A Neighborhood Fights For a Landmark

4th Avenue in South Brooklyn isn’t anybody’s favorite road, not to drive on, certainly not to walk on, nor even – let’s be honest – to live alongside.

Historically, 3rd Avenue was the commercial strip south of Prospect and Hamilton Avenues, until it got an expressway built on top of it just before World War II. Now, if you’re driving to New Jersey or Queens, you take 3rd, at least till you find an entrance to the highway; if you’re driving ten or twenty blocks, you take 4th.

Despite all its traffic, 4th still has a thriving retail life – bodegas, dollar stores, and affordable restaurants, good and bad, not to mention the storied Irish Haven at 4th and 58th. It’s heavier on schools and neo-classical government buildings than 5th Avenue, its more pedestrian-friendly, two-lane neighbor, but most of those buildings are from before the 1920s, when it was still a grand thoroughfare, before the subway lines got built underneath it, and before cars became omnipresent.


The city proposes demolishing the NYPD Precinct House that dates to 1886.

4th Avenue also has two historic gems. One is the Brooklyn Lyceum way up north in Park Slope, at 4th and President. I’ve always figured “President Street” was a placeholder, waiting for another president to die, one the locals liked enough to name a street after. The Lyceum is just down the slope from the case study in gentrification, Park Slope, and it sold a few years ago for $7.6 Million.

A 30-40 minute walk to the south is the other gem, the NYPD Precinct House at 4th and 43rd. This is my neighborhood, and has been for 11 years now. I’m about 100 or so feet from 4th Avenue. Like many people who’ve been here much longer than that, I’ve been waiting for that building to come around. Sunset Park recently got named one of the coolest neighborhoods in America, whatever that means – no, I know what that means. It means college-educated people from out of town are moving in and changing the rental and retail markets.


The neighborhood has been rooting for something special to be done with the space.

I’m no knee-jerk critic of gentrification. I’d be a hypocrite if I were, but a person has to be sensitive to the changes they’re bringing to the social landscape around them. Let’s face it, we wreak havoc on storefront churches and tire shops, and make a hard rental market even harder for working people. One of the few benefits we bring is attracting investment to historic places that have fallen vacant or need repairs.

What a shame, then, to hear that the precinct house is likely getting torn down to build a school. They found a developer for the Lyceum, but not this gem full of architectural luster,  just when the time is just getting right to do something with it. Sunset Park community activists generally have more immediate problems to worry about – rent spikes, sink holes, and broken promises politicians make about jobs in the new developments – but one did post on Facebook that the precinct house was at risk. They advised sending a letter or an email by July 15th.

The 15th is this Friday! So I emailed:


New construction on 4th Avenue generally looks like medical parks, in Syosset.

Dear friends at the New York City School Construction Authority:

We who live in the neighborhood can see that changes, including changes in the physical environment, are coming our way, and we only have to look at 4th Avenue around 3rd Street in Park Slope to see what that will look like: Soulless, boxy condominiums that could be in Brooklyn, or could be in Piscataway or Houston, or anyplace.

We understand the enormous pressure you are under to find politically feasible spaces to build schools on, but we object to the false choice we’ve been given, to have enough classrooms or to preserve some semblance of historical integrity in our neighborhoods.

And when I say “historical integrity” I don’t mean to imply that this is some dilettante-ish desire on our part. We’re talking about those same children who would attend that school you want to build on 4th Avenue at 43rd. What kind of city are they going to grow up in? What sense of New York’s past are they going to have? What kind of respect for classic architecture and aesthetics will they have?

We know, it’s a balancing act. City administrators have to choose between meeting our other goals and saving some bits of history, but let’s agree on one principle. If a building is historically important, and another use for it can possibly be found, and it’s clearly just a beautiful site on the face of it, then let’s always err on the side of saving it.

If this were 1986, when Brooklyn was desperate for investment and public sector improvements, this choice would be a lot more forgivable than it is now. That gorgeous building did not sit empty for a generation for someone to knock it down now that construction crews have finally come back. Do us a solid, and do those future students a favor, and save that building.

