Robert Furman’s (with contributions of photographs of historic Brooklyn Heights buildings by Brian Merlis) Brooklyn Heights: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of America’s First Suburb is a massive–471 pages–attempt to encompass all that is significant in the history of our neighborhood. The subtitle provides a narrative arc, though an inverted one. It begins with a geological rise: the deposition of glacial till by the retreating Wisconsonian ice sheet that made Brooklyn Heights high, and led to the name given by its first inhabitants, Ihpetonga, or “high, sandy bank.” The Dutch arrived in the 1600s and found it good for farming; names of some Dutch settlers are memorialized as streets: Joralemon, Middagh, Remsen, Schermerhorn. The British, who arrived later, also farmed and had country houses and contributed some street names: Clark, Hicks, Montague, Pierrepont (whenever a person whose family name has been given to a street is mentioned in the book, Furman helpfully appends a “+” after the name).
The real “rise” to the status of “America’s First Suburb” began with the opening of Robert Fulton’s steam ferry and the rapid development of what is now the North Heights as a residential neighborhood for people working across the East River. Furman is keen on the importance of changes in modes of transportation in shaping the Heights. The opening of the Brooklyn Bridge was something of a negative, as it made access to areas further into Brooklyn easier. The subways were a mixed blessing; the concentration of lines with stations in or around the Heights made commutation easier but, like the bridge, the subways also improved access to areas further afield. Moreover, Furman notes, subways and elevated lines “ended the Heights’ physical isolation and thereby its exclusivity, causing many wealthy people to leave.” The automobile almost killed the Heights in two ways: it, along with the building of express highways, enabled middle class families to leave the Heights and other city neighborhoods for the suburbs. In a more direct way, Robert Moses’ plan to run the BQE through the Heights would have effectively destroyed the neighborhood. Furman describes how local residents, especially Underwood typewriter heiress Gladys Darwin James, widow of the man who had given Moses his first job, persuaded him to relocate the highway along the bluff below the Heights, and to build the Promenade atop it.
In a section headed “The Power Broker”, at pages 417 to 419, Furman argues that in his book with that title Robert Caro “got it mostly wrong” about Moses and his effect on New York City. The highways Moses built, Furman says, were essential for the city’s survival in an age of autos and trucks. Furman does, however, take Moses to task for the Cadman Plaza urban renewal project, which removed a whole eastern section of the Heights that included several architecturally and some historically distinguished buildings, including the building that had housed the shop where Walt Whitman printed Leaves of Grass. One appealing feature of Furman’s book is the wealth of photos of Heights buildings that have been lost, many from the collection of his contributor, Brian Merlis. There are also many photos of existing structures, and a whole chapter devoted to the range of architectural styles found here.
As a 32 year Heights resident, I thought I had attained a fairly comprehensive knowledge of local history, but Furman’s book is full of nuggets of which I was unaware:
1. The first Congress to convene after ratification of the Constitution, which met in lower Manhattan, briefly considered the Heights as the site for a national capital. Southerners quickly put paid to this, which led to its being located on the Potomac not the East River (which Furman correctly points out is a tidal estuary, not a river).
2. Although the Heights later became known as a hotbed of abolitionism, led by Henry Ward Beecher, in the first U.S. census (1790) of Brooklyn’s population (much of which was in the Heights or nearby) of 4,500, there were 1,500 slaves, a higher portion (one third) of the population than that of Charleston, South Carolina at the same time.
3. In 1825 the Apprentices’ Library at the southwest corner of Henry and Cranberry streets (now the location of the Cranlyn apartment building with Bevacco on the ground floor) was dedicated in a ceremony attended by the Marquis de Lafayette and by a little boy named Walt Whitman. Lafayette lifted little Walt and kissed his cheek.
4. The Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair of 1864 “was the most important event ever held in Brooklyn Heights.”
5. Irish poet and Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats gave his first speech in America in Brooklyn Heights, to Mrs. Fields’ Literary Club.
6. In an instance of history almost repeating itself, in 1931 there was a proposal to demolish the Mercantile Library on Montague Street, predecessor to the Brooklyn Heights Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and replace it with a high rise office building with a library on its lower floors. The collapse of the real estate market in the Depression ended this plan, and the library, which had been condemned by the Fire Department, was renovated and continued to serve until it was replaced in 1961 by the present library, now slated for demolition and replacement by a new library in the lower floors of a high rise building.
The book has one glaring defect: it lacks an index. I caught a few minor errors. Furman calls Frank Freeman “the great practitioner” of the Romanesque Revival style of architecture without mentioning that Freeman was a disciple of Henry Hobson Richardson, who was responsible for originating and popularizing the style. Freeman was, though, its principal advocate locally. Hans Isbrandtsen, the crusty Danish born shipping magnate who lived at 87 Remsen Street, was not a founder of American Export Lines; he had nothing to do with it until his son bought it after his death and changed its name to American Export-Isbrandtsen Lines. As a maritime buff, I’m grateful for Furman’s emphasis on the importance of the shipping industry to the growth and development of the Heights. For a description of the tension between the then still active freight docks below the Heights and the neighborhood’s residents in the early 1950s, see Elizabeth Gaffney’s fine novel When the World Was Young.
Furman’s Brooklyn Heights is available for purchase at the Brooklyn Women’s Exchange. It is published by History Press.
Update: Copies signed by the author may be purchased through this website, using PayPal, or contact Mr. Furman at firstname.lastname@example.org