Comparing Brooklyn neighborhoods over time with Google’s Ngram Viewer

Last week I wrote about the names of some gentrified Brooklyn neighborhoods that are rooted in history. Lo and behold, over the weekend I realized that I’ve been ignoring the capabilities of Google Ngram Viewer to quantify and graph how frequently they’ve been used across centuries.

Google Ngram Viewer shows you how often (as a percentage of all words) your chosen terms show up in digitized printed literature. It’s really neat, but it does have some limitations. Chief among them is an inability to restrict by geography: if I do a search for “Park Place”, for example, I can’t narrow it down just to mentions in Brooklyn.

I played with a few searches and here’s what I found. Click on the graphs to enter the actual Ngram viewer. I’m happy to take suggestions for other research!

The original Six Towns

You might expect Brooklyn has always been the talk of Kings County. I thought that would be the case, too. It’s not. For the most part until 1850, that honor belonged to Gravesend.

I can think of two reasons for that. First, Brooklyn didn’t become important until 1814, when Robert Fulton used his steam-powered Nassau to connect Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan.

Second, Gravesend was the only of the Six Towns to be controlled by the English from the get-go. Dutch was still lingua franca in Flatlands until the mid-19th century, to cite one example. Using alternate spellings (Breukelen, Breuckelen) yields little. I doubt Ngram Viewer has dug into lesser-used languages as deeply.

Google Ngram viewer - Six Towns of Kings County

If we strip out Brooklyn, we see Gravesend was briefly overtaken by Flatbush in the 1990s, but has reclaimed its second-place position.

Google Ngram viewer - Bushwick Flatbush Flatlands Gravesend New Utrecht

Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill

Cobble Hill is used in many places beyond Brooklyn, including a hill near Lexington in the Revolutionary War. That next year comes the first mention of the spot in Kings County: according to George Washington’s journal,

Two guns fired from Cobble-hill, on Long Island, are to be the Signal that the enemy have landed on that Island.

That didn’t go so well for them.

Google Ngram viewer - Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill 1750-2008

Boerum Hill and Carroll Gardens come into being after World War II, it appears. The first mention of the latter is in a Congressional directory from 1947. Since then, Cobble Hill has retained the lead, but the other two have caught up. (Unclear how many “Cobble Hill” hits come from elsewhere.)

Google Ngram viewer - Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill 1940-2008

Park Slope and Prospect Heights

I found a few early references to Park Slope as “the Prospect Park Slope” – sometimes with the “S” capitalized, sometimes not.

Google Ngram viewer - Prospect Heights, Park Slope

A quick search of Prospect Heights reveals it exists in Illinois and, unsurprisingly, Alaska (think gold). There are certainly more.

Yellow Hook and Bay Ridge

Bay Ridge was known as Yellow Hook (in contrast to Red Hook) until – and this is one of my favorite bits of Brooklyn trivia – there was an epidemic of yellow fever in the 1840s. The name fell into disuse.

Google Ngram viewer - Bay Ridge, Yellow Hook

Red Hook and South Brooklyn

Red Hook was at the southern edge of the City of Brooklyn, and it has retained this nickname even though Brooklyn goes so much farther south these days. The reason South Brooklyn makes a jump in the early 1900s is because a town near Cleveland was formed with that name in 1889. (It became part of the larger city in 1905.)

Thanks to Harry Siegel for suggesting South Brooklyn!

Google Ngram viewer - Red Hook, South Brooklyn 1800-2008

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