Best regards,   Charles Bowe

You can email too: sites@nycsca.org


For many of us this is our first encounter with the NYC School Construction Authority. Email them at sites@nycsca.org


Saint Patty’s Day 2015: The “Irish Problem”

Expect a somber Saint Patrick’s Day at my local bar this Tuesday afternoon. Not that I’m not proud of “my people.” Nor am I a stranger to a pint of Guinness, and have drunk more than one for flimsier reasons.

And it’s not because I say “mine” in quotation marks. I am 25% Irish, via the grandparent who happened to give me my last name. I mentioned that I’m “not really Irish” to every native I got to know while attending the Galway Film Festival a few years ago, and without exception they all said something like “Stop it.” Meaning, that’s plenty Irish. As long as you show up with an open heart and good intentions, you are welcome home. It’s honestly easier sometimes to relate to the Irish than to Irish-Americans.

This year, I’ll drink to John Decker, an Irish-American hero I’ve been reading about in The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America, by Barnet Schecter. Decker was the chief engineer of the New York City Fire Department in 1863, when the city erupted in riots the day the U.S. government put the first-ever federal military draft into effect. He used persuasion, eloquence, and force to try stopping mobs from destroying innocent people’s property.

Nothing unexpected there, right? That’s what Irish New Yorkers do, support law and order, and fight fires. The early firehouses were often Irish gangs with some firefighting equipment, and the city police department was already an important source of  jobs for the Irish. So a guy like Decker would have been caught between the two worlds: the streetwise firefighters and the professional, mixed Irish and WASP administration.

The Colored Orphan Asylum, Midtown, July 13, 1863.

The Colored Orphan Asylum, Midtown, July 13, 1863.

But here’s the rub: The mob Decker was fighting was overwhelmingly Irish. The WASP leadership of the city talked openly about the “Irish problem,” and considered us a different race. According to The Devil’s Own Work, when the Civil War broke out, we signed up in huge numbers to stop the rebellion. It was a means of becoming more American. In 1863, though, Lincoln deftly changed the objective of the war from putting down a rebellion to ending slavery, and we were less enthusiastic, to say the least.

True enough, the draft at the time was unfair: A rich person could get out of it by paying $300. That’s why the first targets of the Irish rioters, after the draft offices, were the houses of rich New Yorkers known to be supporters of Lincoln. It took only half a day, though, to start attacking abolitionists in general and successful African-American businesses, a seamless transition that made perfect sense to many of us.

By four o’clock that afternoon, a mob gathered in front of the Colored Orphan Asylum on 43rd Street. That’s when Decker showed up at the front door with only a dozen men, presumably Irish too, and two firehoses, and stared the mob down long enough for the staff and 230 Black children to walk out the back door to look for a police station that would take them in.

One relevant, and very ironic, detail is that the party of Lincoln and Seward had taken over the New York state government a few years before, and was so annoyed with the city police department that it replaced it with its own police force, called the Metropolitans. So New York had just undergone community policing in reverse, and the Irish ghettos went nuts.

As the orphans fled, according to the orphanage’s founder Anna Shotwell, the mob was taunting them, until an anonymous Irishman spoke up and pleaded for pity. The mob, according to Shotwell, “laid hold of him, and appeared ready to tear him to pieces” as she led the kids away, though it’s not clear if this is figurative or literal.

Back at the main entrance, Decker fought the mob, and the mob won. Plundered the furniture. Burnt the orphanage to the ground. That evening and the next day, there were lynchings in New York City as gruesome as the worst atrocities of the K.K.K.

Let me rephrase that. Not, “There were lynchings.” “We lynched.”

A major through-line in the story of our community is racism, and hostility to Black people in particular, and any Irish-American who doesn’t admit this isn’t being honest. Stepping up for material fairness for ourselves, and confusing that with stopping “the negro” from getting something that’s rightfully ours, is one thing we do.

NYPD officers (most of them) turning their backs on the mayor at a police funeral.

NYPD officers (most of them) turning their backs on the mayor at a police funeral.

