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Brooklyn's Evolution From Small Town to Big City to Borough

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Some neighborhood names appear to be jokes. Some have stuck around for centuries, despite changing connotations. Some shift with the winds of gentrification. Welcome to Blurred Lines, in which writer Keith Williams studies New York City's changing neighborhood boundaries.

Why does "South Brooklyn" refer to Red Hook, and not to Coney Island? It's a question that's crossed the mind of almost every New Yorker at some point or another.

The answer is simple: as late as 1894, that area was the southern extreme of the City of Brooklyn. What we know today as Brooklyn is better described, historically, by its synonymous designation, Kings County. For centuries, Kings County was composed of numerous towns—and, briefly, one other city—and the progression from the original six towns to one unified City of Brooklyn can be charted through 350 years of maps.

Before we begin this journey through the history of Kings County, a bit of background is needed. First: just as with Manhattan, there's been a lot of land-filling over the years, so the geographic extremities of these maps won't be true to what they were in the 19th century. For practical purposes, changing water boundaries have been left out.

Second: several borders in Kings County were based on rivers, streams, and creeks that no longer exist—above ground, anyway. Over the past 200 years, most of the waterways in Kings County have been rerouted into subterranean pipes, but they're no longer apparent on the surface. For both of these reasons, a few of the boundaries on these maps are rough approximations.

Now, let's get down to business.

By the time the British took over Dutch Nieuw Nederland in 1664, six towns existed in what would become Kings County. The oldest, Gravesend, was founded by an Englishwoman, Lady Deborah Moody, in 1645. The other five were Dutch:

Boswijck (1661), "heavy woods" or "town in the woods"
Breuckelen (1646), for a town in the Netherlands
Midwout (1652), "middle woods"
Nieuw Amersfoort (1647), also for a town
Nieuw Utrecht (1657), same deal

Luckily for us, the Dutch didn't append "Nieuw" to all of their holdings in the New World, or else today 2.6 million people might live in New Brooklyn.

In 1677, the colony chartered "The New Lotts of Midwout," the last part of Kings County to offer virgin land.

Our English-speaking forebears had little interest in some of the freaky-deaky names left behind by the Oranje, so they made some cosmetic changes. ("Nieuw Amsterdam" was probably the first to go.) By 1683, when Kings County was formally established by the Colony of New York, Midwout had changed to Flatbush (from the Dutch vlacke bos, "flat woods"), Nieuw Amersfoort had become Flatlands (aiming for geographical accuracy, perhaps), and the other three names had been anglicized. Don't worry about Midwout; its legacy continues today as Midwood.

Each of the towns would set up its own grid system with proprietary naming conventions, which is why the streets and avenues in Brooklyn are so out of whack in many places. Gravesend, for example, ran its avenues east-west instead of north-south. As for the borders, they stayed in an equilibrium for nearly 150 years—until a notable invention made Brooklyn a hot spot for the first time.

Starting in 1814, Robert Fulton's steamship Nassau helped transform Brooklyn Heights into America's first suburb. In 1816, that area became its own village within the Town of Brooklyn. It was bounded by Atlantic Avenue, Red Hook Lane (a small remnant of which still exists near the New York Transit Museum), and the U.S. Navy Yard.

A major reason for the incorporation: Brooklyn didn't have a fire department. When a fire broke out—a frequent occurrence in the days of wood-frame homes—Brooklynites would often have to wait for a boat to come over from New York City, propelled by 50 men using oars.

You might have noticed that not all of the territory of Kings County was originally covered. On April 14, 1827 Williamsburgh ('h' and all) was granted a village charter within Bushwick—the start of an ascension that would last a single generation. It was bounded by Brooklyn to the south (at Division Avenue, an appropriate name), and was separated from the rest of Bushwick by Union Avenue (less appropriate) and the Bushwick Creek, which was much longer than today's Bushwick Inlet.

As the great Brooklyn historian Henry Stiles wrote, the forgotten area came about "not from any oversight, but from the fact that the site of Williamsburgh was originally surveyed and owned by the Dutch West India Company." In other words, it didn't have landholders advocating for formal recognition as a municipality.

That had changed in 1802, when Richard M. Woodhull bought 15 acres of land in the area and named it after his friend, Colonel Jonathan Williams, who had surveyed the land—and who was the Chief Engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers. Some people called the area Yorkton, but that name soon fell out of favor.

Brooklyn was growing by leaps and bounds; in the 1830 census, it had 12,406 people, three times its total from 20 years prior, before the introduction of rapid trans-river transport. In 1834, it upgraded itself to a City.

Further north, the Village of Williamsburgh continued its Icarian ascent, gobbling up even more of Bushwick's territory. It now extended over to Bushwick Avenue.

