Though getting settled in New York City has never been easy, it was a good deal harder in 1747, when my first Brooklyn relative, Ulpianus Van Sinderen, arrived. My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was an unmarried forty-year-old Dutch minister ordained in his native Friesland, a province near the German border. His father, a minister and tutor to a noble family, had discouraged Ulpianus from entering the church, so scarce were full-time jobs in the ministry. But Ulpianus, showing signs of the stubborn, foolhardy will that would make him a perfect American, went to seminary anyway and found himself in exactly the pickle his father had predicted. After fifteen years roaming around rural Holland as an assistant minister, unable to find a permanent post or meet the right girl, he leapt when the Dutch Reformed Church announced an opening on Long Island and gave him the job.
Ulpianus’ crossing on an English ship was delayed by winter winds and an incompetent, randy, usually drunk captain who contributed to Ulpianus’s lifelong loathing of the English. Ulpianus’ journal, which a Dutch cousin of mine has translated, describes a North Sea so rough “that it seemed everything should break to pieces, as we experienced with dishes, china-ware, and wine-glasses.” There was a particularly alarming episode of running aground near Newcastle, England, where locals helped them get unstuck, but “It cost us quite a lot of drinks, wine and brandy.” When the wind died down after weeks in port, the captain, instead of setting sail, “took some bottles of wine from my cellar!” fumed Ulpianus, and headed into town, returning at five a.m. with a woman. “To my great surprise he took her to his berth,” wrote the outraged minister, “and handled with her as a man does to his wife…It is a great abomination!”
Six months after leaving Holland, Ulpianus finally stepped ashore in Kings County, population 2,500, a place of farms and six Dutch-speaking villages: Brooklyn, Bushwick, Flatbush, Flatlands, Gravesend and New Utrecht. Flatbush, close to the center of what is now the borough of Brooklyn, was the cultural heart and the site of the first Dutch church. Ulpianus gave his first New World sermon here, in Flatbush, in April 1747. Had it not gone over well, he might have packed up and returned to Holland, as some of his predecessors had done, and I might be a Dutchman. But the sermon was a hit, and Ulpianus’ descendants would stay in Brooklyn for hundreds of years. Now, one of them is back.
* * *
I could not have told you much about my family’s history in Brooklyn until I moved here two years ago. I had been living in Manhattan and was ready for a change. So, when a broker showed me a sunny, underpriced one-bedroom in a brownstone on Remsen Street in the quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, it was love at first nostalgic, atavistic sight—this was the street my grandmother grew up on. I signed the lease. Gram, who had decamped for the calm of Connecticut sixty-five years earlier, was thrilled.
I now live two blocks from her childhood home, three blocks from the house on Pierrepont Place her great-grandfather built in 1857, and only a few miles from where Ulpianus first settled in Flatbush. For some time after moving here, I enjoyed the patina of family history: on nearly every street, it seemed, was a home or a carriage house that had belonged to some relative, a church someone had been a member of. I found myself getting coffee at a shop in a building her grandfather, Alfred T. White, had built.
This vague enjoyment, however, soon gave way to the dangerous desire to know more. When I found myself at the Columbia University library peering into a box of crumbling family papers; then making pilgrimages to Dutch cemeteries to inspect illegible tombstones, I should perhaps have wondered if I was beginning to go quietly crazy, surrounded by these ghosts of Brooklyn past. But the nearness of the history made it irresistible: an entire ancestral village accessible by Metrocard.
In my curiosity about Ulpianus, I visited the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church and perused the records of marriages and baptisms. Ulpianus performed many of these himself, except of course for his own wedding. In October 1748, he was married to Cornelia Schenck, a “young dame from New Amersfort [Flatlands],” age nineteen; he was forty-one. She came from one of Brooklyn’s better-established families, suggesting a degree of respect Ulpianus had earned, and perhaps a bit of shrewdness on his part. Though much younger than he, she would die long before him, “of bruises she got by fallen off a waggen” in 1774.
While his personal life had perked up in the 1750s, Ulpianus had an especially nasty colleague in Johannes Rubel, who disagreed with him so violently about American independence that the two of them took to denouncing each other from the pulpit. While Rubel was a Loyalist, Ulpianus was a fervent patriot, both out of enthusiasm for his new country and due to a longstanding distaste for colonial rule that he shared with many Brooklyn Dutch. Leading up to the Revolution, he delivered anti-British sermons to congregations that included Hessian officers (German mercenaries fighting for the British). Since the sermons were in Dutch, the Hessians had no idea what he was saying. They would nod “Amen” along with the Dutch congregants. For these performances, Ulpianus was nicknamed “The Rebel Parson.”
