Sunday, July 22, 2007

Henry Miller Remembers Williamsburg

"Though my memory of this early Paradise could scarcely begin before the age of 5, and though I quit the neighborhood at the age of 9, these few early years are ineradically engraved on my mind. I returned a few times after I had grown up and always, no matter how great the deterioratiohn, the streets and houses fascinated me."
--- Henry Miller in 'A Boyhood View Of the Nineties,' NY Times, Oct. 17, 1971.

On October 17, 1971, The New York Times published a memoir by Henry Miller, in which he reflected on his childhood in Williamsburg. It's a nostalgic itemization of places in his old boyhood universe. Some of this material is elaborated upon in Miller books such as Black Spring and The Book Of Friends. For the purpose of this posting, however, I've simply mapped out what is spoken of in this particualr article, plus added a few supplemental details where available. Some of this has already been touched on in my posting on 662 Driggs Avenue.

Williamsburg, Brooklyn - 2007. Each numbered circle represents a place referenced by Miller in the NY York Times article. Unless an actual address is listed, please note that the placement of the numbers on the map is an approxiation.

1. 662 Driggs Avenue. Miller's boyhood home. Henry's grandfather had planted an elm tree in the back yard, soon after acquiring the home. Henry's cousin, Henry Heller (born 1901) was born at 662 Driggs and still lived there at the time of this article's publication. A the end of the article, Heller confirms that the elm tree is no longer there.

2. Metropolitan Avenue. This was once called North Second Street. "I remember particularly the feeling of alien land about the neighborhood flanking Metropolitan Avenue. It has all the strange qualities to me of a foreign country. And, strangely enough, years later, when I took up quarters in Paris , in the poor districts especially, I often ran across streets which reminded me of that strange territory surrounding Metropolitan Avenue."

3. Dr. Kinney, veternarian. House opposite the Millers. I could not find a a Kinney or Kenny living on Driggs Avenue in 1897-98.

4. Mrs. Omelio, cat lover. Kept 20-30 cats on the rooftop next door to Dr. Kinney. The spelling is different, but a Charles and Loretta Mealio lived at 653 Driggs Avenue while Henry was there.

5. Fillmore Place. "Diagonally opposite us was Fillmore Place, just one block long, which was my favorite street and which I can still see vividly if I close my eyes."

This map from 1907 contains Fillmore Place, Driggs Ave. (identifed by its old name, Fifth Street), the 50th Precinct Police Station (at left), and the Unique Theatre (at left). Source: New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

6. Saloon. Located at the Driggs Avenue end of Fillmore Place. "I remember the saloon because as a child I was often sent to get a pitcher of beer at the side entrance; we called this 'rushing the growler.'"

7. Kindergarten. Located at the other end of Fillmore Place. According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, on October 16, 1896, this kindergarten was established on the ground floor of a store at the corner of Fillmore Place and Roebling after its original location at the North Second armory was considered unsafe.

8. Tin factory. On North First Street, between Driggs and Bedford. Miller mentions that it burned to the ground one winter's night. I coulnd't find any news items for this event. From Black Spring (p.5 ): "I remember, with a vividness as if it were etched in acid, the grim, soot-covered walls and chimneys of the tin factory opposite us ..."; (p.13): "...the gaunt tree against the tin factory..."

9. Police station. At the corner of Bedford and North First was the police station to which 6 or 7 year old Henry was dragged by Florence Martin ("the young lady whom my mother had asked to take care of me"): "the crime I had committed was to use dirty language in her presence." New Yorkers: Is this still there?

10. Professor Martin (aka "Doc Martin" in Black Spring): Rat exterminator who lived a few doors down from the Millers. Also the husband of Florence, who'd taken Henry to the police. There is a Louis Martin listed in the Brooklyn City Directory for 1987-98, at 680 Driggs.

11. Mr. Ramsay, gospel minister (aka "old man Ramsay" in Black Spring), "of whom I had an unholy fear." Miller says that Ramsay lived in the same house as Martin.

12. Primary School. Located on North First Street. Miller attended this school for a year or so, and never forgot or forgave the "elderly spinster, Miss Petty," the principal, for striking him with a rattan stick.

13. Candy store. Located a few doors from Henry's house, in a short row of run-down shanties, was a candy store run by the Meinken sisters: "very meek, very kind, very generous. In the store window, which was very low, there were all kinds of things besides candies--tin soliders, for example, which I would look at hungrily day after day." The Brooklyn directories show a Sophia Meinken (widow of John), in the candy business at 666 Driggs Avenue.

14. Grand Street: "a rather exciting street to us kids because it was full of stores of all kinds."

15. Reynolds Bakery. On Grand Street; an institution, writes Miller. The woman who ran it was the first woman he looked upon as a queen or aristocrat: "she stood out above all the women I knew." Behind the shop, which opened on North First and always held the "aroma of fresh baked bread, crullers and doughnuts," Henry and his friends would play shinny.

16. Daly's Fish Market. At the other end of Grand Street. Miller mostly remembers the hairy, swarthy Mr. Daly, who used to always seem to be opening oysters.

17. The Unique Theatre (also known as "The Bum"; see my posting on Burlesque). The most exiting place on Grand.

18. Vossler's drugstore, located at the corner of Grand and Bedford: "I remember distinctly the octagonal tiles for flooring and the smell of chemicals, as well as the beautiful glass jars with colorful salts in them." The spelling in this article is wrong; it was called Vosseler, run by Adolph Vosseler at 179 Grand Street. A second drugstore called Vosseler Brothers was run out of 578 Driggs Avenue at the same time.

Miller mentions a few other places in this article that are further afield than the few blocks around his house that I've focused on. Most interestingly is Dr. Wells' Presbyterian Church at Driggs and South Third (about three blocks further south than #14) at which Miller first saw a motion picture film.

Although I found this article at the library, you can order your own copy online at the New York Times Archive. I found the 1897-98 Brooklyn Directories at the Brooklyn Genealogy website. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle may be searched (to 1902) online through the Brooklyn Public Library. The map I used is a hybrid satellite and street map from Google Maps.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looks like a place to pilgrimage to when I'm next in NYC.

1:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is excellent. I have a strong interest in Henry Miller, one of the landmark authors of the 20th century, and it is exciting to find this kind of detail that allows me to walk the very sidwalks that Miller grew up on, and understand the buildings there and how he saw them as a child.

He is a great author and this kind of detail makes me feel that anyone, even I could record mere streets and stores into art that opens vistas for future readers. The most powerful aspect of Henry Miller's writing are that anyone is an "everyman", living the hilarious, sad, frightening and mundanely stupid life-adventure that Miller portayed decades before Kerowac. In the same way that I can sit on the benches in Washington Square that Dylan sat on, I can stroll the sidewalks that Henry miller grew up on, and relive my childhood feelings in his neighborhood.

Excellent site, thanks!!!

11:41 am  
Blogger C said...

I am currently reading Black Spring and so I googled some of Miller's New York places of interest, I came across this article regarding his 662 Driggs home:

Miller's 662 Driggs Home

1:53 pm  
Blogger Paul Behnke said...

Thanks very much for posting this! I'm a Miller fan and an artist with a studio in Bushwick Brooklyn. I've walked past Miller's boyhood home in Williamsburg many times. But didn't know about this old NYTimes article.

9:59 pm  
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