Throughout the twentieth century, four U.S. presidents toured the neighborhood—and, no, Teddy Roosevelt wasn't one of them. Here are their stories.
William Taft at the Crescent Club
Republican William Howard Taft was the twenty-seventh president of the United States, succeeding Theodore Roosevelt by defeating William Jennings Bryan in 1908. (Taft lost reelection in 1912, to Woodrow Wilson, when Roosevelt ran again, as a “Progressive,” and split the vote.) On Thursday, June 8, 1911, he toured Brooklyn for the borough’s annual Sunday School Parade, held on what was called Anniversary Day, typically the first Thursday after Memorial Day. Today, this secularized holiday persists as Brooklyn–Queens Day.
Taft “saw perhaps 150,000 children and, what was just as important, they saw him,” the New York Sun reported. In a convoy of automobiles from Penn Station, he and his entourage went over the Williamsburg Bridge, through Williamsburg, Downtown Brooklyn, Flatbush, Parkville and Borough Park, pausing at various churches for brief addresses; he stopped at Prospect Park for a celebration, where three-year-old William Herbert Berri almost upset his soup and got a kiss from Taft in forgiveness.
[Taft] streaked through miles of Brooklyn streets, streets unswept and unwatered, although the route had been arranged for several days, and wound up just before dusk at the Bay Ridge home of the Crescent Athletic Club in time for a lacrosse match and tea. He needed the tea, for it had been a dusty a trip—a trip dustier than any of those who have been around with the President could recall.
Ten thousand people were at the Crescent Club, whose grounds were where Fort Hamilton High School is today; from its founding in the 1880s to its dissolution in 1940, it was one of the premier athletic organizations in Brooklyn, and its country clubhouse in Bay Ridge was beloved as a center of local social life. “The President and the Governor and their parties did not arrive at the Bay Ridge field until long after 5 o’clock, and the picturesque home of the New Mooners [the Crescent team] had long been thronged with an eager crowd,” the Brooklyn Times reported.
The president was the first to get there, and after[ward] he had been introduced to the players by C. C. Miller, Borough President of the Bronx, who refereed the match. Mr. Taft started the game by throwing the ball into the playing field. The game had no more started when Gov. [John Alden] Dix and his party arrived.
The men in the cars behind Taft got the worst of the dust from the unpaved streets along the route. The first stop was at the Hanover Club, then in Williamsburg on the corner of Bedford and Rodney. “All the way over the [Williamsburg] bridge they were in a perfect whorl of dust, and by the time the Hanover Club was reached [the president’s entourage] looked so much like tramps that the policemen guarding the entrance barred them out,” the Eagle reported.
The trip from Prospect Park to Bay Ridge was the worst part; by the time the party arrived at the Crescent Club, they all rushed for the washrooms in the basement. “Here was an extraordinary scene,” the Eagle reported.
Rank and wealth were lost sight of in the one object, to bathe the dust-filled, smarting eyes, and restore vision first of all. The Governor peeling off his coat, collar and tie, plunged his head into the wash basin. The newspaper reporter [im]mersed his face in the basin alongside of him. Neither cared how much the other splashed.
Taft had been encouraged to visit Bay Ridge by Congressmember William Calder, who then felt guilty because of the conditions of the trip, but the president seems to have taken it in stride and had only good things to say about Brooklyn.
“President Taft did not have much opportunity to view the game, being continually called upon to greet friends who entered the private box,” the New York Times reported.
He remained long enough to see the Crescents score five goals in succession and departed just after the [opposing Canadian team] had scored their first point, about five minutes before the end of the first half. He boarded the revenue cutter Seneca [an armed customs boat] just in front of the clubhouse [on Shore Road], while a warship in the bay fired a salute of twenty-one guns. The Seneca conveyed the President to Fiftieth Street [in Manhattan], from which point he was taken to the Hotel Astor, where he attended a banquet.
