Rich Man, Poor Man: A History of Fort Greene

Photo by Crystal Powell © 2005

“The poverty stricken condition of the inhabitants residing in the [Fort Green*/Clinton Hill district] of Brooklyn render it almost an unknown land,” or so claimed an article published in the New York Times titled “Homes of the Poor.”

Focusing on a certain section of the east Brooklyn area defined as “between Flushing and Dekalb Avenues, as far east as Classon Avenue and as far west as Ryerson, extending across Fulton Avenue,” the Times item said the real estate boom has resulted in class conflict among a majority of the area’s longtime residents (identified as “renters or squatters”) and its new neighbors—middle to upper income homeowners (identified as out-priced Manhattanites attracted to the spatial wealth of Brooklyn and able to afford the high price of its grand scale Neo-Gothic brownstones.) The paper further explained the conflict as one that had existed for some time, evidenced perhaps by a letter to the editor of a local Brooklyn paper published prior to the Times profile. The author, a new homeowner in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, seemed pleased with his new home and the potential of his new neighborhood when he wrote, “Perchance there are but few places about more desirable for residences, or more pleasant for our evening walks,” but made it apparent he was cognizant of (if not terribly sympathetic to) the living conditions of his less privileged neighbors, querying, “How long must these nuisances persist? On every side filthy shanties are permitted to be erected from which issue all sorts of offensive smells…It is indeed a fact that many of the inmates of these hovels keep swine, cattle, etc. in their cellars and not an unusual circumstance to witness these animals enjoying side by side with their owners the cheering rays of the sun; whilst offal and filth of the assorted family is suffered to collect about their premises and endanger the lives of those in their neighborhood by its sickening and deadly effluvia.”

In a sharp departure from its usual “best affordable neighborhood” Sunday features, the Times printed the findings of several reporters they’d dispatched throughout the Fort Green/Clinton Hill district to interview its lower income residents, throwing a klieg light on dire poverty, growing crime and infant mortality rates, rampant unemployment, and a potential city wide public health crisis. The report suggested that, despite the increase in property values and recent widespread interest in the neighborhood as a desirable quarter in which to raise middle class families, only a small percentage of the community’s inhabitants were able to afford to own the homes they lived in while the average resident was largely unemployed, without healthcare: “For of the whole number of men who our reporter talked with, there were only about half a dozen who had permanent employment, and very many whose miserable condition as well as that of their families, attested the truth of their statements, declared that they had not made more than one or two days work for weeks and months.” These residents were also living with the constant threat of eviction. This situation was ascribed to landlords charging astronomical rents for substandard dwellings in order to encourage undesirable tenants to relocate so they might sell their properties to the highest bidder. Especially noted were the number of people who illegally occupied space—an emergent community of “squatters.” In one particularly scandalous paragraph, the exposé implied that an invisible demarcation line existed in the newly gentrified region, one that segregated the middle class from their economically challenged neighbors, adding “Not one in a thousand of the citizens who live within a gunshot of [Fort Green’s poorer areas] have ever traversed the length of it.” The Times invited its readers on a tour of an area it referred to as a “city of shanties…hemmed in on all sides by a desirable class of houses.”

The profile began by introducing several disparate characters who had “settled on the vacant lots around Fort Green”: an old man who lived in a “hovel” with a seven or eight-year-old girl whom he had raised from infancy, the mother being dead. When interviewed, the old man (his name was not published in the article) was frying meal cakes on a makeshift stove and the Times reported the little girl was “eating them as if very hungry.” The old man claimed he and the little girl (who was not clearly identified as his daughter) subsisted on whatever he is able to make from begging, and the rest he “sends across the water” to his three children. Neighbors (who were not able to give either the old man’s name or the girl’s) admitted seeing him begging for change with the child in tow, but more often they witnessed him “snatching bits of bread or other food from the swell-pails of the neighbors.” Also profiled was a woman described as “having seen better days—now far advanced in years and suffering from disease.” The unnamed Brooklyn woman shared a makeshift dwelling with her widowed daughter and two grandchildren, and made a living for them by “selling small articles from a little store,” but feared she was getting sicker and would be unable to continue to provide for the family.

