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 firstname.lastname@example.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.