Our Buildings: 99 Ryerson Street

Our Buildings: 99 Ryerson Street
This Clinton Hill apartment building is the last standing home of Walt Whitman. (Illustration by Daniel Lewis)

The building at 99 Ryerson Street in Clinton Hill is one of the least remarkable looking buildings in Brooklyn. It’s a simple building: three stories, not including the basement, pale yellow vinyl siding and the simple wrought-iron fences that seem to come standard with apartment buildings. But if you’re a fan of the poet Walt Whitman, 99 Ryerson should be on your radar: this is where he wrote “Leaves of Grass.”

Walt Whitman has long been cherished by Brooklynites. He was born in Huntington, Long Island in 1819, but just a few years later Whitman’s family moved to Brooklyn. After he finished school at age 11, Whitman had many jobs: journalist, typesetter, printer and nurse to name just a few. But it is his poetry that he is best known for today.

Whitman first moved to 99 Ryerson Street around 1855, when he self-published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass.” He paid for the first edition of 795 copies out of his own pocket, which he sent out to various publishers and poets. Though his own brothers reportedly thought it wasn’t worth reading, it won him a new friend in fellow poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Reactions at the time ranged from adoration to horror, but “Leaves of Grass” is now widely thought of as pivotal in the development of American poetry and literature.

With most of the original details covered up by the siding, it’s the history of the building rather than the structure itself that draws fans of Whitman. In fact,

according to the Poetry Foundation

, it’s the last of his seven Brooklyn homes to remain standing today. But there’s no indication that he lived here: no plaque, no sign, nothing.

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