Sections

Putting Walt in a time vault

The Brooklyn Paper
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook
Subscribe

Get our stories in your inbox, free.

Like The Brooklyn Paper on Facebook.

The home where Walt Whitman toiled on his best-known work, “Leaves of Grass,” sits unmarked, unknown, and unsung on a little-visited street in the Wallabout section of Clinton Hill.

If its existence comes as a surprise to you, you’re not alone. Outside of a small circle of self-described “Whit-maniacs” and the current tenants of the building, few people know that the house — believed to be the only remaining Whitman home in Brooklyn — exists.

The three-story, four-apartment, yellow-frame home at 99 Ryerson St., between Myrtle Avenue and the roaring Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, is modest, well-maintained, and lived-in. Last week, a solitary strand of Christmas lights ringed the white front door. A Kohl’s circular was stuffed into the wrought-iron gate.

It strained the imagination to think that it was at this spot, 152 years ago, where Whitman worked on his epic masterpiece.

Perhaps part of that incredulity was based on the fact that the house remains so obscure.

This reporter only discovered its existence while leafing through the dense “Wallabout Cultural Resource Survey,” a 2005 document created as part of the embryonic movement to landmark this portion of the neighborhood.

In the report, Columbia University Professor Andrew Dolkart wrote that 99 Ryerson is “thought to be the only surviving New York City home of poet Walt Whitman.”

Aside from the survey, a 1995 New Yorker article, and a recent Poetry Foundation piece, next to nothing has been written on the house.

That’s particularly shocking given the importance that Whitman scholars place on the structure.

“Whitman was living there during a really crucial time,” explained Karen Karbiener, a Whitman scholar at New York University.

“There was this weird time during which a normal hack journalist was gathering forces to become something incredible and powerful, and part of that happened in this house,” she said.

It was while he was living at the Ryerson Street building that Whitman walked into a Cranberry Street print shop and asked the owners’ help in publishing “Leaves of Grass.”

What does not strain the imagination is the possibility that the house may someday be demolished.

The real-estate market has grown stronger in Wallabout, and similar wood-frame homes have been demolished in recent years. While the owner of the house could not be reached for comment, surely the temptation to sell is strong. After all, the house across the street, at 106 Ryerson, is on the market for $900,000, and the home at 91 Ryerson is selling for $875,000.

There’s been some talk of seeking landmark protection for the home, or, at the very least, erecting a plaque in Whitman’s honor. But the spokeswoman for the Landmarks Preservations Commission said no formal requests have been made.

But what is a house? After all, two of Whitman’s homes are already preserved — one in Long Island, the other in New Jersey. And isn’t his poetry the truest memorial of all?

“Whitman’s a poet of place,” said Karbenier. “For him, the city represented America. While [other poets] were in Boston, New York was being flooded by immigrants. He loved that and saw the potential here. So it’s so important to read him where he was inspired.”

The Kitchen Sink

There’s nothing more enticing than a free lunch, or free blood pressure monitoring. Stop by Long Island University’s Nursing Center and you’ll get that and more — including free HIV testing and weight-loss club meetings. Call (718) 488-1281 to make an appointment. …

Couple Women’s History Month with Fort Greene Park and what do you get? Women in the American Revolution, of course. The Urban Park Rangers will lead a discussion on March 17 about the role women played in the Revolution, whose history is so intertwined with Fort Greene Park. Head for the Visitors Center at 1 pm. …

The Fort Greene PUP’s 2007 calendar is now available, featuring the adorable shots of neighborhood dogs playing in Fort Greene Park. To order your own $10 calendar (and support the organization), email info@fortgreenepups.org. …

A Fort Greene resident has founded a blog to convince ZipCar, a car-sharing company, to park vehicles in Fort Greene garages. At the present, Fort Greene ZipCar members must trudge to a different neighborhood (egad!) to pick up vehicles, for which they pay by the hour. To find out more about this worthwhile crusade, check out zipfortgreene.blogspot.com. …

Are your computer skills not quite up to snuff? Do you kids’ computer skills make you feel stupid? Fort Greene SNAP is offering a free “Computer Basics” course on Fridays, from March 16 to April 20. For information, visit www.fortgreenesnap.org or call (718) 694-6957.

