Tuesday, March 21, 2017
For the 12th day of our month in New York, it's back to Brooklyn for a chance to walk through some of the most handsome, historic, and charming neighborhoods in the city. These days, the neighborhoods south of Atlantic Avenue from Brooklyn Heights have a patchwork of names: Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, and Gowanus. They have been divvied up by highway construction and by real estate interests. But for many generations, this was just called South Brooklyn. This area began development as a rural retreat but very quickly grew up with the growth of New York and its harbor in the 1830s. The area south of Atlantic Avenue officially became part of the City of Brooklyn in 1834 and was connected to Manhattan by the South Ferry in 1836. Stately homes were built that housed upper-middle class professionals and these remain the typical structures of South Brooklyn today. As the 20th century progressed, the wealthy residents moved out and were replaced by immigrants including the requisite Italians and Irish, but even some unique communities such as Syrian/Lebanese immigrants, who still have an influence along Atlantic Avenue, and Mohawk Indians drawn down from Canada to work on the high steel construction projects in Manhattan.
It wasn't just houses being built here though. South Brooklyn proved ideal as a shipping center. South Brooklyn essentially was a peninsula. Buttermilk Channel, the waterway between Brooklyn and Governors Island and part of New York Harbor, is to the west. When the land abruptly ends at Red Hook the shoreline swings east and forms Gowanus Bay to the south. The east end of the neighborhood was pierced by a marshy lowland filled with brackish channels and sea grass called the Gowanus marshes. Over the middle of the 19th century, all of these waterways would be converted to shipping and industry. The Atlantic and Erie Basins were built as protected dockyards for ships in the 1840s and 1860s. By 1860, the Gowanus channel had been deepened and the marshes around it filled in to create an almost two mile long industrial canal. All this shipping attracted workers to staff the ships, warehouses, and factories. The area hummed as one of the busiest waterfronts in the world well into the 20th century when modern container ships would almost, but not completely, end the shipping to Brooklyn.
Through it all, the stately homes from the mid-19th century remained in tact. As early as the 1950s well-heeled New Yorkers were eyeing the charming historic properties for renovation and preservation acts in the '60s and '70s assured that the simple and stately old homes would never disappear. Today, the streets are just as likely to be trod by wealthy professionals and their families as Sicilian dockworkers. But look closer and you may see the few cranes along Columbia Street are still unloading ships, and giant cruise lines call at Red Hook on their way to ports all over the world. And along the waterways of South Brooklyn the old warehouses now house breweries, art galleries, distilleries, and performance spaces. The old and new coexist on every street in South Brooklyn