July 19, 2018
The Ballad of the Sad Walt Whitman Residence
by Ian Dreiblatt
In the beautiful American city of Brooklyn, near the Navy Yards and the future location of what will be the five boroughs’ first Wegman’s (we await you all breathless, o noblest grocery chain), between the crook of the elevated BQE and the sculpture-strewn campus of the Pratt Institute, sits a quiet neighborhood that doesn’t quite have a name. Straggly side streets radiate out from Myrtle Avenue—“Murder Ave,” it was called in hoarier days—lined with small, elegantly ratty rowhouses, and dotted with run-down playgrounds. The repurposed complexes of the bygone Remsen Dairy Company rise like turrets to the south; the husk of a porn-shop-turned-Caribbean-nightclub idles next to a Dunkin’ Donuts. The more stalwart of the local businesses tend to be modest and great — there’s Castro’s Restaurant, a family-run Mexican spot that wears its underlovedness well; Kum Kau, a bustling kitchen with its own kids’ book; for many years, there was Dope Jams, a sigil-coated magick and record shop specializing in things that improve when you’re lightheaded; for a quarter century, there was Laura and Kennedy Osagie’s Owa Afrikan Market, which sold clothes, art, herbs, and more, as well as offering spiritual consultation in English, Spanish, and Yoruba (the business, still thriving, has moved to Bed-Stuy). Longtime friend of the blog JW McCormack, who used to live there, remembers the area for having “the highest ghosts-to-flesh ratio in New York City,” and as “the site of the world’s loneliest White Castle, a sort of Mos Eisley of lost souls. Though I prefer Krystal’s.”
Oh yeah, and, for a year in the mid-1850’s, Walt Whitman lived there.
This is not all that exceptional—Whitman moved a lot and lived many places—except for the fact that the building in question, at 99 Ryerson Street, is the only former Whitman home in Brooklyn that’s still standing. And, as James Barron writes for the New York Times this week, efforts are underway to get the property landmarked.
Whitman was many things — an enthusiastic sperm-hider, a Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman guest star, a health guru, an early Bill Murray speechwriter, a passionate lay student of phrenology, and, not least of all, one of the most admired authors in American history. Various properties in the New York area have been associated with him, but the 99 Ryerson house, where Whitman lived from May 1855 through May 1856, holds several distinctions: it was the scene of Ralph Waldo Emmerson’s famous visit to the poet, and where he began writing his epochal Song of Myself. It’s also, unlike Whitman’s other homes in the County of Kings, still there.
A coalition has been trying to get the house landmarked for some years. As Barron writes:
The Landmarks Preservation Commission said no last year after concluding, as a spokeswoman put it, that the house “does not rise to the level of an individual landmark.” But Whitman experts like [Karen] Karbiener and preservationists are asking for reconsideration now that the chairwoman of the commission, Meenakshi Srinivasan, has left…. One reason the house did not qualify for landmark status, a spokeswoman said in an email, was that the house had been “re-sided, substantially altering its appearance.”
Its appearance, of course, is not exactly the point — as Walt Whitman Project artistic director Greg Tupiano tells Barron, “What matters is what the house represents… It’s the pinnacle of the American Renaissance of literature.”
The Coalition to Save Walt Whitman’s House, which is spearheading the effort to appeal the LPC’s denial, hopes to seal the house’s landmark status by May 31st, which will be Whitman’s bicentennary. There’s a petition gathering signatures right here, bearing endorsements from the likes of George Saunders (“For this house to disappear would be something like an extinction: such a place cannot be got back, not ever, once it is lost”) and Karbiener, a Columbia professor and the founder of the Walt Whitman Initiative (“I hope the Commission understands this is not about the architectural merit of 99 Ryerson Street but rather its incredibly significant cultural value”). The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project also supports the initiative.
Today, Ryerson Street is beautiful and chill, a fine place to loafe and invite one’s soul. Just a few blocks down Myrtle, Fort Greene Park—which Whitman fought hard to see established—sprawls out from the soaring Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument. Whitman’s old house, steeped as it is in history and literary interest, deserves landmark status; beneath the siding, it remains the site of some literary work that would later hit mass consciousness like a meteor. Beside that, it’d just be wonderful to see a small crown passed to this aluminum-clad, consummate underdog of an edifice, and this unfussingly vibrant corner of a great city.
As of this writing, no secret sperm motifs have been discovered in the house’s moldings — but give it time, people.
Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.