The recent political fights between the NYPD leadership and the civilian government of New York is just the latest skirmish. “Worst mayor ever!” the crowd chanted at Mayor DeBlasio at the Rockaways Saint Patrick’s Day Parade last weekend. I can only imagine what Blaz feels about the big parade on Tuesday.

Patrick Lynch (his real name) of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association can willfully misunderstand the reasonable things DeBlasio has said about race, and the bit of fairness he’s tried to restore to Black New York, which, in the eyes of the Irish, must suffer collective punishment forever for every crime committed by every fool during the bad, bad days of crack. And he can count on the New York Post and Fox News to back him up every day.  The anti-Lincoln and Irish-American papers during the draft riots blamed the atrocities on the abolitionists. If only they hadn’t provoked the mob by trying to free the slaves… In this mindset, it’s always the African-Americans and the liberals who cause racism. It’s never the police, and never the Irish.

Bill O’Reilly’s parents are 100% Irish, a New York City boy who moved to Long Island when he was two. Hannity is also 100%, also born in New York, and also grew up on Long Island. Like the Italian-Americans on the Supreme Court, I imagine they have, deep inside, a phobia of being found out. Scalia and Alito are Trenton Italians who will always be haunted by the “dago” thing, who will never have the effortless class of a Princeton housewife, at least not in their own minds, no matter how many Ivy League degrees they have, and whose path to claiming a hunk of the Republic is to fetishize the intentions of the long-dead planter class that wrote the Constitution. And like Martha Stewart, the Pole from New Jersey who taught a generation to be more WASP-y, O’Reilly and Hannity have the zeal of the converted, to uber-Americanness, that is.

The Eric Garner-Patrick Lynch-Mayor DeBlasio story has created a “Which side are you on?” moment for white New Yorkers. White millennial and middle-aged people who migrated here after college have had a privileged relationship with the old school whites such as the Irish and Italians, up to now. Some of us are even known to say things like, “I love my Polish neighborhood!” as if a neighborhood is a gym membership and we just had a euphoric spin class. We may sometimes get the uncomfortable sense that we are more welcome as tenants and patrons of their establishments than some certain natives are, but we try not to dwell on it. It’s hard finding an apartment or an affordable, quiet place to drink a beer, so why rock the boat? The longer the P.B.A.-DeBlasio feud lasts, the more times we’re asked potentially friendship-ending questions about our sympathies.


The sidewalk outside of McSorley’s Old Ale House has a charmingly homespun inscription that reads, “Please help us keep our neighborhood in order.” You could call it cuteness, like a sign that reads “Clean Rooms 5¢.” After reading The Devil’s Own Work, though, it feels sinister, like it  reveals something about the Irish-American hard-wiring. Each of us is both thug and self-deputized officer of the law, ready to help keep the order at any time, and “order,” then as now, is an elusive concept.

Groups are always more than the sum of their parts, and there’s something magic about groups of Irish-Americans. We’re good craic, as they say back home. But there are devils in our hearts too. That’s why this Saint Patty’s Day I’ll be toasting to John Decker, and to the unnamed Irishman who spoke up for the Colored Orphans and paid the price. To the ones who got what Lincoln meant by “the better angels of our nature.”

Essential Viewing

The first hot day of the summer, and the Sunday before Memorial Day, was a good one to take a holiday from social media. With apologies to my Really Smart Friends (RSF’s) who shared links about the Santa Barbara killer, I couldn’t watch or read anything. I wish I’d never seen the video I’d watched the day before, the one the 22-year-old killer posted to Youtube saying what he planned to do. Neither did anyone want to see it, apparently, since he posted it a full day ahead of time. It turns out, he had to email a PDF of a 140-page lonely guy manifesto to his parents, minutes before he started the killing spree, to get anyone’s attention.

