By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn is booming like never before. But many recently arrived Brooklynites know nothing about the borough’s history. Other Brooklynites, whose families have been in the borough for a long time, may want to know more about their past and to relive their memories.
Former Brooklyn Borough Historian John Manbeck’s “Chronicles of Historic Brooklyn,” a collection of columns he originally wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle, attempts to answer some questions about the borough. And in doing so, he goes way beyond the usual “Wasn’t it great to go to Ebbets Field” type of nostalgia. In fact, he isn’t afraid to go against conventional beliefs – for example, he implies that the low attendance at the aforementioned Ebbets Field contributed to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ decision to leave Brooklyn.
Manbeck will appear on “MetroFocus” to discuss his book on Wednesday night on WLIW at 7:30 p.m.; on Thirteen on Thursday at 8:30; and on NJTV on Thursday at 10:30 p.m.
“Chronicles of Historic Brooklyn” is organized by topics: Sports, Parks, “Hard Times,” “Brooklyn Goes to War” and more. Each topic contains interesting details that few people other than professional historians and history buffs would know. For example, did you know that there was once a plan for a “seaside resort” at Marine Park including several pools, football fields, baseball fields, archery ranges, handball courts, a marina and a casino? Obviously, these plans, made in the 1930s, never came to fruition.
Often, Manbeck addresses nationwide events, such as World War II and the Great Depression. However, he always manages to put a Brooklyn twist on them. For example, when talking about the federally sponsored Works Projects Administration (WPA), which created jobs for millions during the Depression, Manbeck tells us where we can still find WPA-created murals – for example, the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch, the Prospect Park Zoo and several high schools. He also tells us how the establishment of a Merchant Marine academy and a Coast Guard base in Manhattan Beach during World War II put an end to that neighborhood’s reign as a sports and entertainment mecca.
Because this is not a nostalgia book, “Chronicles of Historic Brooklyn” goes deep into history, recounting and illustrating events that no one alive can possibly remember, such as the historic transcontinental flight by a primitive plane called the “Vin Fiz” in 1911. The “Vin Fiz,” named after a popular soft drink whose manufacturer sponsored the flight, took off from Sheepshead Bay. The pilot had to land and take off many times, and he crashed 19 times, but he finally landed in Pasadena, California.
Even people who think they know all there is to know about their neighborhoods may be surprised by some of the events Manbeck reveals. Did you know that in 1830, a group of pirates attacked a ship off the Atlantic coast, landed at what is now Floyd Bennett Field, buried their loot there and then partied at a tavern in Sheepshead Bay? No, we didn’t think so.
Manbeck also pays tribute to Brooklynites who kept an interest in history alive over the years, such as Everett and Evelyn Ortner of Park Slope. The two of them, originally working with Brooklyn Union Gas (now National Grid), drummed up interest in the neighborhood’s historic brownstones during an era when the Slope was considered a rundown area. They
purchased their own home in 1963 for $32,000; after they renovated it, they were offered over $4 million.
Finally, the book is punctuated by excellent black-and-white photos. Manbeck himself took many of the more recent ones. Others, such as a photo of the Gowanus Canal in the 1940s, jammed with barges, and one of the then-new Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, come from a variety of sources.
“Chronicles of Historic Brooklyn” is available at Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com and at local bookstores.