From Breuckelen to Brooklyn: Writers Craft a Compelling—and Fun—Borough History

Did you know:

♦ Degraw Street east of Fifth Avenue was renamed Lincoln Place following the 1873 murder of Charles Goodrich. Goodrich, a 42-year-old widower, was shot by Lizzie Lloyd King, reportedly because Goodrich rejected her advances. “The unpleasant association caused by the occurrence of the Goodrich murder” at number 731 prompted the change.

♦ Ovington Avenue venerates a cohort of artists who, in 1850, purchased the Ovington family farm in Bay Ridge. Mary White Ovington, a descendant of the original family, was one of the founders of the NAACP.

♦ Asser Levy Park bears the name of the man who successfully challenged Governor Stuyvesant’s refusal to allow Jews to serve in the volunteer army in the mid-1600’s.

♦ Wilson Street was originally called Hamburg Avenue. The name was changed in 1918, following a wave of anti-German hysteria.

♦ Cadman Plaza pays homage to Rev. Samuel Parkes Cadman, an opponent of the ROTC who fought against loyalty oaths for teachers and the notion of a “fire-and-brimstone” hell.

When Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss set out to create Brooklyn by Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges and More Got Their Names, they simply wanted to learn more about where they lived. The married couple had read street histories devoted to Manhattan and the Bronx but were startled to find nothing comparable for Kings County.

They began by visiting the libraries.

The Brooklyn Collection was a tremendous boon since it housed dozens of Master’s theses on the subject. Neighborhood branches were another treasure trove. If the pair dug deep, they found they could almost always uncover a dusty folder filled with local lore. Books—some penned hundreds of years ago and some of more recent vintage—added facts from bygone eras. They also walked, trekking for miles with their young son, to get a first-hand peak at areas of interest.

The result is a fascinating and often wonderfully quirky look at the borough and a great way to discover the history that undergirds twenty-first century life. Although not every street or institution is covered, the book is filled with interesting nuggets about Brooklyn’s communities. Whether readers hail from Canarsie or Crown Heights, Greenpoint or Gravesend, they are sure to find something to think about.

Benardo and Weiss were astounded by some of their findings. “There were lots of surprising things,” Weiss admits. “For example, over 70 streets are named for slaveholders.” The book calls this the “greatest blight on Brooklyn’s early history” and reports that slaves were brought to the area by Dutch settlers. “By 1800 it is estimated that of the 5,000 persons living in Kings County, nearly one-third were slaves, a number proportionally greater than anywhere else north of the Mason-Dixon line.” Martense Court, Ingraham Street, Lott Place, Vanderbilt Avenue and Vanderveer Place commemorate this shameful legacy. For reasons unknown to Weiss and Benardo, Brooklyn leads the five boroughs in homage to these exploiters.

The borough’s street names also attest to a surge in Anglophilia that ripped through Brooklyn a century after the War of Independence. “It surprised me that we’d give ourselves a sense of elegance by naming places after their English counterparts,” says Weiss. There is Kensington, for example, named for London’s western borough, and Windsor Terrace, named for Windsor, England. Brighton Beach bows to Brighton, U.K., a still-bustling seaside resort. Street names like Argyle, Albemarle, Marlborough and Rugby are modeled after British equivalents. No one knows why Brooklyn chose to resurrect these monikers, Weiss adds, and not the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan or Staten Island.

Despite these trends, a plethora of Brooklyn streets, buildings and parks bear more predictable names, celebrating white male land owners, developers and government officials. Williamsburg, for one, boasts numerous streets named for signers of the Declaration of Independence: Clymer, Ellery, Franklin, Gerry, Hooper, Keap, Lee, Middleton, Penn, Ross, Rutledge, Taylor, Thornton, Walton, Whipple and Wythe.

Businessmen, including Frederick C. and William Havemeyer—major industrialists who laid the groundwork for what became Domino’s Sugar in the early 1900’s—are honored as is virulent anti-Semite Austin Corbin, the developer of Manhattan Beach. A member of the American Society for the Suppression of Jews, Corbin created several luxurious waterfront hotels before his horse tossed him from his carriage in 1896, ending his life.

Sadly, people of color and women rarely appear on street posts, making those who are recognized particularly noteworthy. “I really liked learning that Montague Street is named for Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an early feminist and poet who popularized inoculation to protect people from smallpox,” Weiss says. “The women stand out. Lady Deborah Moody was as powerful as some of the men. She was another early feminist, urban planner and religious freedom activist.”

In fact, Moody was the first U.S. woman to receive a land patent. According to Brooklyn by Name, “she is considered one of the earliest town planners, laying out and dividing Gravesend into four equally demarcated squares.” But that’s not all. “Because of her efforts,” the book continues, “Gravesend became a haven for religious nonconformists, most notably victimized Quakers harassed unrelentingly by Peter Stuyvesant’s governorship.”

Who knew?

Brooklyn by Name is filled with this type of minutiae. Whether you read it cover-to-cover or flip through for facts about a specific neighborhood, you’ll learn something about Kings County. Among other things, you’ll discover that street names provide a unique entry-point for historical retrieval, a way to access who and what we honor.

Witty, occasionally irreverent and always engaging, Brooklyn by Name takes readers from the six independent towns that once comprised Breuckelen to the modern metropolis. Weiss and Benardo have uncovered surprising data and have woven a compulsively readable narrative.

Pick it up, rifle through, and find out about—or be reminded of—the underpinnings of our borough’s heritage.

Brooklyn by Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges and More Got Their Names, by Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss, NYU Press, $17.95 paperback, $55.00 hardcover. The book is available from most independent book sellers as well as through amazon.com and at Barnes and Noble.

Benardo and Weiss will appear at the Brooklyn Book Festival on September 16th. For more information contact www.brooklynbyname.com.

Contributor

Eleanor J. Bader

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