Brooklyn mourns Dennis Holt, who covered boro’s news for 30 years
By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklynites are mourning Dennis Holt, longtime civic activist, reporter and author of the Brooklyn Eagle’s “Brooklyn Broadside” column, who died on Thursday at the age of 77.
He died in the intensive care unit at Kings County Hospital after complications from a fall in his home on May 14. He had been an active journalist until his accident.
Holt was born Dec. 7, 1934, in Wichita, Kansas, moving around the country with his family several times while growing up, first to Indiana and finally Alabama. While an undergraduate student leader at the University of Alabama in the 1950s, he was active in the fight to integrate the university, at one point physically subduing three segregationist protesters. “They were drunk,” he later explained.
Younger journalists working with Dennis could easily become enraptured by the calm, deep tone of his voice,” says Brooklyn Eagle Publisher Dozier Hasty. “It conveyed the wisdom and practical intelligence that came with decades of being a careful listener.
“Despite his strongly held opinions on many issues in Brooklyn — and sometimes beyond — he never attempted to dominate discussions, privately or publicly, as on cable talk shows about Brooklyn, where he was a frequent guest,” said Hasty.
Kenneth Adams, president of Empire State Development, former president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and a native of Brownstone Brooklyn, said, “Dennis was the very best of community journalists — experienced, thoughtful and judicious as a reporter, and, at the same time, loyal and devoted to the many Brooklyn people, places, causes and organizations about which he wrote.”
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After Holt married Susan, the couple moved from Manhattan to Boerum Hill in 1971. He didn’t talk much about his Manhattan days, but he did mention that he knew the actor James Earl Jones and that he hung out in advertising-industry bars like P.J. Clarke.
Holt described Boerum Hill in the 1970s as having no street trees, many vacant stores and lots of low-level crime.
When he first moved in, he was robbed, he told Carroll Gardens Patch in an interview last year. When the policeman showed up, remembered Dennis, he said, “What are people like you doing in a place like this?” Dennis replied, “We’re crazy!”
At the time, Holt was a public affairs executive in New York for Union Carbide, the same company for which his father worked. He is quoted in many stories about Union Carbide from the 1970s and 1980s that are reproduced online.
When Union Carbide moved to Connecticut in the mid-1980s, Dennis tried commuting, but decided to leave the company after a year. In the meantime, he had become active in his community, serving as president of the Boerum Hill Association in 1974.
“The brownstone communities owe a great deal to Dennis Holt for his perseverance, his dedication to the Downtown communities, trying to get them back to the way they used to be,” says Jerry Armer, former president of the Cobble Hill Association.
“His contribution goes back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when you used to see him at the brownstone fairs, talking to people, making sure people like me knew what was going on.”
After leaving Union Carbide, Holt held several short-term public relations assignments.
Michael Armstrong, publisher of the Brooklyn Phoenix newspaper in the 1980s, recalled that “in between jobs, he’d drop into the office, which was two blocks away from his home. We got acquainted, he gave his observations about the newspaper, and I eventually said, ‘Since you think you’re so smart, why don’t you help out?’
“He was first a writer, then a features editor. During other periods of unemployment, he would come in for six months or a year. As features editor, he orchestrated our arts coverage, covering the Brooklyn Museum, BAM and other institutions, and we won 20 or 30 awards,” Armstrong continued.
“In the late ’80s, we had the best arts coverage in New York State.”
Later, from 1989 to 1993, Holt served as chief of staff for Rep. Steve Solarz.
“Because Dennis worked for Solarz, this made him very knowledgeable about the way government works, so when he wrote [as a journalist], he knew what he was talking about,” said Leslie Lewis, another Boerum Hill pioneer and the longtime president of the 84th Precinct Community Council.
Holt also was known as an unofficial historian for Boerum Hill.
Attorney Jo Anne Simon, currently Democratic district leader for the 52nd A.D., says, “When I became head of the Boerum Hill Association in 1993, I called in many of the former folks who had been involved.” At the meeting, Dennis began quoting from a Brooklyn city directory from 1884, talking about the types of businesses and residents — and bars — that existed on each street back then.
“He was a hit,” she recalls.
• • •
In 1994, Holt went to work for the Brooklyn Daily Bulletin, which later merged with the revived Brooklyn Eagle. At first, his role was that of a reporter, but after several years, while he continued to write stories, he began to focus increasingly on his “Brooklyn Broadside” column. The column tackled local, national and state issues, occasionally mixed with personal reminiscences. Holt was deeply interested in the planning and development of what was called the “Brooklyn Renaissance,” but that ultimately was dubbed “the new Brooklyn.”
Eagle publisher Hasty also recalled that Holt had an endearing “mischievous streak.” This was seen in his interactions with Fred Halla, co-publisher of the Eagle and an active Republican, who died in 2003.
Dennis, a liberal Democrat, delighted in needling Halla. On a notably overcast day, Dennis turned to Fred and remarked, “It’s darker than a Republican’s heart!” Still, the two were close friends.
In his columns, Holt repeatedly lambasted President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove and the rest of the Bush crowd without mercy. But there was one Republican whom Dennis really liked: Mayor Bloomberg.
“He’s the best mayor for Brooklyn,” Holt simply explained.
Toward the end of Bloomberg’s second term, Holt used his column to repeatedly urge Bloomberg to run for a third term. But when Bloomberg finally announced his decision to run again, the modest Holt refrained from saying, “I told you so.”
