Brooklyn: The Once and Future City

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About Brooklyn, All of Brooklyn: The Millions Interviews Thomas J. Campanella


“That which seems long gone is often still about our feet, hidden in plain sight,” writes Thomas J. Campanella: a lovely evocation. Brooklyn: The Once and Future City is an ambitious and accomplished book. 

For lovers of history and of the city, this book is a dream. It feels like a book that Campanella was born to write. An associate professor of urban studies and city planning at Cornell University, he is the historian-in-residence of the New York City Parks Department. He holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His previous books include The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World and Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm

We spoke about the urban past, Brooklyn’s forgotten figures, and how writing a book can be a “homecoming.”

The Millions: “Like many of Brooklyn’s native sons and daughters,” you write in the preface, “I went through a long period of disdain for the place”—until you were a graduate student at Cornell. Your “rediscovery of Brooklyn also tapped deep family roots”—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and more. “My very first debt of gratitude for this book, then, is owed my much-missed parents, who stuck by Brooklyn as everyone else” in your family “fled.” What has it meant for you to have written this book, considering this robust local lineage?

Thomas J. Campanella: Working on this book was a slow-motion homecoming for me, and the closing of a great circle that has literally looped the world—from college and grad school in upstate New York, to New England for my Ph.D., to Hong Kong and China where I lived for several years, to the faculty of UNC Chapel Hill, the American Academy in Rome, and—finally—back to both Brooklyn and Cornell. I have longed to be back “home” for years, but the academic job market is not much swayed by one’s hopes and dreams. Thomas Wolfe was right when he wrote that “you can’t go home again”; nothing stays the same. But you can get back to something pretty close. My parents are gone, and except for one cousin, I am the last family member in Brooklyn after four generations. Everyone else is dead, in the suburbs, or down South.

TM: “The urban past is all around us, and it conditions and qualifies the present,” you write. “The modern city is replete with palimpsests and pentimenti, stubborn stains and traces of what went before, keepsakes that beckon us to unpack and explore and to understand.” You say Brooklyn is “overexposed as it is understudied.” Why is that so? What do you hope that your book does for these “stubborn stains and traces of what went before”?

TC: This book will be successful if it gets people to look at their everyday environs, the ordinary urban landscape of Brooklyn, with fresh eyes and searching curiosity. Every corner of our city is layered with history, and this book is an attempt to peel back some of those layers—not every inch in every place, but at strategic points—to reveal the treasures concealed below. The book covers all of Brooklyn, but much of it focuses—by necessity—on the city south of the terminal moraine, below Prospect Park. If Brooklyn has long been in Manhattan’s shadow, deep-south Brooklyn is in the shadow of both. What drove me initially to write this book was the almost complete lack of historical scholarship on the extraordinarily rich Native American and colonial history of places like Flatlands and Marine Park. Or Jamaica Bay, the great building boom that turned the old Dutch farms into blocks of Tudor-revival houses for escapees from the Lower East Side. Or Floyd Bennett Field, New York City’s first municipal airport and one of the cradles of American aviation. Brooklyn is a global superbrand today; but it’s still understudied terrain, especially in relation to Manhattan. And nowhere is this more true than in the borough’s vast and peopled southern hemisphere. I have seen maps—of Brooklyn, no less!—that simply cut off everything below Prospect Park. Snip. Coney Island usually gets a call‐out box. Deep‐south Brooklyn is the flyover country of New York City. I want to make people think again, and more deeply, about Brooklyn, all of Brooklyn.

TM: Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, as you note in the introduction, is not a book “driven by a grand thesis, but rather a telling that plaits key strands of Brooklyn’s past into a narrative about the once and future city.” It’s a fine approach, and one that made me excited to encounter all of the fascinating residents portrayed in the book—like Deborah Moody. A 19th-century Englishwoman who was a child of nobility, she “was America’s first woman town planner”—now the neighborhood of Gravesend. Your book teems with characters like this: How did you decide whom, like Moody, to include (and perhaps, whom to leave out)?

TC: This book began as an eight-chapter proposal and wound up as an 18‐chapter tome. As I delved into the research I just uncovered things that had to be in the book. Fortunately my editor at Princeton is the kind that authors dream about working with. She not only tolerated multiple, years-long delays but encouraged my habit of going down enticing rabbit holes uncovered in my research. Many of these led to little more than a footnote, but others yielded entire chapters. The chapter on the search for the lost Maryland regiment and the creation of Green-Wood Cemetery was one; the one on Olmsted’s extraordinary scheme to extend green fingers from Prospect Park all the way back to Central Park was another. I was especially interested in throwing light on lost and forgotten figures, extraordinary people like Moody or Newell Dwight Hillis of Plymouth Church or the ingenious charlatan who tried to build the world’s tallest tower, Sam Friede. I steered clear, for the most part, of people and subjects well-covered by others—Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge, for example—and only dwell on the overexposed subject of the Dodgers in terms of the postwar urban renewal. It’s pretty hard to write about Brooklyn without eventually bumping up against the Dodgers, especially when your name is Campanella!

