Most populous borough of New York City
, comprising Kings County, at the western end of Long Island
. Also a vastly intricate world unto itself, containing a hundred ethnic group
s and language
s. Home to the most expensive real estate
in America as well as some of the most desolate ghetto
s. A world where scenes and landscapes uncannily reminiscent of London
, or Detroit
, or New England
fishing villages, or Southern California
are often mere blocks from each other, where massive apartment blocks with thousands of residents abut an undeveloped national wilderness area, and where echoes of several past golden ages mingle with the ever fluid present.
If the boroughs of New York City were taken separately, it would be the third or perhaps second largest city in America.
Kings County was settled by Dutch farmers and passed into the English with the rest of the colony of New York. Brooklyn was initially a small settlement confined to what is now downtown Brooklyn, across the East River from lower Manhattan, which at that time was the extent of New York City. There were also five other towns in Kings County that would later become part of Brooklyn. Mostly sleepy crossroads populated by Dutch farmers, they were Flatbush, New Utrecht, Gravesend, and Flatlands in the interior to the south and east of Brooklyn, and Bushwick, to the north and also on the East River across from Manhattan. The Battle of Long Island in the American Revolution was fought up and down Kings County, including a major confrontation in the forest that is now Prospect Park. The abolition of slavery in New York State in 1827 led to the founding of the town of Weeksville, a rural settlement of freed blacks, and the genesis of an African American community in Brooklyn.
The growth of Brooklyn began in earnest after the opening of the Fulton Ferry in the 1820s, which provided regular service between Brooklyn and Manhattan. By the 1840s, downtown Brooklyn was becoming a commercial center and Brooklyn Heights, up the hill from the ferry terminal, was becoming a wealthy bedroom community of brownstone houses. After the Civil War, this development of brownstone communities spread beyond Brooklyn Heights, and with it the boundaries of the city of Brooklyn, as elevated commuter railways, at first horse drawn and later steam and electric powered, were built from the ferry terminal and out along previously sleepy roads. The neighborhoods of Cobble Hill, Clinton Hill, Caroll Gardens, Vinegar Hill, Fort Greene, and Prospect Heights were developed in this manner as upper middle class 'suburban' districts of elegant brownstones, shortly to be followed by Park Slope, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and parts of Windsor Terrace and Prospect Lefferts Gardens. This swath of Brooklyn is known as the Brownstone Belt and features the largest concentration of brownstone architecture in America, and to this day is a stretch of some of the most beautiful and unique neighborhoods to be found in the USA. The many ornate sipres of the Episcopal congregations of these early brownstone dewllers earned 19th century Brooklyn the nickname 'The City of Churches.'
There was also activity associated with the burgeoning port. The need to move cargo by railroad spurred the completion in the 1840s of the Atlantic Avenue Railroad Tunnel, the first urban railroad tunnel in the world.
Growth was further realized with the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, linking Brooklyn with Manhattan. Brooklyn city planners advocated a large scale urban development plan called the 'park and parkway system.' It featured a large park to be developed on the downward slope from Prospect Heights toward Flatbush and southern Brooklyn (Prospect Park), and parkway boulevards radiating from the corners of it (today's Eastern and Ocean Parkways) as well as museums and other cultural institutions to surround it, and it outlined a grid street plan for the districts of southern and eastern Kings County that were becoming part of Brooklyn.
Also in this era, industry was developed in several parts of Brooklyn. The Gawanus Canal was dug through Red Hook and it was lined with small scale factories and warehouses. Bushwick became home to breweries, and districts of warehouses and meatpacking plants sprung up in several places. The Brooklyn Navy Yard grew on the East River waterfront between Downtown Brooklyn and Williamsburg.
Brooklyn's piecemeal consolidation of the rest of Kings County was completed in 1894. It inherited the already developed beach resort at Coney Island, which was the Atlantic City of its day and was served by several rail links. As these tourist railroads were tied into the network of elevated commuter railways, Brooklyn was home to one of the largest public transportation networks in the world (See Brooklyn Manhattan Transit). It was already the second or third largest city in America by the time it joined with Manhattan into the new, greater New York City in 1898.
