Brooklyn is a buzzing hotspot that attracts innovators, businesses and creatives alike who are setting trends in tech, manufacturing, design, culture, fashion, art — you name it.

Taking a closer look at the Wallabout District, one of Brooklyn’s oldest neighborhoods bounded by Navy Street to the west, the Brooklyn Navy Yard to the north, Myrtle Avenue to the south and Classon Avenue to the east, you may discover that trailblazing ingenuity, entrepreneurship and manufacturing has fueled the borough’s growth all along.

Image credit: google maps/ A. Leonhardt for BK Reader
Vanderbuilt Avenue 73 — the oldest house on the historic block was built in 1830 and received landmark status in 2011. Photo credit: Andrea Leonhardt for BK Reader

1. If These Walls Could Talk – Wallabout Is Home to Some of the Borough’s Oldest Houses

The neighborhood of Wallabout first was named by a group of Walloons, people who escaped Europe via the Netherlands in search of religious freedom and who purchased large plots of farm land from Lenape Indians 400 years ago.

Then, between 1830 and 1880, rapid development of the area set in. With the Navy Yard just a stone throw away, the block was primarily inhabited by ship captains, marines, boat builders, sail makers, ferry masters, ship carpenters, ship joiners and rope makers.

Some of the oldest homes dating back to the 1830s can be found on a short block on Vanderbuilt Avenue, nestled between Park and Myrtle Avenues. The section features a mix of mix of wood framed homes that predate the city’s 1852 ban on wooden homes — for fear of fire — and an eclectic variety of styles reflecting the city’s architecture of the post-Civil War period. Fifty-five of these homes received official landmark status in 2011.

Lipman Pike, the first professional baseball player lived at 123 Vanderbilt Avenue. Photo credit: Andrea Leonhardt for BK Reader

 2. Wallabout – Home of a Baseball Pioneer

Among the historic buildings on Vanderbuilt Avenue is also the home of one the nation’s first professional baseball players who also happened to be the first jewish one. Lipman “Lip” Emmanuel Pike, born in 1845, lived on 123 Vanderbuilt Avenue. Called the “Iron Batter,” he was a great slugger and one of the best home run hitters which added to his fame as one of the early stars of 19th century baseball.

Interestingly, he played for Philadelphia and Baltimore, but never for New York City. And despite great success, he was never incepted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Educator and activist Maritcha Lyons taught in Wallabout. Photo credit: Google Maps

3. The Borough’s First Free African-American School — A Center for Education and Activism in Wallabout

What Brooklynites know today as P.S. 67 Charles Dorsey School, an elementary school in Fort Greene, was established as the borough’s first African-American school founded by free black people in 1827. For many years, after the school was officially integrated within Brooklyn’s public school system in 1850, it carried the name Colored School No. 1. In 1930, it eventually was renamed after the institutions long-serving black principal.

The school also was a center for abolitionists and activists, including educator Maritcha Lyons who taught at the school. Lyons was a trailblazer in her own right: In 1865, at age sixteen, she was denied entry to Providence High School due to her race. Her family joined the campaign for desegregation in the state, led by the prominent black abolitionist George T. Downing. Lyons testified before the state’s supreme court, and the school was ultimately desegregated.

In 1869, she became the first black graduate of Providence High School and shortly after began her lengthy teaching career in Brooklyn.

The world’s largest food market, the Wallabout Market. Postcard from the Museum of the City of New York.

4. Wallabout’s Sweet, Forgotten Secret

In 1884, the surrounding area that we know today as the Steiner Studios, located north of Flushing Avenue, between Washington Avenue and Ryerson Street, was given to the city to establish a wholesale produce, meat and provisions market. By 1900, the market, built in Flemish design to honor the original Wallabout settlers, had grown to become the world’s largest food market. 

In 1941, with World War II approaching, the Navy Yard bought the land back for $11 million. Before the navy demolished the entire market five days later, the vendors gave it a last big hooray: They loaded their goods on huge trucks and drove in a parade across Brooklyn to its new home, the Carnasie Market.

Simultaneously, thanks to the proximity to the sugar refineries in Williamsburg, large chocolate and candy factories including the Rockwood Chocolate Factory opened up, making the area the second largest producer behind Hershey. The factory closed in 1967 and was converted by a real estate developer into a luxury apartment building aptly called “The Chocolate Factory.”

Photo credit: Commercial Observer

4. Trailblazing Manufacturing Set Trends in Wallabout

Manufacturing has a long tradition in Brooklyn. In 1886, German-born inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler revolutionized the art of printing by creating the linotype print machine, the first device that could easily and quickly set complete lines of type for use in printing presses.

Throughout the 20th century, the Mergenthaler Linotype Company, formerly located on Park Avenue and Hall Street, dominated the printing industry and became the world’s leading manufacturer of book and newspaper typesetting equipment. The machines were so well designed that major parts remained virtually unchanged for nearly a hundred years.

The factory buildings alone were quite astounding: They offered vast amount of open space and a solid structure to accommodate large, heavy machinery on multiple floors, and they would later serve as the model for the automobile factories in Detroit. In 2012, the Wallabout Industrial Historic District along Park Avenue was established.

The Walt Whitman House on Ryerson Street in Wallabout. Photo credit: Andrea Leonhardt for BK Reader

5. Whitman’s Famous Lilacs Bloomed in Wallabout

Ninety-nine Ryerson Street, named after one of the original Dutch families in Wallabout, would become home to to one of the country’s most heralded poets: Walt Whitman. 

The journalist who travelled extensively before eventually turning to his true craft, poetry, would live, work and create in his Wallabout home for 28 years. There, he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, as well as the most translated American poem, The Song Of Myself. It is also speculated that Whitman’s eulogy for President Lincoln, When Lilacs Bloom, was inspired by his mother’s garden in Wallabout.

What about Wallabout did we discover? Brooklyn’s creative and industrious spirit was palpable then and remains very much alive today!

If you would like to explore more of the old secrets of Wallabout, join a free walking tour organized by the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership and the Fort Greene Park Conservancy.

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Andrea Leonhardt

“Made in Germany,” Andrea Leonhardt is the managing editor for BK Reader. Andrea holds a bachelor’s degree in political science, with minors in American studies and education, and a master’s...

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