TM: You mentioned that this book took nearly a decade to write, so I can’t help asking a process question. You start Chapter 4, “Yankee Ways,” with a lucid and concise paragraph that’s a precursor to your section on Prospect Park. In a few packed but smooth sentences, you contextualize the life of Frederick Law Olmsted, a “wanderlusting Yale dropout,” the forerunner of American landscape architecture. How did you distill what seems like an almost overwhelming amount of Brooklyn culture, lore, data, story, and more into one book?

TC: Well, the book in larval form was a very different creature than what I assume you have in front of you now. It started as an effort to tell about failed and forgotten planning projects—what the late German historian Reinhart Koselleck called “the onetime futures of past generations.” And from that it grew and grew, its reach steadily expanding as I became more confident about its thrust and scope. There are pieces of the book that I can trace much further back in time—I did the initial research on Deborah Moody as a grad student at MIT in the early 1990s—but had no idea they would end up in this book. I also had to avoid the “totality trap,” trying to cover every aspect and every age. That would have required three volumes and probably would have killed me.

TM: As a fan of periodical and publishing history, I loved your anecdotes about the Brooklyn Eagle. “Founded in 1841, the Eagle had been published without a break for 114 years and was one of New York’s oldest and most storied institutions. One of its early editors was none other than Walt Whitman.” The newspaper folded in 1955. You share a quote from Pete Hamill: Although never a great paper, the Eagle “had a great function: it helped to weld together an extremely heterogeneous community. Without it, Brooklyn became a vast network of hamlets, whose boundaries were rigidly drawn but whose connections with each other were vague at best, hostile at worst.” That’s high praise for the paper! Do you agree with Hamill? (And a side question, which you can feel free to ignore! Do you think any other publications, print or digital, have since captured the spirit of Brooklyn?)

TC: To your side question: No, not even close. The Eagle has been resuscitated in name, and its editor Ned Berke is doing yeoman’s work getting the hatchling to spread its wings. They have a superb real‐estate reporter, Lore Croghan, who is as history‐obsessed as I am and writes well. But these are not easy days for any newspaper. The old Eagle was a massive operation, with an eight­‐story building all their own. As for Hamill; yes, completely. I would have used “tribal settlements” rather than hamlets, which makes me think of towns in the Adirondacks; but the idea of boundedness and vague or hostile relations betwixt and between is spot‐on. And yes the Eagle helped bind everyone together; so did the Dodgers, frankly, and Steeplechase Park, and the Navy Yard, and the trolleys. And by the mid‐1960s every last one of these was closed, gone, or destroyed.

TM: The plans for the Linear City project in Brooklyn “were trotted out in a swirl of publicity on Feb. 25, 1967. By May 1969, the plans were shuttered. What was appealing about the plan in the first place—and why did it never come to pass?

TC: The racial politics of the era became too complex and too fractious for any compromise to be reached on the project’s many fronts, largely due to the terrible public school crisis and teacher’s strike of 1968 (which was centered on the very neighborhoods that Linear City would have served, Brownsville and East New York). It was a very convulsive time in the city’s history. What really grabbed me about Linear City was its hopefulness, its attempted reconciliation of the sledgehammer approach to highway infrastructure made infamous by Robert Moses and the yarn‐and­‐needles grassroots activism of Jane Jacobs. If Jacobs and Moses ever hooked up and had a baby, it would be Linear City. It was schools, community centers, art galleries, neighborhood shops and stores, all built atop one of the few expressway plans in New York that actually made real sense. Remember it was to run in an existing transportation corridor, the Long Island Railroad’s Bay Ridge division tracks. It could easily have accommodated below‐grade road that would have diverted a huge percentage of Long Island‐bound traffic away from the ever­‐clogged Gowanus and BQE.

TM: In your epilogue, you consider the future city, first turning back to how in the late 1960s, a “trickle of college‐educated, young, and mostly white progressives began moving” into Brooklyn. They were the “children of Woodstock, straining against the status quo,” and they “relished the borough’s working‐class grit.” For them, Brooklyn was “a place with everything Levittown lacked—a storied past, architectural splendor, racial diversity, down‐to­‐earth folk more or less tolerant of nontraditional lifestyles.” What might the future city of Brooklyn look like?

TC: Well, you can get a good sense of that by walking around any of the sought‐after neighborhoods of Brownstone Brooklyn, where most apartments start over the million-dollar mark. Lots of highly educated folks, mostly from elsewhere, mostly white and mostly well‐off—or well on their way to being well-off. An enticing array of bespoke and handcrafted, cruelty‐free and grass­‐fed. The good life, the well‐appointed life. I am certainly not immune to this. But the hungry grasping hand of gentrification can reach only so far—and you can map how far by studying the subway lines. I’ve advocated for extending the long‐promised Utica and Nostrand Avenue lines into Flatlands and East Flatbush and Mill Basin; but there is always a chance that the unique qualities of the outlying communities, trolleyburbs of the 1920s, will change in fundamental ways once you make them more accessible. It’s a delicate balance. I’ve often wished there were cafes and wine bars and galleries closer to me in Marine Park. Or a bookstore! There are only two general‐market bookstores in all the vastness south of Prospect Park. But after a long day in the city, or a night out in Dumbo or Cobble Hill, I find it comforting to be off the radar.

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