Once upon a time in Brooklyn
Last summer I spent one week in New York City. Among the main touristic attraction I managed to visit during my New Yorker vacation there was Brooklyn.
One cannot say to have fully visited New York without a stop in districts such as Brooklyn, Coney Island or Harlem. The history here lies in the air you breathe and the different ethnicities give to the entire city the cosmopolitan feel it is renowned for. In other words, The Big Apple is not just Manhattan and the cultural diversity is an asset here that people are bright enough to understand it has to be preserved. It’s something that one meets everyday in the streets of boroughs, as people from all over the world live in a spirit of cooperation. History teaches us that it’s always been like that. It’s a matter of fact and it’s shared by its dwellers.
Brooklyn is the greatest small city in the world. It comprises of 2.5 million people and if it were its own city, it would be the fourth most populous in the United States, only behind New York City, followed by Los Angeles, and Chicago. The borough covers almost a hundred square miles of terrain, from the beaches of Coney Island and Sea Gate it extends to the brownstones of Park Slope and the sidewalks of Williamsburg.
Brooklyn neighrborhoods are more than 30 and each of them is distinct and unique, with its own personality. They are as diverse as the people living in them, and all are rich in history. The district stands out for its magnificent browstoned homes one can admire in neighborhoods like Brooklyn Heights and Clinton Hill, sand and surf in seaside communities like Sea Gate and Manhattan Beach.
Some of the districts I’ve loved the most when I visited Brooklyn are:
Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo
Brooklyn is a vibrant ethnic mix of people, populated by longtime immigrants (who made up the cosmopolitan borough through generations) and young artists.
Ethnicity diversity, creeds and religions are the key point here, as they have been coexisting since the end of XIX century, when various crowds of immigrants arrived in search of some relief from their home country’s poor life standards.
For this reason, the first thing that comes into my mind when talking about Brooklyn is that this borough is steeped in history, constantly re-writing it through the ages and always evolving and keeping on writing its own future. I honestly think this is a rare feature to find in a neighborhood, and this is the greatest treasure of Brooklyn: the ability to create an ever-evolving community.
And all the immigrants have contributed to make Brooklyn the Mecca of tolerance too. This is the place to be for free-thinking minds and creative communities.
This is a place full of art, eclectic music, amazing restaurant, beautiful parks and architecture and genuinely creative people. A lot of artists and hipsters already chose to live there: painters, singers, actors, models, writers etc… you can actually smell culture. Artists find their inspiration just having a walk through the neighborhoods, where they can meet and confront with other creative minds like them. They feel part of an art-making community like nowhere else. Brooklyn has a great reputation as a supporter and incubator for the arts. You can find them in The Navy Yard (a former military complex) tucked behind thick industrial walls inaccessible to outsiders. These artists are aware of their building up of a Brooklyn culture, eventually becoming influencers.
However, this borough as we know it today wasn’t always such a trending hangout. Before Brooklyn became New Yorkers bohemian chic district, a foodie destination with original boutiques and seven-figure real estate prices, it was just a town. It was not the cool district that today attracts artists from all over the world. it was just the home town of the born and grewn up there.
How Brooklyn borough looked before hipsters took over?
Brooklyn, from small village to borough
Since 1892, when immigrants used to arrive from Ellis Island (the main entry point for immigrants landing in the United States), Brooklyn has always been one of the most popular immigrant destinations in the US. This time, the place was not attractive for its cultural and artistic beat but for the fact that people escaping from famine were able to quickly find a payed job in one of the many new industrial companies who settled there. This horde of immigrants contributed to transform this place from a modest village into a major city. This is the main reason for this dramatic urban and population growth.
It all started with Irish factory workers, escaping from their poor life condition, who moved to Brooklyn at the beginning of the 19th century. A no-stop flow of new workers such as merchants, mechanics and manufacturers rushed the borough trusting to ensure a better future to their offspring. They were just peasants escaping famine.
However, Brooklyn’s first major wave of immigration from all over Europe took place between 1840 to 1845. During these years, the population doubled to nearly 80,000. Ten years later, nearly half of Brooklyn’s 205,000 residents had been born overseas and half of that foreign-born population were Irish and the rest mostly Germans and Britons.
During the 1830s, Irish, German and Austrian capitalists established their businesses and homes in Brooklyn.
Some of the largest industrial firms in the United States grew in Brooklyn: companies like Pfizer Pharmaceuticals (1849), Astral Oil (later Standard Oil), Brooklyn Flint Glass (later Corning Ware) and the Havemeyer and Elder sugar refinery (later Amstar and Domino), as well as D. Appleton & Company, U.S. publisher of Alice in Wonderland and Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species. Breweries such as Schaefer, Rheingold and Schlitz, docks, shipyards, refineries, mills and foundries opened along the waterfront.
At the end of 1800s Brooklyn had a second important immigration flow, this time from all over Europe: from Russia, Italy, Poland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland.
The Brooklyn Bridge, which works for his building took place between 1867 and 1883, finally opened to public, allowing easy access between Manhattan and Brooklyn.
In 1854, the city of Williamsburgh was annexed to the Brooklyn borough and rapidly also other neighborhoods were annexed. When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, the borough was connected to Manhattan even faster. In 1898, the population voted to join Manhattan, Bronx, Queens and Richmond to form the city of New York, with the Brooklyn Bridge as its symbol.
The labour force was rapidly expanding, thanks to the new immigrants. By 1880, Brooklyn was one of the leading producers of manufactured goods in the United States, with its largest industry being sugar refining. People searching for a new job did not have any problem to find one as the industry was flourishing.
In the early 1900s a vast expansion in the population and urbanization of Brooklyn took place. That’s why innovations in transportation were needed. New bridges were built, trolley lines, elevated railroads, and the first subway line was thrust under the East River in 1908. These investments allowed to open new areas for settlement and development. Brooklyn was evolving, being a rural borough no more.
Another important immigration flow took place between the Great War and the 1930s, when Black people moved from the south to northern cities during the "Great Migration". Also thousands of Puerto Rican immigrants settled in Brooklyn. The trip from Puerto Rico took five days by steamship, but offered an alternative to the poverty and limitations of the tiny island. Puerto Ricans settled in Red Hook, downtown Brooklyn, and Greenpoint, and many found jobs in the needle trades and cigar factories.
When the Great Depression occurred after the 1929 stock market crash, unemployment and poverty increased destroying the new immigrant’s wish of a better life in Brooklyn. Many people lost their jobs and it became usual to see queues on the streets for getting a piece of bread at food stations. Brooklyn was no more attractive for workers, though in the 1930 large numbers of European Jews escaping Nazism fled to the suburb.
The recession ended with the entry of the United States into World War II. By the end of the 2nd World War, the industry boom began the 1950s, with manufacturers re-opening their factories. This pushed middle class families to move to Brooklyn, making the borough to evolve in a new direction.
Since 1800, Brooklyn has been able to adapt itself to changes steadily evolving. This district has been capable of renewing itself over the years by re-writing its own future and taking inspiration from its residents who are then those who have written the history of Brooklyn, the descendants of those who populated and built the special borough as we know it today.