Set in New York: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The main character of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is Francie Nolan, a daughter of Irish and Austrian immigrants who grows in poverty in early 20th-century Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Obviously, Francie’s Williamsburg looks quite different from today’s: birthplace of the hipster and now home to luxury high-rise condos. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn ends in 1918, when Francie is 17 years old — almost a century ago.

Strikingly, many of the names of places and streets have stayed the same through the years, even as the structures around and along them have changed. But you can still find a few remainders of that era, from the church Francie would have attended to the subway station (then the “El”) where she would have boarded the train to Manhattan.

Manhattan Avenue

Soon after nine o’clock of a Saturday morning, kids began spraying out of all the side streets on to Manhattan Avenue, the main thoroughfare. They made their slow way up the Avenue to Scholes Street… Francie and Neeley put all their junk into a burlap bag and each grabbed an end and dragged it along the street; up Manhattan Avenue, past Maujer, Ten Eyck, Stagg to Scholes Street. Beautiful names for ugly streets.

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This scene comes early in the book, and was the first where I experienced a frisson of recognition. Of course, the book is called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, so I knew where it was set; before picking it up, though, I didn’t expect quite how recognizable (or specific) the locations would be! I’ve walked past that sequence of streets many times.

Newtown Creek

They ambled along, stopping now and then to breathe deeply of the smell of Newtown Creek, which flowed its narrow tormented way a few blocks up Grand Street… [Francie] was proud of that smell. It let her know that nearby was a waterway, which, dirty though it was, joined a river that flowed out to the sea.

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“A few blocks up Grand Street” is a bit of an exaggeration, as my trek to Newtown Creek took me more than half an hour (by foot) away from the part of Williamsburg I’m most familiar with — and most other people, too, judging by the lack of foot traffic, and really, lack of any traffic as I approached my destination. The last few blocks of Grand Street before the bridge were composed of large factories, nearly abandoned on a weekend afternoon.

The creek is spanned on Grand Street by the Grand Street Bridge, which was built in 1902 — so it’s the same one Francie and Neeley might have walked over in 1912. I’m pleased to report, however, that the creek no longer smells.

Newtown Creek flows to the East River, which is indeed connected, as Francie noted, to the Atlantic Ocean, via Long Island Sound to the north and the New York Harbor to the south. As the East River divides Manhattan from Long Island, Newtown Creek acts as part of the border between the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn. In fact, as I walked across the Grand Street Bridge, I ventured briefly into Queens.

Grand Street

Katie found a janitor place on Grand Street in Williamsburg… While Katie was arguing with the movers, Johnny took Francie up on the roof. She saw a whole new world. Not far away was the lovely span of the Williamsburg Bridge. Across the East River, like a fairy city made of silver cardboard, the skyscrapers loomed cleanly. There was the Brooklyn Bridge further away like an echo of the nearer bridge.

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I’m lucky enough to know someone who lives on Grand Street and has access to the building’s roof; otherwise, this one would be difficult to reproduce! Another building across the street blocks the view somewhat, but just like Francie and Johnny, you can see the Williamsburg Bridge on the right side of the photo, and the Brooklyn Bridge off in the distance on the left.

Bushwick Avenue

[Johnny] felt that they needed lessons in — for what passed in his mind — geography, civics and sociology. So he took them over to Bushwick Avenue.

Bushwick Avenue was the high-toned boulevard of Old Brooklyn. It was a wide, tree-shaded avenue and the houses were rich and impressively built of large granite blocks with long stone stoops. Here lived the big-time politicians, the monied brewery families, the well-to-do immigrants who had been able to come over first-class instead of steerage.

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The part of Bushwick Avenue that’s nearest to where the Nolans would have lived looks pretty much like this: new construction going up everywhere.

However, some older structures survive farther south along Bushwick Avenue. These two — at 74 Cornelia Street and the corner of Bushwick and Willoughby Aves — date to the late Victorian era.

Canarsie

In the summer of that same year, Johnny got the notion that his children were growing up ignorant of the great ocean that washed the shores of Brooklyn. Johnny felt that they ought to go out to sea in a ship. So he decided to take them for a rowboat ride at Canarsie and do a little deep-sea fishing on the side.

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The current Canarsie Pier dates only to the 1990s, but the area has been a popular spot for fishing and recreation for hundreds of years.

The book recounts that they take a trolley ride to Canarsie. The L train, which goes through Williamsburg, terminates at Canarsie – Rockaway Parkway, a station that began operating in 1906. Forgotten New York has dug up some of the history of the route: in addition, there was a trolley transfer at Canarsie – Rockaway Parkway, which took riders directly to Canarsie Pier. This may well have been the Nolans’ best route to Canarsie.

Flushing Avenue

It was a few minutes past noon on Saturday. Francie stood at the foot of the Flushing Avenue station of the Broadway El waiting for Neeley. She held an envelope containing five dollars — her first week’s pay.

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Anyone with a modicum of curiosity about the history of the New York City subway has probably noticed the remaining “BMT” and “IRT” signs in some of the city’s older stations. Those initials stand for “Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation” and “Interborough Rapid Transit Company,” just two of the many services that eventually merged into today’s MTA.

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The “Broadway El” Francie knew would have been part of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (founded in 1896 and reformed as the BMT in 1923), what’s now known as the BMT Jamaica Line, and served by the J/Z trains (as well as the M, for part of its route). The Flushing Avenue station opened in 1888, and by 1915 would have taken riders across the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan. As in the next quote…

Williamsburg Bridge

Next morning, Neeley escorted his sister to New York. As the train came on to the Williamsburg Bridge after leaving Marcy Avenue station, Francie noticed that many people seated in the car rose as if in accord and then sat down again.

