This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
Even by virtue of its two names, the Polish National Home and the Warsaw, the gray bricked, red-trimmed building at the corner of Driggs Avenue and Eckford Street, exemplifies Greenpoint’s two distinct eras of migration.
In 1914, when the building first opened as the Polish National Home, it served as a community center for the Brooklyn-bound among the two million Poles who emigrated to the United States between 1901 and 1920. Over the past 20 years it has catered to a migration of a different sort. As the Warsaw (“where punk meets pierogies”), it serves the young hipsters who have been pouring into Brooklyn for the past two decades––first, to escape high rents, and now to pay them.
Even today, punk concerts at the Warsaw brim with nostalgia for the venue’s history as the Polski Dom Narodowy, the hub of the neighborhood’s Polish community. Throughout the 20th century, the Polish National Home provided a stage for politicians on campaigns across New York, took donations to send Polish teenagers to summer camp, and served as a hub for anti-communist activity in Brooklyn. But even before that, 261 Driggs showed us how, more than 100 years ago, an immigrant woman could build a small business empire in Brooklyn––and even take on the city and win.
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At 6:30 on the morning of December 2, 1902, a Wednesday, a horse cart full of ashes came barreling down Eckford Street. At the same moment, Weronika Gorny, the owner of 261 Driggs Avenue, the building on the corner of Eckford and Driggs, opened her front door. She saw the wagon mow down the fire hydrant across the street. As witnesses later reported, water spouted up from the ground and gushed rapidly into the street.
Half an hour later, Weronika checked to see how the building she owned with her husband, Frank, was faring. The second floor, which held the family apartment along with meeting rooms that the Gornys rented out to community organizations, was still dry, as was the saloon and ballroom that Frank ran on the first floor.
But, as Weronika stood in front of her door, she noticed the water pouring into the basement of 261 Driggs. She called three men off the street and asked them to go downstairs to check on the water levels. As they entered, they found the Gornys’ servant girl struggling, through knee-deep water, to get out of the kitchen. The flooding covered the cellar and the Gornys’ basement crown jewel: a two-lane bowling alley the Gornys rented out to neighborhood bowling clubs for $12 a month.
At the time of the flood, the Gornys’ small business empire—the bar, assembly hall, meeting spaces, and bowling lanes attached to their home—was a little over a year old. They had arrived in New York from the German-controlled region of partitioned Poland in 1889. Frank was 33 at the time and Weronika, 29. They came with two daughters: Mary, who was three, and Felicia, who was less than a year old. When Frank submitted hisnaturalization petition in 1896, the family was living in Crown Heights, at 999 Dean Street.
But four years later, the 1900 federal census indicates the family had moved to Greenpoint. Frank owned a building that housed 41 people at 387 Oakland Street, today replaced by McGuinness Boulevard. Residents included the four Gornys, who lived in an apartment with a boarder and a young servant girl, newly arrived from Poland; six other families, and a number of boarders, all day laborers who worked as machine hands, bag washers, coal shovellers, and asphalt handlers. Like the Gornys, the other 37 people at 387 Oakland were all Polish immigrants who had arrived in the prior decade.
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At the time, the property at 261 Driggs had only recently been named. But its history stretches back, as far as anyone knows, to the time when members of the Lenape tribe farmed the lush, green peninsula. The Lenape caught fish from the pure waters of the East River and the Newtown Creek, which separates Greenpoint from Queens.
Dutch settlers from Manhattan wanted to spread east into the farmland, and in 1638 the Dutch West India Company forced the Lenape intoselling 3,860 acres of Brooklyn—the land that is now Greenpoint, as well as Williamsburg and Bushwick—for the price of “8 fathoms of duffels cloth, 8 fathoms of wampum, 12 kettles, 8 adzes, 8 axes, some knives, corals, and awls,” as Keith Williams wrote in Curbed, quoting a 1946 history of the sale in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Greenpoint historian Fran Dmuchowski picks up the story. Until the American Revolution, the area remained quiet and in the hands of only five farming families. It’s unclear exactly when the Van Cotts purchased the land—the patriarch of that family immigrated to New York from Holland in 1641—but they were the property’s last owners before the swampy cow pasture became the gridded streets of the village of Greenpoint.
