Past and Present: Poplar Street

Photograph: Berenice Abbott, 1936. From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

A Look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Brooklyn Heights was well named, as the bluffs facing the river and harbor were high above the shoreline. As the city grew, the land between the harbor and the Heights was eventually all built upon, with houses, tenements, factories, warehouses, and other buildings lining the streets that continued on down the hill to the shore. Poplar was one of those streets.

An expressway connecting Brooklyn and Queens had been in the works since 1936. The first leg of the highway connected Meeker Avenue in Greenpoint to Queens Boulevard in Woodside, and opened in time for the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow. The goal was to eventually connect southern Brooklyn to Queens, enabling commercial and vehicular traffic to flow freely without running through city streets.

Unfortunately, there were homes and businesses in the path of the roadway, but that didn’t slow down Robert Moses, the planning king of New York. As we all know, the part of the BQE that passes through Brooklyn Heights was re-routed four blocks to the west, to prevent what happened in Red Hook, where the highway is cut right through the neighborhood, splitting it in two.

Thanks to the very well-connected and organized people in the Heights who were able to pressure Moses to offer an alternative, the highway was cantilevered on the bluffs of the Heights, creating the triple tiered roadway, with the Promenade on top, a masterpiece of engineering designed by the firm of Andrews and Clark. The roadway opened in 1954.

But building this part of the BQE meant losing many of the buildings leading down the bluffs, especially on the northern end of the Heights. If the highway itself didn’t need the room, the land was needed for off and on ramps, fortifications, or just safety clearance. Poplar Street was one of the streets that lost a big chunk of its length.

The photo on the left was taken by the great archivist photographer Berenice Abbot, in 1936. When she captured Brooklyn’s streets, architecture, and people, little did she know that in many cases, she was documenting places that only several years later, would be irrevocably changed. Such is the case here. The photograph shows numbers 1, 3,5,7,9, and half of 11 Poplar Street on the right, with Willow Street in the foreground running north and south.

From the fire escapes, it looks like there are tenements on the left, next to the man in the picture. The period cars are still sharing the road with a horse drawn milk or delivery truck. In the background, next to the square Italianate building in the center, which, with its double entryway looks residential, are some kind of storage tanks and other industrial or warehouse buildings. Factory buildings can also be seen behind the houses on the right. And of course, there is the impressive skyline of Manhattan in the background.

At one time, this was a residential street. One of the houses in this photograph, number 7 Poplar, had been the Newsboy’s Home, founded in the late 1860s, to house and aid indigent boys, who made their meager living by selling papers, or being messengers. The Newsboy’s Home had moved up the street to 57 Poplar in 1883. Most of the houses on the right were built in the early 1860s, and only ten years later, were being rented out as rooming houses, eagerly taken by renters who worked across the river in Manhattan, or for the many businesses on Brooklyn’s waterfront.

By the 1930s, when Ms. Abbott took this photograph, the neighborhood was populated by working class, first or second generation, immigrant families, who mostly worked locally, in the factories of DUMBO, or the nearby Navy Yard. Today, these parts of Poplar, as well as all of that part of Willow Street are gone, replaced by highway ramps and access roads. The buildings are long gone, and hardly remembered. Thank goodness we have a photograph or two. GMAP

Photograph: Berenice Abbott, 1936. From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

Photograph: Googlemaps

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