Back to Brooklyn A Quick History of the Borough

It’s an oft-repeated fact that if the borough of Brooklyn were still independent, it would be one of the biggest cities in the nation. According to the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation, in 2000, the U.S. decennial census counted Brooklyn’s population at 2,465,326, making it New York City’s most populous borough. If considered an independent city, the borough would rank as the fourth largest in the United States after the rest of New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

 Independent or not, Brooklyn as a neighborhood embodies enough history and cultural, architectural, and demographic diversity to make it a city unto itself—as any Brooklynite will be happy to tell you.

Call it Breuckelen

Before it was a teeming sub-metropolis, Brooklyn was the little Dutch settlement of Breuckelen. Founded by the Dutch West India Company, Breuckelen was New York State’s first official municipality, and one of five settlements established by the Dutch (the others being Flatlands, Bushwyck, Flatbush, and New Utrecht.)

English settlers ousted the Dutch inhabitants in the mid-1600s, and by 1683, the English General Assembly of Freeholders reshuffled New York into 12 counties—with the now-Anglicanized Town of Brooklyn as the seat of Brooklyn/Kings County.

According to the community website, “Brooklyn/Kings County has two names because it took some 200 years for Brooklyn to annex the other parts of Kings County. When the City of Brooklyn annexed the City of Williamsburgh and the Town of Bushwick, the area became known as the eastern district of the City of Brooklyn, and Williamsburgh lost its final ‘h.’”

The website continues, saying that in these early years, “the Town of Gravesend…was the only English town in Brooklyn—all the others were Dutch. South Brooklyn is north of southern Brooklyn because until 1894, the Red Hook area (South Brooklyn) was the southernmost part of the City of Brooklyn. Bay Ridge was originally called Yellow Hook until a yellow fever epidemic struck and the name was changed.”

Brooklyn at War

Around the time of the Revolutionary War, Brooklyn was largely farm country dotted with the estates of wealthy landowners and gentleman farmers. What land wasn’t cultivated was forested, and the area was rich in both produce and game. Despite the pastoral setting, Brooklyn was actually the site of the first real battle of the American Revolution.

According to author Ruben I. Safir, “Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was delivered to King George III, the first theater of the Revolutionary War opened…in Brooklyn. After being appointed Commander and Chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington entrenched part of his brand-new Continental Army in Brooklyn Heights.”

Washington’s army was green, however, and the British troops nearly decimated the Continental troops at what became known as the Battle of Brooklyn. The Revolution raged for years before the British were finally driven out of Brooklyn in 1793.

After the Revolution

After hostilities ended between the British and American armies, things in Brooklyn settled into a comfortable, low-key pattern for the next century or so. The area remained mostly rural, with some fine homes and architecture in what is now Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope.

The early days of the 1800s marked the point at which the steady stream of immigrants to Brooklyn from Europe—particularly Ireland and Germany—became a flood. The swelling workforce encouraged industrialization and vice versa, and by the middle of the 19th century, the Brooklyn waterfront (and the government’s newly-christened Brooklyn Navy Yard) was dominated by factories, textile mills, and other manufacturing centers, and the little village of Breuckelen had become a city in its own right.

And that city began to expand at an astounding rate. Between 1840 and 1845, the future borough’s population doubled to nearly 80,000 people. By 1855, that number had grown to more than 200,000. According to the Brooklyn Historical Society, by 1898, when Brooklyn was annexed as a borough of New York City, the neighborhood was home to more than 800,000 people—a vast tapestry of cultures that included “Russian Jews, Italians, and Poles, along with a mixture of Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, and Finns, filled the city. More than one million people lived in Brooklyn at the end of the 19th century—and more than 30 percent of them were foreign-born.”

Post-revolutionary industrialization and massive immigration had their downside, of course. As the population of Brooklyn grew, and housing became more and more of an issue, the rich farmland that had characterized Brooklyn for so long was churned under to make way for urbanization, and in a relatively short time, parts of the city became every bit as noisome as the immigrant ghettos of Manhattan. The worst of it radiated out from along the waterfront, and by the time the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1870, the zone between 14th Street and the bridge was, as one author put it, quite unappealing.

“One vast slum, cluttered with masses of gray, disintegrating tenements in dark, noisy streets with every odor and every filth. This was another land altogether where everyone, young and old, poor and poorer, had to toil for scraps to eat and innocuous shelter to keep them from the whimsies of the weather.”

Stoop Culture

Most of the 19th century housing in Brooklyn consisted of four- or five-story tenements, often with multiple families per floor. Prior to the air-and-light laws championed by housing reformers in the 1890s and early 1900s, tenements were usually carved up into lightless, airless warrens of tiny rooms with no ventilation whatsoever for the dozens of people living within. The many accounts of conditions like this—regardless of the true reality of last-century Brooklynites’ lives—that contributed to the borough’s rough reputation, and began to change Brooklyn-as-pastoral-farm-country into Brooklyn-as-don’t-go-there.

However, it was out of this unhealthy, miserable state of affairs that one of Brooklyn’s hallmark institutions arose: The Stoop. Manhattan buildings had stoops too, of course, but spending time on one’s stoop, chatting with neighbors, and taking in the news of the day was soon elevated from its beginnings as an escape from miserable interiors to a quintessentially Brooklyn art form. According to New York Times writer Brent Staples, “As a British traveler wrote in the 1820’s: ‘It is customary to sit out of doors on the steps that ornament the entrances of the houses. On these occasions, friends assemble in the most agreeable and unceremonious manner. All sorts of cooling beverages and excellent confectionary [sic] are handed round, and the greatest good humor and gaiety prevail.’”

