“It will soon be on the line of the great thoroughfare to Boston, the quick ten-hour route per Long Island Railroad now nearly complete, and only 22 minutes time per railroad from the City, Brooklyn side. How can Newark and Lynn be so much better than East New York? They are not so well situated.”
–John R. Pitkin, 1843
So argued John Pitkin in his quest to craft a rival to New York City in the eastern part of Kings County.
Pitkin came to Long Island from Atlanta, where he was a mercantile trader. Perhaps unwilling to head to the wild west to speculate, he turned his attention to the farmland along the Brooklyn-Queens border. He set out on two ambitious projects in 1835: East New York and Woodville. Woodville – you know it better today as Woodhaven, Queens – was named after the Wood family, while East New York was named for its geographical relationship with New York City.
But what Pitkin lacked in imagination he made up for in sweat: he published maps, a prospectus, and the area’s first newspaper, The Mechanic, in an attempt to drum up takers for his land. He even set up a shoemaking plant, called the East New York Boot and Shoe Manufactory Company of New York. (In a later life, Pitkin would go on to name the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.)
Originally, East New York was a two-by-one-mile strip of land stretching from the present-day L tracks to the Queens border. Pitkin assembled his empire from former farmland in the town of New Lots, which he then broke into parcels. He hoped to build a canal from Jamaica Bay to make East New York a port city. (What do they say about those who don’t learn history?)
Pitkin’s plan quickly went south, at least temporarily. The Panic of 1837 brought the area to its knees, inducing a 30+% unemployment rate and forcing Pitkin to sell much of the land he had only recently acquired. Several Germans were the lucky winners in the ensuing fire-sale, and the area soon became a hub to their countrymen.
The Germans at first attempted to transplant their native society, establishing German churches, newspapers, factories, and even choirs, such as the Harmonica (later Concordia) Singing Society, which around the turn of the 20th century hosted Carnegie Hall’s first German music festival. They also brought over breweries and biergartens, bless their souls. Once they figured out they were here to stay, though, they began to integrate into the American way of life.
Development of the area came with increased transit-connections to bigger centers. The Brooklyn Elevated Rail Road Company built the Lexington Avenue el in 1885, bringing another straight shot from East New York to Fulton Ferry and downtown Manhattan. The IRT came to New Lots in 1922.
Eastern Park was home of the Brooklyn Bridegrooms for a few seasons in the 1890s between stints at two different Washington Parks in Park Slope. Located at today’s Sutter Av L station, the field was far from the main population of Brooklyn but well-served by transportation, giving rise to the Bridegrooms’ new nickname: the Trolley Dodgers. It also hosted in 1890 the first contest staffed by four umpires; a scheduling error sent two crews to the same game, and they made the best of it.
By 1900, East New York, like Brownsville, was a popular destination for Jews escaping eastern Europe. The two neighborhoods were the nexus of the Murder, Inc. universe in the 1930s, with a bathhouse on Cleveland Street serving as one headquarters.
Another familiar shift took place a few decades later: the area’s complexion changed from 85% white in 1960 to 80% black and Puerto Rican just six years later. Many of these newcomers were former agricultural workers displaced by technology, and lacked skills useful in an urban environment. The turnover was abetted by predatory real-estate agents, who used “blockbusting” scare-tactics (such as walking black families down streets) to convince whites to move elsewhere.
The tension, the low quality and lack of jobs, public services, and housing, and a general inability to sell property led to riots and abandonment. Soon, much of East New York was in ruins. “To be a tourist in this region is a depressing and helpless experience,” wrote Richard Rogin in a 1971 Sunday Times article. “To be an impoverished resident in that blasted urban heath – almost like an anonymous survivor in a Beckett play – must surely drive one deeper into the perpetual crafty rage, the anomie and stupor of the city, the common madness of the urban poor.”
Improvement efforts gave various returns, although none great. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Model Cities program was so corrupt it did more harm to the neighborhood than good. A community-based approach was implemented, but it soon became apparent that the community leaders were mainly interested in skimming some money from the government contracts. The most successful was the “Vest Pocket” program, which rehabilitated over 2,000 apartments in the 1970s. Unfortunately, poor neighborhoods bore the brunt of that decade’s fiscal crisis.
By the 1980s, East New York had reached a bottom. The Cypress Hills Houses, one of several housing-projects in the neighborhood, were infamous for crime. (In fact, when Mayor David Dinkins gave a speech there in 1991, gunfire broke out 100 yards away.) There were bright spots, though. The Reverend Johnny Ray Youngblood of St. Paul Community Baptist Church was one; he created a school, recruited scores of young men off the streets and into the church, and helped develop housing, among other things. The East Brooklyn Industrial Park came into being. The Nehemiah program brought more affordable housing to the area. (A new Nehemiah program is now building the Gateway Estates in Spring Creek.)
The crime rate in East New York has improved in recent decades. I’ve read of several community gardens in the area, such as this one; I’m interested to check them out. With the work the community has done to fill the abandoned properties, it appears that Pitkin’s dream of inhabited buildings as far as the eye can see has finally come to fruition, although on a much larger scale than he originally planned.
Fun fact #1: The junction of Atlantic and Alabama Avenues, as boring as it is today, is notable for three historical reasons. Perhaps most notably, its location was the entrance to the pass the British used to outflank the American troops in the Battle of Brooklyn. The rebels weren’t too familiar with the terrain, and had set up on the Road to Jamaica. Word got around that William Howard, the innkeeper, knew a secret way, so General Howe and Marquis Cornwallis paid him a personal visit. The prospect of a bullet in his brain sufficed to make him cave.
In the Civil War, the field at that corner served as a Union encampment for 1,200 men. And in January 1895, it served as the scene for a climax in a railroad-worker strike. When the police proved inadequate, Governor Levi P. Morton (another former vice president) summoned the militia to deal with the strikers, who were vandalizing tracks and cables, and throwing bricks at scabs sent in to work. After taking sufficient abuse from the mob, the members of the militia used their bayonets.
Fun fact #2: the Linden Houses were originally built for returning World War II veterans and their families.
Fun fact #3: since East New York was carved out of New Lots, the original name has slowly fallen out of favor, with the greatest decline in the past fifty years. For my purposes, New Lots today has only 46 blocks.
The Eastern district of Brooklyn by Eugene L. Armbruster (G. Quattlander, 1912)
Good old East New York; commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the East New York savings bank, Brooklyn, N.Y. (E.C. Lampe, Inc., 1943).
The neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Kenneth T. Jackson, Ed. (Yale University Press, 2004).
A history of New Lots, Brooklyn to 1887: including the villages of East New York, Cypress Hills, and Brownsville by Alter F. Landesman (Kennikat Press, 1977).
Brooklyn’s East New York and Cypress Hills communities by Brian Merlis and Riccardo Gomes (Gomerl Publishing, 2004).
How East New York became a ghetto by Walter Thabit (New York University Press, 2003).
“Taming Cypress Hills”, New York Daily News, January 8, 1998.