In 1840, Williamsburgh went rogue.

This legislation gave Williamsburgh independence from Bushwick, complete with control over its own affairs. For the first time, there were seven municipalities in Kings County.

Williamsburgh just couldn't be contained. On April 7, 1851, eleven years after becoming its own town, it declared itself the City of Williamsburgh. Including New York City, there were now three cities within a stone's throw of each other.

The change made sense: Williamsburgh was a boomtown, growing to 30,000 inhabitants in the 1850 census—six times its population in 1840.

Less than a year later, on February 12, 1852, the eastern half of Flatbush seceded, calling itself the Town of New Lots, a throwback to the area's charter.

The breakaway was driven in large part by the area's huge population, thanks to an industrial-tenement area called East New York. It was a hub of German-immigrant activity in Kings County, with breweries, biergartens, newspapers, and other trappings of Deutschland.

With that, Kings County arrived at Peak Municipality: six towns and two cities. And just as quickly, an exploding population would force some mergers and acquisitions.

The first victims: the three-year-old City of Williamsburgh and its parent, the Town of Bushwick. The City of Brooklyn annexed them on April 17, 1854. The two former municipalities became known as the Eastern District of Brooklyn, and that excess 'h' fell for good from Williamsburg's name.

Stiles cites political corruption as the main driver for the merger. In Williamsburgh, the ruling Whigs saw the fire department as their chief political ally, and showered it with gifts: new engines and gear, and probably cash, straight-up. The Whigs, Stiles wrote, "repelled public inquiry into their actions, brow-beat the tax-payers when they complained, and broke down that high sense of propriety in public officee and trusts, which had been the glory of the party since the days of John Quincy Adams." Many residents thought they could do no worse by joining Brooklyn.

There was apparently some rivalry between Brooklyn and its neighbors to the north, and it came at the expense of our understanding of Bushwick's early days. According to contemporary historian T.W. Field:

"The Town of Bushwick, having been swallowed up in the great city [of Brooklyn], a nice functionary of the City Hall, on assuming charge of its Old Dutch Records, contemptuously thrust them into his waste-paper sacks and sent them to the paper-mill."

The next consolidation came 32 years later, in 1886, when New Lots, just a generation old, fell to the hungry monster on May 13. In her poem The New Colossus, inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus confirmed Brooklyn's stature as a major city: "... her mild eyes command / The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame." Sometime between, Brooklyn also gained control of the land within the southern reaches of Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park, shrinking Flatbush just a bit.

Brooklyn had unsuccessfully attempted to annex the rest of the county in 1873. The high-density city wanted control of suburban expansion, but the farmers in control of the towns—many descendants of original Dutch families—weren't having it.

According to an account of a hearing in the Times, a Mr. Bergen of New Utrecht was firmly against the idea. "The government of New-Utrecht, he said, was the least expensive; it was only an agricultural village, a long way from Brooklyn, and not in need of being included in the expenses of municipal government, at least not for the present." (For more on the failed consolidation, check out the book Of Cabbages and Kings County.)

The dominos came toppling in the span of a few days in 1894, as the state legislature forced consolidation on Kings County. The remaining towns were just blips.

In what the Times called the "greatest event in history of Brooklyn," Flatbush, Gravesend, and New Utrecht were absorbed into the city with immediate effect. Flatlands was given 20 months to live.

When the clock ran out, the City of Brooklyn became co-terminus with Kings County. And what a city it was! With more than a million residents, it was the third-largest in the nation.

It was not to be, however. In what some today still call The Great Mistake of 1898, Brooklyn became a lowly borough in the consolidated City of New York. A key contributing factor was the water supply: Manhattan had the service of the seemingly limitless liquids from upstate, while Brooklyn had to rely solely on the aquifers beneath Long Island.

There's one last mystery to be untangled: when did the border with Queens change from a straight line to the jagged, grid-friendly boundary we see today? As best I can tell, it was around 1925, but a confirmed answer might require a trip to the New York State legislative library.

(The "why" is obvious: once the grid was set up, the line was cutting through people's homes. Imagine the comebacks a little kid could use: "You can't tell me what to do! You're not even in the same borough!" Not to mention the important things, like public services and voting.)

And now, a GIF of the evolution of Kings County:

Special thanks to my main source for my research of this post: bklyn-genealogy-info. I've sprinkled links to appropriate maps throughout this post.
· Blurred Lines archives [Curbed]
Lead image: Brooklyn, circa 1820, via Historic and Beautiful Brooklyn. It was published as part of 1946 retrospective by the Brooklyn Historical Society about Brooklyn's original six towns.