The Last of the Norwegians March in Bay Ridge

05/16/2011 3:41 PM |

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This weekend, the New York area’s Norwegian community descended on Bay Ridge for a weekend of festivals and parades in observance of Norway’s independence day, which is actually tomorrow. I didn’t make it to the parade because, like a typical Scandinavian, I was up late on Saturday contemplating man’s place in the universe and his relationship to a silent creator. As atonement for this absence—mine, not god’s—here’s a bit of local history.

Norwegian Constitution Day marks the date in 1814 that the Scandinavian nation declared its independence. Though Norway would remain in a forced union with Sweden for almost another century, Norwegians celebrate May 17 as their independence day. Like our Fourth of July, it’s their syttende mai.

For decades, Brooklyn’s Norwegians have celebrated, too—with a parade. In the 1890s, Scandinavians began pouring into New York, settling in areas with access to waterfront work. (The immigrants were largely sailors, dockworkers and other maritime types.) By the mid-20th Century, the greatest concentration of Norwegians was in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park; Eight Avenue, now Chinatown’s main thoroughfare, was once nicknamed “Lapskaus Boulevard,” after a staple meat-stew. It was down this street that the Norwegians would march every May. The King of Norway himself would sometimes attend.

“When my mother was a child, growing up…on the southern coast of Norway, she heard one story after another about the Norwegians of Brooklyn,” the novelist Siri Hustvedt recently told Brooklyn Magazine. “She heard so many stories, in fact, that she firmly believed Brooklyn was inhabited only by Norwegians.”

During the urban decline of the mid-20th Century, many Scandinavians left Brooklyn; many of the few who remained moved south, to neighboring Bay Ridge. An elderly woman once stopped me on line in a post office there: it was so rare, she said, to see a young person in the neighborhood who looked so Scandinavian.

The community left behind traces of itself. A specialty foods shop sells lingonberries; Lutheran churches pepper the avenues; a park takes its name from Viking explorer Leif Ericson; a bakery makes kransekake on demand; you can still find a towheaded kid or two with a last name like Carlsen. And, on the Sunday nearest the 17th of May, civic groups, churches, local marching bands and Miss Norway still get together to march down Fifth Avenue and celebrate Norwegian independence.

[photo from Bay Ridge Journal, which has a whole great bunch!]