Jun 28, 2023, 06:27AM

A Forgotten New York Mixed Bag

Last traces and historical holdouts throughout the city.

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I was feeling pretty good back in November 2011. After an arduous process, my website Forgotten NY moved to a WordPress platform, though the initial phase was botched by the company I was using and I had to re-do a few hundred pages. I had a new job at a company called Medallion Retail, which conceived of ad campaigns but also did signage for Barnes & Noble. And I was just beginning the process for what became my second book, Forgotten Queens, scanning almost 1000 photos from which the cream would be culled for the project; the book came out in early 2013 and is still available. Well, it turned into a pile of “meh” as the Medallion job fell through after three months; I couldn’t master their “voice” in writing blurbs for author in-store appearances, and we had to traffic our own work instead of relying on a separate department. I wasn’t good at it. Given time, things would’ve worked out, but they didn’t want to pay health insurance after three months. I had to “rely” on part-time and temporary work for the next decade before landing what appears to be steady work editing entries in the Marquis “Who’s Who” books, which is the official imprint.

But this one week in November 2011 I was on top. I appeared on a panel with fellow urban chroniclers at Union Docs, a venue for documentary artists to promote their work, on Union Ave. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was one of the best public appearances I’ve ever made, in front of a packed house. On the stage with me were “natural New York” chronicler Nathan Kensinger and movie location scout Nick Carr, then of Scouting NY but now doing Scouting LA.  I’m at my best when doing PowerPoint shows since I can rattle off extemporaneously at length about most every NYC scene on the screen. For this week, I decided to present a “mixed bag” of Forgotten New York scenes I’d saved over the years.

Pictured above is The Narrows Coffee Shop, a true survivor at the heel of Bay Ridge, 4th Ave. and 100th St., even as new high-rise apartment houses are built around it. It was there a few decades at least, but when I was a boy, my parents and I ate at the Tiffany Diner on 99th, which succumbed by 2000. I finally had lunch at the Narrows Diner in 2015, but the place closed a couple of years ago, a pandemic victim.

Are trolleys truly extinct? According to the City of New York, they are. But for a brief moment in Brooklyn, they weren’t. There was a Jurassic Park-like experiment that went on in remote Red Hook, Brooklyn, where a Flatbush resident named Bob Diamond dreamt of returning trolley cars to their rightful place on the streets of Brooklyn, where they ran for the greater part of the 20th century.

Diamond acquired some trolley DNA in the form an 1897 model from F. Schuckert & Co., built in Nürnberg, Germany, and used in the Oslo, Norway trolley system for many years, three 1951 PCC cars that ran on Boston’s Green Line for decades, a switching locomotive, and 12 trolley cars from Ohio. He intended they rid the waterfront streets of auto traffic the way the dinos got rid of hapless villains and extras in the movie. In 2003, the City pulled the plug on Diamond’s dream. The Department of Transportation insisted that Bob acquire independent funding for the project, and he was unable to do so.

Diamond set in motion a process he hoped would someday bring trolley service from Red Hook to Brooklyn Heights. He acquired space in the Beard Street Warehouse where he formed the Brooklyn Historic Trolley Association and worked on revitalizing the ancient cars; he’d hoped to open the space for a trolley museum, construct trackage from Red Hook along Columbia and Furman Sts. to the new waterfront park being constructed there, and perhaps even return the Atlantic Avenue tunnel to revenue service. For a couple of years, it progressed steadily, as Diamond constructed trackage in a loop along the waterfront running west from the warehouse, and then along Conover, Reed and Van Brunt Sts. The PCC cars and the magnificent brown and gold Schuckert clanged along the waterfront as tourists marveled.

Diamond had disputes with former volunteers on his team, was evicted from the warehouse after occupying the space rent-free for almost 10 years, and the city grew tired of waiting for Bob to raise funds. At length, the City dropped support for the project, and finally, the Department of Transportation came in and ripped up the tracks and paved the streets in early-2004. By 2014, most of Diamond’s cars were gone, but one, the Green Line car, remained behind the warehouse, which has now become  a Fairway Supermarket.

Bob Diamond passed away in 2021.

“It ain’t necessarily so,” sings Sportin’ Life in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Cobble Hill, where two houses claim to have been the birthplace of Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill. Her actual birthplace, 197 Amity St., is unmarked, though its residents report that a plaque is planned, while a house at 426 Henry St., south of Kane, also claiming to be her home, is the one with the plaque! 426 Henry does have a Jerome family connection: her uncle lived there and her parents, Leonard and Clara, also lived there before the woman who would be known as Lady Randolph Churchill was born in 1854.

A magnificent artifact of architectural disintegration, the Beard Street Red Hook’s Revere Sugar Refinery’s tangled maze of rusted ruins including conveyor belts, bridges and a refining sphere stretched out toward Erie Basin, where they met the sunken St John lightship. The huge domed granary could be seen from all over the immediate neighborhood. The Revere Sugar Corporation operated three refineries, in Charlestown, MA, Chicago and here in Red Hook; the company took its name from Massachusetts patriot Paul Revere. The company, once owned by Antinio Floriendo, known as the “Banana King of the Philippines,” declared bankruptcy in 1985. The refinery was removed around 2010, and the sunken lightship was also.

The Long Island Rail Road had a surface operation along Atlantic Ave. until 1940, when trains were finally placed in a tunnel in some places and elevated tracks in others. A tunnel between Court St. and the waterfront was used for only a few years, beginning in 1844, before the western terminal of the LIRR was placed at Flatbush Ave.; the last train ran there in 1859 and the tunnel was sealed in 1861. It’s 17 feet high, 21 feet wide, and about 2000 feet long.

Samuel Underberg, a food supplies company, had offices in this building that stood on Atlantic Ave. between Flatbush and 5th Aves. for many decades, and the company made sure you knew it with large painted identification on all sides of the building. Over a decade ago, Underberg moved east on Atlantic Ave. to Utica Ave., and the building, and its signs, lay empty. In early-2006, it was razed by Forest City Ratner in anticipation of using the land for its Atlantic Yards project. “Underberg” was used by Jonathan Lethem for the first section of his novel The Fortress of Solitude. This space is now occupied by the vast Barclays Center sports and performance space.

Atlantic Ave. at the junction of Fort Greene and Prospect Heights, long before it became a retail and entertainment center, was home to slaughterhouses and meat wholesalers. When I went to high school in the area in the 1970s, I frequently walked past hooks on which sides of beef were swinging. This has all vanished, much as NYC’s “other” meatpacking district in the West Village has, mostly. The Underberg Building was its last trace.

This was the last of Brooklyn’s “humpbacked” street signs, lasting on Willoughby St. at the University Towers Houses east of Flatbush Avenue Extension all the way to 2016, when the Department of Transportation (which is obsessive about disposing of non-standard signs) finally discovered and removed it. The brackets once held a One-Way sign, while the cross street, the vanished Hudson Ave., can be faintly seen in the “hump.”

—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)


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