Guns and misogyny, yes and yes, and one RSF even started an insightful discussion by posting right away that he bet the killer was on prescription anti-depressants for years – and I would like to know how many of the recent spree killers were on them, or just coming off. Now I guess it’s going to be essential viewing for someone in law enforcement to watch every dumb Youtube video. We shouldn’t watch them after the fact for the same reason we shouldn’t buy Ed Geen memorabilia: The pre-killing Youtube testimonial only codifies what’s long been a truth, that killers, like the rest of us, have narratives in their heads in which they are heroes. By adding currency to the stories, we are making them more attractive to future author-characters in the genre. So unless we’re proposing solutions, let’s actually talk about anything else!

Stranger by the Lake:  So good-looking he's sinister.

Stranger by the Lake: So good-looking he’s sinister.

Till then it had been a month of catching up on essential viewing: movies and plays that were a responsibility of sorts. These ranged from the tight Chicago indie Drinking Buddies (2013), a very warm story of a friendship with extra sexual charge in it that packed a few nice surprises, to a new-to-me William Inge play called A Loss of Roses that flopped in 1959 but fifty years later holds up beautifully, to the unique Stranger by the Lake.

Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake or L’inconnu du lac(2013) is about a sympathetic guy named Franck at a gay cruising beach in southern France, who’s so smitten by a hunky newcomer that he’s willing to overlook the inconvenient fact that he saw him murder another guy by drowning him in the lake. Like cruising itself, it’s full of scenes in which the dialogue is beside the point. Just by positioning himself next to another sunbather, a character triggers all kinds of communication. It’s a good lesson in another take on characterization: Don’t make your villain a sweaty scarface with a lazy eye and a too-obvious chip on his shoulder, make him literally so good-looking it’s scary.

When the body of the deceased turns up, a detective starts asking questions, ultimately creating a real relationship issue. Stranger by the Lake is memorable for its explicit sex scenes, which says a lot about the sex-phobic eye of the viewer. Early on, before he’s wooed his Brawny paper towel guy, Franck has a dalliance with another man, and we see the come shot in shocking detail. Minutes later, we see a man get murdered by drowning, also rendered in a long, explicit take, but guess which image is, uhhh, stickier.

With an extra layer of narrative about safe versus unprotected sex, equating unsafe sex metaphorically with the complicity to kill, this was another seriously overlooked film of 2013. The effect of the explicit sex is to heighten the suspense: If this is how Guiraudie renders taboo sex, then what’s he going to make us look at when the handsome stranger turns on Franck?

Which brings me to the 2012 documentary The Central Park Five. Heartbreak! For New Yorkers and everyone else. No doubt the cops and D.A. thought they were doing a great service when they railroaded these kids, and that they “just knew in their hearts” they were guilty, so the ends justified whatever means. Anyone who stood up and cheered for Zero Dark Thirty should watch this closely: Law enforcement believing their hunch above anything else isn’t always heroic. Independent filmmakers like to piss and moan about Ken Burns, being the establishment documentarian of our time, but I dare them to watch this and not be moved.

Among its tough philosophical medicine, mostly delivered by the historian Craig Steven Wilder, there is a point about video. VHS was still a bit of a novelty in 1989 when the NYPD’s best detectives coerced phony confessions out of the five teenagers. One thing the boys accused of the crime of the decade did for fun was rewind and rewatch videos from Yo! MTV Raps all day. Only after police had hounded the five confessions into one reasonably similar narrative did the D.A. come and start videotaping. Even though terror is all over their faces, and all of them recanted almost immediately, and the official story was riddled with serious problems, the D.A. convinced the jury that video does not lie.

New York in 1989 was not the last racially charged place on earth, but teenagers and jurors today are probably too video-savvy to get caught in exactly that kind of trap. The social media revolution promises that we can all seize control of how what we do in the unmediated, real world gets interpreted, and video is the most authoritative expression of that spin-doctoring. As a writer I like to think I still live in the kingdom of the written word, but if I get on your website, and there’s a video embedded in it that says anything about your work, you can bet I’ll click on that video and at least half-watch it while I leaf through the rest of your content. The frighteningly cute Santa Barbara killer was 13 years old when Youtube was launched. Whatever he did in life he was going to try defining it himself via video. He saved his 140 page PDF for mom and dad.