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Charles Hamm

Oral history interview conducted by Sady Sullivan

November 13, 2006

Call number: 2008.031.3.001

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SULLIVAN: Yes. Alright, so we can begin wherever you would like to begin. I was thinking we'd start with how did you come to be born in Brooklyn?

HAMM: How did I come to be born in Brooklyn? As I recall from family conversations, when Joseph Francioli came over and was ordained as a priest in South Brooklyn in 1850, shortly thereafter, he brought over his niece from Ticino in Switzerland, and that must have been after the Civil War. She came over as a young girl, and her name was Alexandra Rachel Francioli. She 1:00eventually, through Father Francioli and other Franciolis, who married into a Quinn family, who was an Irish family large in wholesale grocery in the New York Market, met her husband, Charles M. Higgins, who was also an Irish immigrant and came over shortly after the Civil War. His brother was lost in the Civil War, but he went to the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey and eventually came to Brooklyn to establish a factory, because he had invented Higgins India 2:00Ink, which is a very much improved ink, both in terms of color depth and longevity. Anyway, it became a great success.

He had a home on Prospect Park West, one of the big limestone homes, and his factory was on Ninth Street. I think it was just south of Fourth Avenue, which is now, I think, converted into a condominium complex.

SULLIVAN: But the building's still there.

HAMM: The building is still there. Both the office building and the manufacturing. I think they're all condominiums. He married Alexandra Rachel 3:00Francioli and produced three children, Tracy Higgins, the older boy, Peggy, who became an Everson, married Alfred Everson, and my mother, Elizabeth Higgins, who, after a somewhat controversial finishing school experience in Mrs. Field's--I think it was Mrs. Fields' Finishing School on the Heights--met my father through--

SULLIVAN: What was the controversial experience?

HAMM: She was kind of a black sheep. She decided not to go to college. Her sister was an early entrant to Vassar, earned a degree there, and was really the 4:00intellect of the family. Her older brother Tracy was kind of impressed with his own wealth as the son of a major industrialist and decided not to work very hard.


HAMM: I believe he went to either Dartmouth or Yale. Anyway, he took over the business, a successful ink manufacturing business, and by the time he retired virtually ran it into the ground.


HAMM: So it's a good rags to riches to rags story.


HAMM: He continued to live in Smithtown, where Charles M. Higgins owned I am 5:00told 240 choice acres in the middle of old Smithtown, so that was quite a rich holding, which of course no longer exists either. My mother decided to go into ballroom dancing as a career, thus the extension of the black sheep kind of experience of finishing school, and she had a wonderful brief career dancing around the world, ballroom dancing around the world. She met Cesar Romero, who was a Cuban immigrant to the United States from a well-to-do family at a debutante party. He was such a handsome and good dancer, she said, "Why don't you come dance with me?" and we'll take a year or two tour, which they did. My 6:00mother, much later in life, was part of Cesar Romero's This Is Your Life on television. [Laughter] And she was a mystery guest. The idea was, Cesar Romero, who is your mystery guest? He said, "Oh, there's only one person who can dance like this," and by then, she was slightly rotund and much older [Laughter]." He says, "This has to be Liza Higgins." Sure enough, that was Liza Higgins, and he certainly made my mother's night.

I always thought my mother had something going with him, because she always had a picture of him nearby and on her deathbed, his picture was there at her request, and she was looking at it, along with the rest of the family. When she died, I wrote Cesar Romero, who was then kind of a recluse. It was hard to get a 7:00hold of him, but I finally did, informing him how much mother thought of him, and anyway, she had died and passed. He wrote the most beautiful letter back, extolling my mother's virtues and the fun they had and the pleasure he had in an early successful career. I was talking to Tony Randall on some bank business and some cultural business and philanthropic business much later on, and I told him the story. He put his hand on my arm, and he said, "Charlie, I know Cesar Romero, and I assure you he had no liaison with your mother." So I think the message was that Cesar probably didn't like the opposite sex so much as the same gender. So that was put to rest. [Laughter]


Anyway, my mother was introduced by Margarita Francioli Quinn--part of the Quinn grocery family I mentioned before--and they were married within three months in the early '30s. Within almost annual succession, conceived my brother and me in Brooklyn. My father--His father came from Alsace in Europe, as a young man, and eventually became an engineer, surveyor for the railroads across the Plains in the late 1800s. My father was born in 1901 in Belle Plaine, Iowa and spent his youth there. Eventually got a medical degree from the University of Michigan, 9:00was quite a good student and recruited by a patient at the Mayo Clinic, who was quite wealthy and wanted a young doctor to escort his son to Europe. Pop had to come through New York, and he decided to, after the trip, decided to make his medical practice not in the Midwest at the Mayo Clinic or anywhere else, but in Brooklyn, and was recruited by Ted Maynard, then head of urology at the Brooklyn Hospital and Professor of Urology--I believe at New York University or the Downstate Medical Center, if it existed then. Ted Maynard was quite famous, and Pop took up practice there. Margarita Francioli Quinn was a nurse and a secretary in the clinic complex, and introduced my father to my mother, and they 10:00were, as I say, married almost three months later.


HAMM: We were Brooklynites at that point.

SULLIVAN: So how was Margarita Francioli Quinn related to your mom? They were cousins?

HAMM: Yes, they were distant cousins. Going back to Joseph Francioli and Alexandra Rachel Francioli, Margarita was a Francioli but of a different branch, but same family.

SULLIVAN: Another question is who wanted your father to go travel with his son in Europe? Because he wanted--

HAMM: The man was a wealthy industrialist, and I can't remember his name. He had a son, whom he wanted to give the Grand Tour to, but didn't want trust that he was responsible enough to do it, wasting time and the opportunity and the rest of this stuff and really needed a chaperone, who was smart but young enough to 11:00relate. He said to my father, who had started at the Mayo Clinic, "Why don't you just take the summer off and take my kid over there?" My father said, "Hey, not a bad idea." [Laughter] So he did it, and it turned out beautifully, except he decided not to stay at the Mayo Clinic, but to come practice in Brooklyn and established quite a well-known, reputable practice in urology--became head of urology at then, the Brooklyn Hospital, the Downstate Medical Center. He was also a professor of urology at the Downstate Medical Center and two other hospitals, one of whose names escapes me at the moment.


