The peculiar attractions of Middle Village and Cypress Hills and the picturesquely rural scenes of East Williamsburgh
Germans, being human, love their beer. To drain the flowing glass at one draught, or to drink slowly and meditatively, is one of the chief pleasures of their existence. As the duck takes to water so do they take to beer, and to deprive them of their favorite beverage were to make life for many of them a dreary blank. Their transplantation from the Fatherland to other countries works no degree of change in their tastes; it indeed seems only to increase their appetite for the drink. This is a fact which may be easily and instructively confirmed here in Brooklyn. It is a peculiarity of Germans residing in large communities in this country that they generally contrive to live in one certain section; and this is very strikingly so of churches. Here they not only occupy, almost exclusively, a distinct district by themselves, but one also in which nearly all breweries are located. The Fifteenth, Sixteenth and Eighteenth wards comprise the most pronounced German sections of the city. In the crowded parts of the two latter wards nearly everything is German; the very houses, although American in design, yet possess undeniable Teutonic features; and the occupants of many of them speak no other language than that which they learned to lisp in the days of their infancy in the Fatherland. The district has grown up around the breweries, more oddly enough the offshoot rather than the root of them.
At night it is a lively, and in many parts a picturesquely squalid, section of the city. Then the men have returned from work, and with their families fill the stoops and the windows, while pails steadily oscillate to and from neighboring saloons. A well-behaved and peaceful body of citizens when their feelings are not outraged, they get more pleasure and contentment out of the evening than many of their neighbors in other sections of the city. But this is the weekday scene; on Sundays and holidays everything is changed. The neighborhood is almost deserted. On such days every self-respecting German who can afford it feels it is to be his duty to give his family an outing. His relaxation, like his daily life, differs from that of his American fellow citizen. Beer drinking makes up a good part of it, but it is beer drinking under different conditions and accompanied by a goodly portion of eating. Coney Island and Rockaway Beach are popular places with him, but there are others nearer home that more completely satisfy the yearning of his heart and the more fully fill his longing of his soul for things Teutonic. The elderly eastern district German of large family – and but few have any other than such – likes the seashore in a kind of leniently amiable way as a place that it is well to visit once in a while for the children’s sakes, but for real, comfortable, solid enjoyment he will tell you that there are no such spots as Cypress Hills or Middle Village, or even East Williamsburgh. Coney Island and Rockaway Beach cater to the cosmopolitan taste; the attractions of the other places are created and maintained expressly for him.
“New York Dutchmen,” he will tell you, “go to the seaside. That’s good enough for them; let them have it. But for my wife and myself, we want the places where we will find our countrypeople and can drink with them.”
The liking of the Germans for Middle Village and Cypress Hills has a degree of oddity about it that is peculiarly striking. The chief industry and attractions of both places are their cemeteries. One would think that a race which is so prone to surrender to melancholy or reverses of any sort, would keep as far away from burial grounds as possible. But it is not so with our good-natured elderly eastern district German and his buxom wife. He does not go to either place for the purpose of visiting the cemeteries. He rarely thinks of them at all. His design is to sit all the afternoon at a round table in one of the many big saloons, surrounded by his family and friends, and there to drink beer ad libitum and eat enormous ham and Swiss cheese sandwiches, with fresh butter, bockwurst and sausages. As the afternoon passes away the young people gradually withdraw from the elderlies and retire upstairs, where they usually have a dance. Then is the time that the old folks enjoy their placid outing to the utmost. The men smoke cigars or pipes and drink copious draughts of beer, while their wives gather together and discuss household affairs. When night descends the young folks are called away from the dance, a last glass is taken, adieus are said and the German, with his family around him, returns in the cool of the evening to his eastern district home, his mind in a very pleasant frame of composure and his face beaming with good humor.
If our elderly German’s liking for these places is not whimsical, what else is it? He will tell you that it is not and give you what he regards as good and sufficient reasons for his belief. On a hot summer afternoon Middle Village is one of the most perfectly unattractive spots to be found anywhere on the outskirts of Brooklyn. The road that bisects its several cemeteries almost broils in the sun, whose rays beat down fiercely and uninterruptedly upon it; the visit of a watering cart is unknown, and every passing car or vehicle throws up clouds of dust. The grateful shade of trees is not to be found on it. It is lined with cemeteries and beer saloons. Where the one is not the other is. The saloons are none of them attractive, save to him who is athirst. They are mostly long, low frame structures of two stories, painted a uniform white, with sheds for carriages. As each car arrives from the city, however, its passengers flock into them and never think of leaving until it is time to go home. Those who come for pleasure are gradually reinforced by those who come to mourn and stay to make merry, for as soon as the practical part – if it may be called such – of every funeral is concluded, those who take part in it help to swell the crowds seated at the round tables and to dispatch the smiling landlord’s beer and edibles.
Cypress Hills has more shade and much less dust, while its saloons are fewer. It is crowded every Sunday almost as much as Middle Village, the eastern district German liking it passing well and regarding it only second in point of attractiveness. It is reached by a dummy road from Myrtle Avenue, and has some pretty lanes in which an agreeable walk may be enjoyed. But its visitors are rarely in search of exercise. Beyond a passing glance at the reservoir, which furnishes the water drinking portion of Brooklyn with its daily supply, and a peep at the quaint entrance to the cemetery, they give no heed to the surroundings, but hasten to place themselves in a waiter’s care. All the afternoon, as in Middle Village, which is only a short distance from Cypress Hills, the beer drinking and eating and dancing go on apace, and the same happy and cheerful Germans emerge in the evening and pursue their way homeward.
East Williamsburgh, though the least popular, is the pleasantest of the three places. It has a large picnic grounds and hotel, but no cemetery. Whether the absence of the latter is regarded as a drawback or not is hard to say, but certain is it that it is much less frequented than either Middle Village or Cypress Hills. Two lines of cars pass through it, and it has, nevertheless, sufficient visitors on Sunday afternoons to give it an air of gayety and a brave show of life. Apart from the picnic grounds it is a quaint and curious little village, just beyond the city line, that marks the eastern boundary of the Eighteenth ward. Its two principal thoroughfares are Metropolitan and Flushing Avenues. Barring Flatbush Avenue, the latter is probably the most picturesque road in the suburbs. It is one of the few that still possesses houses and mansions of the pre-Revolutionary type of architecture in any appreciable number. From the city line out to and beyond Metropolitan Avenue there is a constant succession of these. Fine old oaks, elms and willows shade the road and glimpses may be had of rare, old fashioned farm yards and great, commodious barns such as our ancestors loved to build. On either hand fields of waving corn may be seen and pastures in which sleek and well-fed cattle are grazing. In front of each house is a well kept and tastefully ordered garden, shaded by the overhanging branches of the trees. Half a mile or so further on a few stores of a decidedly rural type are met, and still further the cute and cozy little post office, looking for all the world like a dry goods box which has been given a coat of paint and converted into a toy house, attracts the eye. Beyond that but a very few steps and you suddenly run up against the hotel, with its good natured Germans quaffing their beer, and the picnic grounds, with their dancing pavilion and its happy young folks. This is the only break in the charmingly rural scene. Beyond the hotel the avenue loses itself in a winding country road, where more quaint farm yards and rambling old houses may be found, with here and there a windmill in a state of picturesque neglect.
“Ah, yes,” says our elderly eastern district German, “the New York Dutchman may keep his Coney Island or Rockaway Beach, but so far as I am concerned give me Middle Village or Cypress Hills, and East Williamsburgh for the young people.”