Whose Brooklyn?

In 1939, the editors of Fortune planned a special issue of the magazine on New York City. They tasked James Agee—who had recently filed another Fortune assignment, which would culminate in the ...

In 1939, the editors of Fortune planned a special issue of the magazine on New York City. They tasked James Agee—who had recently filed another Fortune assignment, which would culminate in the masterpiece Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)—with contributing a piece about Brooklyn. The job sent Agee only a short distance from Manhattan. But, in Brooklyn, the writer seemed to feel he had discovered another country.

Watching Brooklynites “in the trolleys, or along the inexhaustible reduplications of the streets,” Agee wrote, with unfamiliar wonder, about his surroundings, “one comes to notice …  a curious quality in the eyes and at the corners of the mouths … a kind of drugged softness or narcotic relaxation.” Agee diagnosed the condition as arising from Brooklyn’s proximity to Manhattan. With its “mad magnetic energy,” Manhattan consumes “most of what a city’s vital organs are,” leaving Brooklyn “a place where people merely ‘live.’” The borough was “an enormous farm, whose crop is far less ‘industrial’ or ‘financial’ or ‘notable’ or in any way ‘distinguished’ or ‘definable’ than it is of human flesh and being,” rendering “Brooklyn so featureless, so little known, to many so laughable.”

Eighty years later, is Brooklyn any better understood? Despite several recent excellent books, much of the borough’s past remains remarkably obscure. Thomas Campanella’s Brooklyn: The Once and Future City is a rewarding excavation of this history, though the book’s largely top-down focus reveals less about the daily lives of common residents than it does about the initiatives to shape Brooklyn by men of relatively high stature: political figures, boosters, landowners, showmen, and planners. More regrettable is that Campanella’s telling of Brooklyn’s story ultimately privileges an even narrower perspective: that of the white residents who left, and of those who “returned.”

Agee’s treatise on Brooklyn and its residents—deemed “too strong to print” by his editor—never appeared in Fortune. But it fit within a tradition of portraying Brooklyn as a long shadow of the slender island that lies just to its west and north: an afterthought to Manhattan in the American imagination and in the minds of many New Yorkers.

Brooklyn reveals historical treasures that have been overlooked by such Manhattan-centrism. Thankfully, Campanella largely eschews the borough’s best-known features, like the Brooklyn Bridge, instead focusing on the “unknown, overlooked, and unheralded.” Across 18 largely chronological chapters, Campanella draws out compelling examples of Brooklyn’s lesser-known pasts, from Green-Wood Cemetery serving as New York’s first major park to the battles over urban renewal and highway projects.

As Campanella acknowledges, the book does not cohere around a single argument. But certain features emerge across its five hundred pages. Though early chapters touch on topics like European colonization of Native land and the centrality of chattel slavery to Kings County, Brooklyn principally traverses the hundred-year period between the 1860s and the 1960s. It also primarily looks to the borough’s southern portions, rather than the better-documented northern and western regions, which lie closer to Manhattan. Like many works in urban studies, Brooklyn takes development as its most prominent theme.

Today, not an inch of unprotected land in Brooklyn has escaped private or public development, and skyrocketing land costs hamper projects that target anyone but the wealthy. But well into the 20th century, Brooklyn did offer land: relatively cheaper land, in fact, that had long been farmed, if it had been developed at all. The Brooklyn of yesteryear was fertile ground for schemes requiring large, vacant tracts.

Leonard “King of Wall Street” Jerome, for instance, led a team of investors, in 1880, in transforming 112 formerly forested acres into the Sheepshead Bay Racetrack. This project soon expanded to five hundred acres, becoming one of the nation’s most prominent horse racing destinations, before antigambling legislation devastated the industry, just three decades later. Similarly, in the 1920s, William Greve looked to a tract of filled land at Gerritsen Beach, in the depths of south Brooklyn, to build what were perhaps the country’s first mass-produced single-family homes, which were offered at just $5,750 (about $80,500 today).

Campanella’s telling of Brooklyn’s story ultimately privileges a narrow perspective: that of the white residents who left, and of those who “returned.”

Like the Sheepshead Bay Racetrack, many of the projects Brooklyn chronicles no longer exist, or hold a greatly diminished status. But Campanella skillfully situates their importance to Brooklyn—and greater New York—history.

