Publication Date

December 1, 2008

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

When most of those who attend the annual meeting return home, they will tell friends that they have been to New York City. What they will really mean is that they have been to Manhattan. Few AHA members are likely to venture into Queens, the Bronx, or Staten Island. But some adventurous historians may take the time to cross the East River to visit Brooklyn, the outer borough with the oldest and grandest cultural institutions. Over 2.5 million New Yorkers, close to a third of the city’s population, call Brooklyn home (though they don’t always use that word—46.7 percent speak a language other than English at, well, home). Brooklyn was the fourth largest city in the United States when it merged with New York in 1898. It would retain that rank today if it were still a separate municipality. Brooklyn’s 19th-century elite, as boosterish as any, made sure that Brooklyn had a full compliment of big-city cultural and social organizations.

Most of the institutions of particular interest to historians are in “Brownstone Brooklyn,” which consists of several neighborhoods clustered around Brooklyn’s old and still-vibrant downtown. Neighborhoods such as Brooklyn Heights, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Fort Greene, and Park Slope were all developed in the 19th century and still display much of the architecture of that time, including the distinctive New York brownstone rowhouse. These neighborhoods, all convenient to Manhattan by subway, have become increasingly gentrified in the last several decades. At 128 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights, the Brooklyn Historical Society was founded in 1863 as the Long Island Historical Society (by subway take the 2 or 3 train to Clark St. or A train to High St., 718-222-4111, Long largely a genealogical society for local blue-bloods, the society now strives to serve Brooklyn’s diverse population through exhibits, a library, archives, and public programming. Nearby, at 56 Cranberry Street, is Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims. The New York Transit Museum is just outside Brooklyn Heights at the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street (by subway take the 2 or 3 train to Borough Hall or the A or C train to Jay Street/Borough Hall, 718-694-1600, It features exhibits on the history and culture of New York City’s mass transit system. There are many restaurants along Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights and Court Street just south in Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens. But nearby Smith Street has become the place to go for fine and trendy dining in this part of Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) at 30 Lafayette Avenue was founded by the Philharmonic Society of Brooklyn in 1861 and moved to its current site in 1908 (by subway take the 2 or 3 train to Atlantic Ave., 718-636-4100, As its original constituency dwindled in the mid-20th century, BAM suffered a decline. But it has since revived and now features a wide array of live music, dance, drama, and film screenings. BAM Café offers food as well as live music. BAM is on the outskirts of Fort Greene near the Williamsburg Savings Bank building, the tallest in Brooklyn. Fort Greene is notable for its young, hip, and affluent African American population. De Kalb Avenue has restaurants and shops.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art is at 200 Eastern Parkway in Prospect Heights, next to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and down the street from Prospect Park and the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (by subway take the 2 or 3 train to Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum, 718-638-5000, The museum boasts an excellent collection of American art; extensive Egyptian galleries; a Rodin court; African, Asian, and Islamic galleries; a decorative arts exhibit; and period rooms. The Sackler Center for Feminist Art features Judy Chicago’s controversial “Dinner Party” installation. (The museum has on occasion courted controversy with its blockbuster temporary exhibits, drawing the ire of politicians catering to offended constituencies.) On the first Saturday evening of the month, admission is free and the museum offers a variety of programs. Down Eastern Parkway, at Grand Army Plaza, is the massive Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch (1892) dedicated to the “defenders of the union.” The adjacent Park Slope neighborhood features restaurants along 5th and 7th Avenues.

Further out in Brooklyn at Surf Avenue and West 8th Street in Coney Island is the New York Aquarium (by subway take the F or Q train to W. 8th St., 718-265-3474, At its current location since 1957, the aquarium houses more than 350 species on its 14-acre site. The back of the aquarium faces the Coney Island boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean. If you are in New York on New Year’s Day, you might want to attend the Polar Bear Club’s traditional swim. Not much is left from the heyday of the great Coney Island amusement parks, but there are still some rides and other attractions, including the famous Cyclone roller coaster at Astroland. Unfortunately, the Cyclone is closed in the winter, and its days are numbered given redevelopment plans that some say will revitalize Coney Island and others argue will simply sanitize it. Down the boardwalk to the east is Brighton Beach, the center of the city’s Russian-speaking community. Brighton Beach Avenue, under the clattering “el” (elevated subway line), is the commercial hub.

The real life of Brooklyn is not in its grand institutions but in its neighborhoods and streets. If the weather is good, or if you don’t mind walking around in the cold, it would be worthwhile to pick a neighborhood and take a stroll. My favorites are Borough Park (the largest Orthodox/Hasidic Jewish neighborhood), Sunset Park (Chinatown), and Kensington (people from just about everywhere). Other notable neighborhoods include Bedford-Stuyvesant, Williamsburg (now the hippest neighborhood in Brooklyn—definitely outside my experience), Bay Ridge, and Flatbush. For more information on these and other neighborhoods see Kenneth Jackson and John B. Manbeck, The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

Daniel Soyer is associate professor of history at Fordham University in the Bronx and a longtime resident of Brooklyn. He is coeditor, with Jocelyn Cohen, of My Future Is in America: Autobiographies of East European Jewish Immigrants (New York University Press, 2008). He is a member of the Local Arrangements Committee.