04 oct book rev brooklyn 1

Brooklyn: The Once and Future City by Thomas J. Campanella, Princeton University, 552 pages, $35

Say the name Brooklyn these days, and many people think of Jay-Z or Barclays Center or, most often, skyrocketing real estate prices fueled by gentrification.

But for 500 years now, Brooklyn has charted a rich history unique in the American experience. In Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, Thomas J. Campanella — an urban planner, professor at Cornell University and Brooklyn native — has produced a meticulously researched and information-filled chronicle of a place that, in its own way, defines New York City. “Without Brooklyn,” Campanella argues, “New York would never have become a great metropolis.”

Certainly, few cities can boast of being the birthplace of so many noteworthy figures. From Walt Whitman and Norman Mailer in literature to Shirley Chisholm and Bernie Sanders in politics to Aaron Copland and George and Ira Gershwin in music to Spike Lee and Barbra Streisand in Hollywood — all were born in Brooklyn. Not every native loved growing up there. Henry Miller claimed he suffered “nothing but misery.” Truman Capote, a transplant to the borough, called it a “veritable veldt of tawdriness.”

Still, Brooklyn’s saga stretches back to the days when pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Henry Hudson, Campanella notes, “swung up the coast around Sandy Hook” as early as 1609. Keskachauge was settled in 1636; nine years later, Lady Deborah Moody, an Englishwoman who became America’s first female town planner, founded Gravesend. Then, in June 1776, near the start of the Revolutionary War, 130 British warships, “the largest projection of seaborne power ... ever attempted by a European state,” made landfall. The ensuing Battle of Brooklyn, with George Washington commanding U.S. troops, became the largest single conflict in the Revolutionary War. That Washington lost the battle has “long been a hushed chapter in America’s founding story.”

Over time, developments in Brooklyn mirrored the nation’s. “Slavery,” Campanella writes, “was an essential element of New York life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” Brooklyn was home to more slaves than any location in New York; between 1703 and 1790, its slave population quadrupled. But there were countervailing forces as well. The Lott House, among the oldest homes in New York state, located in Brooklyn, is believed to have been part of the Underground Railroad.

Campanella documents more recent developments. Prospect Park, created by Frederick Law Olmsted, responsible for Manhattan’s Central Park, “is a masterpiece of landscape design.” Olmsted also designed Brooklyn’s parkways, broad tree-lined roads reminiscent of European thoroughfares, which would come to define the borough’s cityscape. Ocean Parkway featured the nation’s first dedicated bicycle lane in 1894. Other landmarks included Sheepshead Bay Race Track, Sheepshead Bay Motor Speedway, and Coney Island, the entertainment destination on Brooklyn’s southern shore that, besides a public beach, featured in its heyday three amusement parks — Dreamland, Steeplechase Park, and Luna Park.

As home construction exploded over the last century or so, Brooklyn also became known for its builders. Lawrence “Lorry” Rukeyser (father of poet Muriel Rukeyser) thrived until he ran into financial trouble. Some of his unfinished homes were acquired in bankruptcy by Fred C. Trump, the president’s father, who made a fortune not by relying on name licensing deals, as his son would, but on his considerable skills as a builder (some called him “the Henry Ford of housing”). Then there was William M. Calder, who, as a U.S. senator, created daylight saving time and divided the nation into standard times zones, and, as a developer, built thousands of homes in Brooklyn and helped bring the boardwalk to Coney Island.

To be sure, Brooklyn has had missed opportunities. Jamaica Bay aspired to be a world-class harbor but could not be dredged enough to become a deepwater port and lost out to Newark. Floyd Bennett Field, an airport in southern Brooklyn, was set to be New York’s premier airport, but, because it was too difficult for the U.S. Post Office Department to transport mail there, never fulfilled its promise as a commercial aviation facility.

Campanella notes that Brooklyn reached its “apogee of power and population during World War II,” thanks in part to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, as the borough became “the largest war-staging base in the United States.” But the years from 1955 to 1970 were Brooklyn’s “most convulsive.” In 1955, the Brooklyn Eagle, the borough’s newspaper, ceased operation. Two years later, the Brooklyn Dodgers played their last game at Ebbets Field before moving to Los Angeles. And, in 1964, both the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Steeplechase closed.

“By the mid-1970s,” Campanella observes, “Brooklyn had been brought to its knees.” Crime ran rampant, and the failure of public housing projects such as the Fort Greene Houses helped turn Brooklyn into a modern ghetto. The depth of its descent has made the borough’s recent revitalization — which has produced its own talisman in the Brooklyn hipster championing a new urban bohemianism — all the more impressive. “Brooklyn has become both a product and a brand,” Campanella writes. “That brand has now spread around the world.”

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