Little Caughnawagaby Isabel Lockhart
There is a dive bar on the corner of Atlantic and 3rd that, in spite of its garish and multi-stickered frontage, is somehow easy to miss. It is an unlikely presence at this busy intersection in the Boerum Hill (once North Gowanus) neighborhood of Brooklyn, unsure of which side of the gentrification line it stands. While touting craft beer to the street, inside it is a resolutely PBR affair. It used to be called Doray Tavern and was a hangout for members of Brooklyn Local 361 Ironworkers’ Union, mostly comprised of Kahnawake Mohawks. Now it is Hank’s Saloon, with a drum kit at the far end, and an all-white clientele pressed against the tiny bar. It smells of fries and disinfectant, and the lighting is dim, red-tinged, and impossible. I ask the bartender whether I can take some photos, and also whether they have heard about the Mohawks who used to live around here. Sure, and yes – vaguely. Squinting at the wall behind the bar my eyes adjust enough to spot some union stickers and, delightfully, that famous photo Lunch Atop a Skyscraper. Although most likely staged by the Rockefeller Center as a promotional coup in 1932, the eleven ironworkers on the beam are not actors, but real ironworkers: immigrants from Ireland, Eastern Europe, and the Kahnawake Mohawk First Nation reserve in southern Quebec.
Mohawks have been involved in the iron and steel industry since the end of the nineteenth century, when the Canadian Pacific Railroad sought to offset encroachments into reserve land by employing men from Kahnawake territory in the construction of a cantilever bridge across the St. Lawrence River. The Mohawks gained a reputation for their riveting skills and worked on local projects until a bridge collapse in 1907 that killed 33 Kahnawake Mohawks (and 75 ironworkers in total). After this disaster, Kahnawake ironworkers tried to avoid all working on the same project again, and Mohawks from Kahnawake and Akwesasne started to migrate to big cities in waves roughly consistent with the construction booms of the twentieth century. In New York, structures such as the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the United Nations, and the old and new World Trade Center are founded in large part on Mohawk labor. By 1960, approximately 800 Mohawks (ironworkers and their families) lived in “Little Caughnawaga”, while others continued the weekly commute from and to reserves and reservations in southern Canada and upstate New York.
I have a few scribbled addresses in my pocket, hoping that if I just turn up and chat to people I might chance upon a childhood memory or anecdote. The Ironworkers’ Union was apparently housed on the second floor of the Times Plaza Post Office at 542 Atlantic. The floor is now home to Daralelmwalhekam Arabic bookstore, and the manager has no knowledge of the union. It is hard to query his conviction that only a beauty school predated the bookshop when NEW BEAUTY SCHOOL (est.1929) is still advertised through one of the windows to passers-by on Atlantic. In any case, the presence of the union HQ serves as the most persuasive explanation for the Mohawk migration to Boerum Hill, and the union stickers behind the bar at Hank’s seem corroboration enough. Other sights on my tour of Boerum include the apartments at 375 State St, where there was once a Mohawk name “on every buzzer”, according to New York Times reporter Randy Kennedy
The Nevins Bar & Grill—later the Wigwam Tavern—at 75 Nevins is now Cassandra Beauty & Spa. Taking photos of the exterior without permission, I receive a stern look from a woman getting her hair braided on the other side of the window. I go in to explain and apologize. What are you taking photos for? Are you a journalist? Let them know that this is the best African hair braiding place in Brooklyn.I get the feeling she runs the shop, and I stumble out some apologies and some hesitant research questions. Yes, the Wigwam. Rings a bell. We’ve been here for 20 years, though. I glance around the available hairstyles exhibited in frames on the walls, and recall reading somewhere that The Wigwam had a photo of Jim Thorpe—the famous Sauk athlete and survivor of Carlisle Indian Boarding School—hanging above the pool table. It also, according to Ian Frazier in On the Rez (2000), used to have a sign over the entrance proclaiming that “THE GREATEST IRONWORKERS IN THE WORLD PASS THROUGH THESE DOORS.”
