Overview of Brooklyn, New York

There is no place in America like New York City. If you want to remain in the US but long to live at the center of everything that is happening, you must experience New York. The energy, the architecture, the people are more like Europe than like any other city in America. Especially in these modern times, where renovation and restoration are everywhere, New York is beginning to look more like itself every day.

Of all the five boroughs of this massive, majestic city, all of which are restoring historical buildings and improving quality of life, Brooklyn is doing it the best. A walk down the broad boulevards or narrow neighborhoods of Brooklyn easily evokes an imaginary trek about an exotic European city. Neighborhoods are tight; folks know each other's names. Citizens have filled once-crime ridden or deserted streets with beauty, business, and good sense - a combination that brings this once-maligned borough into the 21st Century and well ahead of its fellow NY territories.

Brooklyn has long been known as a working-class borough, with many factories providing blue-collar employment to the citizens there. The 'accent' - the 'dese, dems, and dozes' of the typical borough resident - became a cliche and was often parodied in movies and novels of the mid-20th Century. But something has been quietly happening in the neighborhoods, a process of gentrification that doesn't seem to have the quite the quality of earlier such activities in Manhattan, for example. In Brooklyn these days, gentrification is not just for greedy developers and idle rich. Here the process is all about community, and developing a place where all can live and co-exist with comfort, grace, and dignity.

Brooklyn has two qualities that especially lend themselves to re-invention: some excellent surviving examples of 19th Century Romanesque Revival architecture and the presence of acres of now-idle manufacturing plants that are being converted into classy boutiques and living spaces, or else replaced with high-rise apartment buildings. The factory areas that have been vast wastelands, unpopulated by any bustling citizenry (but a haven for criminals), are becoming home neighborhoods for families, shopping, Life. This process could not have come at a better time for Brooklyn, nor for you if you are looking for a place to live that is a) urbane and sophisticated and b) filled with friendly people and c) set apart from the rat race that is Manhattan.

Many examples of the Romanesque Revival style in architecture, from its heyday from 1880-1890, grace the streets of Brooklyn, contributing more than anything else to the lofty European feel of the neighborhoods. Public buildings, mansions, factories, and apartment houses from this period have been lovingly maintained and/or restored as a point of pride with Brooklynites. You could quite easily imagine yourself in Paris or Amsterdam, with the same graceful, optimistic feeling brought out by these buildings as you will encounter in any European capital.

Another quality of Brooklyn that aids in revitalization is the people. Perhaps it is a legacy of Dutch pride of place, but Brooklynites have begun to work together in new ways to reinvent the borough. The legendary coldness and rudeness of their neighbors in Manhattan does not apply to Brooklynites, who are very likely to help anyone, stranger or friend, to find their way. The change from the industrial lifestyle has come over many decades; as factories have become homes, as empty blocks have become filled with activity, the natural Brooklyn friendliness has had a chance to blossom over once empty territory.

Brooklyn is as cosmopolitan as any other city - in Europe, that is. You do not have to live in Manhattan to experience the global melting pot, because it is here in Brooklyn in spades. Different neighborhoods host concentrations of every nationality, along with the colorful cultural expressions of each. Go a few blocks in any direction in Brooklyn, and you will pass into another neighborhood, formerly a separate town.

The map notes approximately 100 distinct neighborhoods in Brooklyn, which used to be a separate city, with an entire county (Kings County) to itself. Brooklyn (spelled variously by the Dutch as Breucklyn, Breuckelen, Breuckland, Brucklyn, Broucklyn, Brookland and Brookline) was the first city organized in the state of New York, by charter from the Dutch West India Trading Company. Brooklyn the city was made up of various towns, each of which was further divided into neighborhoods, each with unique characteristics, including street grids that ran in differing directions, a condition that exists today. Such a state, while frustrating to a traveler, demonstrates in a graphic, powerful way the spirit and individuality of communities, each preserving its own personality.

Gradually, over the decades since its founding in 1646, Brooklyn incorporated those towns into itself, gobbling up neighborhoods but leaving their individuality untouched. Ultimately, the entirety of Brooklyn and Kings County became consolidated into New York City, which did not happen until 1897.

In fact, the neighborhoods have often preserved their unique qualities better than Manhattan, with some, like Greenpoint, retaining a strong ethnic population, and generations of the same families still living there. In Greenpoint, the largest Polish enclave in New York, you still see active businesses and stores with signage in Polish along Manhattan Avenue.

A metaphor for civic revitalization in Brooklyn overall, Greenpoint lagged in development, partly due to the fact that it's not that easy to get into Manhattan from there. Only one train, the G train, serves the neighborhood, and it does not directly enter Manhattan, so Greenpoint was a little isolated and therefore slow to develop. However, the upside of that is that the population remained stable, with families staying generation after generation, a quality that has led to the development of a stronger community. Organizations such as Neighbors Allied for Good Growth and the Williamsburg Greenpoint Preservation Alliance recognize that while change is taking longer than they had hoped, by taking time to consciously determine the future of the neighborhood, they will have a good chance to really do it right.

Brooklyn is a fantastic place and it would be a great idea for any new arrival to New York City to spend some time wandering around the borough to soak up a bit of the amazing atmosphere.


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Living in New York | ©2017 Kirsty Henderson