Some of the interviewees appeared to be “comfortably provided for,” and “would scorn to beg,” but what most of the area’s poorer residents feared was the harsher winter months and lack of heat or hot water. One man who had been “sick for several months,” had no heat or hot water and feared the safety of his wife and children in the bitter cold months. The Times noted that though he was poor, his house was “neat and tidy” and that he “appeared to be deserving of assistance.” The story also asserted the reason some of the area’s needy residents received no assistance from the city—citing, “The ones who are clamorous at City Hall and obtain assistance are the ones who do not need it…a personal inspection by someone specially appointed for that purpose is the only way to ascertain who are the really needy persons.” Another subject of the article was a construction worker, brought home severely injured after having been buried to his chin by the caving in of an embankment where he was working. Times journalists were present when his wife met him at the door. Fearing he was dead she burst into tears, while their three children clung to their mother “in mute sorrow.” This particular family had no “bread or other article of food in the house,” the paper ascertained, and when asked if they might get some assistance from relatives or neighbors in the area, the injured worker replied, “We don’t know anything much about the neighbors, an’ don’t visit much, an’ every one must take care of himself.”

“Homes of the Poor” was published in 1858 on the third page of the February 24th edition of the New York Times and came as the city of Brooklyn was on the verge of urban development. The acerbic letter to the editor (published nine years earlier in the Brooklyn Eagle) was just an early sign of growing agitation as the rural city of Brooklyn developed into a suburban haven for the wealthy and middle class. As early as 1814, Robert Fulton’s ship Nassau opened a route between New York City and Brooklyn City, and by the mid-1840s, the Brooklyn ferry was a regular service many relied on in order to commute between their home in Brooklyn and their work in Manhattan. At the time, the area (then known as “the Hill”) was predominantly rural. The land along North Portland to St. Edwards Street and along Park Avenue had been a burial ground, described by the poet/Fort Green resident Walt Whitman as “a potter’s field, which is seldom (in summer) without activity going on inside its low paling.” The district was largely undeveloped, except for the massive Raymond St. Jail (now the site of a parking lot across the street from Brooklyn Hospital) and four farms: the Post farm (Washington Park and Carlton Avenue area); the Spader farm (north along Clermont and Vanderbilt); the Ryerson farm (north to south along Carlton and Adelphi); and the Jackson farm area (a strip of land extending from Flushing avenue southward to Dekalb Avenue and bounded by Classon Avenue on the east, and Ryerson Street on the west.) Old Dutch families had owned some of the properties, but as early as the 1840s, these families and their heirs began to sell off their land in small plots.

In the first decade of the 19th century, Brooklyn had about 4,000 citizens—1,432 of them were African American slaves. Even before slavery was abolished in New York State in 1827, many free African Americans had settled in the downtown Brooklyn areas, opening the Brooklyn African Woolman’s Benevolent Society, and forming abolitionist groups at both African Hall (on Nassau Street) and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The City of Brooklyn (which would not join Manhattan until 1898) still had a ways to go: water came from street pumps, no sewage system existed, and there was no railroad until 1829. Even so, as early as 1823, Brooklyn properties were highly sought after by developers who intended to make Brooklyn the best alternative to overcrowded Manhattan (which, as late as 1850, extended no further than 23rd Street).

According to legend, the shanty town phenomenon originated in the late 1840s, when a “colored man” built a shanty on the “old Jackson farm,” a patch of land once owned by Long Island native, John Jackson. The Jackson family had come to Brooklyn just after the Revolutionary War, purchasing 30 acres or so in the east Brooklyn quarter (the seventh ward—or as it is now known, the Fort Green/Clinton Hill vicinity). With the exception of a farm and a large plantation house, most of the Jackson land remained uncultivated until 1801, when Mr. Jackson sold part of it to the United States Government to build the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which quickly became a source of employment for people who settled into the area. Well into the middle of the 19th century, east Brooklyn was a rural region of dense forests and grazing hills. By the time the unnamed African American settler was mysteriously “ordered away” (the Times article neglected to say by whom or through what means) because of “numerous visitors to his place,” and “frequent quarrels between himself and wife”—the shanty idea had already caught on.