After 200 years as farmland, the transformation of Greenpoint came quickly. Its most significant bearer was Neziah Bliss, who owned a steelworks company in Manhattan that built engines for steamships. Bliss eyed northern Greenpoint, where the East River meets the Newtown Creek inlet, as a potential hub for shipbuilding. But to get workers and materials into this new industrial zone, Bliss knew that Greenpoint would need thoroughfares from Williamsburg in the south. From 1832 on, Bliss began buying up property near Newtown Creek, and he began laying out the grid system in 1835, connecting the northwestern part of the neighborhood, the “green point” that jutted into the river, with Williamsburg. By 1852, contemporary maps show, the grid had spread to the old Van Cott farm, and the corner of Eckford and Van Cott––the street’s name before Driggs Avenue––suddenly existed.
The City of Brooklyn annexed Greenpoint in 1855, but development in its easternmost blocks lagged behind the waterfront, where jute mills and oil refineries sprang up beside the shipbuilding docks. The block at Van Cott between Eckford and Leonard Streets remained empty, but the municipality made preparations for its eventual integration into the city fabric: In 1868, the cityawarded contracts for grading and paving Van Cott and Eckford Streets, and in 1871, the street commissionerput a notice in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that six-foot wide sidewalks would be flagged on the block. Five years later, in 1876, the city put out a notice that it was “appropriating and assessing” the expenses of adding gas lamps to the street.
In 1891, upon the death of Williamsburg village president Edmund Driggs, newspapers began referring to Van Cott Avenue as Driggs Avenue. In 1896, the Common Council of Brooklyncalled for the enclosure of the empty lots on the southside of Driggs Avenue, where 261 Driggs would later be built. The fence, the City Clerk wrote, should be six feet tall “to abate a nuisance,” which was common parlance in newspapers of the time.
The fate of the land within the boundaries of Van Cott/Driggs and Eckford between its time as the Van Cott farm and 1899 is unclear. However, by March of 1899, it belonged to Eugenie Vyse, a well-to-do wife of a police officer. That month, along with other parcels around the neighborhood, Vyse sold her lots at Driggs and Eckford at auction. The buyer was Emil Lefevre, who by November had flipped the property to Frank Gorny. The Gornys, who sold their own building on Oakland Street in September, were making a big investment: they would be building 261 Driggs from the ground up.
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By the time Weronika Gorny filed suit against New York, she did so in a context of New Yorkers grappling with the growing, increasingly dirty city and demanding accountability from its government.
Between 1890 and 1900 the population of Brooklyn had doubled in the span of a decade, from 806,343 people to nearly 1.2 million residents. As more people flowed into the city, they generated previously unimaginable amounts of trash. From 1900 to 1920, each individual living in New York was responsible for, on average, “160 pounds of garbage, 97 pounds of rubbish, and 1,231 pounds of ashes” per year, writes environmental historian Martin Melosi in The Sanitary City.
The ashes—the products of incinerating garbage—were New York’s weightiest sanitation problem, literally and figuratively. Ashes lined the city’s streets, in piles, and coated every edifice and thoroughfare in New York. Breathing meant breathing in ash. Keeping the streets clean required the intercession of an increasingly present local government, which established a department for street cleaning in Manhattan in 1881. By 1902,more than 7,000 men worked in the Street Cleaning Department, which extended its operations to Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Every morning, in horse-led carts, “sweepers” and “drivers” made their rounds across the growing city. When drivers came across a pile of ashes in the sidewalk, they’d use a large wooden barrel to scoop them up and dump them into the cart. After filling up the cart, drivers would direct their horses to head towards a place to dump the ashes. In Brooklyn, the driver was able to choose betweenone water dumping site and 20 land dumps.
It was one of these carts that smashed into the hydrant and caused the flooding of the Gornys’ property, Weronika asserted in the complaint she filed against the city. She claimed a total of $1,611 against the city, for the damage to the building, the bowling alley’s clubs and pins, and loss of profits on bowling club fees and beverages.
