Gravesend - Brooklyn
Red Sauce and Yellow Submarines
Like the rest of New York City, Gravesend was originally Lenape territory. The Lenape populated the coastline of New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Henry Hudson was the first known European to set foot in the area in the fall of 1609 and claimed the land for his employers, the Dutch East India Company. Gravesend comes from the Dutch words Grafes and Ande, which combined mean “end of the grove.”
It is the only neighborhood I’ve covered so far with its own theme song:
The founder of Gravesend was Lady Deborah Moody. Moody was a member of the Anabaptists, a Protestant sect of Christians who believed that baptism shouldn’t occur until adulthood. These “radical” notions were not looked upon kindly in England. Facing persecution for her beliefs, Lady Moody set sail for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639 at the age of 54.
Unfortunately for Lady Moody, the Massachusetts Bay Puritans, who had also left England to avoid persecution, were even more intolerant. In 1643, Moody, described as a “dangerous woeman,” was brought before the court for spreading religious dissent. She was free to change her beliefs or be excommunicated from the colony. She chose the latter.
Even in the 1600s, the Netherlands was known for its policies of religious and cultural tolerance, and the colony of New Amsterdam was no exception. Russel Shorto, in his fantastic book The Island at the Center of the World, posits that the fact that the Dutch, rather than the English, were the first Europeans to settle here is why New York City became such a diverse and immigrant-rich metropolis.1
The Dutch West India Company worshipped first and foremost at the church of money, and they had no issues with Anabaptists or women, for that matter. Director Willem Kief granted Moody a land patent for the southwestern tip of Long Island, making her the first woman to charter land in the New World. The patent was also the first English settlement in New York and encompassed the land that would become Gravesend, Bensonhurst, Coney Island, Brighton Beach, and Sheepshead Bay.
She was now neighbors with Anthony “the Turk” Van Salee, who you may remember from Bath Beach.
Since Moody’s posse only numbered 39 families, they consolidated their settlement into what is today known as the neighborhood of Gravesend. Moody laid out the neighborhood in an orthogonal2 grid system with four blocks of public squares surrounded by ten houses. Triangle-shaped pasture lots fanned out from the grid. In the evening, livestock were corralled in the squares, and guards were posted on the fortifications that encircled the perimeter. Moody’s grid is still visible today.
I first visited Gravesend about fifteen years ago on a pilgrimage to the holy trinity of Brooklyn pizza establishments: Di Fara in Midwood, Totonno’s in Coney Island, and L&B Spumoni In Gravesend. In the years since, Totonno’s shut down once due to fire and again after Hurricane Sandy, Di Fara was temporarily closed for owing $167,000 in back taxes and then lost its heart and soul, pizzaiolo Dom DeMarco. Most tragically, Louis Barbati, the owner of L&B, was gunned down on his stoop in Dyker Heights in 2016. Though it was ruled a botched robbery attempt, many speculated that the murder was actually a mob hit as L&B had been at the center of a beef between the Colombo and Bonanno crime families a few years prior.
L&B is famous for its sauce-on-top doughy Sicilian slice, a perfect glistening red square of flavor that they have been serving since the 1950s. While the inversion of cheese and sauce is not unique (Detroit pizza, for one, famously employs the technique), L&B serves what Scott Weiner from Pizza Today calls “the most influential saucy pie of all time.”
In 2012, Eugene Lombardo, a former L&B employee with ties to the Bonanno family, opened the Square on Staten Island. The Staten Island slice tasted suspiciously similar to the Brooklyn offering, and Lombardo was not going to great lengths to downplay the similarities. A sign on the door read, "Best Pizza: Just like L&B Spumoni Gardens."
Sensing an opportunity, Colombo mob associate Francis Guerra, brother-in-law of one of L&B’s owners, paid a visit to the Square with two of his cronies. There were some threats, a slap delivered by Colombo goon Frank (Frankie Notch) Iannaci, and a demand for restitution.
Eventually, a sit down was arranged, presided over by Bonanno soldier Anthony Calabrese in, of all places, a Staten Island Panera Bread. Guerra demanded a one-time payment of $75,000 or a slice of the Square’s future profits. Over bread bowls full of clam chowder, a compromise was reached. Lombardo agreed to pay Guerra $4000, $ 1,500 of which went to Calabrese and $500 to the crime family’s consigliere.3. No word on who paid for the soup.