It’s sometimes said that Theodore Roosevelt had also visited the Crescent Athletic Club while president, in 1902, for the second-ever Davis Cup tennis tournament. However, this isn’t true. On Thursday, August 7, 1902, the “guests of the day” at the Crescent-hosted Davis match “were the sons of President Roosevelt, Teddy, Jr., Archie and Kermit,” the Brooklyn Times reported.
They came down by club boat and were met and escorted to their seats by President W. H. Ford, of the Crescent Club. They brought word that their “Papa” may not be a guest [at] the club, as he hoped, but in case he is, he will be present on Friday afternoon to witness the doubles.
But he wasn’t. On Saturday, the Brooklyn Citizen reported, of the day before, “the only unsatisfactory feature…was the failure of President Roosevelt to put in an appearance.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the 69th Street Pier
If Teddy never made it to Bay Ridge, his cousin did! Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the thirty-second president when he defeated Herbert Hoover in the 1932 election, and he served until his death in 1945, becoming the first and last president to serve more than two terms.
On Wednesday, October 28, 1936, before his first reelection, he came to Brooklyn to lay the cornerstone of Brooklyn College, as well as to tour some sites (especially in Williamsburg) receiving federal funds, from public housing to high schools. He arrived in the borough from Staten Island, taking a ferry boat called Murray Hill to the ferry slip at the foot of 69th Street, or Bay Ridge Avenue, arriving at 11:02am. “A crowd of nearly 7,000 milled around the Bay Ridge terminal of the Staten Island ferry to welcome the President and his party,” the Brooklyn Times Union reported.
Crowds had gathered at all vantage points along Shore rd. and around the ferry slip long before the President arrived from Staten Island, en route here from Bayonne, where he had left the Presidential train….Among the first school delegations were 2,000 pupils from P. S. 102, on nearby Ridge blvd., who appeared at 10:30. Nearly 1,000 girls from Bay Ridge H. S. were stationed along Fourth ave., in front of the school.
Word that [Roosevelt] had left Staten Island had reached the reception committee at about 10:40 A. M.; [as] the ferryboat Sea Gate started warping into the slip, the crowd, believing that it carried the President, broke into cheers. The cheers turned out to be premature, for when the boat pulled in it was found to have aboard only members of the President’s police escort, some 75 motorcycle policemen, a squad of detectives and a sprinkling of secret service men.
These drew up in formation before the ramshackle entrance to the ferry station and cleared the crowd to a considerable distance. The crowd settled down to wait and presently the Murray Hill was observed approaching the slip. Police passed word that the President would surely be aboard this boat, and the crowd started cheering as the vessel began nosing into the slip.
…The neighbors at this point noted that the ferryboats which carried the President and the accompanying visitors to Bay Ridge were not the ancient wheezing craft that daily ply to St. George and back.
…As the ferry rested in its slip, the President remained in the tonneau [backseat] of his open car, with his wife and Gov. [Herbert] Lehman seated at his right, and greeted Federal, State and local celebrities.
…A few moments later, led by a roaring escort of 32 motorcycle patrolmen, the President’s car swept off the ferry and up Bay Ridge ave.
…From the ferry the President was driven along Bay Ridge ave. to Fourth ave., thence past the Bay Ridge H.S. to 67th st., to Sixth ave., to 65th st., to 18th ave., to Ocean pkwy., to Foster ave., to Bedford ave. and Ave. H.
Not everyone was thrilled by the president’s visit, such as the funeral he interrupted. “After traffic had been diverted from Bay Ridge ave. to permit the lining of the street with school children awaiting the President, a long funeral procession made its way toward the Staten Island ferry,” the Times Union reported. “It was shunted aside to a hastily arranged parking space on Shore rd., near 68th st. and waited there more than an hour and a half. It included two open cars filled with flowers and innumerable coaches.”