“Why do they do that, Neeley?”

“Just as you get on the bridge, there’s a bank with a big clock. People stand up to look at the time so’s they know whether they’re early or late for work. I betcha a million people look at that clock every day,” figured Neeley.

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For this landmark, I had to ride the subway into Manhattan — making a total of three boroughs on this tour of Francie’s Brooklyn. While the bank isn’t named in the book, Neeley’s description makes this one clear.

The Williamsburgh Savings Bank opened at 175 Broadway in 1875, and the building is now on the National Register of Historic Places. (The bank sits across the street from the famous Peter Luger Steak House, also established in the 1880s.) The large clock in question is hard to photograph, being most clearly visible from the bridge, and you might not even know it existed without riding the train across the bridge — as indeed I didn’t until researching this blog post.

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Side note: There is another bank building with a big clock visible from the Williamsburg Bridge, and at first I thought that one might be Neeley’s clock. It’s not nearly as visible as the Williamsburgh Savings Bank… but the Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburgh is also a neat building. The headquarters on Havemeyer Street was built in 1908, so it also would have existed when Neeley took Francie across the bridge on the El. Maybe if you got stuck in a seat on the wrong side of the train car, you’d squint at the Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburgh instead of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank.

Most Holy Trinity – St. Mary Roman Catholic Church

Francie thought it was the most beautiful church in Brooklyn. It was made of old gray stone and had twin spires that rose cleanly into the sky, high above the tallest tenements. Inside, the high vaulted ceilings, narrow deepset stained-glass windows and elaborately carved altars made it a miniature cathedral.

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn never names the church Francie and her family attend. A number of sources online identify it as Most Holy Trinity – St. Mary at 138 Montrose Street, which, according to Literary Traveler, is where author Betty Smith was baptized, making it her own family church. The church does have its “twin spires,” though I’m not sure I’d describe it as “gray.”

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I visited Most Holy Trinity – St. Mary on a Sunday afternoon while services were going on, so I was only able to peek inside at the dramatic stained glass windows Francie describes. It certainly does stand out among its surroundings, though few tenements survive on the block; the church seems to have swallowed many of the neighboring buildings.

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The church’s cornerstone marks it as having been built in 1882. In the book, Francie says her grandfather worked on the altar in 1841, when the church was founded. According to Novelty Theater, the current church is the third built on the site.

Cypress Hills

“Evy found a one-family house in Cypress Hills. I wonder whether that’s in Brooklyn?”

“It’s out East New York way — where Brooklyn changes into Queens. It’s around Crescent Street, the last stop on the Broadway El. I mean it used to be the last stop until they extended the El to Jamaica.”

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As I mentioned above, the Broadway El evolved into the J and Z lines of the New York subway. The Crescent Street station, built in 1893, was the second-to-last station on the route until it was extended into Jamaica, Queens in 1917. (The two newest stations, which extend service to JFK airport and beyond, were not added until 1988.)

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The Cypress Hills neighborhood is still very residential, once you get off the main drag of Fulton Street. Most of the side streets looked like the one depicted above, crammed with rowhouses.

Wilson Avenue

“Did you know they changed Hamburg Avenue to Wilson Avenue?” asked Francie.

“War makes people do funny things,” Katie sighed.

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The original Freedom Fries! Anti-German sentiment during WWI caused Hamburg Avenue to be renamed to the current Wilson Avenue (after Woodrow, I assume — who would have just been elected president). Thanks to Forgotten New York, I knew that a “Hamburg Ave” street sign still existed, at the corner of Wilson and Harman Street.

The intersection is within spitting distance of the Knickerbocker Av station on the M train, on a speckled brick building that now houses a deli. When I arrived, I thought that perhaps the building had been demolished — before spotting the object of my search far above eye level, even above the second floor windows.

While I was scoping out my pictures of the sign, a man started frantically waving at me. Half-certain he was going to yell at me for taking pictures, I pulled out my headphones (yes, I’m terrible). “That was the original name of the street,” he said. “Used to be all Italians and Germans in this neighborhood.” I told him that I’d sought it out for that reason. “That’s what it was called when I moved here in ’72,” he continued proudly. Well… Maybe not my most reliable source.

Brooklyn Bridge

They took the I.R.T. Subway to Brooklyn Bridge, got out and started to walk across. Halfway over, they paused to look down on the East River. They stood close together and he held her hand. He looked up at the skyline on the Manhattan shore.

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Francie has a brief romance with a soldier passing through New York. In this scene, only a few hours after first meeting, she and Lee decide to cross the Brooklyn Bridge late at night. It seemed appropriate then, that my pictures be taken after dark!

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Here’s the Manhattan skyline, which Lee is gazing at in the quote. While the Brooklyn Bridge gives an excellent view of the Financial District, if you’re looking north, most of your field of vision is blocked by the Manhattan Bridge (of which I’m personally quite fond, so I don’t complain).

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And there it is! For my next “Set in New York” post, I might even venture outside of Brooklyn for longer than 10 minutes at a time.

-Ellen

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1 thought on “Set in New York: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith”

  1. Re: Most Holy Trinity – St. Mary. There was a lot of pollution in New York at the time due to coal heat, so the stones may have been much grayer.
    Also: “LBJ took the IRT down to 4th Street USA….” 😀

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