102 Steuben



Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Clinton Hill

When I think of my dad, I think of the stories he’s told me. What he knows and what he wants me to know. I think of the time at Friendly’s when he etched the web of our ancestors onto a napkin. Patrick to Matthew, Edward and Agnes and Teresa and Mary, and at the top, circled in pen: 102 Steuben Street. I’ve never lived there. He’s never lived there. Neither his father nor his mother called 102 Steuben Street home, but it was the home of my ancestors after they took the trip so many others had from Ireland to Brooklyn during the Great Hunger, and though the descendants of these people migrated—to Marine Park, Jersey City, Connecticut, North Carolina, Florida—102 Steuben Street in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn is the first piece of comfort my father’s family could claim as their own in the United States. It is an address of lore, spoken over the kitchen table during my childhood, and a passion and preoccupation of my father’s for as long as I can remember.

I was 15 when my dad set up a tour of 102 Steuben, to be given by a delightful eccentric named Scott who not only owned 102 Steuben, but owned property around the corner on Hall Street, a private residence that he had also turned into a museum called “Brooklyn’s Other Museum of Brooklyn,” or “BOMB.” At his home and museum he gave us handfuls of pins that had pictures of old buildings on them under the words “Landmark Admiral’s Row,” and invited us to look at his collection of sea glass. My dad normally has limited patience for anyone, and I was ready to watch him cut Scott off or give his “we’re here for a reason, don’t waste my time” look, but instead he welcomed the pins and admired not just the sea glass in the bucket next to the pile of doll parts, but commented on the great condition and location of Scott’s row house museum.

When we walked around the corner to Steuben Street, my dad walked in front. Scott had covered the front of the house in blue masking tape, spelling out an open letter to Mayor Bloomberg about the merits of preservation, but all we saw was an origin story. My father was silent, and happy. I’ve come to learn what happy looks like on my dad. I’ve had to learn because it is quiet, so quiet that it was scarily unnoticeable as a child. He does not wear his emotions loudly, not on his sleeve, not on his face, not at all. He does not trust the world. He has been through too much. He has seen too much. He is cynical, but he is my father and looking at him outside 102 Steuben, his face inches from the wrought iron fence, inspecting it like a child would a bug, he was happy, and I was too.

He started to tell me everything he knew about the home and our family, things I knew and had heard hundreds of times before and in detail, but I listened again. Or maybe he was talking to Scott, a fellow history lover, or the kids on the stoop next door.

“Patrick moved here in 1862,” he told me. “He was a blacksmith, and did the wrought iron here,” he rubbed the fence, “and at St Patrick’s,” and then he pointed somewhere in the distance. “Not the Manhattan one, the one here in Brooklyn. The older one.” He smiled. He always smiles at that part.

He then pointed towards the Pratt Institute, “Those were his stables. His grandson was accidentally shot and killed by a friend there. The New York Times covered it. They moved the stables right across the street when Pratt moved into the old stables.”

Before we went inside, Scott warned us it was cluttered. I imagined old, mismatched furniture and scraped up floors. I wouldn’t blame him if there were roaches. I had lived in Brooklyn. I knew about roaches. I was ready to grant him leniency. But inside I could see a foot in front of me and that was it. Stacks of this and that lined the walls and the floor. I remember newspapers and books around every corner but I could be wrong because it was so dark. My dad turned to face me and I was worried he was upset, but instead he pointed to where the wall met the ceiling and said “That’s some crown moulding, huh? I wonder if it’s original.”

We left before dark to get back to New Jersey for dinner. I wish I could remember what my dad said on the ride home, but truth be told we all probably drifted into sleep while my dad listened to the Clancy Brothers on his phone.

In November of 2014 I got an email from my dad. 102 Steuben had been sold to a developer for eight million dollars. Scott was now a rich eccentric. They were going to raze the property, and all the properties between 102 Steuben and Myrtle Avenue, including the old White Castle. In a strong telling of the times, luxury apartments would be stacked along the street like a game of jenga. However, a major stipulation of the sale was this: the facade of 102 Steuben must stay. I’m sure Scott, in his crusade for preservation, had many stipulations on the sale. But I like to think there was just one, that the bricks of my ancestral home—even if it was just one layer—would remain.

And then a few weeks ago my dad texted me to tell me he was in Clinton Hill and had walked by 102 Steuben. He had just seen a client—his days working for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office are long over. He works from home in New Jersey now, going out to see clients in the boroughs every now and then. He told me they had torn it all down except the front, just as Scott had demanded. He said he snooped around the worksite, and that there were some young guys sitting on the stoop of the building next door that had not been torn down yet, eyeing him curiously. My dad managed to find a construction site door and went in. He was digging around in the rubble when the security guard told him he could not be there. He apparently told the security guard about the history of the home, just as he always told me. He told him about the wrought iron fence, the stables, the shooting—and according to my dad, the guy was genuinely interested. He even let him take a brick before he kicked him out. Once outside the construction site, the young guys asked my dad if he knew “Mr. Scott.” It took a minute, but my dad realized who they were talking about. They said they were from the area and knew Mr. Scott growing up. And so, once again, my dad explained the history of the house to open ears. The young men listened nodded.

“I had no idea that place was so old,” one of them said.

And why would they? 102 Steuben Street was my family’s lore, my father’s story to tell, and now it is mine.

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