Schlep in the City: Carroll Gardens From the Creek to the Point

By Benjamin Serby

The leafy Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens is nestled between Degraw Street (or Sackett, depending on your source) to the north and Hamilton Avenue to the south, bounded to the east by either Hoyt or Bond Street (again, answers may vary) and Hicks Street to the west. It’s just a small slice of the borough’s “brownstone belt,” but it packs a wallop, as any pizza enthusiast will tell you. With its deep front lawns, stoop-sitters, and tiny pasticcerias, Carroll Gardens is a unique corner of the city, to be sure — but, in many respects, its past and present tell us much about New York City as a whole.

Looking west across the Carroll Street Bridge  (Photo Credit: Nathan Kensinger, Curbed New York).

Looking west across the Carroll Street Bridge (Photo Credit: Nathan Kensinger, Curbed New York).

The following walking tour (or schlep, if you prefer) weaves together the area’s history of immigration, labor, commerce, urban design, ecology, religion, race, gentrification, and much else. We begin and end on the waterfront: the lifeblood of the area until the last half-century, as is largely true of this city more broadly. The shifting demographics of Carroll Gardens — flows of immigration, out-migration, and resettlement — and the politics around them (reflected in parish boundaries and in battles over the locations of public schools and public housing) mirror patterns in similar outer-borough neighborhoods. But where Carroll Gardens differs from, say, Morris Park in the Bronx, is its decades-long, ongoing emergence from a working-class and predominantly Italian enclave to an affluent neighborhood with stratospheric property values. In contrast to, say, Williamsburg, here, a combination of old-world provincialism and genteel preservationism has checked development, slowed the rapid transformation of the built environment, and prevented the displacement of the people inhabiting it. The result is that vestiges of an older era linger here in a way that they don’t quite even in neighboring Cobble Hill. From certain angles, and on certain blocks, you feel as though you can see Carroll Gardens — and New York City — much as it was in 1950. Let’s get started.

Stop #1: Condos on the Canal

We begin our tour at the Carroll Street Bridge over the Gowanus Canal. The cobblestone approach and wood planks attest to the fact that this is no ordinary bridge. In fact, it is the oldest of four retractile bridges in the United States (constructed in 1889), and it is the only wooden bridge in the city that carries cars. As recently as the 1990s, the Carroll Street Bridge was retracted almost twice daily in order to allow passage for waterborne traffic to and from the paint factories, oil depots, sand and gravel suppliers, and warehouses lining the canal, but with the decline of industry in the area these deliveries have since become far less frequent.[1]

From the bridge, let’s take in the view of the neighborhood’s gritty backside — but don’t inhale too deeply. For decades, this famously acrid body of water carried untold tons of raw sewage and industrial chemicals into the Gowanus Bay. The canal remains contaminated, but it won’t be for long: the EPA recently began a major cleanup of the toxic sludge lining the canal basin, and a “brand new bottom” should be ready as soon as 2022.[2]Plans to redevelop the area for residential and commercial use have, predictably, followed. At the western foot of the bridge is a newly opened 270-unit luxury apartment building that promises prospective tenants “an authentic living space” and the services of a “lifestyle concierge.”[3] Across the street is a stylish bar, Lavender Lake, whose owners have revived the Gowanus’s late-nineteenth century nickname (in reference to its erstwhile pinkish hue). Let’s move to higher ground.

Stop #2: What’s In A Name?

As we approach Carroll Park, we pass along some of the most picturesque blocks in the neighborhood. In accordance with the 1846 plan devised by a land surveyor with the unfortunate name of Richard Butts, the neat rows of elegant brownstones that you see are all set back 33.5 feet from the street — leaving room for the district’s eponymous gardens, many of which are replete with rose bushes, fig trees, and Madonna statuettes. The developers who raised these blocks after the Civil War took a somewhat coordinated approach to the construction of the mostly neo-Grec and late Italianate homes that line them, shipping in the brownstone from quarries in Connecticut and New Jersey and giving the area a remarkably coherent aesthetic in the process.[4]

View of Carroll Park  (Photo Credit: Jim Henderson)

View of Carroll Park (Photo Credit: Jim Henderson)

