A Short History of Brooklyn Heights

In June of 1636, a band of sturdy Dutch farmers, unhappy with the rocky soil of lower Manhattan, took a look at the good growing land on the heights across the river and decided to buy some from the Canarsie Indians. The price was right: eight “fathoms” of duffle cloth, eight of wampum, 12 kettles and an assortment of 25 tools.

They named the fledgling settlement Breukelen after a Dutch town, and the farmers’ roots were soon deep and permanent. The area closest to the harbor, named Clover Hill, was soon dotted with orchards and pastures with a few houses clustered near the river on the village’s main street. Also at that spot was a ferry landing with service running from what is now Fulton Ferry Landing to Peck Slip in Manhattan. In the eighteenth century the ferry, main artery to Manhattan, was the nucleus of Brooklyn life.

A Strategic Location, A Critical Role in the Revolutionary War
During the Revolutionary War, Clover Hill, by then known as Brooklyn Heights, was in a strategic spot because of its commanding position over the harbor. George Washington ordered construction of several forts in Brooklyn including Fort Sterling, which overlooked the East River channel from the present-day Clark Street and Columbia Heights. (You’ll find a plaque marking the spot at the northeast corner of the Clark Street entrance to the Promenade.) Fort Greene wasn’t in the neighborhood we now call Fort Greene, but sat between what are now State and Schermerhorn Streets. Brooklyn Heights had become a critical military zone.
Despite the heavy fortifications, the British met with little resistance from American troops. On August 29th 1776, a war council met at the Philip Livingston Mansion at the foot of today’s Joralemon Street. After the council, Washington ordered his troops to withdraw in the dead of night across the river to Manhattan. Anything that could float was pressed into service for this miniature “Dunkirk”. It has been called one of history’s more successful retreats.

For some six and a half years following the Battle of Long Island, the British occupied Brooklyn. During that time, they built the largest of their forts on Long Island. It stood on a site stretching from Monroe Place to Henry Street and from a spot south of Pierrepont Street, halfway to Clark Street.

A Neighborhood Emerges
Less than a generation after the Revolutionary War, Brooklyn was a true city and Brooklyn Heights had become a small neighborhood near its center. Progress had arrived and in the early 1800’s , as New York became a great port, Brooklyn rode along on a wave of prosperity.

A few large landowners, bearing such familiar names as Middagh, Hicks, Remsen and Livingston, occupied almost the entire heights. The mansion of Philip Livingston was reached by a lane about on the line of what is now Joralemon Street, and Garden Place is named for the elegant gardens maintained alongside his house. Immediately after the fall of Brooklyn, the British confiscated the Livingston mansion for use as a hospital, turning its gardens into burial grounds for the more unfortunate patients. Stories still circulate about bones being found in the backyards of Garden Place houses.

Enter the Pierreponts... and the Fulton Ferry
The new rich of Brooklyn began to acquire much of the land in the Heights overlooking Manhattan. Among the more prominent of the prospering merchants was Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont. In1802 he bought part of the old Livingston estate and, anticipating the eventual incorporation of Brooklyn village, hired a surveyor to lay out his property into streets: Clinton, Clark, Montague, Remsen, Joralemon and, of course, Pierrepont, thus immortalizing his neighbors and increasing his fortune.

To ensure the success of this residential development, Pierrepont secured the existing leases of all Brooklyn ferries and granted the operating leases to his friend, Robert Fulton, inventor of the mechanized ferry boat. The Fulton Ferry was spacious, beautiful and fast, cutting the crossing time to Manhattan from twenty minutes to twelve.

With the Fulton Ferry’s first run, on May 10, 1814, modern commuting was born, and Brooklyn became New York’s first suburb., attracting Wall Street bankers and merchants who would rather take the 12 minute ferry ride to Brooklyn Heights than endure the long, dusty trip to the pastoral Bronx.

A Flourishing Community
The Heights flourished and the open space between its buildings continued to close. As a result, some if its less well-to-do citizens petitioned the Legislature to buy out the owners of land at the bottom of Clark, Pineapple and Middagh Street, opening the waterfront to the public, as the Pierreponts had already done at the foot of Pierrepont Street. The bill was approved and so were created the present wide entrances to the Promenade off Columbia Heights. Unwittingly, those early Brooklynites had taken the first step in the democratization of the waterfront that was to culminate in today’s Brooklyn Bridge Park.

By 1868, Brooklyn was a true city with a population of 300,000. Long rows of brownstone and brick buildings had risen, seemingly in the space of a single night.

Brooklyn and Its Bridge
As New York became one of the country's great ports, Brooklyn rode along on a wave of prosperity. Meanwhile the ferry service across the river was becoming intolerably crowded. Despite the installation of iron gates to prevent pushing on the landing, men were occasionally crushed to death. The problem had to be solved, and the solution marked a milestone in engineering history: the Brooklyn Bridge. When the Bridge was opened on May 24, 1883, the connected cities of Brooklyn and Manhattan declared holidays, and hundreds of thousands of people crossed the bridge. It was immediately clear that Brooklyn would never be the same again.
However, by the first decade of the twentieth century, fickle real estate trends had reversed and the bankers and merchants of Brooklyn Heights began emigrating back to the more glamorous enclaves of Manhattan. By the 1920’s, the elegant old houses of the Heights were scorned as old-fashioned, and the rising cost of staffing further reduced their value. Many were converted into rooming houses or cut up into small apartments.

During the Depression, one-third of the dwellings in the Heights were boarded up due to bank foreclosures, and the rooming house population began to include prostitutes an drug addicts. But Brooklyn Heights soon regained much of its stylish, if unconventional appeal and, by the late 40’s, the Heights had the city’s largest concentration artists and writers outside of Greenwich Village.

Brooklyn Heights: A Neighborhood Worth Preserving
It was at this point of rebirth that Robert Moses, transportation czar of New York City, decided that the Heights should be bisected along Hicks Street by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Residents of Brooklyn Heights fought back, and the opposition centered in the Brooklyn Heights Association, which had been founded in 1910. The strong community opposition led to a brilliant compromise: two levels of highway topped by a cantilevered esplanade were built along the western edge of Brooklyn Heights. The esplanade, now called the Promenade, was dedicated in October, 1950 and today attracts tens of thousands of visitors yearly from all over the globe.

During the ’50s the Heights once again became a magnet for young families, attracted by its historically unique and architecturally beautiful buildings. Within a huge city, Brooklyn Heights retained its small town charm. A pride of place had taken hold by 1960, when an unrelenting effort was made by the Brooklyn Heights Association and others to protect the architectural and historic quality of the Heights. Within a few years, this energetic group, had succeeded not only in preserving history, but in making history when Brooklyn Heights was designated the first Historic District of New York City.

Today the Heights looks much as it did at the end of the Civil War, combining the charm of old New York with the vitality of 21st Century, urban life.

Get More Info:
Watch this special video: "Brooklyn Is My Neighborhood/ The Story of New York's First Historic District" was produced by Martin L. Schneider and Karl Junkersfeld for the Brooklyn Heights Blog.

And read Schneider's "Battling for Brooklyn Heights/ 1958-1965." The article was originally published in serial form in the Brooklyn Heights Press in 1993. It tells the story of how a united community, under the banner of the BHA, fought off Robert Moses and achieved its historic landmark status.