He was a well-known, at the end, a well-known urologist with really a world-wide reputation. We were raised in Brooklyn.

We went to--well-- My father joined the Army in World War II as a major in the Medical Corps, and we traveled to various military hospitals in the U.S. before he was ordered overseas. We lived in Cambridge, Ohio--one-- Atlanta, Georgia. He was ordered overseas, so we came back to New York, but then the war ended, and he came back, thank God, and resumed practice and resumed raising us. I think the first school I went to was Friends Academy, still in Brooklyn, and then I 13:00went to Packer, which had a mixed-gender early school before--

SULLIVAN: So how old were you when you went to Friends?

HAMM: Oh, I don't know, however old you are when you went to school.

SULLIVAN: So then--

HAMM: Four or five, or something like that. Whatever it was. And then Packer and then Berkeley. He went away to the war, came back. I went to Berkeley in the early, must have been the third or fourth grade, and that still exists on Park Slope. Then I went to Poly Prep, I thin in the fifth grade, and left there and went to Exeter in the--what would that be?--ninth grade. Then I went to Harvard, and eventually when I started working after the Army, I came back and went to 14:00NYU for a Masters in Business. So basically, my early life and vacations were spent in Brooklyn.

SULLIVAN: Where was your childhood home?

HAMM: I was born in the Brooklyn Hospital in 1937, a great year for births. At that point we lived at 1 Pierrepont Street--

SULLIVAN: Oh, wow.

HAMM: --at the end of Columbia Heights and Pierrepont, and when the war came, we went off for a couple of years and when we came back, my father had decided to buy a brownstone down at the other end of Columbia Heights at number seventy-seven. At that time there was no Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. There were 15:00houses all along the Heights opposite our row, so that we had virtually no view of the water at all. We were just looking across the street at more brownstones. When they decided to build the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, they tore them all down and gave us a magnificent view, tripling the value of our real estate, which was very nice of everybody. The Promenade and everything was constructed.

So we had--If you remember the movie Moonstruck with Cher, when they came down the Promenade along Brooklyn Heights with views over toward Manhattan and turned the corner, that was Cranberry Street, and that house was our house.


HAMM: So all of those beautiful shots across the water when they were coming 16:00home was really past our house, and their house was represented by the Rullmans' house, which was at the bottom of our block at Cranberry and Willow, which I understand has recently been sold. So that whole Moonstruck venue was basically my Brooklyn, including the bakery and a few other things.

SULLIVAN: Does that represent who your neighbors were? Who were your neighbors?

HAMM: Well, we had--There were a lot of people in the apartment houses around us, but in terms of the private homes, Bob Davidson, who was a lawyer, he and his wife lived across the street in almost a carriage-like home, where they 17:00raised bees, and the bees used to fly to Prospect Park and Central Park and the Botanic Garden to collect pollen and come back and make honey on his roof and every once in a while swarmed to the great fright of the entire neighborhood. They were very instrumental in helping the Brooklyn Museum with their Egyptian gold collection. He was a lawyer, a very good lawyer, practicing in Manhattan. The Rullmans, he was a wonderful architect and reconstructed his home, as I say, on the corner of Willow and Cranberry. Dr. Daley, who was a wonderful family doctor--practiced in the Heights--knew everybody. Elizabeth Weeks, practiced 18:00pediatrician--world famous--Dr. Weeks and Dr. Daily were famous around for being accountable to many of the families in the Heights.

SULLIVAN: Were they your doctors?

HAMM: They were both our doctors. Right next door were the Brodens. He was in insurance, and Esther Broden was a great antique collector. They had a beautiful home right next to us and got me more interested in collecting American antiques. I remember once, he took us on a hunt, and we acquired this beautiful little table, but the top was cracked. I thought it was lovely anyway, and it was virtually being given away, so we bought it as early newlyweds, I guess. We were living at home at the time, and my mother was enraged that Mrs. Broden 19:00would sell us such a piece of junk, a cracked table [laughter], despite the fact that it was a pretty good antique.

Lauson Stone, Harlan Stone on Garden Place, whose father was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and whose brother is probably one of the most brilliant astrophysicists in the world today, teaching at Harvard and MIT, if anybody can understand what he's talking about. Tim Day, who lived on Grace Court Alley--or was it Grace Court Place? I don't know--classmate of mine at Poly Prep, now head of Bar-S Foods in Arizona, a very fine regional food processor--created great 20:00wealth, has done wonderfully well in business. Great advocate of the Marine Corps, which he joined, and I think, served with for three or five years, but he loved the Marine Corps. He thought it taught him a lot.

We were very early members, possibly founding members, of the Heights Casino on Montague Street in Brooklyn. When I was first taught tennis by my mother, the Heights Casino had bare wood floors for their tennis courts and later put canvas covering over them, which slowed the ball down a lot, but they were still quite fast. Then later, put a rubber covering on, and now they have a sort of 21:00felt-like covering. But I sort of grew up in the Heights Casino and played a lot of tennis there, fairly successfully and loved it. It was just a wonderful place, despite the fact that it was in and out of financial troubles repeatedly. It was a great family club, still is and is now pretty healthy and much better run financially.

In my early days, played tennis, later came to play squash at Exeter, taught myself. I was captain of the Exeter squash team and then the Harvard squash team that nationally ranked, and I'd go back and win the squash stuff at the casino. 22:00When I went back to Brooklyn for the Independence Savings Bank, rejoined the casino and kept playing squash and tennis. I mean, it's been sort of a life-long interrelationship, which was nice. My brother never did go back, other than college vacations and stuff, but after that he basically had a short business career in Philadelphia with a bud company, and then moved to Boston; went back to Harvard Business School, then joined Polaroid in Boston and lived there and still does live there. So he never came back to Brooklyn.

