Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Brooklyn 'Hoods Continued: Carroll Gardens

Gratuitous fall foliage picture
On any given Saturday take a stroll down Court Street in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn and follow your nose inside D'Amicos Coffee Shop. Jockey your way through the customers waiting to buy some of the freshly roasting coffee in the front and head to the back café. Here you can order a cappuccino and espresso and sit at little metallic tables and chairs as if you were in a piazza. Dry goods and Italian cooking staples used to line these store walls; now, framed photos of several generations of the D’Amico family and friends adorn the exposed brick walls. This place, like the neighborhood, has quite a history. If you don't believe me, just ask one of the regulars sharing conversation over coffee at the tables.

These regulars are indeed regular. They visit this neighborhood every weekend, even if they don’t live here anymore. They come to their home neighborhood to pick up bread, pastries, meats, pasta, and produce, and while the wife is getting her hair done, the men come to D’Amico’s to drink coffee and talk. These regulars can name the people in the photos–they were actually there when most of the photos were taken. In the middle of a debate over which war was the Great War [it was World War I], one of the regulars did offer to share his perspective of the neighborhood’s history.

The neighborhood now known as Carroll Gardens was named after Charles Carroll, a Revolutionary War veteran and the only Roman-Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Many years passed before Mr. Carroll had the honor of a neighborhood being named after him, though. Back in the day, the area was known as Gowanus and Red Hook. Along with Irish and Norwegian immigrants, Italian immigrants from Calabria and Bari worked the docks at Red Hook or the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The strong Italian influence can be seen even today in the business and street names. In fact, Court Street between Third and Fourth places was recently given a second name--Citizens of Mola Way–in a tribute to the industrious 5,000+ residents of Mola di Bari [a region in Apulia, the heel of the "boot"]. Similarly, in 2009, the neighborhood co-named a section of Henry Street between Sackett and Union Streets--Citizens of Pozzallo Way–in a tribute to the contributions of immigrants from that Sicilian seaside town.

Prior to the Italians, the Native Americans, Dutch, Norwegians, and Irish all had a presence in this area. The Gowanus Creek was dredged and the surrounding swamps were drained to form a navigable inland waterway. This waterway, believe it or not, facilitated the transportation of bodies [we’re assuming corpses here] from Manhattan to Greenwood Cemetery, which forms one of the boundary lines of Carroll Gardens today. Part of the current waterway, the Gowanus canal, has many interesting nicknames due to its unfortunate highly polluted state.

The regular quickly dismissed the blemish of "lavender lake" on an otherwise beautiful palette of a neighborhood. He spoke of an era when children were all born at home, and family and respect were a given. He gave me a list of places to visit, too, along Court Street and Smith Street: Where to go for the best pignolia cookies and cannolis; where to get the best "lard bread;" and where to get a good slice of pie [pizza pie, of course]. The homes in Carroll Gardens are also reputed to have some splendid holiday decorations. So, it looks like another stroll through Carroll Gardens is on the horizon.