Early Development of Brooklyn Heights
In June of 1636, 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 Natives. The price paid for the land was: eight “fathoms” of duffle cloth, eight of wampum12 kettles and an assortment of 25 tools. Wampum were traditional shell beads of the Eastern Woodlands tribes. They were used by the northeastern Natives as a form of gift exchange. Early historians and colonists mistook wampum as a form of money.
The Dutch named the new settlement Breukelen after a Dutch town; soon 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 18th century the ferry’s main route was to Manhattan, creating this area to become the nucleus of Brooklyn life.
Role in the Revolutionary War
During the Revolutionary War, Clover Hill, 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 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.) Originally Fort Greene was not located in the neighborhood we now call Fort Greene, but sat between what is now State and Schermerhorn Streets. Brooklyn Heights had become a critical military zone. Despite the heavy fortifications, the British encountered 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.
After Revolutionary War
Less than a generation after the Revolutionary War, Brooklyn was a true city and Brooklyn Heights had become a small neighborhood near its center. Development began in the early 1800’s, as New York became a great port, Brooklyn rode along on a wave of riches.
A few large landowners, bearing such familiar names as Middagh, Hicks, Remsen and Livingston, occupied almost the entire heights. 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 into a prominent New York City borough. He hired a surveyor to lay out his property into streets: Clinton, Clark, Montague, Remsen, Joralemon and, of course, Pierrepont, thus immortalizing his neighbor 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, the modern commuting system 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.
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 demanding a form of accessibility to the waterfront which has culminated into 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. However, by the first decade of the twentieth century, fickle real estate trends had reversed (due to the new accessibility to the area from the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge completed in 1883). The bankers and merchants which once comprised this area of Brooklyn Heights began emigrating back to the more glamorous areas 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 some not so elegant tenants such as prostitutes and 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.
During the areas 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 path, 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. In 1965, a large part of Brooklyn Heights was protected from unchecked development by the creation of Brooklyn Heights Historic District, the first such district in New York City.