Brownstones in Fort Greene. Image via Flickr by by rutlo
According to The New York Times, Fort Greene is having a bit of an identity crisis. It currently multitasks as a mecca for foodies, a center for African American pride and culture, and a new place to settle for the “nouveau riche.” Today, we’ll pick up where the Times left off to discuss the architecture of the neighborhood.
Fort Greene was listed as a small yet mighty historical district in 1983. The area with the most history is perhaps Fort Green Park. According to the National Register Report for Fort Greene, the 1776 Battle of Long Island was fought here, which left 11,500 dead. This battlefield also featured a fort used during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, constructed by General Nathaniel Greene (Fort Greene’s namesake).
A few weeks ago I attended a screening of the new movie My Brooklyn at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church (LAPC) in Fort Greene. This strongly built Romanesque Revival church stands at the corner of South Oxford and Lafayette and is part of the Fort Greene Historic District. Immediately upon entering the main hall, I was struck by a mural that wrapped around the upper balcony. While so many churches have beautiful stained glass windows and large art depicting religious icons, this mural unassumingly displays completely normal people, wearing bell bottom pants, jeans and suits. The movie screening in its own right sparked considerable discussion, but I left the church with the need to know more about the mural I had just seen.
After reaching out to the church for more information, they put me in touch with Ed Moran, a longtime church member who was able to give me background history on the mural and the church. Moran told me that the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church was completed in 1862 by the architecture firm of Grimshaw and Morrill. Romanesque-Revival was a popular form for urban churches during this period, and was perfect for Presbyterians who didn’t need pomp, gothic details and ceremonial space like Roman Catholics. The Pastor at the time was a man named Rev. Theodore Cuyler, known for his dynamic personality and his fierce abolitionist views. A strong Unionist, his editorials in the New York Independent denouncing slavery were cut out and collected by President Lincoln. Rev. Cuyler and the church made national headlines in later years after allowing the first female, a Quaker no less, to preside as preacher over a Presbyterian service in the United States.
Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church today
LAPC also connected me with the artist; Hank Prussing. Through a phone interview, Prussing told me his own story and how he came to paint it. Originally from Maryland, Prussing joined the LAPC church choir after moving to New York to attend the Pratt Institute. Prussing’s father, a choir director had actually known LAPC’s pastor at the time, Rev. George Knight, an organist and the two connected through music. Previously, Prussing painted a mural at his hometown church, New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (Lincoln’s preferred D.C. church), and after Rev. Knight saw photos in a magazine, he asked him to work on another at LAPC.
The walls of LAPC, originally plain, had been covered in maroon-colored decorative stencil work in the 1890s, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany to enhance his 10 stained-glass windows in the sanctuary. The walls were returned to their original plain state after renovations in the early 1960s. Long time church member Elise Woodward Stutzer, a daughter of a wealthy watchmaking family, left in her will money to fix the walls or restore them to their original glory. Rev. Knight and Mr. Prussing realized that this was an opportunity, and decided to use the funds to create a mural that would reflect the diversity that Fort Greene now had.
Prussing’s own work in East Harlem served as inspiration, titled The Spirit of East Harlem, a mural which depicts many longtime Puerto Rican residents, and employed the same methodology to create his new work (see a story on that here). He set out with his camera and captured images of people from the church’s neighborhood which he then developed in a dark room at Pratt. He took hundreds of photographs, hundreds more than would eventually be included on the final painting. He also researched many of the documents the church had, and the symbols contained in the Tiffany windows along the upper balcony. Using self-selected photos, he sketched out the portraits on a piece of paper, accounting for the various windows and doors within the church. After presenting the plan to a church committee, which happily accepted the proposal, Rev. Knight settled on the title Mighty Cloud of Witnesses, based on a phrase in a letter to the Hebrews.
After finishing his architecture degree from Pratt in 1975, Prussing began work in June without a definitive time frame; which led to a three year on and off project in where he set up his scaffolding, sketched scenes and painted. His artist-in-residence style, which Prussing felt was very “renaissance” in nature was good for both the church members and the artist, both enjoying the relationship.
Hank Prussing at work on the mural 1978, courtesy of NYPL
The mural starts with the Austin Organ, an enormous instrument that splits the entire church in half. The organ represents sound, and is meant to come before the beginning and after the end of the mural. The mural begins on the right side, with people “arriving” and then wraps around the church, following the curved walls. The story told within the Tiffany glass windows follows this same path, beginning with Christ’s Birth, moving along to Death and finally Resurrection on the opposite side. Prussing found that a special sermon was given at the time each window was installed, and the mural fills in the spaces between to “reconnect” them. As the mural is completed on the eastern side, the people get subtly smaller as they complete the swirl back to the organ.
