Past and Present: 5th Avenue Near Bergen Street, Park Slope

1942 photograph: New York Public Library

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Brooklyn’s 5th Avenue starts in the shadow of the Barclays arena at Flatbush Avenue, travels down and forms one of the borders of Green-Wood Cemetery, and then extends far out into Bay Ridge. In the past decade, this beginning part of the street has changed greatly from garages, mom-and-pop shops and neighborhood bars to trendy eateries and fancy watering holes mixed in with the turn-of-the-20th-century tenement buildings. But as much as some things change, other things don’t. It’s interesting to find a period photo and compare then and now.

Our period photograph, part of the collection of the New York Public Library, was taken in 1942 by Percy Loomis Sperr. He was a prolific photographer of the streetscapes of New York City. Beginning in 1924, through the 1940s, he took over 30,000 photographs of the city. He was called the “Official Photographer of New York,” and he lived in Staten Island. He wandered around every neighborhood, in every borough, chronicling the growth and changes in the city over the years. He especially liked to photograph buildings and infrastructure, and his photos offer clear views of the details of buildings, as well as the construction of bridges and highways.

This photograph is one of a series that travels down this stretch of 5th Avenue in Park Slope. I chose this particular photograph because it called my attention to something I hadn’t noticed before. The 1942 shot captures 5th Avenue between Dean and Bergen streets. The shot is dominated by the handsome group of mixed-use storefront and tenement buildings on both sides of Bergen Street, continuing towards St. Marks Avenue.

The most interesting structures are in the foreground, especially the large four story wood-framed house tucked in near the corner. That’s 41 5th Avenue. It’s set way back on the plot, and by 1942 has another two story building extending in front of it, with a storefront facing 5th Avenue. To get into that building, one probably had to go through the store. It looks like a largish house, with an attic floor with two dormer windows extending out past the sloped roof. The house is covered in clapboard, and probably dates back to the early 1850s.

The avenue grew in importance as a street with public transportation running along it, first as a horse trolley street, then an elevated train. This house, which was part of a pair, with another pair at 33 and 35 5th Avenue, may have been a single family house, but more than likely it was a tenement. The maps do show that by 1929, the two story store extension was in place in front of all three remaining houses, numbers 33, 35 and 41. The only sign of the original wood framed house was way in the back, with the dormers still sticking out.

A companion photograph to this 1942 photo shows Nos. 33 and 35. They were kitted up exactly the same, and it would probably be a safe bet to assume the same owner and architects were involved in the row. Nos. 33 and 35 are totally gone now. Even back in 1942, they were a mess. But if you look at No. 41, the wood framed house is still back there! You can still see the dormer windows peeking up behind the extension. Someone tried to make the extension look older than it actually is, and turned that once commercial office space into an apartment.

It’s also interesting that in 1942, the storefronts next door were one-story taxpayers. The tenants in the photograph are the Paramount Exterminating Company, Ferrando Studio, another photographer or perhaps a continuation of Ferrando Studio, and a bar. Today, those buildings are still there, now a medical office and a pub. I like the mix on this block, and the mix of old, new, nostalgic and modern.


1942 Photograph: New York Public Library

1942 photograph: New York Public Library

Photo: Google Maps

Photo: Google Maps

1880 map. New York Public Library

1880 map: New York Public Library

1888 map. New York Public Library

1888 map: New York Public Library

33-35 Fifth Ave. 1942 photo: New York Public Library

33-35 5th Avenue. 1942 photo: New York Public Library

41 Fifth Ave. Photo: Steven Booth for Property Shark

41 5th Avenue. Photo: Steven Booth for PropertyShark

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