As we watch whole blocks of North Brooklyn sacrificed to overdevelopment, it is good to see that the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a private group, is funding the restoration of writer Henry Miller’s boyhood home at 662 Driggs Ave.
Miller’s parents were following a path well worn by other German-Americans when they moved from the Upper East Side to Williamsburg shortly after Henry’s birth in the 1890s. They lived between Metropolitan Avenue and North First Street, until 1901, when the neighborhood was beginning to be changed by an influx of immigrants from the Lower East Side.
Remembered by some as the Miller who perhaps should have married Marilyn Monroe, Henry Miller rejected the bourgeois values of his parents and grew up to write funny, semi-autobiographical, utterly bannable books like “Tropic of Capricorn,” which provoked numerous obscenity prosecutions during the 1960s. As a young man, Miller managed to graduate from Eastern District HS (now relocated and renamed the Grand Street Campus), but could not stomach the conventional atmosphere he found at City College.
In the 1920s, having converted to socialism and rejected most of what his parents’ America stood for, Miller did what so many American artists and intellectuals did — he went to Paris. There he lived with Anais Nin and wrote more books that were too sexually frank to be published in his own homeland. In 1940, George Orwell wrote of him: “Here, in my opinion, is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past.” Miller died in California in 1980.
As much as Henry Miller reacted against his upbringing, he was stamped forever by the richness of his Williamsburg years, which he described as “full of accident and incident, drama, movement.”
In a 1971 interview in The New York Times, Miller recalled, “At the Driggs Avenue end of the street was a saloon and at the other end a kindergarten. I remember the saloon because as a child, I was often sent to get a pitcher of beer at the side entrance; we called this ‘rushing the growler.’ … At the Bedford Avenue corner, was the police station where I was dragged by the arm one afternoon by the young lady whom my mother had asked to take care of me. I must have been 6 or 7 years old; the crime I had committed was to use dirty language in her presence.”
“On North First Street … we often played cat, or shinny [a baseball-like game] and the aroma of fresh baked bread, crullers and doughnuts assailed our nostrils day in and day out. On the other side of Grand Street was Daly’s Fish Market, which also stands out vividly in my memory, particularly the man Daly, who was very swarthy and hairy and, in my mind at least, seemed always to be opening oysters.”
From the smoky recesses of its sailors’ bars to the sunlit East River ferry to the excitement of its Vaudeville theaters, Williamsburg was a place that never became too small for Henry Miller’s expanding imagination.
“Strangely enough, years later when I took up quarters in Paris … I often ran across streets which reminded me of that strange territory surrounding Metropolitan Avenue.”
And that “territory” is currently being shored up, thanks to a Landmarks Conservancy grant. Next, the firm of Cutsogeorge, Tooman and Allen will install replica cornices and original copper pieces.
Who knows? Maybe the owners of the building — who wish to remain anonymous — will set up a mini-museum to this under-appreciated Williamsburger.
Tom Gilbert is a Greenpoint writer.
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