I wonder if in a hundred years or so they’ll landmark any of the buildings going up in Williamsburg right now. Like, “This enclave of giant condos captures the most consistent and succinct example of the developmental style prevalent in Brooklyn at the turn of the 21st century.” I’m not so sure. Aesthetics probably play a role in that kind of designation. But aesthetics change, and future generations look back with the benefit of hindsight. They can say, “these were relevant because of what came after them, and because, unknowingly or not, of the certain way of life that they epitomized—the life they spoke for that’s now gone. And anyway, I think they’re kind of beautiful. I mean, look at the ugly 22nd century shit that we’ve got now.”
But who are these future assholes anyway? Oh yeah, our children! And our grandchildren too. Well that makes sense; I like things from my grandma’s generation. And she probably liked things from her grandma’s. It can all seem more coherent with a little distance. But it’s funny to recognize that in celebrating New York what I’m often celebrating is an old real estate deal. Most of it went up to make somebody money—it just feels nicer when it was a hundred and fifty years ago, and when the buildings they erected were brick, and quaint, and beautiful.
So now I can look at a street like Fillmore Place in Williamsburg and revel in it as our quiet past. But what a change it must have represented when it was first created. When Williamsburgh (note the h) incorporated as a village in 1827, within the Town of Bushwick, it had a population of one thousand and seven people. It was just on its way out from being a collection of farms. That really wasn’t very long ago, when you think about it. By 1840 it had grown large enough to separate from Bushwick entirely and become a town in its own right—in the next five years its population would double. Growth only sped up further with the arrival of large groups of German immigrants after 1845 and by 1852 it would become the City of Williamsburgh, with a population of 35,000. That made it the 20th largest urban area in the United States, which more than anything tells you that America was pretty damn small back then. Three years later it dropped the h and was incorporated into the larger city of Brooklyn, along with Bushwick (and its own neighborhood of Greenpoint). Williamsburg kept growing from there, especially with the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903.
Two New York merchants, Alfred Clock and Ephraim Miller, wanted in on the action. In 1846 they started buying contiguous parcels of land in Williamsburgh, in the area bounded by Driggs, Metropolitan Avenue, Grand Street and Roebling Street. In 1850, to help maximize the number of lots they could build, they cut the tiny street of Fillmore Place (perhaps named for then President Millard Fillmore?) through the middle of their development. They sold the north side of the street as undeveloped lots, to be built upon by their various owners. The south side they developed themselves, erecting nine uniform multi-family houses. They were all designed in a simple Italianate style, reflecting the current transition in New York away from the popular Greek Revival. Italianate architecture jumped forward a couple thousand years to take its inspiration from the Renaissance. Although built to house working class families, the exteriors of the buildings had more in common with upper-class row houses than with tenements of the time. That may have led to the street’s tendency towards owner occupied buildings—passed down through generations. The infrequent changes in ownership lend to infrequent changes to the block in general, and today it’s considered perhaps the most intact collection of buildings from Williamsburg’s initial years of urban development.
Henry Miller grew up right around the corner, at 662 Driggs Avenue, and in The Tropic of Capricorn he calls Fillmore Place, “the most enchanting street I have ever seen in all my life.” I haven’t read The Tropic of Capricorn, though I have read The Tropic of Cancer. And I’m not sure how I feel about Henry Miller in general. He reminds me of the E.M. Forster adage that a novel has to tell a story. Henry Miller doesn’t do that, in The Tropic of Cancer at least, and so he starts to lose me. He says as much himself though: “This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God…” All right, cool, that’s one side of life, but what about the other? I think he knows it too, because he must have been at least somewhat excited, to have wanted to write a book at all. What secret fun he must have had! He says, “Whatever there is of value in America [Walt] Whitman has expressed, and there is nothing more to be said. The future belongs to the machines, to the robots.” Sorry Henry, but no, it doesn’t. Why? Because we’re all alive. We are ineffably excited. And even better than that, we’re effably excited. We really are.
(Originally posted Oct. 23rd, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)