OPINION: A real story of Prohibition in Brooklyn Heights
In a recent article and photo spread in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, reporter Mary Frost examined a recent shoot for hit HBO show “Boardwalk Empire” in Brooklyn Heights.
Monroe Place, in particular, was transformed into a street from 1931, complete with vintage automobiles, actors wearing fedoras, actresses wearing cloche hats and an old-style peanut vendor. (We trust he wasn’t doing the type of madcap stunts Chico Marx did as a peanut vendor in the 1933 classic “Duck Soup.”)
For those who don’t know, “Boardwalk Empire” deals with the rise of organized crime during the Prohibition era of the 1920s and early ’30s. Meyer Lansky, Al Capone and Arnold Rothstein are depicted as characters. But Downtown Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights had their own Prohibition history — and part of it may have been unveiled by the late Eagle columnist Dennis Holt.
Before we go any further, no one New York City neighborhood was a “hotbed” of illegal liquor. Because Prohibition was so unpopular, there were speakeasies, or illegal bars, everywhere. These ranged from ritzy places like the 21 Club in Manhattan, which served the “real stuff” imported from Canada, to dives where rotgut bathtub gin was served. In addition, private clubs like the ones that used to exist in the Heights and nearby areas would often have a stock of booze discreetly on hand for their members.
Greater Downtown Brooklyn’s best-known link to Prohibition-era gangland is the fact that Al Capone’s family lived on at least two addresses on Garfield Street in Carroll Gardens in the 1910s. Capone got married in St. Mary Star of the Sea Church at 468 Court St. and may have hung out at the now-defunct P.J. Hanley’s bar nearby. But Capone didn’t do his worst in the neighborhood — he left in 1920. It was Chicago where he began his rise to bootlegging fame, although he returned to Brooklyn in 1925 to help rub out some Irish-American gangsters at the Adonis Social Club in the South Slope.
Now, for Dennis Holt. In the 1990s, the Eagle had part of its offices at 129 Montague St., on the corner of Henry Street. One day, some workmen were doing renovations in the basement and discovered a room that had been sealed for years. It contained a bar, stools, glasses, some magazines from 1931, even waitresses’ uniforms. Tellingly, Holt discovered a ledger with a detailed set of expenses, which he showed to me. One of these was “city comp,” which might have meant “compensation to city officials” — or bribery.
Holt had a large set of historical books and old directories, and he determined that in the early ’30s, there was a large restaurant on the ground-floor corner space. Based on his extensive knowledge of history and the fact that the magazines dated from 1931, he concluded that the room could have been only one thing — a speakeasy. Restaurant patrons in the know would have been able to get in with a password, while others would just have been given a blank, hostile stare.
Holt also found mention of the same restaurant in a tourists’ guide to the city for the 1939-40 World’s Fair. By that time, however, Prohibition was over, and it would have served wine and beer legally.
It’s doubtful that there were any machine gun-toting gangsters speeding down Montague Street, saying “They’ll never get me, see! Nyah!” But Brooklyn Heights and Downtown, like every neighborhood, were far from innocent in those bygone days.
Raanan Geberer, a freelance writer, recently retired as Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He had been Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Bulletin until 1996, when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was revived and merged with the Bulletin.
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