NYC History Pt 4: Serpico and 778 Driggs Avenue

Recently I found myself on such a spot, on Driggs Ave near South 4th St, where in bygone days , the Novelty Theater was located. I pondered on the trials, tribulations, and vicissitudes of the building that housed this theater from the day it was first opened under the name of the Odeon on Aug 25, 1852 down to the day the old building was torn down in 1917.  

-The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 24, 1949

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The area was basically a Puerto Rican ghetto… The address was 778 Driggs Avenue. In another time the building must have been the neighborhood showpiece. It had an ornate, stone-sculptured front and even a name, also in stone, NOVELTY COURT, but now its shabby entranceway was filled with garbage, the paint on the walls peeling off in great chunks… He continued up the stairs, and admired the intricate designs of the tile landings, now barely visible beneath the filth. The landings were filled with the smell of beef bones being cooked down into stock, and the lingering odor of fried pork and achiote, a reddish spice used to color rice… The stairs were deserted, except for a bedraggled dog stretched out just before the landing. He stepped gingerly over the dog, hoping he wouldn’t start barking. But the dog did not move a muscle, and when Serpico went out on the roof, he realized why. Probably the most common experience in the dog’s life was being stepped over.

A stench of urine hung in the air despite the cold, and the roof was dotted with lumps of dried feces. In the light cast by a naked bulb at the top of the stairs, Serpico saw dozens of empty glasssine bags, and even worse in a way, the flattened tubes of airplane glue that children sniffed before they graduated to main-lining…

Off to his right he could see the pretty, bluish beads of light marking the span of the Williamsburgh Bridge, and the spectacular Wall Street skyline across the river, so close that Serpico felt he could reach out and touch it, glittering as though the ghetto rooftop he was on did not exist.

The second passage above is from the book Serpico, written by Peter Maas in 1973, which the identically eponymous film of the same year starring Al Pacino was based on.  They are both the story of young Italian-American cop Frank Serpico, who after speaking up about the endemic corruption in the NYPD, was shot while attempting to enter a drug dealer’s apartment, while his backup somehow escaped unharmed. The passage in question relates Serpico’s feelings and actions in the moments leading up to his shooting on February 3, 1971.

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So, this was Williamsburg in 1971, a ghetto full of junkies where they’d even shoot a cop? Driggs Ave and South 4th is STILL not Bedford and North 6th, which is to say it still has some semblance of being an actual neighborhood, and still a Puerto Rican one at that.  But, imagining anywhere in Williamsburg being host to one of one of the most infamous shootings in the last fifty years of New York City history is difficult to do now.

What’s almost more shocking than the shooting itself, is the sense of utter hopelessness that Maas and Serpico use to describe Williamsburg. That paragraph reads like a lost page from a Son Of Sam letter. This Williamsburg is a place of poverty, drugs, and violence not boutiques, bistros, and condominiums. The saddest sentence by far in that description is one of a Williamsburg being so close, yet a million miles away, from the glittering wealth of Manhattan.

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I recently stopped by 778 Driggs Ave. The outside probably looks much as it did in Serpico’s day, with the words “Novelty Court” still carved into the facade over the doorway. Inside, however the building has been completely renovated. The dirty tiles Serpico describes have long since been replaced with (mismatched) linoleum.  The wooden and stone staircase that Serpico must have trod up has has been replaced with metal, as have the apartment doors. Generally, the entire building looks as it went through a thorough but cheap renovation sometime in the last 20 years.   In a neighborhood that has been through demographic changes in the last 40 years, the building is still predominantly Latino. The sounds of salsa music and Spanish being spoken is still heard in the hallways. The smell of pork being cooked (and perhaps achiote) still permeates the air.  However, there are no bedraggled dogs in the stairwell and empty heroin envelopes on the ground. I did see a Laffy Taffy wrapper on the 5th floor. The door to the roof is armed with an alarm, so I can not report how metaphysically distant Manhattan felt from there.