His feud with Rubel eventually prompted the fed-up parishioners to depose them both in 1784. The charges against Rubel—of intemperance and domestic abuse—were harsher than those against Ulpianus, who was mostly thought a little doddery. He was later described in Rev. Thomas Strong’s 1842 History of the Town of Flatbush, as “a man of talents” but “quite eccentric in his manners…Though endowed with learning, he appears to have been deficient in sound judgment.” A contemporary, a Mr. Onderdonk, depicted Ulpianus as “a lean and shriveled little man, with a triangular sharp-pointed hat, and silver locks which streamed like a meteor…as he whisked along at great velocity in his chaise through Flatbush.”
His retirement to a Flatlands farm was more peaceful. He had two children and numerous grandchildren. Shortly after he died at eighty-nine, a Brooklyn road was named for him: Van Sinderen Avenue. It still runs through Brownsville, which is today one of Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods. A stone was laid in the graveyard of Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church with the Dutch words, now barely legible: “Here lies the body of the very worthy Mr. Ulpianus Van Sinderen, in his lifetime preacher in Kings County.” Cornelia lies nearby, as do several of her seventeenth-century relatives, distinguished by their dark, slender, delicately carved stones. There is an atmosphere, I felt when I visited, of poetic neglect and an almost rural melancholy that could not contrast more strangely with the surrounding neighborhood, a dense and unlovely ring of chain stores and auto-body shops.
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Towards the end of Ulpianus’ life, Dutch Brooklyn was becoming distinctly less Dutch. Ulpianus and Rubel were the last ministers sent from Holland to Brooklyn; the Flatbush village school was English-speaking by 1777. The last Dutch sermon was given by Ulpianus’ successor, Martin Schoonmaker, who had been struggling to incorporate English. At a wedding, instead of pronouncing the couple to be one flesh, he said, “I now pronounce you to be one beef.”
Farming was still the basis of the economy—produce was ferried daily into Manhattan—but enterprising young men were looking to diversify. One of these was Ulpianus’ grandson Adrian Van Sinderen, born in Flatlands in 1772. After living briefly in Savannah in his twenties, he returned to New York in the late 1790s to run an import-export firm. He describes the business in an 1806 letter to a Dutch cousin: “We are sellers wholesale of most kinds of English and East Indian wares, such as wool, cotton, linen, and silk…From here is shipped rice, tobacco, coffee, sugar, etc. The return [from trading partners in Holland and England] is mostly genever [Dutch gin] and linens, as well as some fine cloth, glass, iron and copper wares, oil, and a lot of small wares.”
The success of this enterprise allowed Adrian to retire to a farm in Newtown, Long Island and pursue other interests, such as founding the Long Island Bible Society. He later moved to Brooklyn, where he established the Brooklyn Savings Bank and built a mansion at 70 Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights in 1839. It is a Greek Revival pile with a touch of plantation style that would look right at home in Savannah. When it sold two years ago, for $12.5 million, the highest price ever paid for a house in Brooklyn, it was described not as the Adrian Van Sinderen house but as the Truman Capote house: he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood while living in the basement apartment between 1955 and 1965. Though Capote was a renter—his landlord was the Broadway stage designer Oliver Smith—he would wait for Smith’s absence to host parties and give tours, swanning in his silk robe up the spiral staircase and pretending the whole house was his.
* * *
While Adrian Van Sinderen was enjoying a comfortable retirement on Willow Street, a young New Englander, Alexander Moss White—Gram’s great-grandfather on her mother’s side—was just arriving in town. He had come with his two brothers from Danbury, Connecticut to set up the New York operation of a family hatting firm whose specialty was cutting furs. Though they lived at first in a bachelor apartment in lower Manhattan, Alexander soon married and moved to Brooklyn, brothers in tow.
Brooklyn Heights had begun attracting merchants like the Whites as a convenient but green place to live, connected by ferry to Wall Street, yet perceived as wholesome in ways Manhattan was not. It was, as the phrases went, “the first suburb,” “the city of homes and churches.” It was New York for New Englanders.