President Franklin Roosevelt would again visit Brooklyn by ferry in 1940; that time, he came from Staten Island but landed at the terminal at 39th Street; employees at Bush Terminal, working overtime on defense orders, crowded at the windows to get a view of the motorcade, which traveled up 39th Street from Second to Fourth avenues accompanied by a stream of torn paper, like a makeshift ticker-tape parade. “A few hundred spectators were grouped around the ferry house, but large numbers were turned back at 2d Ave. and not permitted to crowd the area where the presidential party landed,” the Eagle reported.
Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island fired a 21-gun salute as the president’s boat left the pier, and when the ferry reached midstream Governors Island greeted the Chief Executive with a similar salute….A 21-gun salute from Fort Hamilton barked welcome to the President as he reached Brooklyn at 11:25 o’clock aboard the streamlined ferryboat Mary Murray.
Roosevelt traveled to Hamilton Avenue and Van Brunt Street, where he broke ground on the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel. His motorcade later passed Atlantic and Fourth avenues, where a “huge” banner hung overhead, reading “No Third Term.” As he passed 18 Fourth Avenue, two young women on the roof threw an onion, an egg and a lemon at the president; they lived next door, at 578 Atlantic Avenue, where a patrolman arrested them.
John F. Kennedy at the 69th Street Pier
Presidential campaigns have on occasion swung through Bay Ridge. John McCain, for example, stopped by Windows We Are on Fifth Avenue for an event in 2008, before going to nearby Verrazano Pizza, ordering a $3 pepperoni white slice and giving the counter guy a $17 tip. (This was at least McCain’s second visit to the neighborhood; he attended the Third Avenue Festival in 1997 for some reason.)
It was a much bigger deal almost fifty years earlier, though, when a campaigning John F. Kennedy stopped in Bay Ridge. The Massachusetts senator, who defeated Richard Nixon in 1960 to become the thirty-fifth president, had planned to visit Bay Ridge in mid October that year but had to reschedule. Instead, he visited on October 27, 1960, almost twenty-four years to the day since FDR had come to the neighborhood.
Kennedy arrived the same way, by ferry to 69th Street from Staten Island, where he “found himself in a wild, welcome sea of Bay Ridge faces,” the Home Reporter reported, adding there was “mass turnout” for Kennedy and his entourage as it “traveled by car through the streets of Bay Ridge.”
The reporting about this visit was not as robust as the Eagle and others’ coverage of FDR’s, but the Daily News reported that Kennedy intended to make quick stops and speeches at 60th and Fifth; 86th and Fourth; 81st and Thirteenth; 86th and Bay Parkway; and so on, on a route through Kings Highway (where he was scheduled to eat at Dubrow’s restaurant) and then to the Eastern Parkway Arena for a rally and speech. (President Truman had held a similar rally there in 1952.)
We know for sure he stopped at 86th and Bay Parkway, because the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum has digitized the short remarks he gave there—which were likely very similar to the remarks he gave at the other stops, presuming he made them. “I stand here tonight where Franklin Roosevelt stood when he caused this country to move forward in the 1930s,” he said, “and I call upon you to join us in moving this state and country forward in the 1960s.”
Kennedy was relatively popular in Bay Ridge, though the neighborhood had become a Republican stronghold. Bay Ridge residents had voted in 1956 for Eisenhower 4 to 1, the Daily News reported shortly before Kennedy’s visit; in the run-up to the 1960 race, they were polling just 5 to 4 for Vice President Nixon, who would go on to lose.
Lyndon B. Johnson on 86th Street
Lyndon Johnson visited New York on October 15, 1964, campaigning for the office he had inherited from Kennedy, after he was murdered almost a year before. Johnson traveled twenty-two miles throughout Brooklyn by car, accompanied by Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and Johnson was expected to stop at 86th Street and Fifth Avenue to give a speech.
Five thousand people turned up at the intersection. Johnson’s car came down 86th Street and slowed down...enough to navigate the turn onto Fifth—and drove off. “Despite his lagging schedule, President Johnson was anxious to make his planned speech,” the Home Reporter reported, “but was advised against doing so by security agents,” who were still on edge about the Kennedy assassination.