The major argument in favor of consolidation was that rapidly growing Brooklyn was running out of potable water and needed to tap into Manhattan's supply from upstate reservoirs. General sentiment was opposed to consolidation and was expressed by those who viewed Brooklyn as a "Respectable Protestant New England Town" with good government, in opposition to the immigrant ghettos and machine politics of Manhattan. In the end, the need for water won out, albeit barely. The margin of victory for consolidation in a referendum was less than 300 votes. Ironically, the margin was provided by residents of outlying parts of Kings County, who themselves had been annexed to Brooklyn only recently. They thought that their farm land would become more valuable, and they were right.
Parts of Brooklyn continued to develop as a middle and upper middle class suburb for several years after consolidation, although with the arrival of the private automobile the suburban model had moved beyond brownstone row houses to large, detached homes with lawns. The Prospect Park South, Kensington, and Ditmas Park neighborhoods were developed in this manner.
However the completion of ever easier transportation links to Manhattan, such as the Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan Bridge, and the arrival of IRT subway lines beginning in 1908, would change the nature of Brooklyn. Now with Brooklyn more accessible than ever, and with new, more distant places opened up for suburban development, new development in Brooklyn was oriented toward housing the working class and immigrants that were flooding New York City. Brooklyn thus acquired the nature it has had in the public imagination for almost a century, a land of Italians, Jews, and various other ethnics observing hardscrabble streets from their stoops. Flatbush and Williamsburg were notorious Jewish areas, and to this day many parts of southern Brooklyn, including Bensonhurst, Bath Beach, Dyker Beach, Flatlands, Bay Ridge, and others are the most concentrated Italian areas in America.
The consolidation of all transit in New York City under the city in 1940 led to the removal of most of the elevated railways, but also to improvements in transportation. After the war, a general pattern of neglect and decline would plague America's cities for 50 years, and Brooklyn, being the quintessentially urban place, would of course suffer its share. A 50s era plan to basically destroy Brooklyn Heights with a freeway was scaled back due to massive resistance, but various other destructive schemes of planners were carried out. Freeways and ugly unfunctional housing projects were built, and other infrastructure was allowed to decay. Undeveloped parts of eastern Brooklyn were developed as shabby warehouse and factory neighborgoods. There was suburban flight from Brooklyn but also an influx of Puerto Rican and Black populations, which altered the ethnographic landscape while keeping the population rather constant. Most of far eastern Brooklyn, including the neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Crown Heights, Bushwick, and East New York, became home to one of the largest black populations in America.
Three major demographic trends have once again altered the nature of Brooklyn in the last 20 years. The first is the surge in 'new immigration,' as Brooklyn has become home to communities from all over the globe. Particularly, West Indians, East Indians, Africans, and Mexicans have settled en masse in Brooklyn, as have Chinese, bringing about several Chinatowns. The second is the explosion in the Hasidic Jewish population, fueled by their large families and early marriages. Many Brooklyn neighborhoods have become vast Hasidic communities, causing some to resemble Eastern European shetyls of centuries past and others to become wealthy well trimmed enclaves. Prominent Hasidic neighborhoods are in Boro Park, Midwood, Sunset Park, Crown Heights, and Williamsburg.
The third major demographic trend is the influx of young people and urban culture and institutions from Manhattan. This actually began several decades ago as those in the know began snatching up priceless old brownstones for cheap in Park Slope and Caroll Gardens, and as this phenomenon spread to the rest of the Brownstone Belt prices skyrocketed. In the late 80s, down and out Williamsburg began to draw artists priced out of Manhattan and became a vibrant scene. In the course of the 90s, as everyone not on trust fund was priced out of Manhattan, many neighborhoods in Brooklyn drew new residents and changed to accommodate them. Some 'gentrified' while others remained affordable but changed. The process continues deeper into the borough. Even the artists have been priced out of Williamsburg and have relocated to DUMBO, forgotten warehouse land adjacent to the old Fulton Ferry landing, thus bringing Brooklyn history full circle. Today it competes with Manhattan as a center of urban culture in America.