelter write in Then and Now: Bay Ridge.

Ovington Avenue survives, though no longer as a major thoroughfare; it was, however, extended eastward over the years all the way to New Utrecht Avenue. Its unique angle west of Third Avenue hints at an origin that predates the street grid, as does the preponderance of awkward side streets all around it. The original dwellings on the section between Ridge Boulevard and Third Avenue may be long gone, but they were replaced with homes of a unique architectural style that earned the street a place on the State Register of Historic Places: an almost block-long row of double-wide brownstones. “I don’t think that exists anywhere else in the city,” a local preservationist told the Brooklyn Paper in 2007.

As for the original dwellings, “each member had a lot 400 feet wide on which were built lovely homes, each with a garden,” Hoffman writes in his local expression of bicentennial pride, researched by a 31-person committee of the local community board. “Restrictions were placed on the types of building to be erected within the territory, the founders desiring to keep it a good residence section,” the Daily Eagle reported in 1932. Joseph Perry, the manager of Green-Wood Cemetery, built the first house in the area, though not along Ovington Avenue: on the south side of neighboring Bay Ridge Avenue, between First and Second (now Colonial Road and Ridge Boulevard). One brother of a family called Kent built a house that looked like a castle, and the other copied the idea and built one for himself. Another resident lived within “a beautiful park of trees,” Bangs writes, “the finest series of immense beech trees in any part of the country, so experts have declared.” Bangs later devotes several pages to these beeches, which were doomed when city planners cut 74th Street, putting the trees right in the middle of the new road. The beeches were cut down; the castles were torn down as well. Perry’s house came down around 1900, as did the Atheneum. (The latter was replaced by several stone rowhouses around 1899—on the east side of Ridge Boulevard, just north of Ovington Avenue—including one, No. 6939, that was the childhood home of present Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen.) “Village of Ovington” eventually stops appearing in the Daily Eagle’s real-estate listings between World War I and the Great Depression.

Vestiges of Ovington Village failed to survive because, as an idea, it proved too successful. Before 1850, Yellow Hook had been “a small farming community along the shore fronts as well as further inland,” Bangs writes, “with fishing industries a large part of the farmers’ income.” It also housed the military base, where Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jackson—more than a decade before he’d earn the sobriquet “Stonewall”—were stationed in the 1840s. (Bay Ridge seems to be one of the few northern communities to boast about its connections to the Confederacy; when Lee’s nephew was imprisoned at Fort Lafayette, now the Brooklyn tower of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, during the Civil War, he was often invited to dine ashore with prominent families who remembered his uncle well. The neighborhood even has a history of aiding the British during the Revolution: one of the women in the old Cortelyou family was said to have waved a red flannel petticoat right before the Battle of Brooklyn as a signal to the British it was safe to land. The family later claimed she did so as a warning to the Americans.) Fort-adjacent hotels formed what was becoming a famous vacation destination. “The rural surroundings with magnificent vistas of the Narrows and the harbor lured many people to vacation here,” Hoffman writes. Soon, it would attract them to live there, as well. Ovington Village was the first major residential development, the first time the old farms were sliced up into small, individual lots; a map from 1873 shows the area around it still made up of large plots of land, except for the relatively dense development along Ovington and Bay Ridge avenues. The settlement marked the end of pastoral Yellow Hook and the start of urban Bay Ridge. It’s where the past ended and the present began.

Ovington Village’s residents were Brooklyn’s earliest gentrifiers. Though they didn’t displace longstanding residents, they were artists taking advantage of socioeconomic conditions—in this case, the result of disease—to scoop up real estate, establishing a community that would draw others. “Interest in the area was growing,” Hoffman writes, “and it was hoped that the Ovington settlement would be followed by similar groups.” It was, sort of. Many of New York’s wealthy were in fact drawn to the area, creating a proto-Hamptons community of seaside mansions. Niels Poulson, who made his fortune in ironworks, built in 1890 perhaps the most spectacular: the country’s first steel-framed house, the whole exterior covered in copper. It was fireproof. (Across the river in the mid-19th century, artists were also committing proto-gentrification in lower Manhattan. “In the decade before the Civil War, bohemia was becoming more than a state of mind,” Luc Sante writes in his history of the city’s bottom-rungs, Low Life; “it was an actual place, as artists, writers, actors, and pretenders moved into Bleecker, Bond, and Spring Streets, then murky and rather dangerous thoroughfares. Journalists were soon describing the area as being full of long-haired artists in garrets…” The original hipsters!)