By 1847, the business of W. A. & A. M. White was booming. A listing in the Brooklyn Eagle describes the Whites as “extensively engaged in the fur trade…They reside in a splendid mansion on Washington Street.” There were at least a dozen people living there: Alexander, his wife and their five children, Alexander’s brothers, and several servants. The house stood on what is now a grassy strip near a pedestrian entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Their new house at 2 Pierrepont Place—which I now live around the corner from—was ready in 1857. It was, you could say, a magnate’s version of a two-family house, sharing its brownstone bulk with the adjoining home of Abiel Abbott Low, the China trader whose son Seth would become the first mayor of consolidated New York. From the upper floors, Mr. Low would have had a keen view of his ships in New York Harbor, while the Whites could keep an eye on the docks where their furs were unloaded.
For capitalists, the Whites were liberal. They attended the First Unitarian Church, rather than one of the more conservative Episcopalian ones, and were intensely devoted to good works. Even after handing the fur business over to his sons, Alexander stayed busy: he was a charter member of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, director of the Brooklyn Hospital, founder of the Graham Home for Old Ladies, and trustee of the Long Island Historical Society, Polytechnic Institute, Green-Wood Cemetery, two banks, and his church, of which he was the oldest member when he died. This public-spiritedness influenced his children, one of whom, Alfred, would spend his life engaged in creative philanthropy. But before we meet this saintliest of relatives, let’s get acquainted with a sinner.
* * *
The occasional “deficiency of sound judgment” attributed to Ulpianus appears to have afflicted one of his descendants, the second Adrian Van Sinderen, grandson of the first, born in 1833. His beginnings in life—inheriting the house on Willow Street, attending Yale College and Columbia Law, becoming an attorney, marrying a Scottish lass, and joining the American Bible Society—would hardly have foretold mayhem.
In the 1860s, Adrian was appointed trustee for the estate of a family friend, William Lawrence, a role that involved distributing the earnings on a $200,000 trust to Lawrence’s descendants. The process went smoothly for nearly twenty years, until the heirs complained that their checks were getting smaller. A dispute led to an 1891 trial, where it was discovered that Adrian had sold much of the Lawrences’ property, including a large section of Ward’s Island, in the East River, to purchase risky Western rail bonds. When the bonds became, as The New York Times wrote in its enthralled coverage, “worth less than the cost of lithographing them,” Adrian was too embarrassed to tell anyone, so he pretended nothing was wrong and went on living in his elegant house on Columbia Heights, a street in Brooklyn Heights that ends a few steps from Pierrepont Place.
Even when the evidence looked irrefutable, the Times wrote, “it was with a splendid show of indignation that Mr. Van Sinderen appeared before the Surrogate and denied this charge. His distinguished appearance stood in his favor, and there was a strong feeling of sympathy for him even among those who appeared against him.” But looking respectable will get you only so far. The simple fact was, as the plaintiff’s attorney said, “there was nothing left of the estate but Van Sinderen’s good intentions.” He was indicted for grand larceny.
Before he could be jailed, he disappeared. There was no word of him until a death notice was printed in 1892 for an Adrian Van Sinderen in New Lots, a Brooklyn village a few miles inland. This, however, turned out to be a distant cousin, whose line had been farming in New Lots since the early 1800s. The State Department, and the Times, realized the mistake in 1893, resulting in one of the more bizarre headlines of the decade: “VAN SINDEREN COMES TO LIFE—FLED IN 1891 AND WAS SUPPOSED TO BE DEAD.”
Adrian, it turns out, had been discovered in Berlin. Instead of lying low in Brooklyn, “a ruined man, avoided by his former friends and acquaintances,” as the Times had written in its evidently non-fact-checked obituary, he had slipped out of town altogether. Mysteriously, the Van Sinderen beat then goes silent; I was unable to find out whether the State Department succeeded in extraditing him.
* * *
Back on Pierrepont Place, developments of a more innocent kind were percolating. Alfred Tredway White, Alexander’s third child, born in 1846, had studied engineering, returned to Brooklyn in the late 1860s, and was trying hard to get excited about his future as a furrier. But he stumbled onto a life passion while volunteering in the First Unitarian Church’s settlement school.
