Thomas Campanella’s Brooklyn: The Once and Future City is an odd sort of history. It does not focus on the familiar landmarks, events, and names—the Brooklyn Bridge, the 1898 incorporation into the greater New York City, the great abolitionist Henry Beecher. Campanella chooses to highlight a lesser-known parade of planners, pols, con men, impresarios, and adventurers who built—or in some cases, failed to build—America’s most famous borough. His book is a “cabinet-of-curiosities tour of the Brooklyn obscure.”
When he isn’t living near his day job as professor of urban studies and city planning at Cornell University, Campanella, a fourth-generation Brooklynite, spends his time in Marine Park, a neighborhood off a marshy inlet of Jamaica Bay. If you haven’t heard of the place, you’re not alone. Unlike Manhattan-facing Brooklyn in the north and west, whose hilly terrain is memorialized in familiar neighborhood names such as Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Park Slope, and Bay Ridge, Campanella’s southern Brooklyn is a flat “outwash plain,” packed with forgettable urban spaces now occupied by a diaspora of global immigrants.
But the saga of that plain turns out to offer a rich microcosm of American history and culture, from early European explorers—Henry Hudson’s Half Moon was thought to have made a pit stop along the coast—to frontier outpost, to Gilded Age playground, to post–World War II housing blocks. The 1600s introduced the first European settlers to the area, mostly Dutch farmers and British religious renegades who built homes and towns amid scattered Lenape Indian settlements. (The Indians had foraged the local tidal swamps for the shells of quahogs, whelks, and periwinkles to make the “wampum” they used for barter before they succumbed to disease and dispossession by the end of the century.)
The most consequential of the religious dissidents, an Anabaptist exile from Massachusetts Bay Colony named Deborah Moody, drew a grid for the town she called Gravesend near the entrance of New York harbor where, in 1776, the British would land their troops to fight George Washington’s soldiers in the ill-begotten Battle of Long Island. Moody’s design, one of the earliest town plans in the United States, can still be detected in the local street map.
Farms and market towns dominated the economy and life of Kings County for more than two centuries, far longer than Brooklyn has been a citified part of New York. In fact, for a time, the area was more Southern plantation than northeastern city. In the 17th century, New York had more African slaves than any place in the colonies outside of Charleston. Brought to the area from West Africa by the Dutch West India Company, slaves were sold to settlers to clear the dense forests and plow the fields. They went on to fill wagonloads of cabbages and grains destined to feed a growing population of Manhattanites; Brooklyn was considered the “bread basket” of the city. Campanella remembers gawking as a child at the Lott House, one of the local “plantation” houses. Constructed in 1720, it is one of the oldest buildings in the metropolitan area, complete with attic slave quarters and hidden African religious talismans discovered only in the 1990s. The Lott House was inhabited by the same family until 1989 and still stands today.
By the mid-19th century, New York’s eminences knew Brooklyn was destined to become part of an emerging modern metropolis. Trolley lines were pushing south and eastward from the offices, warehouses, and factories near the waterfront while developers were grabbing up parcels along the planned grid in today’s gentrified brownstone areas. Even then, development and sprawl were a fraught business; real-estate speculators had to contend with a strong strain of Jeffersonian pastoral romanticism and Jacksonian rural populism in American life. In a discursive chapter on Prospect Park and its mastermind, Fredric Law Olmsted, Campanella turns a short biography of an American genius into a lovely meditation on geography, nature, and urbanization. Believing that nature could soothe the urban masses, Brooklyn’s elites set aside a large swath of farmland for the grand park—with the promise that the project would outdo Central Park, the subject of celebration among rival Manhattanites. A century and a half on, Brooklynites continue to argue that Prospect outdoes Central.
As Campanella describes it, the aptly named Barren Island was Prospect Park’s cracked mirror image; no place could better embody the way urbanization could ravage nature. Originally a hunting and fishing destination for the Lenape and a windswept hiding place for smugglers and pirates, by the mid-1800s the island in Jamaica Bay had become a Blakean nightmare. The city relied on horse power; estimates had it that Manhattan had 130,000 horses and Brooklyn had tens of thousands more. They left a daily “avalanche of waste” that needed to be dealt with, along with the decaying equine corpses that fouled city streets. The offal and bones had to be disposed of somewhere, and the isolated island off south Brooklyn struck several industrialists as just the place—even though it was becoming home to a polyglot population of immigrants and African Americans. Horses, rats, stray dogs, even a crazed Barnum and Bailey elephant were transported to this hellish island. They were distilled into glue, fertilizer, and lamp oil. The legendarily foul smells from this enterprise wafted all the way into lower Manhattan.
Brooklyn: The Once and Future City shows how, as Gotham grew and prospered, the relatively unbuilt plains and swamps of south Brooklyn beckoned to many men with a vision—or a scheme. Olmsted imagined four parkways modeled on Parisian boulevards, spiraling out from Prospect Park in the center of Brooklyn toward the ocean and harbor and Long Island. Though “Parisian” is not the word a sensible person would use to describe them, Eastern and Ocean Parkways remain major Brooklyn thoroughfares. During the late 19th century, Brighton Beach became a magnet for developers alert to the tastes of the urban nouveau riche; wealthy Manhattanites flocked to the town’s seaside resorts and upscale racetracks. Decades later, a real-estate maven by the name of Fred Trump quickly grasped the aspirations of a new upwardly mobile working class. He became known as the “Henry Ford of Housing” for the miles of brick bungalow row houses he built in East Flatbush, Flatlands, and Brighton Beach.
Campanella also describes less successful dreams and dreamers. A giant orb to rival the seven wonders—a drawing of this bizarre fantasy provides the book’s cover—in Steeplechase Park on Coney Island turned out to be a steel scam by a world-class shyster. A number of men with big ideas wanted to turn Jamaica Bay into a major seaport, connected by rail to the city and beyond; that dream lost out to new transportation technologies and eventually to the Port of Newark.
Campanella creates a portrait of a 19th- and early 20th- century city boiling with entrepreneurial energy and imaginative daring and a population eager to be awed, entertained, and housed in bourgeois comfort. Campanella’s prose sometimes suffers from a grandiosity similar to that of some of his subjects’ plans—the phrase “gentrification kills the real McCoy to venerate its taxidermal remains” is one florid example—but his deep roots in and affection for the outwash landscape along with his detailed knowledge of its lost history give us reason to forgive his excesses.
Less satisfying are the author’s later chapters on Brooklyn’s post– World War II decline, racial tension, and white flight. They read as if the author realized he had to provide the reader some kind of bridge to the present, even though he had little to add to existing literature. His portrait of Robert Moses is tiresomely familiar, and his take on the problems caused by gentrification goes little further than the usual plaint about the “fluorescent authenticity” of the neighborhood bar giving way to the twee hipster joint. It’s a disappointing lapse from a writer with such a grand view of history’s reversals. But in the final analysis, Brooklyn: The Once and Future City is indeed a rich cabinet of curiosities.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.