When the Brooklyn Dodgers played at home at Ebbets Field, Brooklynites lucky enough to live near the action could sit out at night and listen to the announcers call the game—all from the comfort of their own front stoop. While the Dodgers and Ebbets Field are gone, Brooklyn stoop culture thrives to this day, with neighborhood old-timers mingling effortlessly with young newcomers, families, and passers-by.

Hard Times in the 20th Century

By the 1930’s, Brooklyn was connected to Manhattan, Queens, and the rest of Long Island by a huge network of trains, bridges, tunnels, and roadways. With greater accessibility came faster development, and Brooklyn’s industrial complex worked full-tilt to supply the country’s needs during the world wars, but after WWII, the manufacturing and production of goods began to move elsewhere —to cheaper, more spacious locations. During this time, the concept of the upper-middle-class suburb was also becoming a formidable reality, and the growing lack of economic opportunity, combined with the flight of the middle class to the suburbs, left many areas of Brooklyn at an economic and social disadvantage.

The middle class weren’t the only ones to leave: in 1957, on a day that will live in infamy, the Brooklyn Dodgers pulled up stakes and moved to Los Angeles, just a couple years after crushing the New York Yankees in the World Series—a huge slap in the face to the borough and its untarnished pride. To this day, there are still stalwarts who refer to the Dodgers as “Da Bums,” and harbor suspicions that it was the team’s departure that ushered in a long socioeconomic twilight for almost the entire borough.

The dry tinder of social unrest, poverty, and governmental mismanagement ignited in 1977, when a city-wide electrical blackout sparked two days of riots in the economically depressed neighborhoods of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy. Stores and shops were looted and burned, and an estimated $61 millions in damage was done in neighborhoods ill-equipped to take the blow.

The fires and riots were eventually extinguished, but the damage was done: legitimate businesses closed permanently, more families left the area, and for nearly three decades, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and the areas immediately surrounding them would become notorious as some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. In the late 1980s, the problems of poverty and unemployment were further compounded by a fresh wave of drug- and gang-fueled violence thanks to the invasion of crack cocaine. Brooklyn became “Crooklyn,” and for many, the old days of the Dodgers and drinking egg creams on a neighbor’s stoop seemed very far away.

Better Days

As the end of the 20th century drew near, however, things began to change again, in small ways at first. Young families wishing for backyard gardens and more than just a few scraggly trees began casing Park Slope as a possible place to settle down and raise kids. Artists priced out of SoHo and Tribeca in Manhattan began contemplating the huge warehouses on the Brooklyn waterfront. Slowly, a new batch of Brooklynites began acquiring property, rehabbing struggling buildings, and reclaiming the borough, almost block by block, from the blight that had settled on it since the 70s.

Despite its tarnished image, Brooklyn offered home-hunters many things that Manhattan just didn’t have—or only made available to the very rich. It offered green spaces in the spectacular form of Prospect Park and cozy, leafy neighborhoods like Park Slope and Kensington. One could find spacious apartments and townhouses in historic neighborhoods with rich culture and beautiful architecture, and a sense of adventure and community that many felt Manhattan was losing. And—for a time, at least—these things could be had in Brooklyn for far less money than in Manhattan.  

As the housing market soared in Manhattan, however, Brooklyn began to feel the effects fairly quickly. Nearly overnight, million-dollar condos and skyrocketing rents appeared in areas like DUMBO and Williamsburg as their more fashionable counterparts across the river became saturated and built-out. These days, many parts of Brooklyn are just as expensive as Manhattan— and luxury properties in some, like Brooklyn Heights and prime Park Slope —can be even more so.

Aside from the newcomers, Brooklyn today is still very much a borough of immigrants. According to the most recent census, nearly 30 percent of people living there today were born outside the United States—in places like the Caribbean islands, Latin America, Middle East, China, and Korea. Neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Borough Park are home to Hasidic Jews, and Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, and Cobble Hill are home to old Italian and Irish families, Coney Island and Brighton Beach continue to be strong enclaves of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and Bushwick is home to a strong Puerto Rican community.

As Brooklyn resident Randy Bergmann told a reporter for a neighborhood community website, for many Brooklynites, Brooklyn is New York. If the classic New Yorker stereotype—the accent, the rough edges, the street smarts, the sarcasm, the energy—wasn’t born in Brooklyn, it certainly took root and grew to prominence there.

And old-school Brooklyn-ophiles are holding onto that identity. The tide of gentrification in Brooklyn is progressing apace, and while some have heralded it as signs of even better days and more prosperity to come, others feel that the proliferation of luxury condo buildings and painfully hip nightspots poses a threat to the things that give Brooklyn its unique flavor and character. It’s the same story that gets told over and over again in neighborhoods across the country every time a luxury high-rise goes up and casts a shadow over well-worn streets that have seen a lot of years, both good and not-so-good.

Only time will tell how gentrification and development will impact Brooklyn’s diverse neighborhoods and even more diverse population. Like any developing urban area, there will likely be arguments, drama, and lots of politics—all mulled over and talked about on thousands of stoops across our nation’s fourth-largest city.

Hannah Fons is Associate Editor of The Cooperator.

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  • Thank for that history lesson. I am going to have the stoop line printed in my Block association newletter. The neighborhood needs to know the history and may they would want it to be art again
  • "by the time the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1870" The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883. Construction began in 1870.