His students were the children of immigrants from all over Europe at a time when Brooklyn’s population was nearly doubling each decade. On visits to their homes, Alfred was astonished by what he found. Blocks away from airy mansions on the Heights were tenements so densely built that no light or air could enter, whose mephitic hallways were strewn with trash and rife with robbery and rape. The mortality rate for young children exceeded the birth rate. Rents were unconscionably high, keeping occupants in a state of permanent poverty while yielding huge profits for landlords.
No one in New York had a solution to this housing problem, but in London, a Liberal member of Parliament named Sidney Waterlow did. Starting in 1864, his Improved Industrial Dwellings Company built large apartment complexes for low-income Londoners with unprecedented amenities: small balconies and outside staircases, central courtyards that allowed plenty of light and ventilation, a toilet for every apartment. Waterlow’s premise was not charity; it was a limited profit of five percent. Alfred, intrigued, went to inspect the buildings firsthand in 1872, when Waterlow was serving as Lord Mayor of London.
Impressed by what he saw, Alfred vowed to recreate it in Brooklyn. Five years later, his six-story, red-brick Home Building had sprung up in what is now Cobble Hill. Like Waterlow’s projects, the Home Building had sunlit rooms, outdoor staircases, kitchens and toilets. There were bathing facilities, a library, and a grassy courtyard where a band was hired to play on summer weekends. Tenants were even promised a rebate of one month’s rent annually in exchange for timely payments. All of the apartments were rented the first week.
The Times came to have a look in November 1877, observing: “Had Mr. White offered cleanly and healthy homes to working people, at such rents as would have caused a loss to himself, he would merely have founded an ordinary charity like a hospital or an asylum; a thing beneficent and humane, but not containing within itself the elements of a wide-spread change and improvement as regards the condition of the laboring and artisan classes…These buildings…are the only true ‘model’ or improved tenement-houses thus far constructed in Brooklyn or New-York.”
Alfred’s hope was to lure other enlightened men of means with the promise of “philanthropy plus five [or seven] percent.” Describing this plan at a meeting of ministers attended by a Danish-born journalist named Jacob Riis, Alfred said, “It was just a question whether a man would take seven percent and save his soul, or twenty-five and lose it.” These words made almost as a large impression on Riis as Alfred’s other remark that evening: “How shall the love of God be understood by those who have been nurtured in sight only of the greed of man?”
Riis, who would transfix New York with his images of tenement life, writes, “I wanted to jump in my seat at that time and shout Amen. But I remembered I was a reporter and kept still. It was that same winter, however, that I wrote the title of my book, How the Other Half Lives, and copyrighted it. The book itself did not come until two years later, but it was as good as written then: I had my text.”
By the time he met Riis, Alfred had built two other large complexes in South Brooklyn: the Tower Building, right across from the Home Building, and the Riverside Building, on Columbia Place in Brooklyn Heights, which Riis calls “the beau ideal of the model tenement.” The architect Norval White, who edits the AIA Guide to New York City buildings, has listed the Riverside along with Grand Central and the Chrysler Building as one of his eleven favorite buildings in New York. Though the back half of it was demolished in the 1950s to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, it is still lovely from the front, with its decorative iron balconies and inviting storefronts, one of which, Iris Café, is the place I go for coffee. As for the Tower and Home buildings, they are intact, though the BQE roars by their western flank.
I recently visited another of Alfred’s housing projects, the Workingmen’s Cottages on Warren Place, a leafy mew with two rows of tiny, dollhouse-like cottages that make up what is without doubt the most adorable street in Brooklyn. A longtime resident, whom I met through a mutual friend, invited me for a tour of her perfectly charming house. Two other residents joined us for tea and spoke of their delight in Alfred’s design, and of how the population has changed. The houses have been owned, not rented, since our family sold them in the 1940s, and in recent decades have witnessed the bourgeois drift that has enveloped most of the enchanting streets of Cobble Hill. In 2011, a pair of these small cottages for “workingmen” sold together for $3.1 million.
While continuing to work for the family firm, often walking to its offices on Wall Street once the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, Alfred involved himself in an ever-widening range of philanthropies. His focus at first was housing: apart from the large Brooklyn complexes, he constructed a Seaside Home for Children on Coney Island, providing food, medical care, and a mini-holiday for poor children; hundreds of small, affordable houses for families in Brooklyn; and housing for 328 working women in Manhattan. Later, by serving on boards or donating swaths of land, he was closely involved in the creation of the new neighborhoods of Marine Park in Brooklyn and Forest Hills Gardens in Queens.