Originally the only opponents of the mural were those who feared they would detract from the stained glass windows. Prussing counters he actually tried to support them with the types of scenes he painted around them, reflecting the universal themes that are projected by the images in the windows, and even matching colors in the portraits to the colors in the glass.
When I photographed the mural with Mr. Moran’s assistance, I was joined by a fellow church member. Cie Shepperson came to the church in the mid ’80s, almost a decade after the mural had been completed. She came with a friend because she heard they had good music at their services, and she was looking for a new church. Upon entering the hall she noticed the mural, and was quite fascinated by it. She nearly lost her breath however after recognizing a few people. On top of the section painted between the second and third window is the back of a women wearing a bright floral dress and reaching down to a young girl.
Mrs. Shepperson immediately recognized the two women as her mother and grandniece, and she showed me photos of her mother, who was part Native American, to show the similarities. The fact that her mother is wearing another floral dress in the photo seems to further support this connection. Continuing to inspect the mural, she found two people in the corner that she believes are herself and cousin, both sporting a hairstyle popular at the time the photographs were taken.
Cie Shepperson under her spot in the mural
Mrs. Shepperson’s story is an amazing one. Her father moved with his new wife to Brooklyn to become a driller at the Navy Yard. She fondly remembers attending Girls High School in her neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant, and spending summers at Camp Sebago upstate learning archery and hiking. She then went on to attend NYU for both her bachelors and masters in education, eventually becoming a principal in the New York Public School system. It was a pleasure hearing her story, and she shared many photos, snippets of a life fully lived, almost entirely within the Borough of Brooklyn.
As I toured the mural with Mrs. Shepperson and Mr. Moran they both were able to point out people they remembered and little stories about them. Later, when I asked Mr. Prussing if he ever documented exactly those depicted in the mural were he explained that he did not, his desire to keep them anonymous even highlighted by simplifying facial features to make them more generic when painting. This is the main distinction between The Spirit of East Harlem and Mighty Cloud of Witnesses.
I spent this afternoon with Cie, but stepping back and gazing up I wondered how long it would take to hear the stories of the over 100 souls adorning the white walls. Prussing explains, “What I was trying to create was different than most murals. Windows, in architecture terms, are normally meant for looking outside while walls are not. But in a church, the stained glass windows encourage you to look within, for reflection. I used the mural to create a street scene on the wall, so to gaze on these spaces between the windows it’s as if you are actually looking outside on to the streets of Fort Greene.” He also explained that the name he had wanted for the mural was actually Clouds of Witness, not the Mighty Cloud of Witnesses the church uses.
Prussing now works as an architect in Connecticut, a job that keeps him quite busy and unable to pursue art as much as he would like. During his time in New York, Prussing painted 35 murals throughout the city. But as New Yorkers know, this city is always changing, and many have faded or been lost to tragedy, like a mural he completed at the World Trade Center. That’s what makes this particular mural quite special; it is indoors which keeps it safe from the weather, but also out of the public eye. (As we say here, it needed to be “Untapped”!)
As I write this article almost 40 years after the mural’s completion, the neighborhood of Fort Greene, despite being landmarked, has changed significantly. Even the documentary that I came to the church to see lamented how much the neighborhood, especially nearby Fulton Mall, has changed to reflect new demographics and increasingly upper class residents that now inhabit the tree-lined brownstones. But this mural is a snapshot of the working class era of Fort Greene, and a testament to the people who sustained it for decades. To gaze upon it is to witness Cie Shepperson’s Fort Greene of 1975. A street scene of a typical hot, summer day, kids playing, people walking home from work, and police walking the beat. In the silence of the church you can almost hear them speak.
With all the power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy, you might have turned to your bookshelf for entertainment, only to discover that you needed a new book to read. Well, never fear, Brooklynites! Our bet is that you’ll probably find what you’re looking for at one of our eight favorite bookstores in the borough. Inspired by our list of the Top Ten Bookstores in Manhattan, we’ve scoped out the best independent booksellers from Williamsburg to Prospect Heights to Park Slope, and what we found is pretty exciting.
The glory of powerHouse Arena pre-Hurricane Sandy. Image courtesy of powerHouse Arena.
