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Toil, Tears And Sweat In Brooklyn


February 6, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

After Jesus Colon immigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico in 1917, he worked days and his brother worked nights. The schedule was convenient for a family too poor to afford two pairs of pants. Mr. Colon, who died in 1974 after becoming a writer and political activist, recalled going off to his job every day in clothes that were still warm from his brother's body.

In the annals of historical moments, the story of Mr. Colon's trousers isn't quite the Battle of Gettysburg. But in the populist rendering of the past now on view at the Brooklyn Historical Society, it's the homely details that matter. The artifacts include a barber's chair from the 1930's and a help-wanted sign from 1915, posted on the side of a replica of a brick building: "Button sewer for overcoats wanted, one flight up."

"Brooklyn Works: 400 Years of Making a Living in Brooklyn," which will be on view for the next three to five years, marked the reopening last October of the Historical Society after a $23 million renovation that took four years.

The striking, 120-year-old building of red terra cotta and brick, at the corner of Clinton and Pierrepont Streets in Brooklyn Heights, has been restored to its original elegance. You can get some idea of why it cost so much in "A Building's Story," a separate exhibition about the renovation. ("Brooklyn Works" shouldn't be confused with the show opening in April at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, "Open House: Working in Brooklyn," an overview of art produced in the borough since the 1970's. The jobs depicted at the Historical Society tend to be grittier, taking place on farms, in sweatshops on the waterfront or in factories.)

The dichotomy between the down-to-earth appeal of "Brooklyn Works" and the exquisite elitism of the building that houses it vividly illustrates the evolution of history museums. This landmark treasure, designed by George B. Post, architect of the New York Stock Exchange building, reflects the aristocratic impulse of 19th-century museum builders.

But "Brooklyn Works" takes the modern, heterogeneous approach of charting history's course by finding significance in ordinary lives.

"We wanted personal stories because that's how people learn history best, by making a personal connection with somebody from the past," said Ann Meyerson, the museum's curator of exhibitions, interviewed in the building's grand library, still looking naked as it waits for some 155,000 volumes to be reshelved later this year, along with piles of manuscripts, maps, periodicals and newspapers. "We had 3,000 square feet and 400 years of history so we had to figure out a way to present it that wouldn't be overwhelming but would be deep."

The influence of television, especially the History Channel, is apparent in this shrewdly produced, viewer-friendly excursion through Brooklyn's labor history. No surprise to learn that Mike Wallace, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian, who has frequently worked with the cable television channel, was one of the advisers on the "Brooklyn Works" exhibition.

Sets that might appear on a soundstage recreate an 18th-century farmhouse and a city block from the early 20th century, with audio narrations taken from letters and diaries. The exhibition begins with a kind of reality television show. A cheerful video display of Brooklyn's workers, past and present, it assures visitors that while this may be history, it will not intimidate.

Younger visitors, raised on TV-style-irony, will feel right at home watching a film that Domino Sugar produced in 1920 about its Brooklyn refinery, which began operating in the 1880's, when about 60 percent of the nation's sugar was processed in New York. The film has been supplemented with peppy, yet caustic, commentary on what working conditions were really like (it was boiling hot; it could take three days to get the dust out of your lungs). This part of the exhibition has special resonance since the American Sugar Refining Company, which acquired the Domino plant on the Williamsburg waterfront in 2001, closed the refining operation last week.

Parents may also want to take their families to the temporary exhibition "Let Children Be Children," running through March 7, a poignant collection of 25 photographs taken in the early 20th century by Lewis Hine, a teacher-turned-photographer whose images documented the struggles of immigrant and working-class life. These sobering silver gelatin prints show very young people selling newspapers, shining shoes, toiling in factories. Hine's work led to federal child labor legislation signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938.

"Brooklyn Works" manages to be accessible without glossing over the complexity of a particularly complicated piece of labor history, which turns out to be about immigration patterns as much as about work.

