Making it up on Myrtle Avenue
One of the best things about being a tour guide is the ability to say anything you want and people will take it as truth. However, the Tour Guide Credo prevents us from just making everything up. So when Christine Vassallo was hired by the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership to find artists for a street fair in Fort Greene called Move About Myrtle, she had thought back to an “un-tour” of Flux Factory that my brother Matt had led. Matt was gone to Toronto during the Move About Myrtle weekend, so he asked me to lead this “un-tour.” As soon as I began to research the history of “Murder Avenue,” I found some awesome history and some examples of great stories that were close enough to the truth. Can YOU separate fact from fabrication?
The tour started on Hall Street, which is named after the City of Brooklyn’s first mayor, George Hall, circa 1834. A self-made tradesman in a sleepy town of twenty thousand, he was quite proud of Brooklyn and “sixteen of its streets lighted with public lamps.” Mindful of the intersection of commerce and morality, the tee-totalling Hall cracked down on unlicensed rum shops as well as the common method of street-cleaning of the era —letting garbage-eating pigs roam the streets.
The tour continued on, to 493 Myrtle Avenue, where a building collapsed in the spring of 2009. According to the owner, the building had a crack that ran down the east exterior wall from the ground to the roof. When the Buildings Department inspected it in May of 2009, they gave it an OK. About six weeks later, bricks were seen falling from the roof. An hour after that, the eastern wall collapsed. The roof and ceilings sheared down into the street at a 60-degree angle. One tenant left for a ride on his skateboard and on return found his home in ruin. “I’m in shock,” he said “It’s not going to hit me right away that everyone I own is gone.”
Passing Ryerson Street, I talked about Walt Whitman, who contained multitudes at number 99, which may or may not be the last remaining house in Brooklyn that he occupied. Editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, major advocate for Fort Greene Park and the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, he completed the first draft of his most celebrated work Leaves of Grass while living here.
So what stories did I make up? None of the above. Although Charles Pratt did make his fortune in lamp oil, he never embarked on an Arctic expedition. The twenty people listening to that story believed every word of it, told in the shadow of a new Pratt building. There was never a rapper by the name of Lil Skeezy living in the new condo on the corner of Myrtle and Stueben Street. And he absolutely never sat down for lunch with Biggie Smalls at the White Castle across the way.
The funniest part about the “un-tour” were my efforts to string along ideas that were totally beside the point. I claimed that this meeting between Lil’ Skeezy and Biggie was documented by a receipt that Skeezy kept. Y’know, to write off on his taxes. At Roberta’s, a neighborhood soul food spot, I skipped reviewing most of my interview with the owner in order to wax poetic on the socially responsible and totally ludicrous story of Sun Man, an action figure kept at their front counter.
But finally, my research got the best of me as I finished at 206 Classon Avenue AKA the R.H. Renken Building. Through an outstanding article, I found that the story of this building is a wonderful microcosm of Brooklyn, New York City, as well as the rest of urban America from the early 1900’s to today. It’s a good thing that trusting the journalist is a lot easier than trusting the tour guide!
By Jonah Levy