Fact is, the union stickers behind the bar at Hank’s Saloon are the most material trace that I could find of Little Caughnawaga. I wonder whether the stickers, and Hank’s in general, and Daralelmwalhekam, and Cassandra’s, will survive the “urban renewal” that has long-since started to change Boerum Hill, as the easy mobility of some populations demands, and depends upon, the unelected movement of others—a phenomenon that the continent’s Indigenous peoples certainly know something about. Gentrification is not settler colonialism, but there are some uncanny echoes: the shrugging defenses of inevitability; white pioneership into “dangerous” territories; disregard for others’ attachment to place; the bulldozing work of capital and “improvement” etc. But to overstate the analogy between gentrification and settler colonialism would be to lose sight of the specifics of each structure of dispossession, and to lose sight of the actual settlement of Lenape land that was the precondition for New York.
As Tommy Orange’s outstanding Oakland novel There There (2018) attests, the more pressing Indigenous perspective on gentrification is simply that city land is sovereign Indigenous land, and that Indigenous peoples have long and ongoing histories of urban habitation that urgently deserve attention and protection from gentrifying “market forces.”
If recursive surprise is a product of racially-determined inattention, then it can perhaps be mitigated by a way of looking, attending to, or navigating urban space. And while it is important to credit Mohawk and immigrant labor while looking at the Manhattan skyline, some de-exceptionalizing of the Mohawk ironworker also needs to happen. Mapping Little Caughnawaga onto 2018 Boerum Hill is a good place to start, as it points to the lives of families, the work of women, and the leisure time and social worlds that reproduced the labor of the ironworkers. In the Prologue to There There, Orange writes, “Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere”.
- Caughnawaga is an Anglicized rendering of Kahnawake, or Kahnawà:ke. It should also be noted that the Canada/U.S. border is a daily obstruction for the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation that straddles it, and for all Mohawks living in territories on both sides of the border. Accounting for divergent settler terms results in awkward syntactic situations – such as “reserves and reservations in southern Canada and upstate New York”. For more on this, and contemporary Mohawk politics, refer to Kahnawake scholar Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).
- Randy Kennedy, “An Indian Community Flourished and Faded in a Section of Brooklyn”, New York Times, 1996.
- Robert L. Conly and B. Anthony Stewart, “The Mohawks Scrape the Sky”, National Geographic Magazine, July 1952.
- Refer to Mohawk filmmaker (and Brooklyn resident) Reaghan Tarbell’s documentary Little Caughnawaga: To Brooklyn and Back (Mushkeg Media Inc., 2008) for a focus on the lives of Mohawk women and families in Boerum Hill.
- Ian Frazier, On the Rez (New York: Picador, 2000), 133.
- Most Mohawks had left Boerum Hill by the mid-1970s, due in part to the stagnant economy. But for those who still had jobs, the completion of the Adirondack Northway enabled a much shorter commute (meaning that more ironworkers than before could base themselves at Kahnawake or Akwesasne and work in the city during the week).
- Tommy Orange, There There (New York: Knopf, 2018). Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, and he grew up in Oakland, California. There There is his debut novel.
- Philip J. Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004).
- And to compensate for this exception, the Mohawk ironworker has been mythologized in ways that still harken to the “natural” or the “supernatural” – as hyper-masculine and dazzlingly fearless of heights.
- Orange, 11.
For further reading, I recommend: “The Mohawks Who Built Manhattan” (whitewolfpack.com); “Brooklyn Mohawks” (bklynlibrary.org); and Joseph Mitchell, “The Mohawks in High Steel”, The New Yorker, 1949. I also thank these sources for shaping my tour of Boerum Hill, and for providing much of the information included here. I do not claim to be a scholar of Mohawk history, but hope to have approximated something of the facts from limited materials.
ISABEL LOCKHART is a PhD candidate in English at Princeton, working on contemporary fiction and resource extraction across settler colonies. She is from the UK, and currently lives in Philadelphia.