October 4, 2019
A New History Celebrates Brooklyn’s Heights, and Depths ImageHistorians in the News
tags: history, New York, Brooklyn, Nonfiction
Thomas J. Campanella is director of the Urban and Regional Studies Program at Cornell University and Historian-in-Residence of the New York City Parks Department.
The Once and Future City
By Thomas J. Campanella
Years ago, when I lived in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, I invested in a book of neighborhood walking tours so I could enlighten family members who came to visit. I discovered that I liked walking backward down Franklin Street, pointing out landmarks built by whale-oil magnates in the 1800s. Of course, were I to walk the same streets today, the tour would include landmarks relevant to my own history, many of them now gone: “This New York Sports Club was once a crazy Polish nightclub I reviewed for New York magazine’s website! The waitresses dressed like Paris Hilton and carried neon-lit trays full of vodka drinks.” And so forth.
Brooklyn’s history, both macro and micro, is as specific and varied as its inhabitants. A single block can contain centuries’ worth of information, memories and relics left by heroes and villains alike. The prospect of writing a history of such a multilayered city must have been daunting even for as qualified a fourth-generation Brooklynite as Thomas J. Campanella, who lives in Marine Park and teaches history at Cornell. Where should a historian focus, given such a wealth of data and experience and lives lived in close proximity? Thankfully, Campanella takes a practical approach: Instead of attempting a chronology that traces themes or communities through the decades and centuries, he treats each chapter as a self-contained deep dive into a particular part of the borough, describing how that place came to be — and, in some cases, how it ended up demolished or abandoned.
For the purposes of this illuminating and sometimes maddening book, the history of Brooklyn is a series of experiments with unpredictable and uneven results.
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