“Yo, professor! Where’s that story on the new zillion dollar office complex down by the Canal!”
It was George again, bellowing for copy, chomping on his day-old cigar.
“I’m almost done, boss. I’m working a new angle.”
“Yeah? Like what? Space aliens again? I’m sick of that crap!”
“No. It’s about love and charity.”
“God give me patience,” he muttered. “Wrap it up, professor. Less big thoughts, more writing!”
All right, let’s start at the beginning. According to the latest realty news about hip, happening Gowanus, those old red brick Roulston buildings under the F train at 9th Street that once housed a huge bakery, coffee grinders, and tons of groceries – followed by cobwebs and then artist lofts – will now be home to lots of office workers.
Firms fleeing higher rents in Hell’s Kitchen and Dumbo will have excellent rooftop views of a Godzilla-class railroad viaduct overhead. And the nicely-appointed windows looking out on 2nd Avenue will give harried analysts a bizarre alternative to their spreadsheets and power points as they gaze at a latticework of massive gray-steel stanchions that could survive a nuclear holocaust.
During the first half of the 20th Century the two families who built and owned those now “repurposed” warehouses understood supply and demand as well as any of the hedge fund sharks who are reshaping our current surroundings. Hell, they made a boatload of money selling tons of food to Brooklynites. But they also knew a thing or two about charity and that’s something we could use a lot more of these days…
In A Drinking Life Brooklyn’s dearly departed poet of the common people, William Peter Hamill Jr., remembered the Summer of 1940. Then a wee lad, his mother would walk him from 7th Avenue in the South Slope down to the Canal to drop off a daily lunch bag for his father. Billy Hamill, a Belfast immigrant, was then employed as a clerk at the Roulston offices on 9th Street, astride the huge food warehouses that supplied over 700 neighborhood markets.
Anne Hamill told young Pete that his dad got the job based on “his beautiful handwriting.” But I suspect Billy’s Northern Ireland birthplace might have played a larger role because Thomas Henry Roulston Jr. – who preferred to be called “Harry” – was born there himself…
In 1879 Harry’s father, already on the far side of 40, got off the boat from the Emerald Isle with his wife and Junior in tow, greeted by a sister who had an apartment in Gowanus. Naturally, old man Roulston, who was a successful shop-keeper with his brother back in the old sod, went looking for work and got lucky when William Irvine needed help running his grocery at the corner of Court & Smith Streets. An industrious Roulston bought out Irvine three years later and moved his family over the store. Then on March 7, 1889, Roulston’s wife Eliza, only 36, suddenly took ill and died.
Perhaps to swallow his grief, Roulston started to expand. He rented nearby vacant storefronts at Smith & Douglas and 5th Ave & 13th St. Now he needed a place to keep his horse and wagons – he bought a two story brick stable off Smith & 9th. Then he began buying produce from farmers in the south of Brooklyn. So why not open a shop in Sheepshead Bay? Ka-Ching! How about Red Hook at Van Brunt west of Dikeman Street to feed those dock-worker families? Ka-Ching! Now he needed more space. In 1905 he bought a warehouse at 101-103 9th Street. He kept expanding. By 1906 he had opened 45 stores. By 1909, 65 stores. He needed more space! That’s when he erected a row of buildings on the north side of 9th Street and set up a new headquarters and warehouses extending north from 2nd Avenue toward the Gowanus Canal.
Exhausted, in 1910 old man Roulston handed over to Junior the management reins of his empire of 70 Brooklyn stores. When he died eight years later he was remembered by the dailies as someone “with commercial imagination, a sort of poetry when highly developed,” who was “honest with customers in every way, picking assistants with the same ideals.” It was said he “never forsook South Brooklyn,” and “took little part in public affairs, never was interested in politics.” His funeral service would have packed any church, but he wanted it held in his brownstone at 383 Union Street where he took his last breath – only a few doors down from a Roulston store at the corner of Hoyt Street.
Thomas H. Roulston Jr. was also a dynamo. By the time of his father’s funeral, he had come to manage a colossus of 236 groceries extending from Richmond to Nassau Counties. Tommy had married Florence Davies in 1902, the daughter of Henry J. Davies who built the huge Ansonia Clock Factory on 7th Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets. Florence survived the Spanish flu pandemic waves of 1918 and 1919, only to succumb to a sudden bout of pneumonia in December 1920. Here we go again. Flash forward 10 years. There are now more than 500 Roulston chain stores. But the stock market has crashed, and hard times are looming…
Henry Roulston in 1915
In November of 1931 as the weather turned cold, Harry Roulston noticed more and more hungry men, women and children were coming into his 9th Street buildings begging for food. Rather than call the cops, Harry decided to make more bread, rolls and cake and he set aside a group of workers whose only job would be to hand out the food. Word spread. Needy out-of-work laborers and families started to stream in, from Red Hook, from Erie Basin, from Gowanus, from Park Slope, until he was feeding 2,000 loaves of bread every day to his fellow down-on-their-luck Brooklynites.
Folks waiting for their free food would have watched workers extending the Culver-Smith Street line, a major undertaking of the City’s Independent Subway System – the IND – back then. The railroad was positioned above the 9th Street drawbridge because the Canal is narrow there and the banks were solid enough to support the structure. Ground was broken in 1927, then hit a speed bump as the Depression descended, and it wasn’t finally completed until October 1933. Over 100 buildings were condemned along the 9th, 10th & Smith Street corridors, but the Roulston properties were never in play. Why?