At the turn of the 20th century, for example, immigrants made up 40 percent of Brooklyn residents, almost the same as their percentage today. But while the borough's newcomers early on originated primarily from England, Ireland, the Netherlands and Africa (by way of slavery), later from Germany, and later still from Eastern and Southern Europe, the family guide to the exhibition indicates the provenance of subsequent waves; it is now available in Arabic, Russian, Spanish and Chinese – as well as English.

The museum staff was careful to observe another aspect of Brooklyn's changing population, which now includes 850,000 people of African descent. Thirty-four percent of Brooklyn's work force comes from this large group, which had its own history of struggle in entering the universe of established wage earners. "We wanted to show that it was really hard to get work if you were a person of color," said Wendy Aibel-Weiss, vice president for exhibits and education.

The show stresses how the unglamorous field of civil service opened the door to job security and middle-class life for African-Americans. One such beneficiary of the system, a transit worker, explains it like this: "A man couldn't just come and look in your face and say, `You're black and I don't like you.' "

While the exhibition focuses on the borough's largely uncelebrated laborers, it succumbs to traditional Brooklyn nostalgia for Coney Island and the Dodgers – celebrating the latter with a blown-up excerpt from an article in The New York Times written by Gay Talese in 1960, about the demise of Ebbets Field. Describing the sledge hammers knocking down the dugout, Mr. Talese wrote: "After 44 years as the home of the Dodgers and a monument to daffiness, the park began to vanish in favor of a proposed 1,317-family middle-income housing project."

Dodger lore was easy. But finding out about the rest was difficult because Brooklyn is Brooklyn, hip in some quarters, perhaps, but still so overshadowed by Manhattan that in a recent episode of "Sex and the City," a move to the borough by one character is considered almost as calamitous as another's breast cancer. So when Ms. Meyerson, the curator, began collecting data five years ago, she discovered that very little research had been devoted to Brooklyn labor history.

She and other researchers met with neighborhood organizations and ethnic groups to take oral histories. They recorded 78 individual stories, which will become part of the museum's archive, and interviewed more than 100 people altogether. They advertised in local newspapers and on the museum's Web site, and were rewarded with an outpouring of artifacts.

A retired chemical engineer, a graduate of Princeton, got in touch to say that his great-grandfather, Archibald Wallace, had been a rope maker in Brooklyn in the 1830's, when rope making was a significant industry. (In a job survey taken in the Village of Brooklyn in 1796, rope maker was one of the most frequently mentioned occupations, along with tavern keeper.)

The great-grandson provided a silver snuffbox, a photograph and a directory with his forebear's name in it.

Along with kitschy Brooklyn products like bottles of Rheingold beer and Virginia Dare pure vanilla, the museum team uncovered commentary from Francis Woolsey, an Irish immigrant who drove a streetcar in Brooklyn in the 1870's, and Sadie Frowne, a 16-year-old Jewish garment worker from Poland. "The machines go like mad all day," Ms. Frowne said about the sweatshop where she worked in 1902. "Sometimes in my hurry, get mine finger caught and the needle goes right through it."

Though the rise and decline of the waterfront is chronicled in fine detail, the saga of the Brooklyn Bridge, itself a brutal tale of workers' woe, is absent.

This was a conscious decision by the curators, partly philosophical, partly logistical. "We originally wanted to include the bridge because it's so iconic and everyone wants that story told," Ms. Meyerson said. "If we had 10,000 square feet, we would have included it."

But ultimately she and the other curators decided to risk pulling in an audience without offering a star. They limited their focus to work that connected Brooklyn to the rest of the world, not the local economy – and they considered construction too local, even construction of one of Brooklyn's most potent symbols. Instead, the protagonists of this story produced more mundane but far-reaching products like textiles, sugar, gum, beer, rope.

This engaging exhibition reminds us that while occupations may change, some aspects of human toil remain constant. The words of a native son, Alfred Kazin, spoken by an actor evoking the writer's Brownsville childhood in the 1920's, resonate today. Writing about his mother, Kazin observed:: "Work was her life. Work and anxiety."

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