The Washerwoman’s Genes

May 22, 2007

Destination Brooklyn–1900

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 8:04 am

I carried a list of about fifty addresses of my ancestors, addresses culled from censuses and vital records. (My forebears apparently house-jumped almost every year.)

There are caveats to finding ancestral addresses: streets are sometimes renumbered, so the current address may be houses or even blocks away from the address location in 1880 or 1910. And if the address is unchanged, the building on the site may not be. In one-hundred-twenty or –thirty years, how many generations of construction might there be at a site? If in 1876 a building was already old, what I see today might be two buildings away from the one associated with my blood.

Despite these problems, I felt compelled to the pilgrimage: at least I might glean some sense of the area as it existed in the past. My first priority was to find my Dad’s ancestral home; it is one of the few stable addresses, owned by the family for at least twenty-five years, until the mid 1920s. While I was sure of the address: 329 17th Street, whether the same lot had this number was unknown.

In the end, correctly relating the address to a building turned out to be a non-starter. The block on which this lot would be was demolished for the Prospect Expressway, which cuts a wide trough through south Park Slope and Windsor Terrace. We stood across the highway and I took a shot of what the location looks like now. The expressway was built in the 1950s, and so when my Dad drove us around his Brooklyn for a look-see, the house must have already been gone. Not far away, on 18th Street, is the 1890 Lain Directory address for a Daniel McM, a very strong candidate for my great-grandfather. That address would be located just about where I stood to take the picture of 17th Street, but it is now part of the wall of the expressway trough. Likewise, the Eighteenth Street Church where my grandmother worshipped is under the road.

The common life of common people is completely expendable. The neighborhood where my father ran as a tyke, where motorcars mixed in with horse carts, and trolleys with cars, where streets were cobbled, or were dirt, is not even a memory anymore, but only a mental reconstruction. There are images: of the sites, the wonders: Grand Army Plaza, the Prospect Park Zoo, the Shore Drive and Ridge Avenue, Borough Hall. But images of neighborhoods are more obscure. The candid and the snapshot are decades in the future.


The house would have been in this row, where the Expressway wall is now.

So I gazed over the flood of cars sliding by in the canyon of expressway, its smooth white walls and steel barriers an artery of modernity through this antique place. Transformations of transformations, the landscape of olden times inscribed and erased, albeit imperfectly, but still, treated as dispensable, as bury-able as any bones, and as buried.

More details and photos of the Brooklyn trip can be found on the “Brklyn101” page.

Note: See great photos and wry commentary on Brooklyn’s expressway “brutalist masterpiece” at Big Sky Brooklyn (16 May 2007).


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