Guerra was later tried and acquitted for two unrelated homicides as well as the pizza extortion charge but was sentenced to 14 years for his role in a scheme to fraudulently obtain and distribute prescription drugs.
On the eastern edge of Gravesend, separated from the rest of the neighborhood by the Belt Parkway, you can find Calvert Vaux Park. The park’s namesake worked alongside Frederick Law Olmsted, designing Central Park, Prospect Park, and Fort Greene Park, among others. Unfortunately for Calvert, this particular park didn’t get its name because he designed it but instead because he drowned nearby.
Formerly known as the Dreier-Offerman Park, the park’s 73 acres were created mainly out of dirt excavated during the construction of the Verazanno-Narrows Bridge. In 1998, the park was cleaned up and renamed Calvert Vaux Park.
The Coney Island Creek runs through the park. The hulls of nearly two dozen shipwrecks can be found in the creek, including the half-submerged yellow submarine mired in the silt just offshore. The sub, named Quester 1, was built by a steelworker named Jerry Bianco, who wanted to use inflatable bags to raise the wreck of Andrea Doria, the ocean liner that went down off the coast of Nantucket.4
With the use of a cannon-like hydraulic tube extending from his sub, Bianco would penetrate the sunken vessel and fire inflatable dunnage bags into the ship’s hull. The bags would disconnect when filled. When enough bags had been shot into the Andrea Doria, she would rise
The Navy rated the sub as able to withstand pressures up to 600 feet, more than double the depth of the Andrea Doria wreck.
The submarine’s canary yellow paint job is not an homage to the Beatles but rather the result of great deal Jerry found on yellow chromium paint. Like Joey Treasures in Port Morris, Jerry’s efforts to reclaim sunken booty were doomed for failure.
On launch day in 1970, a crane began to lower the submarine into Coney Island Creek, but due to the crane’s capacity limitations, the ballast was not fully loaded. Jerry had instructed the crane operator not to lower the boat entirely into the water so he could redistribute the ballast himself. The crane operator was not good at following directions. The sub was lowered all the way, and the second it hit the water, it rolled sideways, sinking down into the muck. Though the Quester was eventually re-deployed, investors in Bianco’s Andrea Doria scheme had lost faith, and the submarine ended up where it started, in a few feet of murky water off the shore of Gravesend.
SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
This week’s field recording features a unique train whistle, some salty banter around a hot dog stand from a guy named Wolf, and the sound of a truck muffler being dragged several feet. For the full binaural effect, listen with headphones!
While looking for photos of Calvert Vaux Park, I found the following image from photographer Charles H. Traub of the park’s grittier predecessor, Dreier-Offerman.
Traub founded the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and the MFA program at the School of Visual Arts, where he has been Chairperson for over 30 years. He has published numerous books and has had more than 60 major exhibitions in galleries and museums throughout the world.
There is so much great work on his site, but Traub’s project, New York on the Edge, in particular, is right up my alley. In 1988, working on a commission from The New York City Parks Department, Traub and Jerry Gordon documented the city’s often neglected waterfront.
I have been to so many of these places; it’s fascinating to see how much they’ve changed (or not) in the past 40 years. The panoramic format that Traub often employs effectively conveys the extended horizontal geography that defines the edges of the city.
Anne Kadet writes my favorite substack newsletter, CAFÉ ANNE, where she covers the quirky underbelly of the city. Her recent trip down Avenue U in Gravesend includes a visit to a butcher shop lounge and a bridal gadget shop. Highly recommended.
There is a recent TV series called Gravesend that follows Benny Zerletta (William DeMeo), a Brooklyn-based Italian-American soldier in the Colezzo crime family in the 80s. Reviews are… mixed:
Killer cast... pun intended... Gravesend 1 & 2, Timeless award winning performers, it's so real. Hot, handsome actors, & sexy, stunning, brilliant actresses! The cars, the clothes, it's Sexy, it's Hot, it's The Best! You'll love Gravesend! God bless & good vibes!
I've seen high school plays with better acting, writing, lighting, sound. Omg what a mockery.
You be the judge.
If you want, you can print out your own 3D model of Quester 1.
Here is a short, very soothing recap of Lady Moody’s life.
Streets intersecting at right angles to each other.