Buffalo, New York. Cleveland, Ohio. Detroit, Michigan.
What do these cities have in common? Many decades ago, they were all dominant metropolises within the United States. Buffalo, for instance, was America’s eighth largest municipality in 1900; Detroit and Cleveland were its fourth and sixth largest cities in 1940.
All of these cities are now striving, with differing levels of success, to reclaim aspects of their former glories. If they are seeking a role model, they might wish to consider the recent accomplishments of a borough that has not existed as an independent city since 1898.
The Borough of Kings
The City of Brooklyn joined with Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island to form New York City two years before the advent of the twentieth century. Prior to that time, the City of Kings had been the third or fourth largest city in the United States for many decades.
While still a city in its own right, Brooklyn became world renowned for its architecture, its public works, its cultural resources, and its mass entertainment options. The stately Promenade of Brooklyn Heights, the soaring towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, the high brow offerings of the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the public walkways of Prospect Park and the Coney Island beach and boardwalk all became icons of the American experience during the nineteenth century.
And throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the city-turned-borough continued to thrive, producing global celebrities like Woody Allen, Neil Diamond, George and Ira Gershwin, Rudy Giuliani, Rita Hayworth, Lena Horne, Larry King, Arthur Miller, Mickey Rooney, Jerry Seinfeld, Neil Simon, and Barbra Streisand …
… and that was only during the first half of the century!
It is difficult to pinpoint a precise moment when Brooklyn began its slow but inexorable decline. Some historians cite the year 1955, when the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper folded after more than a century of publication. Others note 1957, when the legendary baseball Dodgers abandoned its ancestral Ebbets Field home and moved across the nation to Los Angeles.
It is also difficult to note the exact moment when the borough hit its nadir. Perhaps that occurred in 1964, when Coney Island based Steeplechase Park was sold to real estate developer Fred Trump, the father of today’s Donald Trump. Or perhaps it occurred in 1991/92, when Brooklyn born heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson went to prison for raping a teenager, and the independent film Straight Out of Brooklyn was honored at the Sundance Film Festival for its bleak portrayal of the Brooklyn housing projects.
Indeed, in the last half of the twentieth century, Brooklyn was easily comparable to Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit as a region in decline. Nevertheless, the first decade of the twenty first century has presented Brooklyn with a very different fate.
An Era of Revival
Although the recent decade has been one of economic and social decline for many regions in the United States, it has actually represented a fairly prosperous period for Brooklyn. Hotels have opened throughout the borough. New parks have opened to the public, and entire new neighborhoods have sprung up along the lengthy shoreline. In addition, CBS has even launched a hit television series about a pair of aspiring women who are seeking success in the neighborhood of Williamsburg.
This recent era of revival may have peaked this past week with the announcement that the New York Islanders, a professional hockey team from Nassau County, will move to Brooklyn and join basketball’s Nets in the new Barclay’s Arena. The Nets have been lionized as a contemporary replacement for the baseball Dodgers; the addition of the Islanders has now been perceived as the proverbial “icing on the cake” of the borough’s renaissance.
But why has Brooklyn been able to regain its historical prominence when so many nineteenth century cities have failed to do so? To what can it attribute its new found prominence?
The Shadows of Manhattan
For centuries, Brooklyn has lingered in the shadows of Manhattan Island. Its proximity to the Great Metropolis has been perceived as an impediment to its development; in fact, some historians believe that the single most damaging event in Brooklyn’s history was its “Great Mistake of 1898” to merge with the other four boroughs.
Nevertheless, that very proximity may have served Brooklyn well during the past decade. Manhattan has continued to defy the national economic malaise, and has grown into what many believe is the world’s preeminent “global city.” Brooklyn has undeniably grown because of waves of new residents who have ventured out from the island of Manhattan in search of less expensive (and yet equally hospitable) neighborhoods.
In other words, a liability in the past era may have now emerged as an asset in the current era. Regrettably, if sheer proximity to Manhattan is the primary driver of Brooklyn’s success, then Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit may need to look elsewhere for a developmental role model.