On a cloudy November afternoon, a small crowd gathered at the southeast corner of 7th Avenue and 3rd Street in Park Slope for a street “co-naming” event. It was the kind of ceremony I suspect Joe Ferris would have liked. Just family members, close friends and political allies. No press, no podium, no seats, no blocked traffic. Bobby Carroll kicked things off, recalling Joe’s iconoclastic life before Covid took him last June. An Army vet and high school teacher who also taught inmates at Riker’s Island, he got his political feet wet in the 1960s as one of the founders of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, briefly challenging an old school Democrat Congressman. In 1972 he took on the machine candidate for State Assembly and won the primary but lost the general election. By then he had quit teaching and was running the Shamrock Tavern on Flatbush near 6th Avenue in a building he owned.
Brad Lander, our Comptroller-Elect, who arrived on a Citi Bike in a suit and tie, recalled the street unveiling months ago further south on 7th Avenue for another Irishman, Pete Hamill. As Lander spoke, a passenger in a shiny black sedan turning onto 3rd Street angrily yelled out her window that Lander was a traitor and liar about something or other. Lander remarked that we had just witnessed another example of Park Slopers being so passionate about their politics.
Joe Ferris Jr. was next up, recalling how much his father loved this block from the minute he bought a house across the street in 1961, hard times in Park Slope. “How much did he pay?” someone asked. “About $12,000 I think.” Another old-timer yelled out, “He was overcharged!” Joe Jr. laughed and replied, “Well, I think they threw in the furniture too.”
Finally, Jim Brennan spoke, recalling how Ferris dusted himself off after his 1972 defeat in the Nixon landslide and won a hotly contested primary in 1974, then beat the incumbent Republican who was a PhysEd teacher at John Jay High School. Joe was sworn in alongside another rookie Assemblyman from the neighboring District, Chuck Schumer. In 1976, the Democratic machine supported a challenger, but Joe won the primary and was reelected. He was primaried again in 1978, 1980 and 1982 but won every time, retiring in 1984. Ferris passed the reform banner to his assistant, Brennan, who would serve for 32 years before handing the baton to Bobby Carroll.
Now Joe Jr. pulled the string to unsheathe the new street name sign. The string broke. Lander was dissuaded from climbing the pole while Carroll rushed to Tarzian Hardware on the next corner to get a pole. Joe used it to swipe away the covering and thanked us all for coming.
I asked Brennan why Ferris bowed out. “Joe really and truly hated Albany,” he said. But more than anything, it seems, he hated the old Democratic Party clubhouse politics. So much so that in 1989, ever an independent, he backed Giuliani over Dinkins for Mayor.
Back in July 1972, after visiting Joe’s first victory party, Pete Hamill wrote this: “There were 200 of them packed in a small social club over a bicycle store on Union Street: middle class housewives from the old McCarthy campaigns, a dozen firemen, three saloon-keepers, two Puerto Rican bodega owners, a lot of young people, and a lot of the sons of the Irish and Italian working class. This was the politics of ethnicity and inclusion, of cases of beer, loud music, community, laughter and a sense of place. ‘Everybody’s welcome,’ Ferris was saying as a band pounded and people hugged each other and a few people cried.”