Today’s news:
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook
Subscribe

Get our stories in your inbox, free.

Like The Brooklyn Paper on Facebook.

Reader Feedback

vince rocco from staten island says:
I was born in 1944 at 79 Ryerson St. 2nd fl. My family lived there from 1943 to 1955. Little did my family (or anyone else) know that Wilt Whitman once lived on the same block. As kids we played street games like stickball and I broke the 3rd floor window of 99 Ryerson St. how do I remember? Because my good friend Charlie lived in 101 Ryerson St.
Dec. 27, 2010, 7:09 pm
Christina Hildebrandt from FL says:
You must of known my father Robert Hildebrandt or his brother Fred, they lived at 99 Ryerson.
Feb. 5, 2011, 8:23 pm
vince rocco from staten island says:
Hello Christina, I'm 66 years old. If your father and uncle are my age, I probably knew them. Ryerson Street in the late 40's and early 50's were full of kids. It was a wonderful time in my life. By the way I am still friends with Charlie Carey, his brother Robert, Ron McCann, and Bill Clemente. Hope this helps. Give my regards to all. Vinny
March 16, 2011, 3:10 pm
Pete from Gusmano says:
Brooklyn Memories
My grandmother owed a house at 67 Ryerson Street until it was torn down to make room
For the park avenue extension.
Some of my friends were the Mike Luciano
Joe quigley Fiore custode Andrew fopiano
Steve Stavros
It was an incredible time with lots of friends and memories
Anyone with similar memories let's hear the,
Regards
Pete
Formerly of The Rippers punchball team
Nov. 25, 2013, 4 pm
Christine Mattana from I live in FL says:
My great-great-grandfather, grandmother, and their children and relatives lived at 99 Ryerson Street, according to the 1870 US Census. I think it is extraordinary that Walt Whitman lived there prior to my relatives. Just how cool is that!
Dec. 23, 2013, 3:51 pm
Christine Mattana from I live in FL says:
According to the 1870 US Census, my great-great-grandparents and members of the Joseph W Pine family and their servants lived at 99 Ryerson Street in Brooklyn. I find it very interesting my ancestors and Walt Whitman lived in the same home! How cool is that.
Dec. 23, 2013, 3:53 pm
fiore custode from wallabout/clinton hill says:
September 13, 2008
The Christmas Windows of: Maurice’s (Morris’s as we called The Epsteins’s store)
Maurice Epstein’s (Morris’ 5&10 cents store) as we pronounce it, celebrated Chanukah, but they decorated Christmas with love and magic for all of us to celebrate. That’s Brooklyn.
There was the Magical Windows of Maurice’s (Maurice and Esther Epstein’s) Department Store on the corner of Ryerson Street and Myrtle Avenue. As a very young boy of eight and nine, I went out into the snow at night- to see the magical displays of Maurice’s Christmas displays and the wonderful Christmas lights in those window displays. The windows were hexagonal and split on each side by the entrance door to that wonderful store.
For me, it was Santa’s Toyland in Brooklyn. Esther and Maurice created a true North Pole of toys and gifts. I always liked being sent to Maurice’s by my Mom to buy some sewing thread or other homespun items. Esther was always so kind and attentive in listening to what I said that my Mom wanted me to get. She was a patient and kind woman.
The Maurice’s had two Sons. I only remember Daniel who was in my Brother Al’s Class with Mrs. Boyd of P.S. 157, in the eighth grade. Daniel went to Brooklyn Tech; my brother Al went to Boys High. Al became a senior engineer working as a civilian with the U.S. Air Force, and then with IBM - on the Nuclear Submarine (The Trident). My brother Al was brilliant.
The word “Diversity” was born in Brooklyn. No one knows what diversity really means until they visit Brooklyn. The Jewish bakery on the corner of Park and Kent Avenue filled the winter evening air with the wholesome scent of freshly baked Pumpernickel bread - while Pizza by the slice was baked three blocks away on Skillman Street and Park Avenue, in the Sicilian neighborhood. Rockwood’s chocolate factory was west of Kent Avenue on Washington Avenue, and the aroma of chocolate filled the air almost every evening. About two blocks north was the Brooklyn Navy Yard where our valiant Aircraft Carriers were being built for service in the South Pacific during WWII.
The German Schafer Beer Co. brewed its pops and sent its aroma throughout the Jewish Hassidic neighborhoods in nearby Williamsburg; the section of Brooklyn that was the home of Israel’s future leaders.
My Brooklyn is a place that lives in the memory of its young children and the spirit of its people. The “Tree of Diversity” grows in Brooklyn, where the Hot Dog stands are perfect and the Knishes are delicious in the cold winter days of December.
Maurice’s example showed that people in the neighborhood could instill human values in Children that could last for a lifetime. For me it was an experience that I’ll always remember. I am indebted to The Epstein’s for their concerns for children, and appreciation of other folk’s beliefs and cultures.
Fiore Custode
77 Ryerson Street, (1943)
Brooklyn, 5 N.Y.
________________________
March 1, 12:35 am
fiore custode from Ryerson Street says:
Hi Vince,