By 1891, an electric trolley system connected the neighborhood to points farther north. In 1894, New Utrecht would be annexed into the city of Brooklyn, and four years later, the city of Brooklyn would consolidate with the other four boroughs. In 1913, the Eagle reported that there were no vacancies in Bay Ridge; three years later, what we now call the R train opened, connecting lower Manhattan all the way to 86th Street, making the neighborhood commutable and setting the pace of development to warp speed. In 1922, the area boasted 173 apartment buildings; in 1923, there were almost five times that many, with a baffling 25,000 other buildings either newly built or under construction. (In 1925, the subway reached its present terminus at 95th Street.) Grassland had become cement; the old homesteads, at least one dating back to the Revolutionary War, were razed and replaced with monstrous apartment buildings. Any bit of remaining farmland was finally cut up into chunks conducive to residential development, finishing what the Ovington relocators had begun. In the 1930s, Robert Moses led the building of the Belt Parkway along the neighborhood’s coast. “The Bay Ridge shoreline was paved over, and the yellowish-colored sand that gave Bay Ridge its original name… was gone,” Matthew Scarpa writes in his book, Postcard History Series: Bay Ridge. Poulson’s “Copper House” had been demolished. Other mansions on Shore Road and relatively more modest houses inland were torn down and replaced with more apartment buildings. In 1964, construction was finished on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge—still the longest suspension bridge in the US, connecting Bay Ridge to Staten Island—displacing 7,000 people from 800 buildings.

Such development and destruction has long been remembered in the neighborhood with melancholy and nostalgia, particularly among the artistically inclined. In the last vignette in local novelist Gilbert Sorrentino’s 1970 Bay Ridge chronicle Steelwork, “The Lot,” set in 1939, he writes:

The entrance to the park was choked with bulldozers, cranes, heaps of rock and brick and soil, where they were tearing out a gigantic strip of grass and trees to make a highway to connect with the new parkway going through along the bay, and then out the length of Long Island. It was sad to see the park going like that, the tunnels would soon have highway streaking under them, instead of the old, cobbled walks he knew.

Even all the way back in 1916, the year the subway first arrived, Bangs wrote about Samuel Winter Thomas, a member of a prominent local landowning family—his brother William’s house still overlooks the bay from the top of the step street, on the north side of 76th Street—and an early photography enthusiast whose images form a broad survey of the area in the nineteenth century:

Brooklyn began to stretch outward [after the Civil War] in several directions and New Utrecht was one of them. When Mr. Samuel W. Thomas wanted to purchase an estate near his brother[’]s, at Bay Ridge, the farmers there would not sell. ... But they realized, or their sons did, that farming days in New Utrecht were forever ended. Selling land became more profitable than selling crops. With removal of Mr. W.H. Thomas, his brother, Samuel W., became next owner of the estate. He still resides in the homestead. It now has a side entrance on 72nd Street, with a row of city houses and stores directly in front of his porch. It once overlooked a beautiful grove of beech trees.

Soon the big house must give way to progress and be demolished. Mr. Thomas recently watched the last of the big trees on Third Avenue fall under the axe. In former years Third Avenue was shaded by fine trees. All have been cut down.

Today, most of Bay Ridge is as thoroughly urbanized as any other part of Brooklyn, but with that development came increasing ignorance of the neighborhood’s artistic roots, each inch of pavement literally and figuratively burying its residents’ shared history. A generation or two ago, the neighborhood was home to the children of Irish, Italian, Greek, and Scandinavian immigrants; today, their remaining descendants share it with more recent arrivals from the Middle East and other parts of the city, young parents, and twentysomething transplants looking for more space for less money. There are also significant numbers of Asian- and Russian-Americans. But when Bay Ridge appears in the popular culture, it usually does so in the guise of hoary, played-up stereotypes: the “Jersey Shore” wannabes of the short-lived reality series “Brooklyn 11223” are the direct descendants of the disco slicks of Saturday Night Fever. Bay Ridge onscreen is home to conflicted Elisabeth Moss on “Mad Men,” to a streetwise Edward Norton in 25th Hour, to a bus-driving, blue-collar Mark Ruffalo in Margaret, to countless low-level gangsters in countless gangster stories. Jordan “Wolf of Wall Street” Belfort described Bay Ridge as “that tiny corner of the earth where words like fuck and shit and bastard and prick roll off the tongues of young natives with the poetic panache of T. S. Eliot and Walt Whitman.” Gay Talese, after reporting on the construction of the Verrazano for his book The Bridge, noted, “it was the younger, second- and third-generation Italians, together with the Irish, who determined the tone of Bay Ridge.” That was in 1959, but it still rings true. “Bay Ridge, I think, is the same for the last 80 years,” the novelist Hubert Selby Jr., who grew up in the neighborhood, told an interviewer in 1999. It’s thought of as an ethnic neighborhood, a working-class neighborhood, an unpretentious neighborhood, the home of red sauce and firefighter-frequented dives—and now, hummus, maybe.

