Brownsville began as Brown’s Village after the land in the area was bought by Charles S. Brown, who built 250 houses in 1865, creating a community of small cottages and shops surrounded by meadows and a dairy farm.
Because the area was inaccessible by sea and difficult to reach by land, the settlements remained small until 1887 when developer Aaron Kaplan purchased tracts of land and had tenement buildings built to encourage workers from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to relocate there.
The completion of the Fulton Street elevated railway and the Williamsburg Bridge prompted even more New Yorkers to make the jump to Brownsville and by 1910, large buildings were overflowing with immigrant families. At one point, at least 75 percent of the residents were Jewish, giving the neighborhood the nickname as “Jerusalem of America.”
But African-Americans eventually moved in from other neighborhoods and faced discrimination, reduced social services and little employment opportunities.
For the next two decades, Brownsville decayed, sporting abandoned buildings, vandalism and arson. And the construction of high rise houses in the 1950s and 1906s led to more overcrowding and poverty.
By the 1970s, the neighborhood finally began to revitalize with the help of local residents and merchants joining together to ease racial tensions and fight for affordable housing.
Between 1977 and 1985, more than a thousand housing units were built or renovated, leading the way for Brownsville’s modern-day rebuild.
How Brownsville Got Its Name
This neighborhood near Brooklyn’s eastern edge was, like most of the borough, first settled and farmed by the Dutch and part of the area called New Lots. It was a marshy land, a source of stone and other building materials –and a place for waste disposal.
William Suydam, who owned a large farm in the northeast part of New Lots, tried parcelling the land in 1860, laying out 262 lots, but he defaulted on his mortgages. It was sold in foreclosure in 1862 to Charles S. Brown of Esopus, N.Y., near Poughkeepsie, and it became known as Brown’s Village. Brown, a self-described “land speculator,” subdivided the land in 1865 and built 250 houses there by 1883. Initially, it wasn’t much more than a small cluster of shops and cottages surrounded by meadowland.
Brown and another real estate developer, Aaron Kaplan, marketed the area already known as Brownsville to the working class as a cheaper place to live. The opening of the Fulton Street elevated subway, later extensions of the IRT subway from Manhattan and the 1903 completion of the Williamsburg Bridge greatly helped in the area’s growth. Workers, especially garment workers living on the Lower East Side, moved in. By 1910, half of the population of what was now called Brownsville were Russian-Jewish immigrants.
That has changed significantly over the decades.
The neighborhood is bordered by Ralph Ave., Eastern Parkway and Rockaway Parkway on the west, Van Sinderen Ave. on the east, Fulton St. on the north and Avenue D on the south.
At Brownsville’s northwestern edge is a smaller neighborhood popularly known as Ocean Hill. Historically, it was a part of Brownsville, although today it is within Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. Ocean Hill received its name in 1890 for being slightly hilly. Hence it was subdivided from the larger community of Stuyvesant Heights.
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.