In 1848, or roughly the dawn of Brooklyn’s urbanity and industrialization, it was reported that the district between Clinton Avenue and as far down as Raymond St. (now Ashland Pl.) was a “dreary waste with but few houses.” The oldest masonry houses, 237 and 239 Carlton Ave. were practically the only ones in existence. As the density of New York City’s neighborhoods became more insufferable, the hills of rural Brooklyn began to take shape as a fashionable brownstone district for middle class families, as its as yet undeveloped areas had become a refuge for new immigrants. By 1850, the population of Brooklyn had swelled to nearly 100,000 people. As real property development in downtown Brooklyn moved further eastward, Brooklyn drastically changed. As the seventh issue of the Brooklyn Eagle (January 2nd, 1849) declared, “An immense number of streets have been opened; hills have been removed; long rows of palaces have been builded [sic]; churches, almost without number, have been erected; a public school system has been established; a beautiful City Hall has been nearly completed; a City Hospital has been projected and partially endowed; and…it seems that our citizens are to have the luxury of gas light much earlier than we had anticipated.”

Suddenly the few pre-Civil War frame houses and clapboard shacks were being replaced with handsome brownstones (drawing their architectural inspiration from England and Holland), contributing a certain “respectability” to the area. Developers offered homes with hand-carved ashlar masonry, intricate vestibule tile work, detailed marble and alabaster working fireplaces in every room, ground-floor kitchens and family dining rooms, parlor-floor studies and formal dining rooms with detailed foliate plaster work, master bedrooms, servants quarters, backyards, etc. On the cusp of a real estate boom, many middle class and wealthy inhabitants of Manhattan began to reject the spatial limitations of their island, and opt for the endless farmland, woodland, and rolling hills of Brooklyn.

The open terrains of the seventh ward also became an attractive prospect for many new immigrants who could not find or afford housing in overcrowded Manhattan. Chief among them were the Irish. Settling on unoccupied, as yet unsold land along Myrtle Avenue, the area they occupied became known as “Young Dublin.” According to Whitman, they were “permitted by the owners to live here, until the land should be wanted, rent free.” The Times article described the shanties and their inhabitants thus:

In some places there was no fire, and the children were kept in bed to protect them from the cold. Extending back, or attached to one side, is generally a low shed in which is kept a horse or cow, and the sunny corners are usually fitted with small cubbyholes, which are occupied, by the dogs, the goats or the poultry. There is scarcely a shanty that has not a few hens about the door: occasionally a goat, instead of a cow, is made to supply milk for the family. Of dogs there is a decided falling off in number and size since the hard times and the rise in the price of beef shanks. Pigs are not often visible. In every case where they keep a cow, a hog shed is sunk into the ground at the corner of the shanty, which is filled every morning with warm swill from the distilleries. These cows are the sole means of support for some, the milk being peddled among the neighbors, or sold to milkmen. Nine out of ten of the shanties have only one room, which does not average over twelve feet square, and this serves all the purposes of the family. A bed, a few chairs or benches, a table, a stove and a cradle is seldom empty. In some cases a soapbox with a pair of pine rockers on the bottom, serves for a cradle, in which the baby sleeps as sweetly as it would in mahogany. Around the walls are hung in every house, pictures of the Virgin of Christ and the Apostles or of the Archbishop Hughes. Not a picture of an immoral subject is ever seen, and making the necessary allowance for the poverty of the occupants, the interior of many of those humble shanties are patterns of neatness. There are from two to six children in every house—we speak from actual inspection. From their own confession there are some who have a few dollars in the savings bank, but for every one of this class, there are fifty who are barely able to keep soul and body together. Some of the children look famished and pliable in the extreme, and not a few men and women declared that if they could one meal a day, they would be satisfied. While there many improvident persons in this little community, there are also many industrious, temperate and tidy, who have seen better days, and whose misfortunes are not the results of their own misconduct. A personal inspection by one anxious to relieve suffering would develop many cases, which appeal strongly for assistance.

