The area that is Crown Heights was first settled in the 1600s and was farmed by African-American slaves for their Dutch owners. After emancipation, some purchased property in the earliest free black communities of Weeksville and Carrville.
During the second half of the 19th century, the northern section of the neighborhood developed with mansions and limestone row houses. Then after Eastern Parkway was completed, the northern area became even more of a desirable residential area and large houses sprang up.
The southern section eventually developed and by the early 20th century, immigrants from the Caribbean began to settle in what was then a largely Protestant, Catholic and Jewish area. Walk-up apartments were soon built for large numbers of Lubavitch Hasidim who had emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1940s.
The nation fixed its eyes on Crown Heights during the summer of 1991 when a Guyanese child was killed by a car driven by a Lubavitch Hasid. Riots followed and a Hasidic student was killed, creating an image of polarized violence for the neighborhood.
Neighborhood organizations and grassroots groups sought to fix this by providing an opportunity to respond to the racial tensions with community-building projects like anti-bias initiatives.
How Crown Heights Got Its Name
Crown Heights, which lies in east Brooklyn on both sides of the ridge of Eastern Parkway, was first settled in the 1660s by the Dutch, who farmed the area with the help of African-American slaves. The names of three hills in the area became names of neighborhoods: Prospect Hill, Ocean Hill and Crow Hill.
Crow Hill evolved into Crown Heights, but the origin of Crow Hill is itself debatable. Most accepted is that it was derived from the crows who preyed on the neighboring farms and found a retreat in the trees scattered over the ridge. (An 1877 article in The Brooklyn Eagle went with that explanation.)
Others believe that the inmates of the local Kings County penitentiary were referred to as crows. And still others say it was a derogatory term for the residents of the black communities of Weeksville and Carrville in the southern portion of the neighborhood.
In any case, the name was changed in 1916 when Crown Street was cut through the neighborhood, the “crown” being the top of the hill.
Eastern Parkway, at one time a grand tree-lined boulevard, was laid out in 1868 and attracted new arrivals in the early 1900s. Many upper-class buildings, including brownstones, were built on the parkway, which in effect separated northern and southern sections. The area also benefited from several IRT subway lines, which made commuting to and from Manhattan much easier.
That development peaked in the 1920s.
The 1960s and 1970s were marked by turbulent race relations in racially mixed Crown Heights, which also had been declared a primary poverty area. These tensions occasionally broke out in violence between blacks and Jews, especially during the New York City blackout in 1977, and again in 1991.
But urban renewal and gentrification have since resulted in a revival of the neighborhood.
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.