After college, I went in the Army for two years, and I was in Georgia and Maryland and New Jersey, and then got married while in New Jersey to Irene.


SULLIVAN: Where is she from?

HAMM: She's from Florida and Maine. They had a small business that they practiced in Florida and Maine, and she and I lived for a year in New Jersey, and then my father wanted us to move back into 77 Columbia Heights, so we converted the top two floors into a duplex, which is very nice, charged us almost no rent, but we had a great time, because we babysat the house and we got to know them better. I was a little worried about it, but Irene loved it. She loved my mother and my father. They were the perfect in-laws. We had a beautiful apartment we couldn't afford otherwise, so we stayed there for several years, adopted our son there, and I can't remember. I think we also adopted our 24:00daughter, but lived there very briefly, because they sold the house to Marshall Schwartz, who's the son of FAO Schwarz--


HAMM: --and requested that we leave promptly, so that the Schwartz could take it over. That was a devastating blow, because we thought we'd be in Brooklyn all our life and surprise, surprise we weren't.

SULLIVAN: Why did they make the decision to sell?

HAMM: Money. Actually, it came as quite a shock because they had pretty clearly indicated that we could buy the house, and we had been offered a house by Frank Scherer and his wife, who lived on, who lived on Remsen Street, and they had a 25:00wonderful--Judy and Bill Hasen bought their house eventually--they had a wonderful house on Remsen Street, and they were going to give it to us really inexpensively. We turned it down because we were sure we were going to buy our house, and my father sold our house to Marshall Schwartz. That fell through, so we had to move to Bronxville. That was very sad. Anyway, we moved to Bronxville. Life goes on.

At that time, I had gotten my MBA from NYU at night, and I was working in the advertising business and worked in the advertising business basically in New York City--although the clients were everywhere--for about twenty-three years with a four-year stint in Atlanta, when I ran the Coca-Cola advertising around 26:00the world for Interpublic--

SULLIVAN: Did your family come with you to Atlanta?

HAMM: Yes--McCann Erickson. So Irene and the kids came to Atlanta. After four years of that, we were transferred back to New York, and I decided to leave the advertising business around the age of--I made the decision around the age of forty-five and finally left and joined Independence Bank around the age of forty-six or forty-seven and spent the next twenty-three years there. Here we are.

I must say I enjoyed the advertising business, but it was one of these businesses where you're advising clients. You're not really running anything. 27:00You're more a consultant than you are a manager, whatever, of your own business. I really wanted to get into something I could feel was close to my own business. And had a bunch of ideas before I took over the bank job, and I was asked to take over the bank job because of my marketing and advertising experience and management experience in that. I was young enough, and the bank really needed some marketing attention, so we made the best deal possible. It was a small business, but I thought I could get my hands around it, and it was completely fresh, completely new--something I had never experienced. The most important thing is it was really a community business. It was a community effort, and particularly because it was Brooklyn, it was of great interest. So I joined it, 28:00and I have never ceased to be surprised as to how fruitful and great that experience was over twenty-three years. Not that we didn't have a lot of problems and stuff, but we took basically a wonderful small institution and made it into a wonderful larger institution and did a hell of a lot of good in the process for the community. It's just a great experience all around and really proved the wisdom or luck of getting out of advertising and into community banking. It was very satisfying.

SULLIVAN: And the Foundation that has come from that and continues.


HAMM: Probably the highlight of the whole thing [Interview interrupted.], when Bill Levin left--I think we covered this earlier--but when Bill Levin left--

[Interview interrupted.]

HAMM: Hi there. When Bill Levin left, or retired and I took over, he definitely did not want the bank to consider a public stock conversion. He wanted to say a trust, essentially. The Board felt the opposite. The Board said, "If we're going to modernize and do things the way we should do them, we should convert to a public institution," and I said, "Look, Bill Levin is not completely wrong. When I got to the bank, we had $50 million in capital. If we're going to convert, let's dilute the new stockholder's interest by at least $50 million and create a foundation,"--which at that point accounted for about 8 percent of the 30:00deal--"and make sure that foundation is separate from the bank in perpetuity serving Brooklyn, because that is what I was given, and let's at least honor Bill's thought that forever, that the community should be served in some way by this financial institution." I or the Board had not created what was then a 145-year-old institution. That was a history probably due to Bill Levin and others preceding us, and we had no right to take that value and deal with it as a public institution.

We left the capital that I was given for that purpose, vis-à-vis the Foundation, and the Foundation not only through the success of the bank stock, but Alan Fishman made a deal with Sovereign to put in another $20 million, so 31:00the Foundation now is probably close to $100 million serving culture, health, economics, jobs, housing development at a street level in Brooklyn and is extraordinarily successful. It's a wonderful thing to have done and to continue to observe its contributions. I can't think of another way other than to have become immensely wealthy on your own and convert your later life to philanthropy--not being immensely wealthy--to be able to create a $100 million foundation. This is the way to do it, and it worked. And it is working. And I think it furthers--


To get back to Father Francioli, who began what is now the Hamms in Brooklyn, that's what he did. He established through the church and through his parish efforts, he established a number of institutions and entities that still exist helping people where he started his parish. It's a great thing to see and be part of, so there it is. I must say the bank and the people in the bank are a wonderful representation of the change in Brooklyn. We now do business in something like thirty foreign languages every day, and that's what Brooklyn is. Francioli was an Italian immigrant from Switzerland, whose niece married into an 33:00Irish immigrant family, who married into an Alsatian/German immigrant family from an entirely different part of the country all of which have sort of come together, and the new immigrants have the same opportunity. I often think if I had a vision of Brooklyn, kind of as a meaningful geography in the United States, it's similar to that--you're too young--but it's similar to that image on television where Buzz Aldrin or whoever stepped out of the spaceship on the moon and made a foot imprint in the dust and said, "One small step for humanity" or whatever he said. One small step, and that footprint is my image of Brooklyn. 34:00The immigrant, when they came to America, largely came through Ellis Island and Brooklyn, and that was their first footprint in America, and South Brooklyn is really that footprint. So it's a wonderful human experience to have been here.

Anyway, now I'm in Manhattan. [Laughter]

We still go back, and it's just fun to go to all the--It was fun to go to the great cultural--the museum and the Historical Society and the Botanic Garden and Prospect Park and BAM. I mean, these places are fabulous, and you can't help but 35:00enjoy re-meeting the folks you worked with or worked around, culturally and philanthropically and economically. In many ways, it's very sad to see the bank sold, particularly when you have an experience like to call from our home in Connecticut to Brooklyn, you have to go through Bombay, India. That's a shocker. But anyway, I guess that's economics, and I guess clearly, the really good part of it has been that the Foundation has gotten wealthier and continues, really in a communal community sense of what we've all worked for. That is truly satisfying. Now, what have I left out?


SULLIVAN: I wonder if we can talk more about how being from Brooklyn has shaped your life and decisions that you've made.

HAMM: That's a good question, because as a young boy, I didn't know it at the time, and it wasn't a very well-known kind of problem, but I had learning disabilities, so I had severe trouble reading and writing. So I was always, I was always a good athlete and a very questionable student. Thank God being a good athlete was a saving grace. But in terms of being from Brooklyn, I love Brooklyn, and every time I went outside of Brooklyn, it was always "dem Dodgers" and "Watcha doin'?" and "hoy." One time my still good friend and roommate at Harvard said, "Charlie, is Brooklyn really on Long Island?" Of course, he was 37:00from Oyster Bay, so he couldn't bear the thought that Brooklyn was on Long Island, and actually wouldn't believe it, so I had to run around kind of wondering why everybody thought Brooklyn was the outback of the civilized world. Every time I went into Manhattan for a debutante party or whatever, there were always a lot of snickers about the kid from Brooklyn.


HAMM: Well, all the movies, all the Brooklyn accents, all the, you know--Brooklyn was a great caricature, and because Brooklyn had fomented, had bred, had contributed so much to the lives of Hollywood, to the lives of entertainment, baseball, you name it--the arts. All you have to do is look at Green-wood Cemetery to understand the power of Brooklyn vis a vis individuals, 38:00through lives. That is one reason our family, Charles M. Higgins, built a mausoleum on Battle Hill. It was to commemorate the Battle of Long Island, which was the first great battle of the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, Washington lost it, but anyway, he put up the Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and--I think her lesser-known function was conflict, but anyway--she's saluting the Statue of Liberty from the mausoleum. It's still probably one of the primary monuments in Green-wood Cemetery. But being from Brooklyn in 1942, postwar, with Hollywood 39:00and the accents and--Today, the Brooklyn accent is really a New Jersey and Staten Island. Then, it was still Brooklyn. Everybody loved to sort of mock Brooklyn and the accents and "dem those guys" and all "do ya have any earl?" and all that stuff. So it was a little embarrassing, intimidating and everything to say when people ask you where you're from, you're from Brooklyn. "Oh? I've never met anyone from Brooklyn."

HAMM: In my early days at Harvard. They had a freshman dance, and somehow I got paired with the leading blond debutante in Boston society, and my roommate told me halfway through the dance that she had asked him whether or not I really did 40:00live in Brooklyn. This was the same guy who didn't believe that Brooklyn was on Long Island. He looked at her, and he said, "Yes, he's from Brooklyn." A little silence, and she said, "Well, are there any nice places to live in Brooklyn?" He sort of snickered and said, "Yes, there are a few. It's okay." More silence. "Does Charlie live in a nice part of Brooklyn?" So you know, you had a to carry a lot of garbage about Brooklyn, but on the other hand, it instills a little bit of pride, as well, because you know the good aspects of Brooklyn, and there's nothing that's stuck up about Brooklyn. There's a lot of human spirit, as opposed to presumed wealth and position and inherited this and that. In Brooklyn, you somehow sort of had to make it, and that's always been.


When I hear people who are asked, "Where are you from?" say, "Brooklyn Heights," it sort of bothers me, because they're sort of stretching for position and status and specialness, when all they have to say is, "I'm from Brooklyn and love it." I always loved saying I was from Brooklyn. If I had a job, which I did one summer at college in Utah, working for the Utah Power and Light Company, surveying high power lines in the wilderness, I was working with guys--roughnecks--who were from everywhere but Brooklyn. They had seen Hollywood. They had seen the gangsters. They had seen all the tough guys. My father gave me a beautiful new Buick--didn't give it to me, loaned it to me for the summer--a Buick Skylark. Two doors, black. It was a mafia mo--I mean, just, 42:00it was the mafia car. They really thought I was a killer. I would tell them, "I'm from Brooklyn, and I've got a lot of connections, and you guys--" And they didn't know whether to believe me or not. Well, one day, we were surveying over a small canyon, and there was a rope bridge over the canyon, so there were a couple of guys on the other side near some rocks, and the guys on my side decided to have a little target shooting, and one of them had a little snub-nosed .32mm. Couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. So it was my turn to buy beer. I bet anybody a case of beer, on one shot, without any practice, I'd 43:00hit the target on the other side of the ravine. They knew I was a member of the mob, so I probably could shoot up close, but nobody could hit it from that distance. It was probably fifty or sixty feet away, so I took the gun, and I saw that everybody was hitting lower to the left, so I aimed higher to the right. Hit the stone on the first shot, gave the guy back the gun, and said, "You owe me a case of beer and don't mess," and they knew, they knew I was a hitman for Joe Bananas. So Brooklyn has been fun to be from and fun inspirationally. I guess being from Brooklyn has added a little panache, and if you're not too intimidated or shy about it, you can have a lot of fun with it. I don't know 44:00about the girls I dated, but Irene thought it was okay. Anyway, that's sort of a sense about being in Brooklyn.

SULLIVAN: Growing up did Brooklyn feel integrated and mixed and full of influences?

HAMM: I guess I was--There were a lot of very smart people, but Brooklyn was going through a lot of trouble, too. It was losing families. The city administration took a whole lot more care of Park Avenue than it did Brooklyn Heights, and a lot of real estate was getting run down after the war, a lot of 45:00poor were moving in and getting displaced from places around the city, so Brooklyn, in a sense, became kind of a backyard for projects and poor people. Most of the people I knew growing up in Brooklyn in my time now--Take Sandy Wilde--he couldn't wait to get out of Brooklyn, and he doesn't like admitting that he's ever been in Brooklyn. He supports Manhattan [unintelligible] institutions a million times more than Brooklyn ones. His stature in life is not to be from Brooklyn. His stature in life is to be Park Ave--He's the number-one banker in the world, arguably--but his is to be with the Metropolitan Opera and not with BAM, for example.

A lot of people still consider Brooklyn sort of the back yard, and back then, it 46:00really was a backyard. A lot of the projects were being built. There was a lot of crime. Look at Bed-Stuy and East New York and those places. It was like Los Angeles with racial riots and burning, crime, destruction and drugs. So, you know, it's not that it doesn't deserve its reputation, but Brooklyn went from being, perhaps, a premier city in the early 1900s to being definitely a troubled place after World War II, and it's now coming back to being another premier city.

Places go through those cycles. God knows Hartford, Connecticut has, and a few other places we know--Boston, if one can believe it. But then again, Brooklyn is two-and-a-half million people and seventy-five square miles. It's not exactly a small place. I think the greats are on the rolls of--if anyone from Hollywood 47:00could be great--are on the rolls of Hollywood. There are astronauts, there are artists, there are, again, look at Green-wood Cemetery It's such a stunning representation of what Brooklyn has been, or promises to be. So I--you know. You can basically be anything you want to be. Look at Brooklyn's rejuvenation now. It's extraordinarily strong, powerful. It's really wonderful.

The one problem with Brooklyn continues to be lack of headquartered business of a large size and being a borough of Manhattan, it tends to not rule its own destiny and for a political entity--well, albeit a borough that large with that 48:00many people and that capacity, it should have great corporate headquarters, you know. And it does have great cultural things, but for two and a half million people, they are few and far between.

SULLIVAN: Were there some things that you didn't know were particular to Brooklyn until you left for high school and college?

HAMM: I always knew the Dodgers were particular to Brooklyn. I always knew the Brooklyn athletic spirit was particular to Brooklyn. Certainly the accent, but 49:00as kind of an irresponsible kid, you don't really understand the destitution and the politics and all that kind of stuff, and it's still annoying to me how few people and how few resources there are in Brooklyn to support Brooklyn's cultural and eleemosynary institutions--philanthropies, whatever. That's another reason the Foundation is so important. You look at the great Foundations in Manhattan, and they don't even know how to reach into Brooklyn, particularly. You look at most of the corporate giving, and it's rarely Brooklyn. You look at some of the more well off society in Brooklyn, and they'd almost rather give to 50:00Manhattan. Now, in recent years, places like the Historical Society, the Botanic Gardens, the park, get their share of some of this corporate money, mostly because people no longer live on Park Avenue. They really do want to live in Brooklyn. A lot of the people on the Heights have come to understand that Brooklyn deserves a contribution as well as some more sexy things in Manhattan. But it's still difficult to raise money in Brooklyn for Brooklyn's needs, which are great. They're huge because the borough is so big. Many people would still rather see their name on giving things to Manhattan than on giving things to Brooklyn, so that is a frustration. That's been, basically, the core of the sort 51:00of Brooklyn icon in a problem sense in my lifetime. It's a A Tree Grows in Brooklyn--"Hey Marty, what are you going to do tonight?" "Well, I don't know."


But anyway, it's on a roll now, and that's good to say, and I hope it will be continually easier to get money back into Brooklyn for the needy. Certainly worthwhile. But--Obviously, the image of Brooklyn is something that I've always felt is unique. There are clubs called Brooklyn clubs throughout the United States. I mean, it's got to have something. People still make fun of it, and 52:00it's still producing the greats. It's just a wonderful cauldron of humanity, still providing a lot of competition, a lot of character building, a lot of frustration, a lot of possibilities. It's a wonderful place. I often say that I see people living in bucolic, rural communities, thinking they have the good life. They have more drugs--there can't be more, but let's say they're just as many drugs--and on top of which they're sort of bored. There's nothing much to do, you know? It's just a huge amount of human interest in Brooklyn, and it's a rare--And they all intermix. They're all in your face, they all intermix for 53:00good and bad, and it's really an opportunity to experience life in a way that most other places just don't get. That's a wonderful thing. But you tell that to somebody from Scarsdale or somebody from Greenwich or somebody from--I mean, perfectly lovely communities, but my God. Everybody's got a mink coat and take their kids to school in a car, and they're all white. They all come from the same law firm, or the same this. Enough already. It's just different. There's certainly no, certainly no reason not to smile and laugh and feel pretty good about it. It is a charactered place. Still is.


SULLIVAN: Tell me more about the sports mentality that you were saying is really a part of Brooklyn.

HAMM: If you had to think of the origin of baseball, I couldn't even tell you where. Somebody might say it's Philadelphia, I don't know. But it's sure Ebbets Field. It's sure sandlot Dodger fame. They got their nickname, the Dodgers, from dodging trolley cars near Ebbets Field.

SULLIVAN: I didn't know that.

HAMM: Yes. It's the home of the greats. Where did Jackie Robinson come from? Where? One of the--who's the little guy who was the great catcher? Yogi Berra, 55:00one of the great, one of the great characters, stars in the world. He had the accent, he had [unintelligible]. Everybody wanted to quote him because the Yogi Berra sayings of the world were eminently quotable. He'd just go on and on and on thinking about a place that still doesn't have a stadium. How many soccer fields, how many football fields--for that matter, how many baseball fields have there been in Brooklyn? Not a hell of a lot, and today, there's one, maybe two. Yet, through baseball, the place just exploded, and musicians--jazz, rap, 56:00blues-- some of the really great artists the Morans, Kensit, but I guess it's really baseball that you would target. If you had to think of a Brooklyn image, it's the Brooklyn Dodgers. When they left Brooklyn, it kind of was almost a revolution, you know, hate mail. It took Brooklyn to extraordinary heights..

[Interview interrupted.]

I. HAMM: It's Lisa from Sovereign Bank.

HAMM: Oh, I'll get that. Can we continue this?


SULLIVAN: I'll pause.

[Interview interrupted.]

HAMM: And if you look at what Hollywood has done with it, and off the top of my head, besides Aldo Ray, who probably didn't come from Brooklyn, I can't go through all the Brooklynites. Humphrey Bogart always sounded as though he did. It's just such a clear place to be from with all its warts and funny talk and characters. That's partly Hollywood, partly the Brooklyn Dodgers and whatever. Danny Kaye was from Brooklyn. There's the old saying that one out of seven 58:00people in the United States can trace their heritage to Brooklyn.

SULLIVAN: Did you have that sense when you were a kid on the streets of Brooklyn? Did you feel that sort of--

HAMM: No, as a kid, no, you always knew you were from the other side of the river. It was your neighborhood. That's what you knew, you know? When you went away to some place like one of the finest high schools in the country, Exeter, and you're meeting people from all over the place, you could say you're from New York, but what's the point? What you say is you're from Brooklyn, and nobody's ever met anybody from Brooklyn, and it's always this sort of funny little character thing called Brooklyn.


The first thing they say is, "Oh, you don't sound like you're from Brooklyn." Well, okay, stereotype. Hollywood made a lot out of it, because it was a strong character. Brooklyn was differentiable. All you had to do was open your mouth or say you were or whatever. Somebody will say, "Oh, I saw a movie once," or "Oh, I read a book once," or "Is it really like that?" and then in the news, unfortunately, the crime rates and stuff like that, yes, you had Newark, New Jersey, and you had Los Angeles, but Brooklyn was always up there somewhere, so there you are. But you live through all that and pretty soon you think it's been unusually productive and unusually opportunistic and unusually meaningful. Sometimes fun and sometimes not so much fun. That's why the Brooklyn Historical 60:00Society is there, right? To capture all that.


HAMM: There was a relatively inexpensive place to have a nice single family home. I think we bought our house on Columbia Heights for $12,000 in 1945 or '46. Now we put $100,000 into it, but the fact of the matter is it's probably worth $7 million now, so it's come a long way, and you could-- With the brownstone rejuvenation that you talked to "Faity" Tuttle, or Evelyn Ortner, or whoever--and it's still going on, because people are discovering these beautiful homes in Clinton Hill and wherever. You know, Park Slope. It's just a good 61:00piece of real estate, and schools are better and whatnot. Public schools aren't better, but private schools, there are more of them, and there are some public schools that have turned around.

SULLIVAN: When you were going to school, did you walk to school? Did you take the bus? And was everybody in your sort of cohort on your block going to the same school?

HAMM: No, it was all over the place. I can't remember about Packer and Friends. We were probably taken because we were four years old or five years old, or whatever it was. In terms of Berkeley, we could walk to school because we lived with my grandmother on Park Slope. Poly Prep, long subway ride. It wasn't infrequent in those days, particularly when they started building the Promenade 62:00and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. A lot of kid gangs would come down and rampage through the neighborhood, so it wasn't unusual that I'd get robbed or beaten up or whatever. You tried to move around in a group or pairs at least and not dawdle here and there.

I sang in Grace Church choir, which is another kind of great experience, but I had to walk from Grace Church alley to 77 Columbia Heights, and it was not unusual that the gangs would wait after payday. I might have fifty cents or whatever you got paid for the choir, and rob you and if they felt like it, beat you up.

SULLIVAN: Where were those kids coming from?

HAMM: I wouldn't have the vaguest idea. But certainly around the Heights, the 63:00periphery, whether it's south Boerum Hill kind of areas or out toward what were then projects of stuff near the Brooklyn Bridge. Who knows? But they were, they certainly ran through the Heights pretty freely.

SULLIVAN: You went to Exeter when you were--that was ninth grade, so like fourteen, so younger people were taking the subway by themselves. That was--

HAMM: Yes, we'd get on the subway and just ride it to see where it went.


HAMM: You could buy for ten cents or five cents or whatever it cost, you could spend all day on the subway.

SULLIVAN: And people's parents--that was fine to let kids go.


HAMM: Sure, it's life. Go out in the street and have, you know. That's when the subways, they all had these woven straw seats, you know, stuff like that. They'd prefer you not to do it, and they would prefer you to do it with a group of friends, and yes, you'd get into an occasional fight on the subway or get robbed on the subway, but you figure it out. Nobody got killed, but you know, you figured it out. We'd go to Coney Island, we'd go to Fort Hamilton. We'd go to God knows where, even Manhattan. That was probably between the ages of seven and twelve. Once we walked home from Fort Hamilton--

SULLIVAN: Oh, my goodness.

HAMM: --to Columbia Heights, and that took about four or five hours. That was an 65:00interesting thing. It was--But if you allowed enough time to do your homework, which is another whole subject, there's a great adventurous place and a lot of differences. You walk through these neighborhoods, and it's every language in the book. The subway actually portrayed it. Yes, the parents I knew, including my own, were fairly strict about you can't stay out all day, and you have to get your homework done. My guess is that they didn't even know where we went in the subway. It still only cost a nickel, so if we took a G train somewhere instead of an H train somewhere, or a Number Four instead of a Number Six, what the hell did they know? You're down there wandering around, which is fun.

