The early inhabitants of what is today Brooklyn Heights included the Canarsee Indians and Dutch farmers, who settled in the area in the mid-1600s.
The neighborhood played a pivotal role in the Revolutionary War by housing George Washington’s headquarters and providing a location for American soldiers to slip across the East River after the British invasion.
It wasn’t until Robert Fulton then launched the first steam-powered ferry service in 1814 that Brooklyn Heights faced tremendous development.
Fulton’s ferry brought residents home over the East River in less than 15 minutes to “Manhattan’s bedroom.” Two years later, Brooklyn Heights’ streets were planned and laid out.
The area was advertised as the “nearest country retreat” for the Manhattan businessman and recognizing the opportunity, landowners like John Hicks, Jacob Middagh Hicks, John Middagh, Henry Remsen and Teunis Joralemon, divided and sold their farms and the standard 25 by 100 foot Brooklyn Heights lots were born.
Residential construction quickened in the 1820s and continued until the turn of the century, beginning at the northern side of the neighborhood.
After the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883 and the Interborough Rapid Transit Company arrived in Brooklyn in 1908, the elegant neighborhood could no longer remain a retreat for wealthy commuters and upper-class residents moved out. Their mansions and row houses were divided into apartments and boarding houses and several hotels were built, including the St. George, once the largest hotel in New York City.
The completion of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway then changed Brooklyn Heights forever. Whole sections of brownstone row houses were demolished for its construction but the Brooklyn Heights Association, one of the country’s oldest civic associations, pushed for the construction of the now internationally-popular promenade.
In 1965, Brooklyn Heights became the first New York City neighborhood to be designated as both a New York City historic district and a national landmark.
How Brooklyn Heights Got Its Name
Brooklyn Heights, perhaps the best known of all the Brooklyn neighborhoods, owes its name to the Dutch (with a tweak from the British). And the last Ice Age.
Some 50,000 years ago, when the climate warmed up after the last Ice Age, the melting ice was trapped by the hills until, several thousand years later, the water broke through, cutting a swath that created the Narrows, Upper New York Bay, the East River, the Harlem River and Long Island Sound. The events left a high palisade towering above the East River.
The indigenous Indians who lived in the area named it Ihpetonga, meaning “high, sandy bluff.” We call it the Heights, now topped by a pedestrian deck renowned as the Promenade.
It was a site noted by Henry Hudson, who came exploring in 1609. Hudson reported back to his Dutch sponsors with rave reviews of the New World. And the Dutch came by the boatloads, this time not to discover, but to settle.
Most of them put down roots in New Amsterdam on Manhattan island, but some preferred the area across the narrowest part of the East River. It was flatter than hilly Manhattan, with more fertile land for farming and waters for fishing and for transporting their produce.
In 1645, a village was formed there, when the West India Company, trying to lure colonist to the new land, offered farmers small parcels of land as a “free loan,” as long as they cultivated the farms for 10 years and then paid the company one-tenth of what they produced. The Dutch had called the area Clover Hill, for the thick foliage of the trees they found there. But soon the name Bruijkleen came into use, from bruijk (to use) and leen (loan). The name Bruijkleen Colonie was given to this tract of land that was among the first settled. The name, according to some, was not “coined” for the village, but it described what this tract of land was intended to be – a homestead.
The village, its center located on then-Fulton Avenue, came to be called Breuckelen, presumably after the village of the same name in Holland. The earliest mention of the name Breuckelen in the records of the colony of New Netherland is a contract dated 1646. When the English came in possession of New Netherland in 1664, they Anglicized the name to Brookland, a close counterpart of Bruijkleen as the latter was pronounced by the Dutch, Brooklane. The English probably believed the Dutch name had some connection with the “broken land,” its original significance as the marsh or brook land.
Various names and spelling followed: Breucklyn, Breukland, Brucklyn, Broucklyn, Brookland, Brookline, and others, until the end of the 19th century, when it settled into the present-day Brooklyn.
The neighborhood played a key role in the Revolutionary War.
At the southern end of what is now the Promenade was the house called the Four Chimneys, where Gen. George Washington set up his headquarters to keep an eye on the British coming into the harbor. Nearby was one of several defenses he set up, Fort Stirling. The Fulton Ferry Landing is whence Washington’s troops sneaked away from the British during a stormy night and foggy morning in late August 1776, surviving to fight another day (actually another seven years).
As the 19th century began, Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont, who had owned the Four Chimneys mansion, started buying up lots to expand his real estate holdings. He took about 60 acres of the most desirable property. He divided his property into 25-by-100-foot lots for sale and other wealthy landowners followed suit, advertising the area to potential buyers as “the nearest country retreat.”
It was Pierrepont who helped Robert Fulton establish his steam-powered ferry company, which started service on May 10, 1814. The new accessibility of Brooklyn Heights soon established it as “America’s first commuter suburb.”
During the Civil War era, in the neighborhood’s Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher preached his abolitionist views and the church served as an Underground Railroad depot.
The Brooklyn Bridge, opened with fanfare in 1893, brought more people to Brooklyn and that meant a need for more rapid transit, “people movers,” first electric-powered streetcars called trolley, then buses, then the subway. The first underwater subway tunnel from Manhattan opened on Jan. 1, 1908.
In 1947, power broker Robert Moses pushed a plan for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to cut through Brooklyn Heights. But residents fought the plan and won concessions. The highway was moved four blocks west and redesigned into a double-level roadway topped by the building of the Promenade with its magnificent views of the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor and Lower Manhattan – and, more recently, Brooklyn Bridge Park. (In 1864, well before the Promenade was constructed, Abraham Lincoln took in the view and said: “There may be finer views than this in the world, but I don’t believe it.”) The southern half of the Promenade opened in 1950, the northern half in 1951.
In 1965, the Landmarks Preservation Law of 1965 made Brooklyn Heights the first neighborhood to be designated a historical district and legally protected from overdevelopment. The district is bounded by Cadman Plaza West and Old Fulton Street on the north, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway on the west, Atlantic Avenue on the south.
The neighborhood itself stretches from Old Fulton Street near the Brooklyn Bridge south to Atlantic Avenue and from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to Court Street and Cadman Plaza West.
Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook.
He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism.
He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.