What it doesn’t have a reputation for is the arts. That’s understandable: the average arts-and-culture funding per person in Brooklyn in 2012 was $3.43; in Bay Ridge, it was $0.31. But this is because the neighborhood lacks institutional infrastructure, not creative types. In a 2007/2009 survey, 4.8 percent of Brooklyn was employed in the arts-and-culture industry, compared to 4.0 percent of Bay Ridge residents, a difference of less than one percentage point. You see these professionals in the neighborhood alongside amateurs and enthusiasts. This past summer, there was a two-weekend run of “Othello” in the Narrows Botanical Garden (yes, Bay Ridge has its own botanical garden, a once-abandoned bit of parkland rehabilitated by civic-minded locals) and a separate one-day Shakespeare festival in Owl’s Head Park. An open-mic series (which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll cop to hosting and helping to organize) is coming up on its second anniversary, having attracted through its run so far dozens of talented poets, story writers, and songwriters from the neighborhood and surrounding communities. Every year for the last five years, artists have collaborated with Fifth Avenue business owners on installation pieces for their windows, creating a walkable street gallery. A lot of people, in sum, are working hard to expand the arts in 11209, including the rowhouse art gallerists, the church-auditorium events coordinators, the community-theater producers, the military-museum curators, the historical society volunteers and the educators—even the independent owners that keep open the movie theater and the bookstore. And that says nothing of the many people working to expand the neighborhood’s culinary profile.

But the success of such outreach in the present will depend in part upon a recognition of the past. Though arts appreciation dwindled in the 20th century, the area still produced and welcomed artists. They’re not all household names or the envy of other neighborhoods, but they’re a group of writers, painters, and entertainers that most locals don’t realize they can call their own. Many don’t realize, say, that the neighborhood was home to Sorrentino, a notable figure of twentieth-century American literature who edited The Autobiography of Malcolm X and wrote several novels set in the Bay Ridge of his childhood in the 1940s. Selby, author of Last Exit to Brooklyn, his famed debut novel, was raised there. (Selby attended elementary school with Sorrentino at P.S. 102, which opened in 1930, just two blocks from where the Athenaeum stood.) Emmett Grogan, founder of the Diggers and author of the ’60s quasi-memoir cult classic Ringolveio, was born there. C. W. Coolidge, a painter famous for depicting dogs playing poker, moved there in 1909 with his new wife to start a family, and lived in the neighborhood for almost 20 years before relocating out to Staten Island—a familiar move for many families nearer the end of the century. Bay Ridge was later the birthplace of Jimmy Fallon, of actor James Hayden (who might have been the next Al Pacino if he hadn’t overdosed on heroin), of the Lordz of Brooklyn, of countless musicians and writers and painters and filmmakers still struggling to make it or holding steady in obscurity. Go back 150 years to the very beginning and you find that modern Bay Ridge was founded by artists, craftsmen who began its transformation into a real city. What other part of Brooklyn can say that? If the neighborhood isn’t known for a long and proud history of artistic achievement, extending right up to the present, it’s not because the legacy doesn’t exist. It’s because we’ve forgotten it.

Henry Stewart is an assistant editor at Opera News. He was previously the culture editor of The L Magazine, and his writing has appeared in Electric Literature, BAMbill, and the Brooklyn Eagle.

Also in this issue

A Stranger in the Greenest Block

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Q&A: Antoinette Balzano and Cookie Cimineri of Totonno’s

One of Brooklyn’s oldest pizza joints has a front-row seat to a changing borough. Interview by Chris Crowley