The elevation of the span over the Canal was dictated by federal regulations dating to the time of tall-masted ships that required any bridge over a navigable waterway had to have vertical clearance of 75 feet at mean high water. The final height at Smith & 9th Street was recorded as 87.5 feet. Thus City engineers had to go above the Roulston buildings in order to meet that elevation. Of course the engineers would have had a much easier time constructing that span if the land beneath it was empty the entire length. But there is also no question that the Roulston bakery was beloved and any plan to take it down would have caused an outcry. How do I know that? Because, per the New York Times, over a thousand mourners attended Harry’s funeral at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights.
In truth Harry got more publicity than his kind acts ever garnered when he married a woman in 1939 who was celebrated for being single. Marjorie Hillis was a Vogue editor whose perceptively witty Live Alone and Like It was one of the top-ten selling books in 1936. It’s still in print and judging from its glowing Amazon reviews – and a fabulous recent biography of Marjorie by New Yorker (via London) Joanna Scutts, The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It – it will continue to resonate for decades to come.
The ties that bound Harry and Marjorie I suspect were a love for their fellow man…and Brooklyn. Marjorie was after all a daughter of the pastor of Plymouth Church at Orange & Hicks Streets where Henry Ward Beecher had held sway until 1887, the abolitionist whose “rhetorical focus on Christ’s love has influenced mainstream Christianity to this day,” according to Wikipedia, one of my favorite charities if truth be told.
In 1939 another Brooklyn family of immigrants – hugely successful in the food business – also made news when another Harry – Harry R. Socolof succeeded his father, Joseph, as president of the Sweet Life Food Corporation in Williamsburg.
Joseph Socolof was what we used to call in the Flatbush of my youth, “a tough Jew.” He arrived here penniless as a teenager in 1889, fresh from Russian pogroms, and immediately enlisted in the US Army, serving in the artillery at Fort Columbus, protecting New York Harbor on Governor’s Island. During his stint in the Army he was naturalized a US citizen and within a month of his discharge in late 1893, married another Russian immigrant, Rose Feinman, and promptly founded his own food company, Sweet Life Food Corporation, at 115 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg’s North Side.
But unlike Roulston which was strictly retail, Sweet Life was strictly wholesale. Joseph Socolof hooked up with a major middleman, Graham Co, Inc. at 151 Hudson Street in Tribeca and was dispatched to Europe as their Vice President to negotiate contracts with British, French and German colonial overlords to ship food from Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean to a roaring New York – food which eventually found their way to Socolof’s Williamsburg and Greenpoint warehouses, and thence to retailers like Roulston.
In 1924 Joseph Socolof’s wife, Rosie, died. I detect a pattern. Soon thereafter he organized the Greater New York Wholesale Grocers Association and became its president. When the Depression hit, he served as Chairman of the Food & Grocery Distributors Code Authority and supported the New Deal’s NRA pricing to eliminate cut-throat competition. Then he retired to Miami where he founded the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged.
Meanwhile Harry and Marjorie Roulston, residing in a brownstone on 1st Street off Prospect Park West, had been devoting much of their attention to the Congregational Home for the Aged on Linden Boulevard. When Harry Roulston died in August of 1949, Harry Socolof was encamped only a couple of blocks away at 9 Prospect Park West. Shortly thereafter Harry bought the Roulston empire, lock stock and barrel. Wholesale became retail. The 9th Street warehouses became superfluous – the Socolofs were swimming in them up in Williamsburg. The Roulston stores were carved up and as Fairway customers can relate, were rebranded, King Kullen chief among them, as groceries became SUPER and shopping carts de rigueur.
And there the story drags to an end. The Roulston-Socolof buildings were leased to various entities until dwindling industrial demand led to artist lofts followed by a Gowanus rebirth, evictions and now food courts and cubicles.
But we can’t close without noting that the Socolofs were as generous as the Roulstons. They were particularly supportive of the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital (now Interfaith) and the Industrial Home for the Blind.
And I don’t mean open-your-checkbook-and write-a-check-on-December-31st supportive. I mean play-Santa-at-the-Christmas-parties- and-be there-for-every-damn-monthly-event supportive. I mean help-serve-turkey-dinners-for-everyone-on-Thanksgiving-Hanukkah-and-Christmas supportive.
Like the Roulstons, the Socolofs generosity must have been genetic. Harry Socolof’s brother, Lee, a US Army veteran of the European Theater in WW II, got his 15 minutes of fame in December 1966 when the Miami Herald profiled his many eccentricities as he turned 60. When not parading around Coral Gables in thongs and long red hair, it seems Lee had devoted much of his considerable fortune to aiding the blind and the deaf. Imagine, as John Lennon liked to say.
Ever since Ramadan ended in May, there have been food banks operating on Coney Island Avenue. The South Asian community, like all immigrant neighborhoods, has been hit hard by COVID. When you’re undocumented, you’re not eligible for a check signed by Donald “I’ll Be On Mount Rushmore One Day” Trump. And so the lines on Friday wrap all the way around a long city block.
A wise man once told some Corinthians that Jesus preached only three things: faith, hope and charity. “But the greatest of these,” Paul/Saul said, “is charity.” As a singer of simple songs once reminded us during another grievous time almost two decades ago, “Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us, and the greatest is love. And the greatest is Love.”Me, St. Paul & Alan Jackson