Local Historian Adam Schwartz (in the baseball cap) begins a history tour of Northwest Bushwick in front Life Café on Flushing Avenue. — Photos by Diego Cupolo
From humble Dutch settlers to the roaring fires of the 1970s, Adam Schwartz has been fascinated by Bushwick’s turbulent history ever since he started teaching at a local school. He is best known for creating the Up From Flames exhibit in 2007, which meticulously described the abandonment and revival of the neighborhood, and also gives historical walking tours from time to time.
Most recently, Schwartz has been developing private walking tours for distinct sections of Bushwick that he plans on leading at least once a month. To test out his new tour formula, Schwartz led a group of about 20 people around northwest Bushwick this past Tuesday, uncovering events and significant landmarks from the past to the present.
The evening tour began in front of Life Café where Schwartz gave the mixed group of history buffs and curious locals a briefing on Bushwick’s early days as a small Dutch farming community. He then explained how the area’s agricultural roots became a distant memory with industrialization and the heavy influx of German immigrants escaping the Revolution of 1848.
Beer breweries sprouted throughout East Williamsburg and Bushwick with the arrival of Germans and their popular lager recipes. At one point, there were 11 breweries in a 12-block area and the local economy was thriving on America’s insatiable appetite for malt and hops.
But those days ended as larger, more efficient breweries opened outside the confines of the city — this point was made clear when Schwartz made the first stop of the tour at the former site of the Rheingold brewery on Bushwick Avenue. The brewery, which was among the largest in the New York, closed in 1974 and the space it once occupied is currently becoming the massive, architecturally uninspiring Rheingold Gardens housing development.
We then walked towards Broadway as Schwartz described the fires and looting that shook the area during the 1977 blackout.
"Broadway was the commercial heart of Bushwick," he said. "But storeowners could not get here in time to stop looters during the blackout and a lot of this area went to shambles. On the other hand, stores on Knickerbocker were saved because most of the owners lived right above their businesses and worked together to protect their property."
As we walked along Broadway, Schwartz pointed out the aesthetically-pleasing Opera House Lofts on Arion Place. The building dates back to 1858 when it was used by the Arion Singing Society, a group of elite German music enthusiasts, as an event and performance hall. Though it might be a coincidence, another Arion Signing Society now operates in a posh section of rural Connecticut (I wonder if it’s a branch of the original club…).
The tour continued past Myrtle, the M train screeching overhead, and down Bushwick Avenue into the tree-lined "Doctors Row." This section of Bushwick Avenue used to be called the "Boulevard" and it’s dotted with well-preserved, baroque Beaux Arts-style mansions, the most prominent being the Cook Mansion. Though it originally belonged to local brewer William Ulmer, most people remember the elaborate building as the former home of Frederick A. Cook, a famed arctic explorer who claims to have been the first person to climb Mt. McKinley and reach the North Pole – a claim that is heavily disputed.
Just across the street, Schwartz drew attention to the black and gold brownstone which contains the All Eyes on Egypt Bookstore and adjacent structure that was once used as a mosque by the local Nuwaubian community. Schwartz took this opportunity to explain the controversy surrounding former community leader Dr. Malachi Z. York, an influential black supremacist, author, and musician. From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, York helped unite the neighborhood along Bushwick Avenue and founded numerous Black Nationalist and Islamic groups.
"The blocks that survived were the blocks that bounded together and created islands of stability in a sea of chaos," Schwartz said.
Many older residents on Bushwick Avenue view York’s presence as a positive force that helped the community, but others said he gained too much power, making it dangerous to oppose his tactics. Today, York is serving a lengthy prison sentence for child molestation.
As the sun vanished behind the concrete horizon, we moved on towards Knickerbocker Avenue and passed María Hernández Park, drawing stares and comments from neighborhood residents that were confused to see a historic tour group in the area.
"There’s so many of them," whispered a man sitting on his stoop.
"If that was a group of black people, the cops woulda had ‘em arrested by now," said another man from across the street.
Ignoring the remarks, Schwartz talked about how the area around the park used to be called "The Well," because of the endless amount of drugs one could find there from the late ’70s to early ’90s. He also said this area has the highest concentration of major housing violations in New York City.
Then we arrived at 205 Knickerbocker, the former location of Joe and Mary’s Italian Restaurant where legendary mobster Carmine Galante was gunned down on July 12, 1979. He was eating lunch in the back courtyard when three masked men ran into the restaurant with shotguns and created the kind of carnage you can only find in Hollywood movies, violent and bloody as hell. Until that moment, Galante had been one of the most powerful mob bosses in the city, making lucrative amounts of money through the heroin trade and organizing the bulk of his operations along Knickerbocker Avenue – a former Bonnano Family stronghold.
The final stop on the tour was the Castle Braid Apartments near Troutman Street and Central Avenue. Schwartz said the development’s name came from the Castle Braid fabric factory that once stood on the lot – the same factory that was included in Betty Smith’s book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Using the stalled construction on the site as an example, Schwartz wrapped up the tour by speaking about the changing economic landscape in New York City and gentrification in the neighborhood.
My brain having been filled with centuries of facts, I felt like Bushwick was a different neighborhood every other decade. I told Schwartz that it was hard to imagine so many dramatic changes occurring in the same area over such a short amount of time. He replied, "Bushwick is a keystone for understanding the rest of New York City history."
Schwartz is planning on giving another tour in September and is currently developing walking tours for the English Kills area, Middle Bushwick and Southern Bushwick for the near future.