At this point, a word on nomenclature is in order. The approximately forty blocks that we now know as “Carroll Gardens” remained a rural district from 1636 — when the Dutch West India Company took possession of what was previously Mohawk land – until the middle of the nineteenth century. After 1850, the areas close to the waterfront south of Atlantic Avenue (including today’s Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Red Hook) became known as “South Brooklyn.”[5] This park was named around the same time — after Charles Carroll, Maryland’s first senator and the only Catholic signatory to the Declaration of Independence.[6] But it was not until 1964 that “Carroll Gardens” was concocted by young businesspeople seeking to burnish the area’s reputation (primarily in order to distinguish it from blighted Red Hook).[7] The name soon caught on with realtors and local residents, one of whom told a reporter in 1969: “A few years ago, when I tried to take a cab home… the driver would ask me where Third Place was and I would say Red Hook […] Sometimes the driver refused to take me. Now I say Carroll Gardens and there’s no problem.”[8]

Neighborhood definitions, as any New Yorker knows, are about property values. But they also communicate who belongs and who does not. Though this area used to be considered a part of Red Hook, it was long divided between “Pointers,” who lived near the seaport, and “Creekers,” from closer to the canal. “We had pie and cake wars in them days,” a retired longshoreman (and Creeker) recalled of his childhood when interviewed in 1981. “If one of them came onto our side, we’d surround the fellow and ask which he liked better, pie or cake. If he gave the wrong answer, we’d beat him. There was no right answer. They did the same to us, be sure.”[9] After the Second World War, this brutal enforcement of geographic boundaries acquired an ugly racial dimension. In the late 1960s, Carroll Gardens residents overwhelmingly opposed the city’s plans to locate integrated public housing and a new public high school in the neighborhood: “The possibility of an influx of nonwhites,” the Times observed, “worries many residents of this solidly white, working-class area.”[10] And the 1980s and 1990s saw a string of hate crimes against black youths from Red Hook who had ventured onto the wrong turf. “It’s boundaries,” one 16-year-old explained. “You pass the line, you get chased out.”[11]

Stop #3: In the Club

Unsurprisingly, in light of such parochialism, this area has managed to retain its character over many generations. In Working-Class New York, labor historian Joshua Freeman notes that Italian-American neighborhoods were distinctive in the late twentieth century for having “a palpably closed air, their residents traveling elsewhere only when absolutely necessary and exhibiting deep hostility to outsiders.” He continues: “The intense familialism that southern Italians brought with them gave their communities greater stability than other ethnic neighborhoods, and greater insularity.”[12] As we mosey our way southward along Court Street, the evidence of this is all around us: in the Italian names gracing the awnings and windows of many of the shops; and in the familiarity with which the elderly residents exchange pleasantries and gossip.

Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Cultural and Social Club, at the corner of Fourth Place and Court Street  (Photo Credit: Christina Figueroa, Bridge Puglia USA)

Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Cultural and Social Club, at the corner of Fourth Place and Court Street (Photo Credit: Christina Figueroa, Bridge Puglia USA)

At the Van Westerhout cultural and social club, on the corner of 4th Place, we pause to hear the mostly elderly men (women are excluded) chat with one another in Bari dialect. This establishment, founded in 1960, is one of five clubs in south Brooklyn specifically open to those who can trace their ancestry to Mola di Bari, a small fishing village on the Adriatic Coast. (The strikingly northern European name honors a composer whose Flemish ancestors immigrated to the town in the 17th century.) As of 2016, Van Westerhout had about 100 members, 30 of whom lived in Carroll Gardens.[13]

Italians began settling in this area of Brooklyn in the late nineteenth century, most coming from Sicily and Naples. Nearly 80 per cent of these immigrants were men, and many only stayed temporarily, earning higher wages here before returning to their native villages. But enough remained that by the time the Molesi began to arrive in the interwar period, a thriving Italian community had been established.[14] We tend to associate immigration from Southern Europe with the period leading up to the First World War, but Italians kept on arriving in significant numbers after the 1940s — and at an even higher rate after federal immigration laws were liberalized in 1965.[15] As upwardly mobile second- and third-generation Italian-Americans relocated to Bensonhurst, Staten Island, and New Jersey, immigrants from Mola and elsewhere in the Mezzogiorno continued to replenish the area’s Italian population well into the twentieth century.