In May 1931, for instance, hundreds of thousands of city residents watched an aerial procession of nearly six hundred warplanes mark the opening of Floyd Bennett Field, finally alleviating municipal officials’ embarrassment that the city lacked a proper airfield. In short order, however, it had several; the New York Municipal (later LaGuardia) Airport, in Queens, soon eclipsed Bennett as the city’s most important.

The Bennett Airfield, however, at least came to fruition. Compare that to the never-built Cross-Brooklyn Expressway, one of several unrealized projects Campanella describes. Pushed by city officials in the 1960s, the expressway aimed to divert commercial traffic from both the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and Manhattan. That made the expressway unusual, in that “unlike nearly every other expressway in postwar New York,” as Campanella argues, it “actually made sense.” The corridor soon became linked to a massive public works project called Linear City, which promised a mix of public housing, playgrounds, schools, libraries, parks, and shopping centers above the highway, stretching all the way from Midwood to East New York. Despite support from Mayor John Lindsay, the project ultimately failed, due to a potent mix of intergovernmental and community opposition.

Aided by Campanella’s colorful and passionate writing, and an extraordinary array of historical images, these slices of Brooklyn’s past are often captivating. And focusing on a composite of histories, rather than building a central argument, will likely reward general readers.

But it also may frustrate scholars looking for more explicit engagement with current debates in urban studies and metropolitan history. Despite the text’s many insights, both audiences may have preferred that the book be trimmed of some of its breadth and detail, to curb the occasional chapter’s wandering tendencies.

Yet, some key topics would have benefited from more thorough engagement. This is most notable in the book’s final chapter, which traces the period between 1955 and 1970, which “left the borough a quaking shell of its former self.”

Campanella notes that whites began to leave Brooklyn as significant numbers of African Americans arrived, due in large part to both racist fears and real worries about rising crime. But his discussion could have more thoroughly addressed these fears and worries as intertwined and illuminated how such concerns were exacerbated by racist sensationalizing in the media, as well as in local and national politics.

Additionally, while Campanella briefly alludes to the ways racist housing and employment practices constrained opportunities for newly arriving African Americans, more thoroughly examining the conditions black residents encountered—and then transformed—would have elucidated their place in Brooklyn’s history. And it would have elevated their portrayal in Brooklyn, which casts them, primarily, as simple catalysts for whites’ departure.

The ramifications of Campanella’s problems grow when one considers his final chapter, “Book of Exodus.” Yes, the book makes clear that the term “exodus” applies not only to hundreds of thousands of white residents, but also to the demise or departure of key institutions like the Dodgers, the long-running newspaper the Brooklyn Eagle, and well-paying industrial jobs.

Nonetheless, “exodus” is too limited a way of conceptualizing the transformations of this critical time. It frames this period too narrowly, centering on the experiences of white people. This misguided perspective can even be seen in the book’s introduction, which ends with whites fleeing, leaving it up to “their children and grandchildren to find a path back and rediscover the extraordinary place they had left behind.” This makes it sound as if Brooklyn vanished until this rediscovery, rather than remaining home to over 2 million people, an increasing percentage of whom were people of color.


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Indeed, however much this period was marked by white exodus, it was equally shaped by arrival. This is especially true for the nearly 450,000 African Americans who came to the borough in the 1950s and 1960s. These decades also set in motion a new influx of immigrant populations, particularly with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which would rapidly transform the borough, doubling its foreign-born population from a 20th-century low point in the middle decades to nearly 40 percent by the end of the century.

These new Brooklynites, along with many residents who never left, would build new institutions and reimagine older ones. It was they who infused the borough with signs of life and hope during the bleak late 1960s and 1970s. And they who set the stage for its shifting fortunes in subsequent decades.

Despite these important lapses, as a whole, Brooklyn offers vivid and insightful portraits of Brooklyn’s past. Campanella concludes with a thoughtful musing on the search for authenticity in present-day Brooklyn. But his work suggests a Brooklyn whose essence can be defined less by any singular measure of supposed authenticity than by a history of constant change and remaking.


This article was commissioned by Max Holleranicon

Featured image: Brooklyn, NY (2016). Photograph by Jason McCann / Unsplash