I guess that you might not remember me. My Grandmother owned both buildings: 79 Ryerson street, and 77 Ryerson Street, from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. There was a small boy who lived on the ‘middle floor’ at 79 Ryerson Street. I lived next door at 77 Ryerson Street. My uncle “Peppe’ maintained both the buildings, (77 Ryerson Street and 79 Ryerson Street. I was born in 1934, which makes me 10 years older than that little kid who wasn’t yet allowed to go to the sidewalk to play. Annette Feshetti (sp?) lived on the top floor at 79 Ryerson Street in 1948. There were ten Children in my family. We moved to Florida in 1946 but returned in 1947.

If you are that person, (Young Boy), then I believe that I remember your father as a gentleman having a ‘dapper mustache’, and he always wore a coat & tie.

Peter Gusmano was a Boyhood friend on Ryerson Street, as was his brother Steve. Peter Gusmano, urged me to do some drawings that will show the Ryerson Street boys playing ‘Punch ball’, on the block. Great times for kids!
Best to you. Fiore Custode
March 1, 1:12 am
vince rocco from charlotte n c says:
Hello Fiore, yes, I am that little boy that lived on the second floor of 79 Ryerson street. I'm now 71 and living in Charlotte. That gentleman was my dad who worked for Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan. And I do remember your uncle Peppe. Funny, after all these years I remember everything, but don't remember what I did yesterday. Annette Feshetti had two sons Phillip and (I think) Joseph? We moved in 1955 (or56') to 196 Clinton Ave. In 1958 I lost my father to cancer. My mom and I moved to Bensonhurst to live with with my grandfather. Thank you for your kind words regarding my family. I miss my family, my friends, the block and Brooklyn.
July 12, 9:39 am

Enter your comment below

By submitting this comment, you agree to the following terms:

You agree that you, and not BrooklynPaper.com or its affiliates, are fully responsible for the content that you post. You agree not to post any abusive, obscene, vulgar, slanderous, hateful, threatening or sexually-oriented material or any material that may violate applicable law; doing so may lead to the removal of your post and to your being permanently banned from posting to the site. You grant to BrooklynPaper.com the royalty-free, irrevocable, perpetual and fully sublicensable license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such content in whole or in part world-wide and to incorporate it in other works in any form, media or technology now known or later developed.

First name
Last name
Your neighborhood
Email address
Daytime phone

Your letter must be signed and include all of the information requested above. (Only your name and neighborhood are published with the letter.) Letters should be as brief as possible; while they may discuss any topic of interest to our readers, priority will be given to letters that relate to stories covered by The Brooklyn Paper.

Letters will be edited at the sole discretion of the editor, may be published in whole or part in any media, and upon publication become the property of The Brooklyn Paper. The earlier in the week you send your letter, the better.

This week’s featured advertisers