Stop #4: God’s Country

Sacred Hearts & St. Stephen, from across the BQE  (Photo Credit: Antonina Zielinska, The Tablet)

Sacred Hearts & St. Stephen, from across the BQE (Photo Credit: Antonina Zielinska, The Tablet)

As we make our way west along Carroll Street, we are reminded of the presence of another set of migrants: the upper-middle-class professionals and young families who first moved into the area in the 1960s, purchasing and restoring relatively inexpensive fixer-uppers, and whose numbers have mushroomed ever since. By 2012, the proportion of self-identified Italian-Americans in the area had declined to 22% (from 52% in 1980), while median income doubled over the same period.[16]

If the demographics of the neighborhood are shifting, the history of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary & St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church, at Hicks and Summit Streets, serves as a reminder that this was not always an Italian neighborhood. For almost a century, the district was virtually “dominated by the Irish,” who owned or rented most of the homes and “worked the wharves, shipyards, gas tanks, and industrial facilities” that employed most locals.[17] As the Italian community grew, the archdiocese gerrymandered its South Brooklyn parishes along ethnic lines to keep tensions between the two major Catholic populations from boiling over. This beautiful church, dedicated in 1875, originally housed St. Stephen, the Irish congregation; Sacred Heart, the first Italian parish in Brooklyn, was established seven years later. It was not until the 1940s, when Robert Moses’s infamous “meat axe” slashed through the neighborhood (a recessed stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway roars just beside the building) that the Archbishop mandated a merger of the two parishes. As most Irish had already left the neighborhood, Italian worshippers easily integrated into a church where they “were once not considered welcome.”[18] In 1948, a replica of Mola’s patron saint was shipped over from Italy, and the statue has been carried around Carroll Gardens twice each year ever since (on Good Friday and on the second Sunday in September) in a procession that regularly draws former residents and visitors from near and far.[19]

Stop #5: Past, Present, and Future


It’s a brisk walk from here to the base of Henry Street in Red Hook Park, where we can close this tour by taking in the view of the Gowanus Bay and the ghostly profile of the Port of New York Grain Elevator Terminal. Here, we return to the neighborhood’s origins in the mid-nineteenth century, when local businessman and politician James S.T. Stranahan opened the Atlantic Dock Company along this stretch of waterfront — an operation that soon grew into “the largest grain-handling depot and warehouse system on the Atlantic Coast,” rivaling the ports of London and Liverpool in trade volume and storage capacity.[20] For roughly a century, the docks facing the bay between Hamilton Avenue and Imlay Street were a critical port of entry for cargo arriving from the interior (via the Erie Canal) and from across the ocean. At times, they also functioned as a marketplace where wholesalers and buyers met to bargain over goods. An 1894 New York Tribune article vividly describes the scene: “It is here that the Long Island farmer comes after seed potatoes to replenish his rundown stock, and the thrifty boarding-house keeper saves many a dollar by buying produce from first hands.”[21]

The Port of New York Grain Terminal, viewed from Red Hook Park  (Photo Credit: Ali Hussain)

The Port of New York Grain Terminal, viewed from Red Hook Park (Photo Credit: Ali Hussain)

As you can see, things are much quieter now. By the middle of the twentieth-century, the docks — long the main source of employment for men living in the area — were seeing less and less action. The monumental structure before us, built in 1922, only remained in use for thirty-three years before its deactivation in 1954.[22] Much of the Brooklyn waterfront, including the entire Brooklyn Navy Yard, shut down in the 1960s after the Port Authority of New York opened a new shipping terminal in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Meanwhile, the introduction of “containerization” reduced the need for large numbers of manual laborers, resulting in massive layoffs; from a postwar high of 30,000, the Brooklyn docks employed just 7,000 people by 1972.[23]

A new container port, situated along the Columbia Street waterfront, opened in 1981 (after years of delay); it remains in operation today, though it only employs a relatively small number of people.[24] In short, the docks no longer provide the relatively stable and remunerative work that they once did to generations of unskilled workers. For the mainly nonwhite residents of the nearly 3,000 units of public housing located just blocks away from here, the waterfront poses less of an opportunity than a threat: the entirety of this low-lying peninsula (contemporary “Red Hook”) — divided from the posh neighborhoods to its north and to its east by highways, and long plagued by high unemployment and poverty — is in Flood Zone 1. More than four years after Hurricane Sandy tore through the area, inhabitants of the NYCHA-managed Red Hook Houses reported unfixed water damage, leaks, and mold (some of it even dating from before the storm).[25] As we head back north, skirting a forlorn stretch of overgrown fields sealed off by a chain link fence, we are reminded of this area’s alternately triumphant and troubled past — and left to contemplate its uncertain future.

