Bill Powers - photographer, writer, theater director and filmmaker - has donated 125 of his photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge to the Brooklyn Collection chronicling his 47-year love affair with the iconic structure. To accompany those materials he also recorded an interview with BPL’s Our Streets, Our Stories oral history project about growing up in Brooklyn. His stories describe a Park Slope very different from its quiet gentility today.
The Bridge as subject emerges
In 1970 Life magazine featured one of Powers’ images of the bridge with the caption:
For years Photographer Bill Powers walked daily across the Brooklyn Bridge. But he never really saw it until one foggy day when he took a boat trip around Manhattan. He photographed the bridge straight on to lose depth and isolate what Poet Hart Crane called its ‘towering looms.’
Powers then embarked on a decades-long examination of the bridge from close details to the majestic sweep of its full span. I spoke with Bill Powers during the process of cataloging the collection and heard him convey his passion for the poetry of the bridge and its structure; both are lovingly highlighted in his pictures.
Moods of the Bridge
Among his photos are examples that show the bridge in all weathers and lights.
Powers dubbed these three pylons King Lear’s daughters.
Some of the photos imply the strategies Powers used to capture them. Today we are accustomed to wild aerial views taken by drones, but until recently gaining a bird’s eye view of such a large structure required real ingenuity. The 17th floor of the Municipal Building in Manhattan gave him the high vantage point he was seeking.
These photos are a marriage of beautiful geometry and technical information. For the bridge to be structurally sound the four main cables need to pass unbroken from shore to shore threading through the two towers. Each cable sheathes 5,434 wires.
An interesting side note - all of these photographs were taken in color; later some were adjusted to black and white, or sepia monotone. Bill Powers has gathered a set of these monotone views for a planned book. Sometimes the shift in mood between the two versions is startling.
And in a view not of the bridge but of the environs, revisiting a photo taken by many photographers but rarely captured so perfectly, the Empire State Building is framed by the Manhattan Bridge from DUMBO.
“It was an adventure growing up in Brooklyn.”
A short time after donating this wonderful trove of photos, Bill Powers recorded a short oral history about his youth in Brooklyn.
Bill Powers tells eye-opening tales of what it was like to grow up in the 40s and 50s in the neighborhood we now call Park Slope, a decidedly more rough and tumble place at that time, where gangs were a fixture both in school and out. I delved into the archives of the Brooklyn Collection to illustrate a few of the events and places in Powers’ narrative.
The journalist Pete Hamill, a neighbor and friend of Powers, said, when asked what they called the area:
"Where I lived on 7th Avenue and 12th Street we really didn’t call it anything,” he says. “What I loved about the South Brooklyn Boys, as they called themselves, Junior Persico [Carmine John Persico, Jr., who went on to lead the Colombo crime family] and those guys, they lived in North Brooklyn. When you looked at the map you realized that. But they called themselves the South Brooklyn Boys. Geography was not one of their strong suits."
Irish Echo - October 8-14, 2014
When Bill was in grammar school one notorious local gang was the Garfield Boys, who made a habit of shaking down the other kids at lunchtime. Powers recounts they “would walk by the younger guys with a stick and tap their pockets, if they heard change they would rip the guy off. And they got away with it for a long time.” A mirror account of this M.O. appears in the Eagle.
By the time he was attending Brooklyn Technical High School Powers ran with a group of his own centered on Bartel-Pritchard Square at 15th Street and Prospect Park West but roaming as far as Bay Ridge.
Powers recounts rollicking stories of lightning raids when his group ran through another gang’s territory throwing rocks through windows then fled back to home turf. In his memory it was a climate of incipient violence; fights were frequent, but knives were not allowed, no one he knew carried a gun, and kids rarely got hurt.
Powers remembers his neighborhood as a place that was “sad and poor, but we had a great time.” He paints a picture of a rich social scene on streets that were full of kids. He speaks of the blocks from 7th to 9th Avenues in the summertime, hydrants and hoses going, teeming with children in a world of their own.
One night, however, an event occurred that shattered the neighborhood. On May 12, 1950, a fight broke out between rival gangs near Swan Lake in Prospect Park. James (Giacomo) Fortunato, member of the Tiger gang - in Powers’ memory one of the best liked youths in the neighborhood - was shot dead by Anthony Scarpati, described either as a member of the Garfields or the South Brooklyn Boys (a moniker that included many gangs local to the area).
Powers speaks of the shock to the residents, notable enough to have also figured in Pete Hamill’s 1995 memoir, A drinking life,
Across the street, about a dozen Tigers were reading the papers under the marquee of the Minerva [theater]. One of them was Noona Taylor, the toughest and bravest of the Tigers. He was sobbing, great body-wracking sobs. Even long-legged and curly-haired Milie, the sexiest of the Tigerettes, could not console him.
The Minerva Theater catered to a teenage clientele and seems a natural place for the Tigers to openly mourn their friend in public.
The Friday night battle, waged between the "Tigers" and the "South Brooklyns," formerly called "The Garfields," grew out of a fistfight ...
Ironically, the following article reverses the gang affiliations of perpetrator and victim, which must have been particularly galling to those involved and presents another reminder of the importance of fact-checking [even in our beloved Eagle]. This account points to the murder being a result of general confusion rather than a willful targeting of Fortunato.
Despite Powers’ impression of generally fair fights and a dearth of guns, in my search for the details of the Fortunato killing I found articles, and in fact whole series, in the Eagle that tell of significant violence, weapons seized and even deaths. In regards to weapons we see some real homemade invention on display. This article was my introduction to the term ‘zip gun', an improvised firearm.
“Slammed the door on the progression of violence”
In Powers’ telling the Fortunato killing had the effect of discouraging the escalation of violence in the neighborhood. But other factors were at play: he also credits the advent of the Korean War for changing the climate in the Brooklyn. In Powers' words, “Of all the things that saved some of my friends it was the Korean War. It came and it interrupted the gang warfare … slammed the door on the progression of violence.” Young men were drafted and dispersed by the war, and even when they returned on furlough they were never together in great numbers, and the gangs dissolved.
One article in the Eagle, describing a group called he Robins, also cites the call of military service as a deterrent to gangs. The date however indicates this trend may have predated the United States’ entry into the Korean War.
Bill Powers himself, faced by the certainty of being drafted at the start of the Korean War, enlisted in the Air Force and served for four years. During that time, on a furlough in Biloxi, Mississippi, he picked up a New York Daily Mirror newspaper and was startled to find pictures of friends back home who had been arrested for beatings. Upon his return to civilian life he and Pete Hamill followed the example of other G.I.s and went to college. Both of them attended the Mexico City College to study painting, and also attended Pratt Institute.
Powers’ oral history does not elaborate beyond the earliest years of his career but in the years after his break from Brooklyn he forged a career that would take him into photography, theater and film, a world away from the turf he knew in his youth. But never far from his hometown bridge.