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His story is not history

The Brooklyn Paper
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Two Kings County historians are sparring over factual inaccuracies in one of their books, and the fight is getting so intense that it seems they actually believe the adage that only the winner gets to write history.

The book feud — the borough’s biggest since Park Slope and Prospect Heights battled it out for literary supremacy – started when history writer and memorabilia collector Brian Merlis sent The Brooklyn Paper a scathing review of former Brooklyn Borough Historian John Manbeck’s 2008 book, “Historic Photos of Brooklyn,” which he claims is riddled with factual inaccuracies.

“Although Manbeck’s latest work looks quite good on the coffee table, when I opened it I was appalled to find so many glaring errors, overlooked or intentional,” wrote Merlis, who co-authored a number of local photo anthologies including “Brooklyn: The Way It Was’’ and “Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton: A Photographic Journey, 1870-1970.”

“His noble yet failed attempt to inform has accomplished the opposite, as the publication of this book has instead disseminated misinformation … [it] serves local history better in a hearth than upon a coffee table or bookshelf,” he added.

Merlis accused Manbeck, a columnist for the Brooklyn Eagle, a local newspaper, of making more than a dozen factual errors (including four in the first 10 pages), such as:

• Identifying Williamsburg as “a fashionable resort until the 1903 opening of the bridge,” though the neighborhood’s resort era concluded by 1865.

• Mistakenly captioning a photo of the area around Borough Hall as “the heart of DUMBO.”

• Misidentifying two historic Dutch farmhouses that were built more than 100 years apart.

• Describing limestones as brownstones.

“I’m not saying I’m perfect,” Merlis told The Brooklyn Paper. “Occasionally I make a mistake too, but the errors in here are terrible. It’s basic stuff. There is just so much inaccuracy in here that is just shows laziness and lack of scholarship.”

When reached by this reporter, Manbeck confessed to the mistakes — then challenged Merlis as to why it took him so long to pinpoint the errors.

“There were some mistakes, I admit it — there were even some mistakes that he did not mention, about a half-dozen,” said Manbeck, who said he would gladly correct the errors if a subsequent editions of “Historic Photos of Brooklyn” is published.

“Whenever you put out a book, you always realize that mistakes appear,” he added. “I wonder why it took him so long to find those errors.”

One error that Merlis certainly overlooked is a photograph identified as a snapshot from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade that was actually taken from the Montague Terrace — a vista that preceded the Promenade.

Manbeck claims he mistakenly labeled the photo as an image from the Promenade because a library had inaccurately recorded that the photo was taken in the 1950s — not 1947, years before the completion of the Promenade.

Manbeck attributed some of the errors to his tight deadline, which gave him only 30 days to accurately identify and caption all of the photos in the 216-page tome.

“I was not able to do as careful research as I should have” said Manbeck, who noted that most of the book is error free and includes exciting original findings, including a rare image of the borough’s first-ever marathon, which was held on Feb. 12, 1908.

But he also wondered whether the bad review really had to do with bad blood.

“Brian was a little bit of a nemesis for me,” said Manbeck, who in the past has accused Merlis of using information without properly attributing its sources, including images he claims that Merlis “stole” from the Kingsborough Historical Society, an organization that Manbeck directed.

Merlis acknowledged that he used the images without permission, though he claims he copied the images without approval because Manbeck was on sabbatical and he didn’t want to delay the release of his book, which, apparently, also required a impossible-to-adhere-to deadline.

Manbeck also said their rivalry might stem from the fact that he never honored any of Merlis’ books with awards when he served as Borough Historian.

“He held that against me,” said Manbeck, whose new book “Historic Photos of the Brooklyn Bridge,” was released last week.

“I think he felt incensed that I never called him up … but I didn’t feel that [his books] were quality works.”

Merlis acknowledged that he has clashed with Manbeck in the past – particularly over the incident with the Kingsborough Historical Society – though he denies that personal squabbles motivated his harsh review.

“To me it’s not about politics,” he said. “When somebody puts stuff out that’s not right, I can’t be quiet.”

Current Borough Historian Ron Schweiger refused to get into the middle of the book battle, but he acknowledged that inaccuracies are commonplace in history writing — no matter the author.

“Mistakes happen — they happen even in the best of books,” said Schweiger.

Updated 5:14 pm, July 9, 2018
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