Clinton Hill

A pilgrimage to Walt Whitman’s Clinton Hill home

August 2, 2019 Lore Croghan
Professor Karen Karbiener stands in front of 99 Ryerson St., where Walt Whitman lived. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Preservation advocates are using the co-naming of a Clinton Hill street as Walt Whitman Way as an occasion to spotlight their campaign for city landmark designation for the poet’s home, which stands nearby.

“This humble house is the birthplace of our cultural Declaration of Independence,” New York University Professor Karen Karbiener, who’s the president of the Walt Whitman Initiative, told the Brooklyn Eagle.

After the City Council’s July 23 vote to put Whitman’s name on the corner of Ryerson Street and DeKalb Avenue, she led a pilgrimage to Whitman’s house at 99 Ryerson St. for her Columbia University summer students.

Professor Karen Karbiener takes Columbia University students on a pilgrimage to Walt Whitman’s house. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Professor Karen Karbiener (right) takes Columbia University students on a pilgrimage to Walt Whitman’s house. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Whitmanites call it Leaves of Grass House because the poet and his family lived there in 1855, when he published the first version of this now-famous poetry collection.

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“You guys are about to see the mother lode,” Karbiener told her students on Thursday as they stood up the street from the 1850s wood-frame Italianate home, which is covered with aluminum siding.

“He became a poet in this house,” she said. “For many reasons, we would like to make sure it stays here.”

Karbiener said a big residential development on the block where Leaves of Grass House is located is a reminder that “these houses can come down.”

When she led her students to 99 Ryerson St., she made everybody stay on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street from it. She didn’t want to upset the house’s residents, who don’t like to have people stand right outside the property.


From a polite distance, the students scrutinized 99 Ryerson St.

“It looks like any other house. It’s not ostentatious,” said Columbia undergrad Noah Kulick. “Inside, all this creativity emerged from nowhere.”

Whitman, who’s widely considered America’s greatest poet, was an editor of the Eagle in the 1840s.

 Walt Whitman published the first version of “Leaves of Grass” while living at the house on the right. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Walt Whitman published the first version of “Leaves of Grass” while living at the house on the right. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

The Ryerson Street house is one of 30-plus places in Brooklyn and Manhattan where he lived. It’s the only one that’s still standing.

The Coalition to Save Walt Whitman’s house is campaigning to get the property landmarked this year because it’s the bicentennial of his birthday — and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn Riots, which launched America’s gay civil rights movement.

Whitman’s candidly sensual poems made him “iconic in the United States and Europe as one of the first people to openly express the concept of men loving men,” according to a posting on the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project’s website.

His Clinton Hill house is one of the oldest buildings in the city that’s associated with a person who would now be considered LGBTQ+, the website says.

Both the Walt Whitman Initiative and the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project are members of the Coalition to Save Walt Whitman’s House, along with a team of preservation experts.

A look inside the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument

The students’ pilgrimage to 99 Ryerson St. started on the corner of DeKalb Avenue and traffic-heavy Flatbush Avenue Extension.

“Whitman’s Brooklyn had some of the energy we feel now,” Karbiener told them.

The group made two stops before heading to Leaves of Grass House.

 Professor Karen Karbiener and her Columbia University students stop for a moment on DeKalb Avenue. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Professor Karen Karbiener and her Columbia University students stop for a moment on DeKalb Avenue. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

First, they walked down DeKalb Avenue to The Brooklyn Hospital Center, which opened as Brooklyn City Hospital in 1845. Whitman, who famously worked as a male nurse during the Civil War, was a volunteer at the hospital in the late 1850s.

Right about then, the hospital built a Pathological Hall, which had an operating theater where people could watch surgery being performed.

In his work in the hospital, “Walt Whitman really learned to love the body from the inside out,” Karbiener said.

Next, she led the group to the top of the hill in Fort Greene Park, which is next to the hospital.

There, Greg Trupiano, artistic director and founder of the Walt Whitman Project, talked about the thousands of Colonial patriots who died during the Revolutionary War because they were imprisoned on British ships in Wallabout Bay.

Up in Fort Greene Park, the Walt Whitman Project’s Greg Trupiano talks about the Revolutionary War. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Up in Fort Greene Park, the Walt Whitman Project’s Greg Trupiano talks about the Revolutionary War. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

A Prison Ship Martyrs Monument to honor them opened in 1908. It’s a 149-foot Doric column.

Urban Park Ranger Chris Wood took the students inside the column through a bronze door that’s normally locked up tight.

A park for shantytown residents

During the students’ visit to the park, operatic tenor Daniel Noone sang the aria “La donna e mobile” from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” which premiered in 1851. Whitman loved Verdi’s works.

Daniel Noone sings opera that was likely in Walt Whitman’s ears as he wrote. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Daniel Noone sings opera that was likely in Walt Whitman’s ears as he wrote. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

Fort Greene Park exists because while Whitman was the Eagle’s editor, he relentlessly wrote editorials calling for its creation.

He argued that a park was needed to promote the health of the residents of the heavily populated area, including Irish immigrants who lived in a shantytown along Myrtle Avenue, the city Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report about the Fort Greene Historic District says.

There were dangerous outbreaks of cholera in the summertime.

The 33-acre green space was established in 1847.

‘I stop somewhere waiting for you’

Another high point of the visit to Fort Greene Park was performance artist Dillon Porter’s recitation of excerpts of “Song of Myself,” Whitman’s famous poem.

Dillon Porter performs excerpts from “Song of Myself.” Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Dillon Porter performs excerpts from “Song of Myself.” Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

“I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,” he said. “I stop somewhere waiting for you.”

Before the students left the park and headed to Whitman’s house, they walked down stone stairs to a crypt where the prison ship martyrs’ remains are entombed. Trupiano said only the descendants of the dead are allowed inside the barrel-vaulted chamber filled with caskets.

 Professor Karen Karbiener and her students stand in front of the prison ship martyrs’ crypt in Fort Greene Park. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
Professor Karen Karbiener and her students stand in front of the prison ship martyrs’ crypt in Fort Greene Park. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane

More than 5,700 people have signed a petition calling for Whitman’s Clinton Hill house to be landmarked.

Landmarks Preservation Commission staffers turned down Whitmanites’ request to have 99 Ryerson St. calendared for consideration as an individual landmark in 2017. Preservation advocates responded with a 13-page rebuttal.

Elected officials including City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo wrote a letter asking that the house be landmarked. It’s located in her district.

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.


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