A Piece of Literary History Falls in Brooklyn

Plans for a new structure where the Jackson Street Settlement House now stands

Williamsburg has changed slightly since Betty Smith spawned decades of eye-rolling headlines by publishing her first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in 1943. But some landmarks have remained, like the 103-year-old Jackson Street Settlement House, which these days provides after-school programs, a summer camp, and other community-focused services. “Betty Smith taught sewing to the kids of immigrants there [and] the Williamsburg institution made an appearance in her famous first novel,” the Brooklyn Paper reports—but now the group that runs the building wants to tear it down. 

Its plans would replace the three-story structure, on the corner of Manhattan Avenue, with a larger building that would allow the School Settlement Association to offer more services to the neighborhood. “For instance, the current facility’s gym has a low ceiling that puts a damper on long-range basketball shots,” the paper reports. “‘Though people have heroically made it playable, we can do a lot better,’ [a spokesperson] said.”

But literary sentimentalists  and neighboring property owners are opposed, even to the group’s offer to plant a “Tree of Heaven,” Smith’s eponymous arbor. “The fast-growing deciduous tree is an import from China and its nicknames include ‘tree from hell’ and ‘ghetto palm’ for its foul smell and its ability to proliferate in harsh urban environments with the help of a rapid seed dissemination mechanism and an aggressive root system that poisons the soil to keep out other plants,” the Brooklyn Paper, uh, reports.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

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  1. So they’re tearing down a historical structute to slightly improve the basketball court, but we should take comfort knowing the plan is to plant an invasive weed in front.

    • To improve the basketball court, to make the building ADA compliant, to give students at the local elementary school on Metropolitan Ave access to the gym and auditorium, etc.

      They made a compelling case for it at the community board meeting.