True to its name, powerHouse Arena in DUMBO is known for keeping a packed schedule of high profile, interesting, and sometimes zany literary events that are open to the public. Perhaps my personal favorite of the best bookstores in Brooklyn, powerHouse is also one of the most massive, boasting 24-foot ceilings and six rows of built-in concrete amphitheater-style seating for their events, which usually feature free drinks from Brooklyn Brewery. Unfortunately, like many of the local shops nearby, the bookstore was hit hard by the hurricane–their 5,000 square foot ground level experienced a foot and a half of water damage during the storm surges, and within only 20 minutes, the bookstore was flooded. Dedicated to staying strong through this crisis, the store is holding a #SandyHatesBooks fundraiser in order to pay for the damages (they don’t have flood insurance). In the meantime, we’re keeping our fingers and toes crossed for a speedy recovery for powerHouse.
Desert Island’s storefront is quirky and, well, comical, in its use of wordplay. Photo by Charlie Gower.
Walk down Metropolitan Avenue toward Union Avenue, and you’ll stumble across a strange storefront, advertising “Italian, French, and Sicilian Bread…and Comic Booklets.” No, dear friends, this is not a bakery; it is Desert Island comics, a fiercely independent purveyor of all published material that is artistic and worth reading. It’s an oddly visual little shop, too, filled with artwork for purchase by local and international artists. “It’s not exclusively about comics,” owner Gabriel Fowler said in a 2008 interview with Block Magazine. “I wanted to have work in here that’s affordable art. It’s about community and the quality of the stuff.” Even if Sandy’s got you grounded for now, you can still check out Desert Island once the subways are up and running at the upcoming Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Williamsburg from 12-7 P.M. on November 10. (We love the store’s current Halloween display window, created by local artist Gary Lieb–check it out here).
Greenlight bookstore’s shelves are stunningly designed. Image courtesy of Greenlight Bookstore.
Truly a community institution (even down to its establishment in 2008, which was funded largely by approximately 70 individual community lenders), Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene is well-stocked in multiple genres, and its beautiful, curvaceous interior lends itself well to the multiple book clubs that meet there every week. We like Greenlight because of the friendly vibe of the place–the staff is incredibly knowledgeable, and, if you become a regular here, just as apt to start up a conversation with you about your family as about their opinions on the latest bestseller or a hot indie find that they’re obsessed with.
BookCourt’s owners, Henry Zook, Zack Zook, and Mary Gannett, sit in BookCourt’s recently added huge back room, where hordes of book lovers pack in like literary sardines for the store’s popular events. Image courtesy of The South Brooklyn Post.
I recently went to BookCourt for a Junot Diaz reading, and though it took me a while to actually find the shop (probably more due to my inherently terrible sense of direction than to the store’s actual location), I was pleasantly surprised by the store itself. Complete with a whole basement level full of more books to choose from, BookCourt is pretty, warm, and has enough open space that you don’t feel claustrophobic while you’re browsing titles. Of course, this typically changes whenever the store hosts popular events–the Diaz event was so packed that my friends and I felt more like we were attending a rock concert than a literary reading. But what I like best about BookCourt is that bestsellers are always 30% off there, and that their staff recommendations are nearly always en pointe. And, if you’re in Manhattan and simply can’t make the trip (or just don’t feel like it), they also run a fully operational online store.
The retro, diner-esque sign of Unnameable Books is part of the little shop’s charm. Photo courtesy of Electric Literature.
If the weird, seemingly oxymoronic name of this Prospect Heights book shop doesn’t get your attention, its enormous inventory certainly will. A little dingy and slightly unorganized, this used bookstore feels more like a hoarder’s apartment–but in a way that makes you feel cozy and mysterious all at once. A major player in the small zine scene, I first visited Unnameable last year as a part of Boog City Festival, a kitschy, kind of bootleg celebration of poetry, music, and boutique literary journals. Events here are either held downstairs in the basement or in the small, gravel-filled back yard. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why Unnameable sticks with you, but it does. Maybe it’s the sensation that any book you pick up will reveal another, equally intriguing title hidden beneath it, or maybe it’s just the fact that Ample Hills Creamery is right across the street. Regardless, it’s worth a visit; wear your favorite worn-in jeans, scuffed-up Chucks, and a grungy hoodie, and you’ll feel right at home.
The Thing (1001 Manhattan Ave.):
The Thing’s cluttered storefront seems to challenge passerby to delve into its wares.
Greenpoint’s favorite second-hand shop, The Thing, is not exactly a bookstore, per se, but that doesn’t stop us from loving it. Though The Thing is widely famed for its unbelievable record collection (Pitchfork recently lauded it as one of its favorite record stores in the nation), we like its equally impenetrable and random selection of second-hand paperbacks. Sure, you may have to wade through mountains of wicker furniture and old lamps just to find the stacks of books in the corner, but if you’re into hunting for treasure, then you’re more than likely to snag a good find in here, especially if you’re into sci-fi, romance, or horror classics. If rummaging through piles of junk is not your thing, then perhaps The Thing is not for you. I just like it because I can also browse their collection of old typewriters while I’m there.