It seems a group of about 100 youths, firmly entrenched near police barricades, bearing Goldwater placards, presented a “security risk” as far as the advance contingent of the Secret Service was concerned. They reportedly contacted the motorcade before it arrived here and told the President the situation was unsafe.
During their emotional chantings and pushing, several small skirmishes had broken out in and around the noisy group. No injuries were reported except those recorded in the hearts of some 4,900 Bay Ridgeites, some of whom had waited [more than] three hours to hear their President—regardless of whether he was Democrat or Republican.
All along the route “there were good crowds,” the New York Times reported—“even in the Bay Ridge section, which is substantially Republican.” Indeed, more than a week earlier, Bay Ridge gave a majority of its votes to Goldwater in a Daily News strawpoll. “But the outcome was predictable,” the tabloid reported. “Bay Ridge has a high concentration of middle and upper-middle income voters—groups shown to be sympathetic to the Goldwater cause—and a long Republic tradition.”
One man waiting for Johnson that day distributed “smear literature” and had a crude cardboard sign that twice repeated, “Ask Johnson About Walter Jenkins”—his longtime aide who, just weeks earlier, had been arrested in a D. C. Y.M.C.A. bathroom for having sex with a man. “An elderly woman, speaking with a strong Irish brogue, told the gentleman to ‘go home and stop bothering people before you help get another President assassinated,” the Home Reporter reported.
Gerald Ford on Fifth Avenue
Thirty-eighth president Gerald R. Ford is one of just five presidents who were never elected to the office, having assumed the presidency after the resignation of Richard Nixon. In October 1976, though, he was an incumbent trying hard to win for the first time, running a competitive campaign against Jimmy Carter. Following a debate in which the president had been put on the defensive, his strategists believed Ford should go on an aggressive offense. “Whatever the wisdom of this strategy,” Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote in their syndicated column, “it is hard to understand why the first stop was a Yeshiva in the Democratic heart of Brooklyn rather than a dependable Republican rally.”
“Bringing Ford to Brooklyn seemed to defy political logic,” wrote another columnist. The president wanted especially to assuage Eastern European and conservative Jewish voters troubled by remarks he had made about the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. “But Ford’s campaign team did so little advance work that the visit [to Brooklyn] turned into a bizarre hazing ritual,” writes Glenn Thrush in an essay in the book Brooklyn: A State of Mind.
There were virtually no pro-Ford crowds, and the two pool reporters who rode with him witnessed only two placards, reading, somewhat mysteriously, “Stop Pay Toilets” and “Toilet Liberation.” The chief was booed during a brief speech at the Yeshiva of Flatbush and heckled during a street-corner speech in Borough Park. They even egged his limo, yellowing a Secret Service agent’s dark suit.
This was also just a year after the Daily News’s iconic “Ford to City: Drop Dead” cover, when the president had denied a federal bailout to the struggling city. Not only was the ethnic crowd angry at him for its own reasons, but New York was enemy territory in general. He had a list of “Borough Park and Bay Ridge Talking Points” about partnering with local governments for revitalization programs and providing some federal funding. The official photographer captured a woman in Borough Park, outside a Stride Rite show store, with a sign that read, “Ford Go Back to Washington. Drop Dead Too [sic] My City.”
But there was one corner of the borough that the president received a respite from his no good, very bad day in Brooklyn. “In Bay Ridge, a neighborhood of notoriously conservative Irish and Italian Catholics, there were respectable crowds of several thousand at two intersections” along Fifth Avenue that cheered him on, the Times Herald Record reported. During his travels through what the Journal News called “Brooklyn’s strongest Republican area” Ford “urged on one crowd in a chant, ‘We want Ford.’ Farther on, he called out, ‘We love you, we love you.’”
“Ford’s day brightened only in Bay Ridge,” Thrush continues, “where Republicans handed him a two-year-old girl named Heidi Rudjord for a hug.
Read more about the history of the neighborhood in our book How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge.