Wyckoff Heights Hospital

by John Delach

I first wrote this piece in 2002 and included it in my 2011 anthology, The Big Orange Dog and Other Stories, that pre-dated my blog.

In the last quarter of the Twentieth Century, Wyckcoff Heights Hospital grew to become a medical center occupying a complete city block. It came to serve a broad area of northern Brooklyn including Bushwick, Williamsburg and Greenpoint and Ridgewood and Glendale in Queens. The center has six different and distinct buildings built between 1903 and 1985.

Stone steps led to the long closed main entrance to the original building. A stone arch framed the old entrance  with the hospital’s original name  carved into this stone: The German-American Hospital. That  name reflected the nationality of the people who developed Bushwick, Brooklyn and Ridgewood, Queens at the turn of the Nineteen Century when these neglected areas developed into the new neighborhoods as rapid transit in the form of the Myrtle Avenue Elevated subway opened providing service to Downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The hospital’s name was changed to Wyckoff Heights during World War I as part of the frenzy of anti-German sentiment once we entered the conflict. This same sentiment led to a local street, Hamburg Avenue, being renamed, Wilson Avenue and calling sauerkraut, victory cabbage as the brutality and carnage of The Great War became apparent.

These neighborhoods remained basically German until after the 1930s when Italians joined the mix. Blacks started arriving during World War II displaced from the south by the invention of the automatic cotton picker and the promise of jobs in the war effort. In 1948, Puerto Ricans started to arrive via Trans Caribbean Airlines’ surplus Army Air Force C-54s that provided cheap transportation to New York. The Italians retreated north out of Bushwick and into Ridgewood victims of fear and prejudice against these new residents.

Wyckoff Heights also set its sights north ignoring these newcomers in favor of its historic population. At least it did in the 1950s and 1960s. The black and Hispanic people utilized Bushwick Hospital and other small neighborhood facilities until they were closed when the City of New York consolidated their operations into a new giant, Woodhull Hospital, located at the junction of Broadway (Brooklyn) and Flushing Avenue.

But Woodhull quickly developed a terrible reputation. Then, as the violence of the 1970s escalated and Bushwick was consumed by acts of arson, residents demanded that ambulances responding to their emergencies, take them to Wyckoff Heights. As the German and Italian population aged, or moved away, Wyckoff Heights became a curious mixture of elderly European widows being treated for illnesses brought on by old age lying on gurneys in an over-crowded emergency room, side-by-side with young black and Hispanic men who had been shot, stabbed or who had OD’ed.

I found myself drawn to this scene on several occasions as I responded to my mother’s emergencies. When I arrived for my last visit, I found her in a bed squeezed into the Emergency Room right next to a young man who was cuffed on his ankle to his bed.

Fortunately, a semi-private room became available the next day freeing her from this nightmare. When she was well enough, I begged her that whenever she felt the need to go to a hospital, that she contacted me first so I could arrange for an ambulance to take her to St. Francis Hospital in Port Washington. She agreed and I never returned to Wyckoff Heights again.

But, as I left that night, I passed a security guard occupied by an inebriated man attempting to enter the hospital. The guard was telling him, “You cannot come in, you are drunk. Come back when you are sober.”

Over my shoulder, I heard the drunk respond, “Sure, but by then visiting hours will be over.”

I smiled in spite of myself as I walked out the door.