Characteristically casual, WORD’s booth at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival gave readers honest recommendations like “Kick-Butt Heroine” and “Hate the topic, Love the book.” Photo courtesy of WORD.
If you’re in Greenpoint and you don’t want to dig around at The Thing all day, WORD’s got you covered. A seriously kick-ass community bookstore with the best YA book events in the city (that’s Young Adult for all you non-lit nerds out there; think TheHunger Games or–yes, okay–The Twilight Series, and you’re on the right track), WORD is one of the best bookstores I’ve ever set foot in. It is community-oriented, but globally-minded, eccentric, helpful, and reliable, accessible to hardcore word nerds but still inviting to dabblers in the art of reading. It is fun to hang out there, and their selection celebrates both well-known authors and first-time crafters of fiction and nonfiction. Plus, they truly love Greenpoint, and will tell you all about their favorite hangouts if you let them. Essentially, WORD is the kind of local bookstore that doesn’t just inhabit its community, but enhances the personality of the neighborhood and strives to promote its welfare. And if all this somehow fails to convince you to make the trip, WORD’s website also gives its own reason to stop by: “Because books are the repository of all that is good in this world, and we love them, and we love you.” We love you, too, WORD. Quite a bit.
Book Thug Nation hosts plenty of community events, like this Book Store Party, throughout the year. Photo courtesy of Book Thug Nation.
On the surface, Book Thug Nation doesn’t look like much–it’s just a big square space with glass doors, concrete floors, and unfinished plywood shelves–but it’s home to one of the largest selections of used literary fiction in all of New York City. If you’re not much of a fiction reader, you might be interested in their philosophy, film criticism, or biography sections. But the real reason Williamsburg residents hang out at Book Thug Nation (aside from the name, which is undisputedly awesome), is for the low-profile, high-minded events they continually host–like indie film screenings, weird and informative lectures, and of course, readings. Basically, if you’re a hipster, you’ll love Book Thug Nation. Just remember to stop at the ATM before you visit; all sales are cash only.
What are some of your favorite Brooklyn bookstores?
Enclosed in a chain-metal fence with a few nondescript shipping containers within sight, from afar it may be easy to miss Dekalb Market in Downtown Brooklyn. However, this outdoor urban space deserves a comprehensive meandering.
I ventured into the marketplace on a Wednesday afternoon after the lunch rush and this enclosed space offered a retreat from the normal hectic pace of city life.
All of the retailers and food vendors conduct their businesses from salvaged shipping containers, a particular type of renovation that has gained momentum in the past few years. This transformation of purpose, from carrying cargo to housing food stalls and boutiques, challenges the idea of how one form can perform multiple functions in different contexts. Additionally, the exterior shell of the containers and outdoor area maintain an industrial aesthetic while on the contrary, the interior of these stores shed this style and instead assume a chic atmosphere typical of a storefront boutique. Sustainability practices are evident beyond the use of shipping containers, especially with the urban-agriculture workshops at the farm that is also located within the market.
Now as for the shopping, there are several high-end boutiques and specialty shops that are Etsy-esque in style (in fact, several entrepreneurs do have Etsy accounts). Never Let Me Go and Etsy Artist Assembly are just a couple of the stores that I explored. In addition to the jewelry that is sold at both stores, Never Let Me Go also sells photography collages set onto wood panels while Etsy Artist Assembly offers hanging air plants in clear glass pots. Then, just for fun, I checked out Far Far Away Toys, a haven for any Trekkie, Star Wars enthusiast, or comic book fan. The owner, Gary Hernandez, has been collecting memorabilia for the past three decades.
Interior of Never Let Me Go
Tucked away in one of the corners is Robicelli’s, a must-go and must-eat bakery and cupcake place. I inquired specifically about their cupcakes (seeing as positive reviews occupy one of their walls) and they have over 200 cupcake recipes that are on rotation throughout the season.
From the right: The Ebinger, Tres Leches, and Dark Chocolate Dulce
Afterwards (in a bizarre sequence) I sampled the buffalo and barbecue chicken wings at Dekalb Wings. The chicken was tender and the sauce was flavorful, so thus I was very content. The hand wipes the owner handed to me earlier definitely came in handy after devouring this meal.
Dekalb Market is a fun and quirky place to window-shop (maybe indulge in buying a couple specialty items), have a meal, and read a book during the week. However, the market also hosts several events during the weekend which are listed here.