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VICE Guide To New York City

A Brief History of Brooklyn Curiosities

Since at least 1971, but possibly as early as 1967, Brooklyn has had a native monk-parrot population. Most expert ornithological sources agree the parrots most likely flew the coop upon landing at JFK while en route to a Manhattan pet shop. When the...

Since at least 1971, but possibly as early as 1967, Brooklyn has had a native monk-parrot population. Most expert ornithological sources agree the parrots most likely flew the coop upon landing at JFK while en route to a Manhattan pet shop. When the feds learned of the parrots' presence, eradication teams were deployed to take willing birds prisoner and fire at will on the renegade monks. After months of parrot genocide, the eradication teams tracked down one of the last parrot strongholds on Rikers Island in 1973. Before a single shot could be fired, though, the parrots escaped under cover of fog and found refuge in neighborhoods all over Brooklyn, where they reside to this day. PIGTOWN SCRAMBLE
East of Prospect Park, near the site of the now-razed Ebbets Field, once stood the unproud Pigtown, a neighborhood composed of huge, festering landfills and many, many droves of pigs. Between the garbage and the pig excrement (which smells like a cross between vomit and a deathbed commode), Pigtown stunk something awful, which made its positioning a point of, shall we say, contention. Throughout its history, the giant sty was pushed farther and farther out until it landed square on Brooklyn's onetime political border, which later became Crow Hill and is now known as Crown Heights. Sorry, Crown Heights. THE PARK SLOPE PIGEON KILLER
A 1998 New York Times article reports on an unknown person or persons traipsing around Park Slope, blowgun in hand, wounding defenseless pigeons. All around the neighborhood, residents reported finding the dingy birds with dart-torn wings, some going about their day still impaled by the spiky munitions. One resident saw a poor creature with the business end of a dart lodged firmly in its head! The whole incident prompted an unprecedented level of sympathy for the much-maligned birds, with many Park Slope locals making calls to animal control.


During an 1825 Independence Day celebration in Brooklyn, a tiny Walt Whitman was foisted upward to receive a kiss from parading French and American Revolution real-life superhero Gilbert du Motier, aka the Marquis de Lafayette, while he made his storied visit from France. Consider the chance intersection of historic forces represented here. The elder Motier, a man who was friends with Washington, was captured by Napoleon, and whose sheer bravery and force of will helped shape the early American conviction that freedom and liberty were worth more than life itself, here kissing Baby Whitman, who would one day eulogize Lincoln, write battle cries for the North during the Civil War, and invent fucking free verse. A HAUNTED HOUSE AT NO. 112 WILLOUGHBY
On January 7, 1878, the New York Times reported on some haunted happenings in downtown Brooklyn. Doors were flung from their hinges, strange shadows flitted about, beds quaked in the middle of the night, and a chorus of ghastly noises sounded. More than a few frightened neighbors attested to the presence of something otherworldly, or at least extremely obnoxious. The day after the story ran, an intrepid reporter from the Times came to investigate the haunted house. Greeted at the door by a bewhiskered young man reluctant to speak on the matter, the reporter gathered that either the apparition was media shy and had disappeared altogether, or the ghost story was a cover-up for the raucous New Year's celebration of a few frolicsome bros. THE DESTRUCTION OF HOG ISLAND
Of all of Brooklyn's satellite islands, none in the borough's history had it worse than Hog Island, named so because its northernmost tip resembled a pig's head. On August 23, 1893, a Category 2 hurricane made landfall south of Brooklyn. Coney Island was deluged with 30-foot waves that came inland 600 feet, decimating elevated railroad tracks. Waters breached the seawall in Astoria, Queens; Brooklyn residents reported wading through waist-high water… mixed with pieces of Hog Island. The whole place had been decimated, making this quite possibly the first and only reported time an entire island has gone missing after a hurricane. Way to go, Brooklyn. ALBERT FISH: THE BROOKLYN VAMPIRE
Virtually unparalleled in fucked-up-edness, noted sadomasochist, cannibal, and child molester/murderer Albert Fish claimed to have killed "a child in every state" (with a total death toll nearing 100) from about 1890 until his capture in 1934. A complete list of his perversions and crimes would take up multiple pages, but a letter sent by Fish to the mother of one victim in which he spares no grotesque detail—even going so far as to describe consuming the child's "tender little ass… roasted in the oven"—does well to illustrate his MO. But for Fish, it wasn't all about the children; he made room for "me time" as well: In an X-ray taken after his arrest, radiologists captured an image of the two dozen or so nails Fish had masochistically jabbed into his pelvis and perineum (aka his taint). Yum!



Today it's difficult to imagine what the Brooklyn Bridge represented for the crowds who first traversed it. At the time of its opening in May 1883 it was both the longest suspension bridge in the world and the first steel-wire suspension bridge, and its immense towers were the tallest points in New York. The building techniques employed in its construction were only partially understood at the time (the underwater work in particular was especially primitive), much to the detriment of its builders, 27 of whom died as if in sacrifice to the gods of industrial progress. The Brooklyn Bridge was to late-19th-century Americans what space elevators will be to people in the mid-21st century. You think that sounds like lunacy but just wait.


So unlikely did the bridge's stability seem that one week after its opening, a rumor spread among crossers that the bridge was, at that very moment, on the verge of collapse. People remained entirely measured and rational beings, and the rumor was squashed before it could cause any harm. Just kidding, the resulting panic caused a human stampede that crushed at least a dozen pedestrians.


Almost exactly a year thereafter, on May 17, 1884, early public-relations maven, mass exploiter of congenital disease, progenitor of novel modern animal cruelty, and self-described "showman" Phineas Taylor Barnum devised a stunt to squelch lingering doubts about the bridge's safety (and give publicity to his famous circus). Barnum paraded across the bridge with 21 elephants, led by his prized giant elephant, Jumbo (namesake of the expression now used to describe hot dogs in supermarkets across the country). After being killed in a locomotive collision, Jumbo was cremated only to have his remains kept in a 14-ounce Peter Pan crunchy-peanut-butter jar in the office of Tufts University's athletics director.


In 2006, city workers stumbled on a cold-war-era bunker fully stocked with rations, emergency supplies, blankets labeled "For Use Only After Enemy Attack," and 352,000 cookies sealed in tins emblazoned with "Civil Defense All Purpose Survival Crackers" in preparation for the Big One. The secret chamber was well hidden within the bridge's masonry anchorage on the Manhattan shore side, which is just as well, seeing as the bunker would have provided little to no protection from a nuclear attack on New York.