Sadly, the shooting of Serpico was not the nadir for 778 Driggs. As the 70’s progressed, the building declined further, until by the early 1980’s it was abandoned by its landlord. At that point the ownership was transferred Los Sures, a community group that assumed the management and ownership of many properties in South Williamsburg during the 70’s and 80’s, when the neighborhood was beginning to fill up with vacant buildings. With grants from various agencies, Los Sures renovated 778 Driggs sometime in the 1980’s and turned it into affordable housing.

It’s interesting that the this cycle from squalor to stability that the building has gone through is far from the first change of fate and status that 778 Driggs has experienced. The name of the building itself, Novelty Court, comes from the Novelty Theater, which stood on the site (under a variety of names) from 1852 until 1917, when it was demolished and replaced by its namesake apartments.

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In its original form, as Odeon Hall, it was a theater for plays ranging from contemporary pieces to Shakespeare and was known as one of the premier theaters in Brooklyn. By the late 1880’s, it had lost some of its cachet to a newer theater on Bedford Avenue and begun to feature less esteemed touring companies. At that point, it also presented lighter entertainment like vaudeville, minstrel shows, and burlesque. As the neighborhood changed at the dawn of the 20th century, and the Irish and Germans moved out and Eastern European Jews moved in, the Novelty begin to feature more Yiddish theater (on March 7, 1913, seven people “of the Hebrew faith” were charged with putting on a theatrical performance on the Christian Sabbath at the Novelty).

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During this time it was named Adler’s Novelty, as seen in the photo above. The name was derived from its owner, actress Sarah Adler, mother of Stella Adler (who also acted in the Novelty) who later brought Method acting to America and taught Marlon Brando and Robert Deniro, amongst many others.

By 1916, with the advent of motion pictures, the Novelty featured less live performance to the point where it was described in a contemporary newspaper article as an “ordinary movie house.” The same fate had befallen many of the live theaters in the area as they struggled to cope with both a changing neighborhood and changing tastes in entertainment. While it would certainly continue as a pastime for the middle and upper classes, the days of theatergoing being a regular event for New Yorkers of all backgrounds was over and done.

In 1917, the Novelty Theater was torn down, to be replaced by the Novelty Court apartment building. I have read that the same bricks were used in both buildings, but I’d take that with a grain of salt. At the time of its construction, it most likely was a neighborhood showpiece. However, just 15 years later in 1933, with the Great Depression in full swing, the building was already being foreclosed and auctioned off by the Dime Bank of Williamsburgh.

By the time Frank Serpico got there, decades of neglect to both the inner cities in general and the building specifically, had left its mark. Who would have ever guessed that the building where one of the most notorious crimes in New York history occurred would later stand in one of the most famously gentrified neighborhoods in the city?

The word “Williamsburg” has become a punchline in TV shows like 2 Broke Girls, used as shorthand to signify posturing wannabe artists whiling away their days sitting at cafes, and spending their nights abusing cocaine and PBR, all on the tab of daddy’s trustfund.  But, without groups like Los Sures managing the buildings and the Puerto Rican community that lived there and maintained a community none of this gentrification would have been possible.

But, ups and downs are part of New York. A neighborhood’s fortunes are almost always rising or falling, they rarely stay static. The Williamsburg of the Novelty Theater/Court has lived through the memories of English, Irish, Germans, Puerto Ricans, and yes, now some transplanted Vogue magazine intern from California, each of whose Williamsburg experience would be completely foreign to the others.

As a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from January 20, 1866 notes: “The Odeon, like the section of the city which it is located, has undergone vicissitudes, and its career is typical of the fortunes of the ‘Burgh. When Williamsburgh was thriving, the Odeon flourished; when Williamsburgh sank into dulness(sic), the Odeon was deserted.”

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About peter

musings about music, culture, food, and more... twittering, tumbling, and instagramming: @PgunnNYC http://axchem.tumblr.com/
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2 Responses to NYC History Pt 4: Serpico and 778 Driggs Avenue

  1. Lisa says:

    My husband’s 2x great grandfather, Ferdinand Bohmer was manager of a theater on Driggs Ave near South 4th St according to the 1897 Brooklyn City Directory. I’m thinking this must be the same place. How exciting to find a picture online! Thanks.

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