SULLIVAN: So the kids that you would hang out with, would you hang out with 66:00people from school or from your block?

HAMM: Both. Mostly school and the block. Both I would say. I can't think of too many people I knew in the neighborhood who didn't go to the school, although there were a number of people at the school who didn't live in the neighborhood. Yes, it was mostly--we didn't go wandering around making friends in heavily differentiated ethnic neighborhoods. It's just too big a place and too dense, and there's no reason to. There was a lot more separation then--I mean separation culturally, spiritually, and economically than probably today, 67:00although there probably is today. Next.

SULLIVAN: Was there a difference in terms of the people you have met throughout your life who didn't have that sort of mixing and vibrancy and adventure of Brooklyn? Do you feel like you sort of came with more experience than--

HAMM: I think unquestionably. I think unquestionably. But as you get out in life, it's a lot more than just Brooklyn. People who haven't experienced the military, people who haven't experienced travel, people who haven't experienced dangers or athletics, you know, a lot of the things that life has to offer are 68:00just duller people. They're perfectly nice, they just have less good judgment and less good conversation and less good blah, blah, blah--a little less to offer. Maybe they're a little more prejudiced because they haven't lived as broadly as they might and assume things that just don't exist, sure. The wealth of the kind of human cauldron that we talk about in Brooklyn is spiritually very, very important, and people who move out of the city--and I don't call the city Park Avenue--people who move out of the city to get good schools and move into some place like Bronxville, which I admire and respect from a lot of different perspectives, need all the same kind of people. They're Kewpie dolls. 69:00They all say, "Our kids are so different," blah, blah, blah. They're not so different, and they certainly don't have the vision. Not that they're not capable, but they certainly don't have the breadth and vision and understanding that people from Hell's Kitchen or Brooklyn--and I don't mean you have to go through crime and drugs, of which there are plenty in Bronxville. You don't have to go through danger and degradation to have a broad life, but the wealth of an Ecuadorian's smile or an Irish smile or an African smile is just as important as your neighbor. I think that a lot of people would benefit from the experience. Now, I think if the single situation improved in Brooklyn, it'd be alright.


SULLIVAN: The what?

HAMM: The singles.

SULLIVAN: Oh, how do you mean?

HAMM: I mean a lot of people like to live in Manhattan because there's more boy-girl interaction instead of Brooklyn.

HAMM: Whatever. Now Brooklyn even has good restaurants, so you can't use that as an excuse. No, it's come a long way. It's good to see. So, anything else?

SULLIVAN: How do you think being from Brooklyn influenced your view of big political shifts that have happened--Civil Rights Movement, feminist movement, things like that?

HAMM: Well, again, I think it's more of the same. If you're-- for whatever reason, I think if you're slightly more understanding and experienced and 71:00broadened person, you appreciate the Civil Rights Movement. It seems to me that somebody coming--and this is not denigrating--but somebody coming from a traditional Southern town, heavily controlled by a White ethic versus somebody coming from Brooklyn is going to have a hugely different view of skin color, religion, opportunity, prejudice, you know. So yes, no question, but then you can say the same of the most Puritanical, loving Iowa town. They just don't know. They're fed all this stuff on the radio that Brooklyn has killed another 72:00thirteen people because of drugs or because of this, and they think it's a cesspool. Anybody from Brooklyn has got to be a crook. When I went out, they knew I was a gangster, no doubt about it. That's a little silly, which I took full advantage of, but nevertheless, it's silly. So there you are. I'm always telling people I can fix it.


HAMM: They're not sure that I can, but there you go. It's fun. I do think the inherency of Brooklyn is valuable thing to go through. I don't know how you capture that other than the way we're doing it, I suppose, or to read about Green-wood Cemetery. I just caught up with Green-wood Cemetery, which is why I'm 73:00so--It would be a lovely project to get kids to pick gravestones in Green-wood Cemetery and write biographies--research and write biographies of who's buried there.

SULLIVAN: That's a great idea.

HAMM: That could be something the Historical Society does, which--maybe with our foundation's help.

SULLIVAN: I will suggest that to Andrea because that really is--to give kids a sense of--

HAMM: Yes, it's an education program.

HAMM: I don't think the Feds or state, or whoever would be glad to fund that, rather than Brooklyn. Where are you from?

SULLIVAN: I'm from Acton, Massachusetts.

HAMM: Well, that's almost as much of a cauldron as Brooklyn, but not quite. 74:00Acton was a sort of a factory town? Or am I confusing it a little?

SULLIVAN: It's close to--It sort of, strangely--It was the farm town to supply food to Concord, which was like the merchants and people from Boston, and then Maynard was the industrial--There's mills there, so it was sort of the farm feeding both.

[Interview interrupted.]

HAMM: Yeah, I've got the wrong--I thought Acton was more of one of those river mill towns.

SULLIVAN: Yes, no it's more central.

HAMM: You're the idyllic part of the rural.


HAMM: Alright.


SULLIVAN: It's funny, though, because my family has been in Massachusetts for a really long time--many generations--and my sister and I are the first to live outside. My sister lives in L.A., and I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and it's so funny because they're just like, "I don't know how you can stand it. How do you--?"

HAMM: That's it. You know. Where did you go to college?

SULLIVAN: I went to Wellesley.

HAMM: Great, well, you know. That's all Puritan white, you know. It was even worse fifty years ago. Not to disparage the other places, but it's just when you go home, and there's, "Have you been raped yet?"--anyway. Guess who's coming to dinner, right? Well, you must--I don't know if you are or not, but you must be having a pretty interesting time. Well, you're lucky.


Greenpoint is a very interesting place, between the Polish and the Eastern European and the artist movement and God knows what--new industry. Must be sort of a hotbed of interests.