In the 1890s, the mayor of Brooklyn, Charles Schieren, appointed Alfred Commissioner of Public Works, a capacity in which he cleaned up a gritty waterfront area to create Wallabout Market, the great outdoor food market of its time. He paid out of pocket for its handsome Dutch-inspired clock tower, a landmark of the Brooklyn skyline until World War II, when the market was razed to make room for the expanding Navy Yard.
Towards the end of his life, Alfred tended to his beloved Brooklyn in numerous, always quiet ways. He founded the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities and, with his sisters Harriet and Frances, gave most of the funding for the creation of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. There is a touching memorial to the three of them: three oak trees planted in 1919 and now enormously tall. His, aptly, is a white oak.
Looking beyond Brooklyn, Alfred took a passionate interest in the cause of black education. He dispatched checks to two growing black universities, the Hampton Institute and Tuskegee College, where an Alexander Moss White Hall still stands. “Tuskegee would not have been possible,” its founder Booker T. Washington said, “had it not been for the encouragement I received from Mr. White and his family.”
His other donations, usually anonymous, were as interesting as they were varied: at Harvard, he endowed a department of Social Ethics and a building for it, Emerson Hall, that later appeared in the movie Love Story. He sent aid to Unitarian churches in Transylvania and to Serbia and Belgium, ravaged in World War I, both of whose kings decorated him.
Alfred’s death was sudden and strange. A fit seventy-five-year-old who lived for summer hiking in the Adirondacks, he took his similarly spry, seventy-eight-year-old brother William to the country one Saturday in January 1921, after a morning at the office. They checked in to an inn, hiked, and skated briefly, whereupon William returned to the inn for a nap. Alfred planned to skate a little longer. He never returned. A search party went out in the evening, led by the twenty-nine-year-old scion of the neighboring estate, Averell Harriman, who would one day serve as Secretary of Commerce and Ambassador to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.
As the front-page Times obituary reported: “It was not…until just before six o’clock yesterday morning that an object was noticed floating in a hole in the ice. The opening in the ice was about forty feet from the shore and several men, roped together…found Mr. White’s hat in the hole and the marks of the skates on the edge.” The body was recovered and brought back to 40 Remsen Street, where Alfred had lived with his wife and daughters.
The flag flew at half-mast at Borough Hall, and a memorial service was held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with Presidents Hoover and Taft both in attendance. In a letter to Alfred’s minister at the First Unitarian Church, Taft wrote: “Mr. White’s death came to me with a great shock as it did to all. I don’t know any other one in all that six millions of New York City who would leave such a void as he does. If there ever was a man made perfect he was…His poise, his quiet effectiveness, his self-suppression, his sweetness, his fellowship, his grasp of things, his sense of justice all made association with him inspiring.”
* * *
The person hardest hit, however, was Alfred’s daughter Annie Jean, who within the previous two years had lost her entire family: her sister to the influenza epidemic, her mother to illness, and now her father to this terrible accident. She had, at least, the consolations of marriage—to the third Adrian Van Sinderen, grandson of the second—and children. One of them, my grandmother, was born a month before Alfred’s death.
All four of Annie Jean’s children would eventually leave Brooklyn, pulled by postwar tides to the suburbs and the country. For Gram, this meant moving to the small town in Connecticut where she had attended boarding school. Her husband, a wounded PT boat captain she nursed at the Brooklyn Navy Hospital, had connections to the same town and had always wanted to live in the country. The town where they settled was only a few miles from Danbury, where the Whites had lived before leaving for Brooklyn more than a hundred years earlier.
Annie Jean stayed on, a hardy survivor of old Brooklyn, until shortly before her death in 1968. She and Adrian left Remsen Street for an apartment on Clark Street. The old house was divided into smaller units, like many in the neighborhood, including the one where I live. I often pass that house, and the one on Pierrepont Place, on walks to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.
At the Promenade, I pause sometimes to look out at New York Harbor. Though there was not always a Brooklyn Bridge, a Statue of Liberty or a Staten Island Ferry, the vista has changed little enough that my relatives would still recognize it. This thought pleases me, since the waterfront is the place where everything began: where Alfred first taught in the settlement school, where his father inspected shipments of fur, where the first Adrian waited for trunks of linen to arrive from Amsterdam, and where, before any of this, the Reverend Ulpianus Van Sinderen stepped ashore and wondered just what he had gotten himself into.