Weronika was among a growing group of plaintiffs, victims of personal injury and property damages, who brought suits in local courts against the government and the corporations that ran many of its functions. In 1870, 13 personal injury lawsuits were filed in New York City. This figure climbed to 112 in 1900 and 595 in 1910. In 1876, a group of Prussian lawyers had started the German Legal Aid Society to serve low-income German immigrants––today, the Legal Aid Society, among the most well-known non-profits in the city––and by 1911 they handled 34,000 cases a year. A 1904 article in the Long Island Star even offered Greenpoint-dwellers advice on suing the city for the reeking ash dump it had allowed a company to set up on Manhattan Avenue, only a few blocks from the Gornys’ building; one writer warned that lawsuits against the city were “notoriously dilatory” because the city’s comptroller could delay responding to a suit for more than a month. “A suit begun against the company that operates this garbage plant would have served the same purpose” and would be quicker than action against the government, the author asserted.
This was true in Weronika’s case. She had filed her suit by January of 1903, only a month after the incident, but Gorny vs. The City of New York finally went to trial on April 12, 1904, nearly a year and a half after the flood. When she took the stand, she asked for an interpreter and she answered her lawyer’s questions about what happened on December 2.
“How did you know that this truck was one of the city trucks?” James Ridgway, Weronika’s attorney, asked her.
“Well, it is on the cart,” she answered. “Besides, I can see right across the street and they don’t dispute it over there. They admitted it was one of these city carts.”
“What was on the cart?”
“There are two letters on it, it is an ash cart. I can tell an ash cart when I see one.”
“You cannot read English, can you?” the lawyer asked.
“I can read that much,” Gorny said.
He asked her if the two letters were the only way she could tell it was a city cart.
“I know an ash cart for a city cart,” she responded. “I am not a child.”
To support her case, Gorny brought in the men who had bailed the water, bucket by bucket, from the basement. The defense attorney played all of his cards: he brought in a witness, a Sanitation Department employee, who said that he had bowled at the Gornys’ the night of the flood; neighbors who attested to the former state of the property as a low-lying, wet, cow pasture with a pond; and an inspector who repeatedly insisted blaming the wagon company rather than the city itself.
Still, at the end of deliberations, the jury returned Weronika $950 in damages. Subsequent documents show that the city was unsuccessful in appealing the decision.
Later on in 1904, the Gornys made the newspapers when a grifter walked into Frank’s saloon and claimed to be an excise tax inspector. Gorny sent his bartender outside to fetch a cop, who questioned the man and determined that he had planned to rob the bar. “He said he had been drinking and asked the policeman to let up on him,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported of the would-be thief.
Little else is known about the Gornys’ life at 261 Driggs. In 1914, they sold the building to the National Hall Association, at which point it fully assumed its role as Greenpoint’s Polish community center, a position that solidified over the next century.
Though Weronika lived for many years in Little Neck, she returned to Little Poland during the final years of her life. Shedied on March 7, 1938 in the Greenpoint home her daughter shared with her husband, and her funeral was held at St. Stanislaus Church, only three blocks down Driggs Avenue from her former home.
Upon her death, the New York Times reported, Weronikaleft her wealth and property—“not more than $6,500 personal and not more than $7,700 real”—to her husband. The total value of her estate, split between Frank and the couple’s two daughters, wasappraised at $20,132, which would be about $337,535 today. Frank died two and a half years later, two days before Christmas in 1940.
In the past 20 years, the neighborhood surrounding 261 Driggs has changed dramatically, with average rents between 2000 and 2014 increasing nearly 200 percent, from $857 to $1,591. The exterior of the Polish National Home may not have changed—it’s the same unassuming gray with red trim—but on the inside, Polish heritage now mingles with the music scene that emerged in north Brooklyn after beloved downtown Manhattan music venues like CBGB were no more.
But those who visit the Warsaw today likely don’t know the story of Weronika Gorny, the immigrant businesswoman who—a whole century before the punks decamped to Greenpoint—fought the law, and managed to win.