SULLIVAN: I really like it. I had been living in Bushwick for a while in a really industrial neighborhood that was full of artist lofts and sort of that wave of gentrification there, and then moving to Greenpoint, it's so much more--it's still families and kids. Most people on my block are still speaking Polish, so that was a really kind of neat change to have.

HAMM: It is. Are you very near the water?

SULLIVAN: Yes, I'm two blocks from the river.

HAMM: Great, great. Now, what is going to be done with all this?


SULLIVAN: It's going to be archived forever.

HAMM: Straight? I mean, unedited?

SULLIVAN: Unedited, it will be archived forever.

HAMM: So as we're talking, it's going to be--


HAMM: Good. Okay.

SULLIVAN: And then the edited versions, we're hoping to make them accessible, and of course we'll talk to you about permissions and things like that, but accessible for education programs. I hope to see it online. There's some models of oral history projects like UNC has a great one. You can just really go in and click and find interviews and then search on the subject that they're discussing and hear a little audio snippet from there. That's my hope for it.

HAMM: One of the things that I got involved in that I was always interested in was education and how we could improve it. We had a little discussion about Red Hook, and some of that is educational need and fulfillment. I used to be asked 78:00to join a congressional program where certain kinds of taped programs would be distributed to high schools, and they'd usually be on civic questions or historical questions or how your government works questions, and I would deliver a little introduction to warrant the sponsorship of the bank and that stuff. I'll never forget, and this kind of epitomizes one aspect of not only Brooklyn, but many places. They were asking me to make a point as to why students might be interested in this program and the content. I said, "Look, quite frankly, most 79:00people in the United States don't really understand the importance of education--that is, knowing and reasoning--and the importance of voting. For example, in the last presidential election, where Clinton won, he only won by something like 20 percent of the vote," and I was cut off. They said, "That is absolutely a fabrication." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "He won by 43"--or whatever--"percent." I said, "Ah, but he only won by 43 percent of those who voted."


HAMM: I said, "Quite frankly, if you take"--I've forgotten what the math was, but if you take the fact that 45 percent of the allowable voters voted, or 50 80:00percent, or whatever the hell the figure was, and then you understood that he won by 40 percent, that's 20 percent. I think the figure I had mapped out was 21 or 22 percent, and they didn't get it. The real truth was, they never thought about it, and the real truth is a democracy now is residing on a president who's only got 21 percent of the vote available, and how bad that is from the point of view of the educational need and the understanding, whatever.

I think it's that kind of math that has affected Brooklyn and other communities everywhere, because people just don't get it. Brooklyn, almost by necessity, everybody got involved. Most other communities, everybody's saying, "I don't want to get involved." It's really interest--If you live on Park Avenue and 81:00don't go out at night, or "I'll get our cleaning lady to walk you to school and walk you back," and everybody has got their prescribed little routines. But in Brooklyn, it's like "Hey."


HAMM: You better get involved. Sort of. It's not pure, but there is a tendency for that. Be great. For all it's warts, it's been great. I do. I'll find out tonight what's going to happen with the portrait. Anyway, what haven't we touched on?


SULLIVAN: In terms of the senses, is there a smell or a food--are there things that bring you to Brooklyn in your mind?

HAMM: No. The ethnicity. I mean, I love food. Brooklyn never used to have really good restaurants, unless you went out to the Italian restaurant in Bensonhurst, the Greek restaurant in Astoria--that's Queens, but you know. There were--


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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Charles Hamm

Charles J. Hamm was born in Brooklyn in 1937. His childhood home was on Pierrpont Street in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. He attended Brooklyn Friends School, Packer Collegiate Institute, Berkeley Carroll School, and Polytechnic Preparatory School; all in the borough. He went on to Phillips Exeter Academy and after serving in the Army, he attended Harvard, then received a graduate degree in business at New York University. During his advertising career, Hamm worked for McCann Erickson Worldwide as Executive Vice President and Vice Chairman of their United States division. In 1975, he became Trustee of Independence Community Bank Corporation, then President in 1985. For much of his time with the bank, he and his wife, Irene, lived in Brooklyn Heights. After retiring in the early 2000s, they resided in Mystic, Connecticut and kept an apartment in the Bronxville neighborhood of Manhattan. His board memberships have included Pratt Institute, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In this first of two interviews, Charles J. Hamm begins with his family's ancestry and how they came to be in Brooklyn. He recalls his parents' backgrounds and how they met. Hamm cites the schools he attended from childhood to adulthood. He describes the home where he grew up, on Pierrepont Street at Columbia Heights in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood and the family's neighbors. Hamm remembers playing sports at the Heights Casino on Montague Street. In describing the philanthropy of the Brooklyn Community Foundation, he praises Brooklyn's cultural institutions and considers how Brooklyn shaped him and how others saw the borough. Hamm comes back to his childhood and the freedom he and his friends had to roam the neighborhoods. In closing, he looks at the traits many Brooklynites have that can't be easily found elsewhere. Interview conducted by Sady Sullivan.

The Voices of Brooklyn oral histories: Civic leaders series features a dynamic range of narrators. Many are well-known public figures and others are well-known in their communities. This ongoing series focuses on Brooklyn history and the experiences of these narrators often reference their outsized contribution to how New York City citizens live, work, and conduct business in the five boroughs. The oldest narrator in this series was born in 1921.


Hamm, Charles, Oral history interview conducted by Sady Sullivan, November 13, 2006, Voices of Brooklyn oral histories: Civic leaders, 2008.031.3.001; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Brooklyn Dodgers (Baseball team)
  • Brooklyn Friends School
  • Green-Wood Cemetery (New York, N.Y.)
  • Hamm, Charles
  • Heights Casino (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
  • Higgins, Chas. M., (Charles Michael), b. 1854
  • Independence Community Bank (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
  • Packer Collegiate Institute


  • Charitable organizations
  • Children
  • Community development
  • Family life
  • Local transit
  • Philanthropists
  • Private schools


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Brooklyn Heights (New York, N.Y.)


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Voices of Brooklyn oral histories: Civic leaders