For the February 2020 issue of the Red Hook Star Revue, I dove deep into a 1940 photo of an old house that is no longer with us. In the process I learned a lot about Van Dyke Street and how it suddenly morphed from almost entirely residential in the 1940s to entirely industrial by the 1980s…
I was working the day shift at the bustling Star Revue offices. George was pointing his big cigar at staff demanding more copy as I feverishly surfed the wholesome parts of the Internet, desperate for a story. And suddenly there it was. A 1940 photo of an old two-story federal house at 150 Van Dyke Street. The clapboard frame building was modest, 15 by 30 feet perhaps, and appeared well maintained with two trees in a gate-enclosed front yard and flanking garages. Two workmen in overalls and Irish flat caps walked past the house toward Van Brunt Street while a dapper old man in a suit and fedora crossed the street approaching the camera. The lengthy shadows cast by a sun low in the eastern sky indicated it was early morning, and the lack of coats and leafless trees suggested spring might be near. The photo, like 700,000 others, was taken for crass property tax purposes, trying to avoid (ugh!) humans from obscuring any part of the structures. Did the photographer – many were artisans employed by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration – purposefully wait for them to appear, tickled by the local color they provided? And who were the people who lived in that house through the years? Where did they go? Stitching together newspaper stories with maps, census and property records, a narrative emerged: from 1870 to 1967, they were all truckers.
Glossing over the Paleolithic age and the indigenous Lenape tribe that gave us the word Gowanus, a large swath of southern Red Hook was owned by Dutchmen Matthias and Nicholas Van Dyke until the 1840s, when shipping took off with the opening of the Atlantic Basin below the aptly-named Commerce Street. Some of the land was eventually sold to Francis B. Cutting, a Manhattan banker and former Democratic congressman who abandoned his party over slavery, leading the “War Democrat” faction that helped re-elect Lincoln in 1864. That same year, Cutting bought land abutting the Divine Burtis Shipyard at the foot of Conover Street and some Van Dyke Street lots. He would own 50 large parcels in Red Hook by the time he died six years later, fabulously rich.
One of those properties would later be bought by Lawrence McKenna, who emigrated to Red Hook from Ireland during the Civil War, a boom time for the shipyards, to become the first known inhabitant of 150 Van Dyke Street. Early insurance maps indicate a barn and stables in the rear of the house and vacant lots all around. McKenna became a well-known “truckman” in the press vernacular of the time, using a team of horses and wagons to deliver goods to and from “the Point,” as the Red Hook waterfront was then known. By 1876, McKenna was 45 and still a bachelor. His sisters lived around the corner with their families at 409 and 412 Van Brunt Street, running a large sewing operation out of their homes with more than two dozen Singer machines. Perhaps they introduced Lawrence to Margaret Coleman, a widow 10 years his senior, with three grown sons. Margaret’s husband had been a tanner who became a longshoreman only after he turned 60. Uh oh. Eternity soon beckoned, and the 1880 census found Coleman’s survivors all living at 150 Van Dyke Street. McKenna put his stepsons to work as drivers, and the oldest, John, gained some notice as a Democratic Party stalwart in South Brooklyn’s 12th Ward. Perhaps John was of some help when McKenna was swindled out of $100 in a horse deal gone bad in Greenpoint in 1887, or in 1890 when he was arrested for slugging one of the sewing sisters.
Nonetheless Lawrence McKenna was so successful in his trade that in August of 1905 he expanded his business by purchasing the empty land to his west, a 15-by-100-foot tract, from William Cutting, the grandson of the late Democratic congressman, for $1,000 – in today’s coinage, that’s $30,000. It is likely that McKenna had been trying to consummate this deal for some time because all of the Francis B. Cutting realty holdings had been tied up in litigation owing to his boozing son embezzling more than a million dollars from the estate.
This is further validation of a theory my long-departed father often advanced: a self-described “Al Smith Irishman,” he insisted that Democrats – like the Cuttings – committed sins of the flesh, while Republicans – like Nixon – committed sins of the mind. I guess that makes me a Democrat.
Lawrence McKenna passed away in December 1912 and his wife Margaret followed him to Holy Cross Cemetery shortly thereafter. The next occupants of 150 Van Dyke Street were also Irish immigrants. Margaret Phelan was a widow who inherited McKenna’s business, sharing the home with her 34-year-old brother, Patrick Barry, whom she employed as a “wagon driver.” Alas, Patrick was locked up for carting away a wagon full of somebody else’s cotton bales from the New York Dock Company, down where Fairway customers now sip coffee gazing at the water, and he would die suddenly in the home in September 1916. By 1920 census takers found 52-year-old Margaret Phelan hanging on. She had rented a room to a coal dealer who was busted for giving short weights on his deliveries. Well, that was nothing compared to the US Marshals destroying an extraordinary amount of liquor found at Thomas Loughlin’s saloon on the ground floor of the corner building on Conover Street, 80 feet west of Margaret, for violating the Prohibition Act. Loughlin had eight mouths to feed living above the bar and also rented rooms to the Levis family, including Michael, an immigrant from County Cork. By 1930, 31-year-old Michael Levis had been enlisted in Margaret Phelan’s trucking enterprise, now being run by her older brother, Edward Barry. Per a Times Union obit in 1935, Margaret was waked in the home, followed by a requiem mass at Visitation Church and burial in Holy Cross. Which finally brings us to that 1940 photo.
The census that year recorded Edward Barry and Michael Levis residing together at 150 Van Dyke as “Partners” in their trucking business. Edward was now retired but Michael, working a full 52 weeks in 1939, brought home $1,500 ($27,000 today). A few months after Pearl Harbor, when Levis registered for the draft, he had miraculously aged 10 years in the 18 months since the census, rendering him too old to serve. His draft card indicated he was then trucking for the American Molasses Company, which was using the old Brooklyn Clay Retort building on the next block, at 86 Van Dyke, for storage.
Years passed without any notice. Zoned as “unrestricted” in 1916, Van Dyke Street was becoming a building hodge-podge, rapidly turning from entirely residential to overwhelmingly industrial. During the 1950s a celebrated Brooklyn trucker, Peter Vetri, bought a number of parcels on the block, attempting to stitch together enough land to build… some sort of trucking concern? The record is unclear. In 1961 the block’s zoning changed to “residential,” which was subsequently interpreted as “mixed use” and Vetri continued to buy. In 1967 he completed his Van Dyke gobblings by securing 150 Van Dyke and its garage, a 100-by-95-foot tract in all, from Michael Levis. Demolition followed. Up went an industrial building at 144 Van Dyke, with the footprint of the old house serving as its parking lot.
And there matters stood, with various industrial comings and goings, even a methadone clinic for a while. In 1983 the City updated its “tax photo” repository, this time in color. The shot for 150 Van Dyke showed a poorly focused soulless picture of a parking lot. Bummer.
Meanwhile, on the corner of Conover, the old Loughlin saloon was long gone, replaced by an empty lot for decades until a new four-unit condo emerged in 2010. Built in a Guns of the Navarone style of architecture – sort of Mediterranean, sort of a bunker – it’s a fitting companion to the barbed-wire fort Time Warner built across the way in 1987. Oh well, times change. For instance, trucks in that 150 Van Dyke lot are now available via an online rent-a-car franchise…
As George’s cigar grew closer, I started to imagine the disappeared Van Dyke residents bellying up to that vanished Conover Street bar for one last round. Hmm… maybe I’ll take an early lunch and hoist one for all those hardworking truckers.
This has been a Joe Enright Production.
“When you’re right, you’re right, but when you’re always right, you’re Enright.”