Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Librarian

Uncle John's liquor store - Clinton & Tillary Street, 1959

John D. Morrell worked as a librarian at the Long Island Historical Society. In his spare time, in the late '50s & early '60s, he engaged in amateur photography, and the now-named Brooklyn Historical Society has over two thousand of his photographs. The bulk of the photographs are of locations in South Brooklyn. The pictures he takes of older areas, like Downtown, or the nearby Heights, like Fort Greene, Red Hook, or Gowanus, show a non-conforming variety of architectural styles, but as you head farther south, newer blocks offer staider vistas. Here you feel the flatness of the landscape in full force. Most of his photographs are in black and white, though every so often they burst into period-postcard chromogenic color. You can quench your thirst for period mid-century stores & cars here. There's a riot of neon & fins. Still, the absence of people in the pictures make what must have been bustling streets and avenues feel slightly staid and claustrophobic. You'd like them better populated.

The Downtown photos, like the buildings themselves, are more mixed in their character. Morrell lived as well as worked around here, and you feel in these photographs his personal connection with what he sees. In a brief experiment (what possessed him?) Morell takes interior shots inside a diner, and the blurry snaps exude all the muggy, steamy comforts of melts and soups and cigarettes. And suddenly, people! Hats hang on stands next to tables where bare-headed balding men in suits are serious about their food.  It's almost too intimate after all the emptiness we're used to. Morrell also shows of scenes of urban renewal: a building waiting in a sea of rubble, next in line for the wrecking ball, or, already half-gutted, exposing a beehive of wallpapered rooms to public scrutiny. Though the bulk of the collection ends in the 60s, a handful of quite ordinary shots appear a decade later.  The 70s pictures are muddier colored, and the cars have shrunk.  There are several pictures of fire damage, and the rest are of Hicks Street, most likely taken from Morrell's own apartment. They're casual.

Who was John D. Morrell?  It's ironic that a Historical Society has almost no biographical information about a former employee, especially one who left it such a fine record of the borough. Here's the sum of it.

John Morrell was a graduate of Pratt Institute and the assistant librarian at the Long Island Historical Society (now the Brooklyn Historical Society) under Head Librarian, Edna Huntington for many years. Little else is known about him. 

It makes you want to turn detective.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Out of Bounds

Time to reward the old laundry pole with a few new clothes pegs (or pins in US lingo).  They're not new really - I picked up this 1950s dozen in a second-hand store near home today, but sixty-plus years on, they're still sturdy. 1950s or 1950's?  This is the sort of question that always drives me crazy.  I grew up without the apostrophe, then threw it in to try & show willing on American soil. But I never felt comfortable in its presence so I'm throwing it back out again.  I've received several waspish comments over the years on my weak grammar & punctuation skills, & I'm the first to admit I'm over-casual in this respect.  At least part of the problem (if you see it that way) is caused by the old UK/US duality.  I can hardly get either system right any more, and some attempts to conform never became instinctive. That weird US punctuation within a quotation, where the period sits inside the quotes instead of finishing the sentence?  If I don't let that period have the last say I feel like I'm burning my English passport.  Most spelling differences don't bother me much, but the storey/story one still bugs me and a couple of readers have been quite nasty about the English version I used to use.  I switched it to try and quell the critics, but like the intrusive apostrophe and the errant period it never felt right. Just as I'm still an in-betweener citizen, even after all these years, I've decided not to care any more about trying (and clearly failing) to get it right each side of the Atlantic.  If my grammar and my spelling and my usage suck (see, I'm no purist!), then at least it'll be for want of trying.  Language - my dear little family of words, sayings, phrases ,vowels, italics, dashes and inverted commas, every little last point of you - I grant you freedom!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Stores After Dark

An elegant, if eery bunch: from downtown Brooklyn & beyond, the 40's/50's world of neon & fancy fonts.  All photos from the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection of the Library of Congress.

Barton's Bonbonniere, DeKalb Avenue (1949)

Bostonian Shoes, Kings Highway (1951)

Miracle Mart, Flatbush Avenue (1951)

Field Brothers, King's Highway (1953)

Rockabye, Avenue J (1947)

Hunter, Avenue U (1946)

Adler's, Flatbush Avenue (1946)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Saturday, August 12, 2017

How We're Feeling

"Take cover" drill at PS 58, Smith & Carroll - Walter Albertin, 1962.  (Library of Congress)

Friday, August 11, 2017


Music of the People - Harold Feinstein

These youth of color are organizing to address climate change: the UPROSE-hosted Climate Justice Youth Summit on Aug. 3 in New York City (PBS)

On the site of the Gowanus Van Brunt farm: 19th-Century Diary Suggests Slaves Are Buried in Brooklyn Lot (NY Times)

Catch Leopoldi's hardware store on the big screen, in Ingrid Jungermann's Park Slope-based "Women who Kill"  (NY Times)

Jon Alpert’s “Lock-Up: The Prisoners of Rikers Island” (Village Voice)

Protest and Politics - a global sound map of protest and political activism (Cities & Memory)

Photos of Greenwich Village shops in 1979 (Ephemeral New York)

Next to Ennis playground (& the DSNY Gowanus garage), a lot for sale in "one of the most coveted locations in all of Brooklyn."

Thursday, August 10, 2017


I couldn't help thinking of that couple on the beach (see yesterday): the figure in the blonde wig, with white or silver penciled eyes. and the blonde-haired doll sitting beside her.  Both bare-footed, both wearing princess tiaras.  The doll's tiara was all askew, but she kept on smiling anyway. Whatever little scene the two of them had going, you had to love it, and the beauty of Coney is that still, however anodyne they try to make the place, it's the people that count, and the shore here still has the magic power of letting them do as they damn well please.  It's the city at ease. Everyone here is letting go of something or other - clothes, convention, inhibition.  The shackles of propriety. We're better that way.

For a while the doll was left alone while her companion took a dip, and she looked a little vulnerable, like somebody's human princess child, left there all alone without an adult's supervision.  I guessed the lifeguard could keep an eye on her along with the swimmers.  By the time I'd walked back from the end of the pier the two of them were gone.

Near where they'd been sitting, someone had written CHABOLITA in the sand, with a heart inside the letter 'O.' You could see the top of a head and a waving arm too and the start of a name, PAOL-, but the tide had rinsed the rest of the scene away.