The Washerwoman’s Genes

Bklyn 101

bklnlightstnd150w.jpg VISIT: APRIL 2007

I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve been to Brooklyn.. I’ve been to Junior’s; I’ve visited friends in DUMBO back around the time the acronym was invented. I’ve been to the Brooklyn Museum a couple of times.

Brooklyn: to me, a foreign country, just as if my Dad had been born in, say, Togoland or Andalusia.

So my trip was fraught with the anxiety of a space shuttle flight. Actually, I’ve been to London and Paris about as often—and stayed there longer—as I had ever been to Brooklyn.

One trip stands out: during high school my father decided to drive us there and show us his old neighborhood. He never, I mean never, ever, went to the city. I went, often, in high school, with friends, on the LIRR, to Greenwich Village to hang out in the folk clubs. And in senior year, I went to Manhattan and the Bronx, by myself, to scout out which college to attend.

But a trip to the city with my Dad? Unique. Even so, I don’t remember a lot about it. We didn’t get out of the car, I remember that much. Dad showed us by slowing down, driving by: a building with an El looming nearby. It was of stone, dark and blocky, and a set of stairs slipped down from the front door to a recess below the sidewalk. His father’s business was there, Dad said, and across the street was another significant building. I’m hazy here: did I see a pharmacy at that time, or did Dad refer to it? A sibling has said that another plumber had a business across from Grandpa’s and that the two men were friends. Is that what he was showing me?

I have long assumed that what I saw that day was Dad’s childhood home—my family’s small businesses have always been run from home. But I’m having to reassess on the basis of my recent visit: the house he grew up in, on 17th Street, had been paved over ten years or more before our visit, when the Prospect Expressway was built.


My Dad’s home may have looked like these on the extant next block of 17th St., facing the Prospect Xwy. Or, more likely, these buildings replace the ancient tenements that were there in 1912.

So what was the building Dad showed us in the mid-sixties? Was the demolition of the neighborhood a reason why he went back to take a look? After a couple of days in Brooklyn driving the Park Slope environs pretty much street by street, I suspect that he showed us the location of his dad’s plumbing shop—near, possibly, Fourth Avenue, where once a now-demolished El roared. It must have been on a side street, because I remember it as fairly narrow, while Fourth Avenue is a kind of Broadway, although commerce has mostly removed eastward to Fifth and Seventh Avenues.

* * * * *
To catalog what my forebears’ addresses are like today would be tedious. They can be sorted into categories, the major one being: Long Gone. I visited quite a number of blighted warehouses, vacant lots, parks, and already elderly school or church buildings, a second generation (at least) of constructions on my ancestral addresses, now themselves falling into ruin.

I started with the mariners’ homes, clustered around the Gowanus Canal and the Atlantic basin. Josiah’s homes on President Street are now a park and a housing development. This district is right on Van Brunt Street, which runs parallel to the shoreline and is now as close as you can get to the Hudson, the land between now fenced off and covered with industrial and port buildings. The “foot of Verona Street,” where E. James’s tug went down at its dock, is likewise off-limits. You can’t get near the Atlantic basin anymore.

The B-Q Expressway cuts through near the Huntington Street address where Josie lived at the time of her marriage to Walter; the address itself is one block from the Gowanus Canal and almost under the El carrying the F train, and forms part of a series of new houses. The place John D. Q. and his son-in-law E. James lived with their families is now a warehouse across from an arm of the Gowanus near 9th Street.

Gowanus Canal from west side, looking south

The Degraw Street address of Rachel Ann in 1878, where she was a dressmaker, is now new construction. Josie and Walter’s Degraw address of 1879 is a Catholic School, and their address of 1880 seems to be under the B-Q Expressway.

G-Gma’s sister Rachel appears in the Lain Directory of 1878 as a dressmaker at the address of the new building on the left, but perhaps #303 Degraw next door is like the house she iived in. (above)

The 1880 census puts G-Gparents Walter and Josephine and two sons (before
the births of Rachel and Josie) at 438 Degraw St.


As noted on her husband Walter’s death certificate,

G-Gma Josie lived at this address, 466 Degraw,
with her young daughters, my Gma and Rachel, in 1888.

On Sackett Street, I found that E. James’ 1897 Lain Directory address is now a parking lot. But there were at least homes on the sites of Josiah’s 1892 address and of Walter’s at the time of his marriage to Josie in 1876, although this is clearly a newish construction. At 451, I found the address where Jennet died, according to her death certificate. The two-story brick house there was boarded up. As I took my picture, the next-door neighbor asked if it was to be sold. I didn’t know, I said, but my g-g-grandmother had died there. The neighbor had been looking into the history of her house, she said, and thought it was built about 1900. If true, this means that the building at 451 is not where Jennet died, but a subsequent one.


The address where Jennet died
may now refer to a later construction.
But it’s still considered “old” today.

As with many of the houses I did find, the question is whether my ancestors lived in the extant building or a predecessor, a building that, by the mid-to late-1800s, was old and perhaps flimsy and cried out for oblivion. They were tenements, after all.

Earlier 17th Street address (#231, left) of my G-Gma Davis’s family (1900)

On some streets I found houses with flat fronts cloaked in pastel-colored siding. At first, I assumed this was housing installed between the wars. But mixed in, rather rarely, were one or two houses sided in ancient-looking brown planking. Some of the less restored ones had porches. My suspicion is that these are probably the oldest houses in the Gowanus/ South Park Slope area, and might be the type of building my ancestors lived in: wood frame buildings, or part wood-part brick, dating from perhaps the 1860s.


G-Gma Mary Mc’s house would have been on this block in 1897. The wood-fronted house in the middle isn’t hers, but may be similar to the housing my forebears lived in.

Sarah Strick’s death location on 20th Street and two Payn addresses on 18th are possibly such original old structures, now hidden by renovation.

Back to the books, of course, to find out more about the history of Brooklyn’s expansion in the nineteenth century and the various passes of residential development.

* * * * * * * * *

Some additional views from this trip:


Warehouse across from Huntington Street on Gowanus Canal. (above)

View to east of warehouse and canal branch of Gowanus. (below)


View to southeast across canal. (above)


Looking east on Sackett Street. (above)


The boards on this house look like something from the the old west.


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