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The Lost History of the 'City' of Brooklyn

Cornell Professor Thomas Campanella’s new book is not only the best history of Brooklyn, it’s one of the most entertaining works published this year, suffuse with fantastic tales of the achievements, iniquities, and dreams of its famous neighbor. “Brooklyn may be a brand known around the world, but it is also terra incognita,” Campanella writes, “a terrain long lost in the thermonuclear glow of Manhattan, possibly the most navel-gazed city in the world outside of Rome and the subject of dozens of good books.”

In the 1897 referendum that merged the city into the five boroughs of Greater New York, Brooklyn just barely assented to its subaltern status—passing there by a paltry 277 votes. To this point it had competed very capably with its fancier neighbor across the river, but its official assumption by the city seemed to only accentuate Brooklyn’s wilder and more outlandish tendencies. So with Manhattan inheriting the crown, Brooklyn turned to the traditionally wilder tracks of younger sons. “Conditional proximity, for lack of a better term, made Brooklyn a displacement zone of sorts, a site for peoples and practices untenable in the heart of town—suspect religions, racial outcasts, citizen non-conformists, and later, dirty industrial operations and morally polluting amusements.”

Campanella’s book doesn’t presume to be comprehensive history, but its episodic chapters will leave you with many more facts about Brooklyn than you currently possess, and add more texture to familiar urban geography than first meets the eye.

In one early example, Brooklyn contains Gravesend, a colonial 17th-century community founded by Deborah Moody, a New England Anabaptist expelled from Massachusetts but welcomed to New Netherland—sort of. She was granted some land in then-distant Long Island, where she founded an early master-planned community, an enclave of religious toleration whose street grid still vestigially girds Southern Brooklyn. Relics of the Battle of Brooklyn, the largest naval operation since the Spanish Armada and one of the largest battles of the 18th-century American Revolution, similarly lurk amidst the borough’s 19th-century landmark Brownstone townhouses. 

Speaking of that symbol of Brownstone Brooklyn, its excellent physical assets are a bit more familiar, but ably told here by Campanella. Today’s borough still benefits from the then-independent city’s determination to outdo Manhattan’s Central Park in hiring Frederick Law [ … ] .

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