He was a staunch supporter of the Atlantic Yards project at a time when most local officials and civic associations in the neighborhoods around the site – including Boerum Hill – were highly critical of it. His Brooklyn Broadside for April 23, 2010, was headlined, “In Atlantic Yards Delays, State, City, Community Were the Losers.”
Of the project’s opponents, he wrote, “The opponents did not attempt to bargain with the developers on anything — number of buildings, where they will be located, building heights, the size of the open space, schools and other public amenities — nothing.”
Simon, who was critical of the project, recalls, “Even though we had different perspectives on Atlantic Yards, I could always talk with Dennis. I always had a good relationship with him – even though he wrote a counterpoint to my op-ed.”
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Holt also was very much in favor of the development of Brooklyn Bridge Park, and dismissed critics of the official park plan as Luddites.
Over and over again, he insisted that housing in and around the park was the only way to guarantee its future stability.
In his Brooklyn Broadside for June 27, 2007, he wrote, “Although it has been controversial, the decision by the Empire State Development Corporation to rely on real estate revenues for the Bridge Park’s operating revenues essentially provides the park with a guaranteed annual income that can be forecast accurately.”
One issue in which he was in complete solidarity with his fellow residents of Boerum Hill and nearby areas, however, was that of the Brooklyn House of Detention on Atlantic Avenue.
Holt supported local officials’ ultimately successful fight against doubling the size of the jail. Privately, he didn’t think the jail belonged there at all, and hoped the city would eventually sell the building to a private developer. When it was built in 1960, he explained, the neighborhood was a far different place with much fewer residents.
In general, “A press conference hadn’t really begun until Dennis Holt arrived,” said Shane Kavanagh of the Marino Organization, who represents the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. “He was basically THE influencing voice when it came to Brooklyn media. When Dennis reported on something, it gave it the proper credentials.”
• • •
Marilyn Gelber, president of the Brooklyn Community Foundation, who knew Holt since the 1980s, said both were trying to make a difference: he as a journalist, and she in city planning and government.
“I think about him as being old-school, but in the best sense of the word,” said Gelber, who served as executive assistant to Borough President Howard Golden. “He was a real journalist who knew his facts, and also brought a sense of history to the subject. Above all, he was dedicated to Brooklyn.”
In his last few years, Dennis, a former heavy smoker who quit in 1996, had an ongoing battle with emphysema, a former of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In the Patch interview, he said it was hard for him to talk continuously for long periods of time or to walk up stairs.
Even normal breathing was sometimes an effort.
“You have to learn to breathe again,” he was quoted as saying. In the interview, he credited Dr. Peter Smith at Long Island College Hospital with helping him.
Borough President Marty Markowitz issued a statement on Friday which said,” In addition to his informative reporting for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and other publications during his storied career, Dennis had a keen political insight that he developed as a press advisor to elected officials such as Brooklyn Congressman Stephen Solarz, also of blessed memory.
“I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dennis’ work, and he always gave me and this office a fair shake — he was the antithesis of today’s ‘gotcha’ style of journalism.”
Toni Yuille-Williams, public affairs director for Brooklyn for Con Edison, said, “Dennis was quite an intellectual and a visionary. In terms of his thinking of what was going to be happening in the borough in terms of economic development, Dennis could predict that.”
Jane McGroarty, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association, said, “Dennis was for many years an important journalistic presence in Downtown Brooklyn. I always appreciated his advocacy for better transportation planning and improved transit services as Downtown Brooklyn developed into the third largest business district in New York City.”
And Judy Stanton, executive director of the association, said, “Dennis Holt’s writings were informed by his deep knowledge of Brownstone Brooklyn and keen ear for politics. Even as an old guy, he stayed sharp, wrote prolifically, and kept his fingers on the pulse of changes in the borough.”
Henrik Krogius, editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press and a longtime colleague, said, “He was a tremendous booster of Brooklyn and he had a really extraordinary understanding of its politics and development. It will be a great loss.”
Downtown attorney Steve Cohn, a veteran of Brooklyn Democratic politics, said, “Dennis was an outstanding journalist, knowledgeable in the area of community and politics, and a friend to all.”
“I knew him for 25 years easily,” said Assemblywoman Joan Millman (D-Brownstone Brooklyn). “I loved reading his column. He was a joy to work with.”
Hasty, the Eagle’s publisher, added, “He was the interviewer, columnist, editor, provocateur …and he remained so until his last days. He was dearly loved and will be sorely missed.”
Perhaps the biggest tribute to him is the fact that many of his early predictions came true.
“We used to talk about how Atlantic Avenue never quite jelled, how Fifth Avenue in Park Slope was someday going to become a real hot draw for people, Smith Street a real hot street, and how Fulton Street in Fort Greene was going to develop differently,” said Armstrong, Holt’s publisher at the Phoenix. “These things all came to pass.”
• • •
“He was brilliant and witty and loved by many. He just doted on his grandsons as well,” his daughter Deborah said.
His son Matthew said, “I think my father was passionate about what he did as far as writing for the paper and researching Brooklyn history, and he got a lot of joy out of his work.
“It made him a happy person. I’ve never met a single person who had anything bad to say about him or didn’t like him.”
Holt is survived by his wife, Susan; his son, Matthew Holt, a rock musician, of Boerum Hill; his daughter, Deborah Taylor, of Westchester; and two grandsons, Graham, 11, and Cooper, 7.
In accordance with his wishes, he will be cremated. Arrangements for a memorial service will be announced later.