Last week we joined our friends Jan and Alyssa for dinner and a twilight stroll around the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, directly across the East River from Manhattan.
Our plan was to have dinner and watch the sunset on the promenade looking out over the river. It was already late so we walked to a restaurant on the corner and ate quickly. After the meal, we stopped for just a moment to look at the cats in the window of the Brooklyn Cat Café, where people can stop in for refreshments and say hello to homeless cats. The café was closed but there were about seven feline specimens curled or sprawling in the bay window looking contented.
The promenade was only a couple of blocks away and we were in time to see the orange-red disc disappearing behind hazy high-rises. A clipper returned from its turn around Governor’s Island and the Statue of Liberty, soccer games played out in astro-turf fields by the river and couples walked hand in hand along the path lined with greenery.
Alyssa is a serious history buff and one of her special interests is the Revolutionary War. She’d read a newsletter John wrote about the Battle of Brooklyn and pointed out the very spot to where George Washington set up Fort Stirling after the British landed on Long Island, and from which he made a skillful retreat across the East River to Manhattan. The site was marked by a large rock and plaque.
As we turned from the monument, I thought I heard Alyssa periodically uttering the names of fruit.
“This is Pineapple…Orange…Cranberry…”
I found this a bit mysterious and wondered if it was some sort of word game, but my eyes caught a street sign and at last it became clear.
“Oh, the streets are named after fruit!”
“Yes. And it was all thanks to Lady Middagh.”
She had a ‘thereby hangs a tale’ expression and I picked up the cue.
“Lady Middagh was a descendent of one of the families who first settled in Brooklyn Heights. Legend has it that she objected to the streets being named after important people because she considered it pretentious. So she stuck different signs –the names of fruit– over the names given. Every time the authorities took them down, she put them right back up. And eventually they stuck. The funny thing is, though, she never covered up ‘Middagh’ street.”
“We have to show them the Moonstruck house!” Alyssa said, and we walked up Cranberry to number 19, where a beautiful and very familiar house stood, apparently empty.
“Tourists still come and photograph themselves outside it,” Jan explained.
Brooklyn Heights grew up in the nineteenth century, at the beginning of which it had a handful of residents. After becoming a village in 1816, it was advertised as a country retreat for the Manhattan elite—a prospect that gained appeal with the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1822. It fast became a popular commuter suburb and the cultural and financial centre of Brooklyn. In 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge was complete and open for use, and by the 1890s, the area was completely developed.
Since the 1960s, the area has been protected from development by the Brooklyn Heights Historic District. As a result, the buildings are all old and elegant. Alyssa and Jan pointed out some of the different architectural styles: brownstone rowhouses; Victorian Gothic with gargoyles and angels; Italianate with gorgeous marble columns; Second Empire and even Late Federal—built of wood in the early nineteenth century. Our least favorite was probably the fussy American “Queen Anne” style featuring gables, overhanging eaves and black wooden strips. Standing next to one of these cute houses was an old-fashioned gas streetlight, with a flame burning inside.
One thing that I noticed as we strolled along was all the churches—there seemed to be one every couple of blocks. One building didn’t look anything like a church but it had a cast-iron bell outside and a sign saying ‘Danish Seaman’s Church’ https://forgotten-ny.com/2018/01/danish-seamens-church-brooklyn-heights/ . It’s the only one in the Americas (south and north) where the service is conducted in Danish. But the most remarkable church is undoubtedly Plymouth Church, the centre of anti-slavery activism in the mid-nineteenth century.
Its first minister was Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), a speaker renowned for using humor, dialect and slang in sermons that emphasized God’s love above everything. Jan’s comment, looking at his photograph, was that he looked like he’d be an animal in bed (or words to that effect). Indeed, Beecher ‘enjoyed the company of women’ and was even tried for adultery after seducing his friend’s wife. The “Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case” was one of the most sensational stories of its time. George Sand planned to write a novel about it but died so she didn’t.
In the years just before the Civil War Beecher joined the abolition effort. He raised money to purchase slaves from captivity and sent rifles to abolitionists fighting in Kansas and Nebraska. In the late eighteenth century, the Underground Railroad was a network of people who helped people escape slavery, offering shelter and aid. Churches throughout the country acted as ‘stations’ in this railroad and Plymouth Church was one of them. Ultimately, the goal of these escapees was to go to Canada, where they could live and move freely, sit on juries and even run for public office. We looked at the building in reverent silence. Fireflies flashed on the lawn. Alyssa said she liked to go sit in the garden sometimes because it was so peaceful.
Apart from its churches and history, Brooklyn Heights is also known for the writers who used to live there. Norman Mailer lived on the top floor of 142 Columbia Heights, which looks over the promenade. Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood on Willow Street on 70 Willow Street, which is now owned by the creator of Grand Theft Auto . Arthur Miller lived on the same street, 155 Willow, until he moved out and shacked up with Marilyn Monroe at 84 Remsen for five unhappy years. From October 1939 to September 1940 Auden lived at one Montague Terrace, where he wrote New Year Letter, a response (like Macniece’s excellent Autumn Journal) to the start of World War II.
By the time we returned to the Subway station, I realized that in a few blocks we’d walked in the footsteps of some of the most famous people in American history. And just two days before I hadn’t even known there was a place called Brooklyn Heights. It just goes to show.