A HISTORY OF WILLOWTOWN and THE WILLOWTOWN ASSOCIATION
DEVELOPMENT of Brooklyn Heights as a residential neighborhood began soon after the start in 1814 of a mechanized ferry service between Fulton Street in Manhattan and what became its continuation in the nascent village of Brooklyn incorporated two years later. The owners of farms there began dividing their land into building lots. Construction of houses first occurred in the area near the ferry landing.
The start in 1836 of service from South Ferry in Manhattan to the foot of Atlantic Avenue spurred development in the southwest corner the village that came to be called Willowtown. The ferry terminal there also connected to the Brooklyn-Jamaica Railroad that ran in a tunnel under Atlantic Avenue.
By the middle of the century the present rectangular grid scheme for streets throughout most of the Heights was fixed and only slightly altered since. Joralemon became the northern boundary of Willowtown; Atlantic Avenue, the southern; Hicks, the eastern; and Furman, the western.
Many of the houses in Willowtown date from the 1840s. Among them are the four unique two-story houses sharing a continuous portico of tall wooden columns at the southern end of Willow Place and the four survivors of nine clapboarded frame and brick houses in “Cottage Row” at the northern end of Columbia Place.
The Alfred Tredway White Community Center on Willow Place dates from 1867. It was built as a chapel of the First Unitarian Church on Pierrepont Street at Monroe Place. Its namesake was a lay leader in the church and started a kindergarten there. In carrying out his efforts to improve housing for the urban poor, White pushed construction in 1889-90 of the six-story Riverside tenement on Columbia Place containing 280 two- to four-room apartments and 19 stores. This was the first such building to have both indoor plumbing and an outdoor garden.
Two unique nonresidential buildings in Willowtown are “the world’s only Greek Revival subway ventilator” at 58 Joralemon Street and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority substation at 27-31 Willow Place. Originally the ventilator was a private brownstone dating from 1847. The substation was built in 1908 in conjunction with the start of subway service to Brooklyn. As reported in an article about Willowtown in the former BKLYN magazine, the building’s “cavernous interior once housed a battery of electrical devices that converted alternating current to the 600-volt direct current needed to power the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit).”
In the aftermath of the Great Depression of 1929, many of the one-family houses in the neighbourhood were divided into small apartments. In response to the BKLYN magazine’s statement that Willowtown became “nearly derelict,” a former resident, Delphine Scala of Wellington, Fla., wrote that it “was never ‘derelict’ at any time. The folks who lived there were hard-working people who kept their properties in decent order and the street very clean. We kids played a lot of baseball, jump rope, etc. Every parent knew every kid in the neighborhood. House keys were unheard of. We were all family and bound to one another. No matter where each of us relocated, we are all still bound to one another for old times’ sake, and our hearts and minds remain faithful to ‘the old neighborhood.’”
Construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in phases during 1937-64 under New York’s urban planner Robert Moses threatened the destruction of a swath of Willowtown. His route for the expressway followed Hicks Street through Cobble Hill and Red Hook, cutting them in half, and on through Brooklyn Heights. The Brooklyn Heights Association, founded in 1910 by residents desiring to preserve the community’s uniqueness, led the successful effort to move the route several blocks west and around the Heights. A Red Hook activist said, “We got the shaft, and they got the Promenade.” While most of the Heights remained intact, the half of the Riverside Apartments fronting Furman Street was lost to the new BQE. The cleared land at the south end of Columbia Place was developed into the Atlantic Playground.
Starting in the 1950s, the early 19th-century character, human scale and quiet atmosphere of Brooklyn Heights plus its close proximity to Manhattan appealed to young professionals who did not want to settle in the suburbs. They began buying and/or restoring houses throughout the community including Willowtown.
The new arrivals along with older residents met periodically to address issues of concern and for socializing. The Willowtown Association came into being from these gatherings and continued primarily on an ad-hoc basis. It had a publication called the Willowtown Gazette. In the first issue dated September 1953 the association was described as “a group of neighbors who have gotten together to work for and improve the neighborhood in whatever way possible. All are welcome to join the...association, and we hope that someday everyone in the neighborhood will be a member.”
Late in the 1950s Robert Moses’ plans for slum clearance again threatened Willowtown with demolition along with the northeast corner of the Heights. He wanted to put up new apartment towers under Title One of the federal Housing Act of 1949 as amended. Moses was not a proponent of the rehabilitation and modernization of existing housing even though they could be done under the act. The Willowtown Association won the day with meetings, resolutions, petitions, protests and even TV appearances. The northeast Heights then became Moses’ focus, resulting in the destruction of the original structures there and the present towers along Cadman Plaza West.