Not surprisingly, “Young Dublin” became quite controversial. In response to the public outcry against the shanty dwellers and their “animals,” Brooklyn mayor Francis Stryker and the Common Council of Brooklyn toured “the flourishing settlement” along Myrtle and promptly ordered “all the pigs, hogs, goats to be removed,” further prohibiting the rearing of such as endangering the health of the city. Young Dublin, however, stood up for its rights, and for a time defied the city. At length the police made a “general and concerted attack upon pigdom,” and the pens and homes were all demolished and the pigs ran amok in the streets. Brooklyn Eagle editor Walt Whitman demanded that a park be built in the seventh ward area, complaining that east Brooklyn desperately needed a free open space densely populated with trees for the poor community of Fort Green, which, every summer, was plagued with cholera. He further stated in his column, “the inhabitants there are not so wealthy nor so well situated as those on the heights…we have a desire that these, and the generations after them, should have such a place of recreation…descending Fort Green one comes amid a colony of squatters, whose chubby children, and the good natured brightness of the eyes of many Irishwomen, tell plainly enough that you are wending among the shanties of the Emeralders.” The park Whitman wanted built for the citizens received strong support from longtime residents who wanted to prevent developers from building on the only available patch of undisturbed land in the area. The park was erected, complete with shady, covered tar-concrete walks overlooking grassy spaces, a vine-covered trellis with iron framed benches beneath it, a formal military saluting ground which ceremoniously looked out over a series of steps and landings leading to the Revolutionary War’s Prison Ship Martyrs monument and vault, a place for public gatherings of up to 30,000 people, a permanent rostrum for public speaking, and two level lawns used for croquet and tennis. Chestnut trees were planted around the periphery of the park, and in off hours, proud iron gates stood locked at every entrance. The squatters had no choice but to abandon the immediate area, returning only to visit the park that had been built for them—when it was open.

Their main stays thus removed, a general hegira of Young Dublin’s inhabitants soon occurred. They sojourned toward a new land where it was assumed they would face neither persecution nor prejudice, never to be uprooted again. Their journey took them no more than a few blocks away. On Grand Avenue, north of Myrtle Avenue, “230 inmates” were alleged to inhabit 44 shanty houses; on Steuben Street, 57 shanties housed “268 inmates”; between Myrtle and Dekalb Avenues, 94 shanties with “239 inmates”; between Dekalb and Lafayette Avenues, 20 shanties with “90 inmates”; and south of Lafayette avenue an estimated number of 125 shanties, which at the average of the others, contained an aggregate population of 500—making a total of 340 shanties and 1,427 inhabitants in the Hollow.

However, the housing development boom in Brooklyn continued. Only 20 years after the New York Times’ exposé, elegant block front brownstones stood corner to corner, prominent residents built their mansions and populated the area—sending their children to area private schools such as Lockwood’s Academy (a co-educational school on South Oxford St.) which advertised “no vacancies in this school for those who find it hard to tell the truth: for boys who use tobacco; nor for those who have any habit of speech or behavior at variance with purity of character.” The exclusive Oxford Club on South Oxford Place (recently torn down to make room for townhouses near Atlantic Ave.) was formed as a social club “distinguished for its literary and scientific character.” The nearby Roanoke apartment building was described by the Brooklyn Eagle as “the first of its kind on the Hill…the building will equal the finest apartment houses in Manhattan.” Cumberland Avenue was known as “millionaire’s row.”

Meanwhile, the former squatter’s area beyond Myrtle Avenue toward the Navy Yard, was described in an 1890 New York Observer article as “principally tenements and small dwellings,” where the Irish and “colored population existed as well.” The Fort Green poor, now relegated to the other side of the park, didn’t seem to create as much of a threat to the rest of the community. In 1894, Mr. Hiram S. Thomas, a wealthy African American from upstate New York, purchased one of the newly built townhouses on Fort Green Place, then known as an “aristocratic thoroughfare,” for himself and his family. The suddenly formed Fort Green Place Block Association, led by Mrs. Emma Andiron (said to be “the first woman doctor living in Brooklyn”) wrote a letter to the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, warning that if Mr. Thomas were to be permitted to live in the neighborhood, it would “depreciate the value of our property.” According to building records, Mr. Hiram S. Thomas and his family never occupied the building, selling it less than two months after he’d purchased it.

At the end of the 19th century, Fort Green/Clinton Hill was a grand and beautiful neighborhood, albeit one that would endure many changes, and many more conflicts regarding race and class—and even a century later, some things still await resolve.

*For the sake of consistency, since the Times article spelled it Fort Green, we did the same throughout the piece.—ed.

Contributor

Carl Hancock Rux

Carl Hancock Rux, author of Asphalt, has lived in Fort Greene for more than a decade.

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