Presidential apartments

The Woodrow Wilson

The Woodrow Wilson

Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway is notable for a number of reasons. It is the world’s first “parkway” (the word was coined to describe it), designed by the prolific Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and constructed in the 1870s as part of a grand vision – never achieved – to link Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and other green spaces together via a network of tree-lined, Parisian-style boulevards.  From its source at the magnificent (if terrifying for pedestrians) Grand Army Plaza, the parkway flows past the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum before it takes a dog-leg and turns into a much more workaday artery (less like Paris, more like Buffalo) at Ralph Avenue.

Come Labor Day weekend, the parkway will be transformed into an ear-splitting, bejeweled, befeathered and beflagged West Indian carnival. (Summertime in Brooklyn is bracketed by two festive excuses for public semi-nudity, June’s Mermaid Parade in Coney Island being the other one.)

Eastern Parkway is a fun street to run because the two malls that parallel the main traffic lanes, originally intended for horses and carriages, are now given over to pedestrians and cyclists (who seem less crazy here than in many other parts of the borough).  You can run long, uninterrupted, relatively uncongested blocks between avenues while taking in the view.

Martha (and George, too) would be proud of the organized tenants of the Martha Washington, who won a battle to stop their landlord from plopping seven floors of luxury apartments on top of their 1922 building.

Martha (and George, too) would be proud of the organized tenants of the Martha Washington, who recently won a battle to stop their landlord from plopping seven floors of luxury apartments on top of the 1922 building.

All of this is by way of explanation as to how I came to focus on the names of the apartment buildings that line both sides of the parkway – a surprising number of which pay tribute to U.S. presidents and other patriotic icons. In the four blocks between Underhill and Bedford avenues, I count the Abraham Lincoln; the Martha Washington; the Theodore Roosevelt; the Woodrow Wilson; Nathan Hale Court; and the Thomas Jefferson. Most were erected between 1922 and 1925 (the Abraham Lincoln is a relative newcomer, constructed in 1930). They are solid, six-story buildings, built to accommodate the children of immigrants who were leaving the busting-at-the-seams streets of lower Manhattan behind for the wide open spaces of Brooklyn, and the working class for the ranks of white-collar professionals.

Originally, I assumed there was some story behind all these presidential names . . . if not a master plan, then perhaps a history-obsessed or politically-connected developer – or, maybe, rival developers with different politics, erecting the Woodrow Wilson as a deliberate retort to the Theodore Roosevelt.

But no. There doesn’t seem to be any particular story, beyond the eternal desire of developers to appeal to the aspirations of potential residents. Names that were vaguely English or French (e.g., the Traymore; the Launcelot; the Lillianette; the Martinique) evoked Old World classiness with a touch of exoticism. The names of U.S. presidents and patriotic heroes evoked solidity.

Solidity and something more, I think. There may not be a story, but there’s definitely a zeitgeist. Naming apartment buildings in 1920s Brooklyn after presidents and patriots sent a message about America identity that was both celebratory and vaguely threatening. For the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia or Poland, living at “the Thomas Jefferson” or “Nathan Hale Court” must have spoken of arrival and belonging. It also spoke of enforced assimilation and, ultimately, exclusion. As these presidential apartment buildings were going up on Eastern Parkway, and becoming home to the children of previous waves of immigrants, legislators in Washington, D.C. were writing new immigration laws – the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, the National Origins and Asian Exclusion Acts of 1924 – to slam the door shut.

Flash forward to the present. The immigration policies of the 1920s through 1960s created unspeakable suffering, but they failed. If the nation’s doors (not to mention the doors of the “Martha Washington”) had stayed shut, there’d be no roti or doubles or jerk along Nostrand Avenue, no Francophone evangelical congregations, no spectators at the windows of the Martinique (ah, the irony!) taking in the West Indian American parade, no Sakura Matsuri at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden – and Eastern Parkway would be a desolate and boring place.

Feel free to draw your own lessons for today’s immigration debate.


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