Two decades later the area of Willowtown adjoining the BQE’s Atlantic Avenue interchange again was threatened by plans for its enlargement. Protests by residents and others also killed this project.
As part of the celebration of the golden jubilee of the Brooklyn Heights Association in 1960, the Willowtown Association joined it for a jubilee garden sale on Willow Place that April. The event promoted historic zoning of the Heights and thereby its preservation. After a long uphill struggle, this was finally achieved in November 1965 when the community became New York City’s first historic district. Willowtown residents involved in the struggle were Arthur Hooker, Malcolm Chesney and Joseph Merz. The same year saw two related developments: designation of the Heights as a historic district by the U.S. Department of the Interior and enactment of the Landmarks Preservation Law by the City Council creating the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
In 1961 the association focused on White’s former chapel on Willow Place, by then a metal fabricating shop and an eyesore. With ever increasing taxes, the owners relocated and put the building up for sale. A separately formed Committee for a Community Building raised funds for its purchase, receiving support from such Heights residents as Gladys James, preservationist and socialite, and Covington Hardee, chairman and chief executive of the Lincoln Savings Bank of Brooklyn. The center opened in December 1962 with three core tenants--the Heights Players, the Brooklyn Heights Community Nursery School and the Roosa School of Music. The Players continue to be there but the others have been replaced by St. Ann’s Preschool and the S.E.M. Ensemble. Named for A.T. White in 1967, the center is the association’s address and serves as the location for its meetings and events.
Also in the early ’60s Willowtown got its first contemporary houses. Three were built of cement blocks on cleared lots on Willow Place that were city-owned and put up for auction–Nos. 40, 44 and 48. Again with help from Gladys James, Joseph Merz and his wife Mary, both architects, acquired the lots and designed the houses. No. 48 became their own residence.
Starting in the late 1960s the Willowtown Association held an annual spring street fair that attracted good-sized crowds. The proceeds went toward such projects as the planting of trees especially on Columbia Place with its eventual thriving mini business district and scholarships for YMCA day campers who lived in the Riverside Apartments. The fairs featured food booths in front of residents’ homes, a pig roast, bake sale and potluck supper plus a plant sale and races and games that went on well into the evening. Because of diminishing support, the fairs eventually ended. But they were revived in 2008 necessarily with less a focus on food and more on fun activities for all ages. The ’08 fair introduced the “Willowtown Walking Tour Guide” that has been updated for each spring fair since.
Advocacy by the association in the 1990s that was not successful opposed Long Island College Hospital’s buying the city’s Upper Van Voorhees Park on Hicks Street at Atlantic Avenue and building a parking garage there. The park was popular with Willowtown kids, many from Columbia Place. The garage project had the strong backing of the Cobble Hill Association that wanted and got three pocket parks as replacements one block east along Henry Street.
The sale of the park triggered a change in the association’s status. It had always functioned as an unincorporated neighborhood group with periodically elected officers. Those serving as president have included Arthur Hooker, Leroy Bowser, Joseph Merz, Peggy De La Cour, Peter Chace, Catherine Fitzsimons, Michael Geisert, Ned Hamlin, Thomas Hill and Craig Bickerstaff. In order to share in administering the proceeds from the park’s sale, the association had to become an incorporated not-for-profit organization with bylaws. This was done in 1997. Some of the proceeds were used to redevelop the Atlantic Playground in collaboration with the association. The new section devoted to a community garden became its responsibility. In 2013 the playground was designated a park and renamed in honor of the late Adam “MCA” Yauch. Best known for his hip-hop trio Beastie Boys, he grew up in Brooklyn Heights and regularly played basketball on the playground’s court.
Practically from the beginning of the association, Joralemon Street has been a concern requiring constant attention to the survival and care of the rare cobblestoned surface. A series of meetings with the MTA regarding the vibrations from the subway underneath felt in houses on Joralemon, Willow Place and Columbia Place brought results in the repair of the roadbed that research showed was the cause. The increase in vehicular traffic related to the new and very popular Brooklyn Bridge Park that extends along the waterfront from Atlantic Avenue northeast beyond the Manhattan Bridge has led to a push to get Joralemon closed at Furman for vehicles.
After more than a decade of planning and debate, in 2005 Brooklyn Bridge Park started to become a reality. The association has closely followed all that has happened, some being controversial and divisive, and the impact on Willowtown. The association was one of the 27 initial members of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Community Advisory Council that began functioning in 2011.