Benjamin Serby is a doctoral candidate in U.S. History at Columbia University. He lives in Carroll Gardens.

Notes

[1]
Joseph Berger, “Antique Bridge Closed to Traffic While It's Open For Repairs,” New York Times, May 14, 2013.

[2] Caroline Spivack, “Gowanus Canal Superfund Cleanup Begins: ‘You’re Gonna Smell Some Smells,’” DNAinfo, October 25, 2017, https://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20171025/gowanus/gowanus-canal-superfund-cleanup

[3] “363 Bond Street,” accessed July 31, 2018. https://www.363bondstreet.com/

[4] New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, “Carroll Gardens Historic District Designation Report,” September 25, 1973.

[5] “Our Brooklyn: Carroll Gardens,” (accessed July 31, 2018). https://www.bklynlibrary.org/ourbrooklyn/carrollgardens/index.html.

[6] Hannah Frishberg, “A Senator From Maryland: How Carroll Gardens Got Its Name,” Brownstoner, May 19, 2016, https://www.brownstoner.com/history/carroll-gardens-brooklyn-neighborhood-name-history-origins/

[7] See: Suleiman Osman, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 201-202.

[8] “Neighborhoods: The Mood Is Changing Along the Gowanus Canal,” New York Times, Sep 20, 1969.

[9] Molly Ivins, “Red Hook Survives Hard Times Into New Era,” New York Times, Nov 16, 1981.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Douglas Martin, “At the Scene of a Beating, A Line Divides 2 Worlds in Brooklyn,” New York Times, Sep 28, 1997. See also: “Whites Attack Minority Youths,” New York Times, Sep 11, 1987; and George James, “Reports of Racial Assaults Rise Significantly in New York City,” New York Times, Sep 23, 1987.

[12] Joshua B. Freeman, Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II (New York: The New Press, 2001), 33.

[13] Lisa M. Collins, “Italian Club: Pride, Place, War,” South Brooklyn Post, September 21, 2016, http://southbrooklynpost.com/2016/09/italian-social-club/.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Whereas, in 1965, 10,821 emigrated from Italy to the United States, between 1965 and 1975, an average 25,000 Italians came over every year (of whom about one-third settled in the New York City area). See: Susan Jacoby, “A Dream Grows In Brooklyn,” New York Times, Feb 23, 1975.

[16] John Freeman Gill, “New Roots in Carroll Gardens,” New York Times, March 11, 2014.

[17] Mike Wallace, Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898 to 1919 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 274.

[18] John L. Heyer II, “Parish History,” accessed July 31, 2018, http://sacredhearts-ststephen.com/parish-info/parish-history/

[19] “Maria SS. Addolorata: Patroness of Mola di Bari, Italy,” accessed July 31, 2018, http://www.mariaaddolorata.com/

[20] “Great Stores of Grain: The Atlantic Basin A Factor In Brooklyn’s Growth,” New York Tribune, Jun 17, 1894.

[21] Ibid. See also: Connor Gaudet, “Red Hook History: Leveling Carroll Gardens To Fill in Red Hook – a 19th Century Project,” Red Hook Star-Revue, April 1, 2015, http://www.star-revue.com/red-hook-history-leveling-carroll-gardens-to-fill-in-red-hook-a-19th-century-project-by-connor-gaudet/#sthash.jl8KPA6Z.wHMB9nXe.dpbs

[22] Norval White & Elliot Willensky, AIA Guide to New York, 4th Edition, (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), 686.

[23] Jonathan Kandell, “Waiting on the Waterfront: Dockers Assess Plan To Save Port Dockers Awaiting Decision on Pier,” New York Times; Mar 12, 1972.

[24] Bagli, Charles, “Shipping Is Up in Brooklyn, but Future Is Shaky, New York Times; Jun 29, 2006.

[25] Nikhita Venugopal, “Mold Issues Persist in Red Hook Houses After Sandy, Report Finds,” DNAinfo, October 28, 2016, https://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20161028/red-hook/red-hook-houses-nycha-mold-hurricane-sandy/