In undertaking a massive ranking like this one, we understand that maybe, possibly, not everyone is going to agree with us (in fact, we are certain of it). Nonetheless, we've tried to enumerate those Brooklynites who've had the greatest impact on their borough, their city and, in the case of many of our picks, the world at large. Some of our hundred were born in Brooklyn and moved away to greatness, while others came to town with greatness on their shoulders. Please join us for the next couple of weeks as we count down the best of the borough and—though we're sure you need no prompting—let us know if we're missing anyone...
(And no, Barack Obama's brief sojourn in Park Slope doesn't count.)
100 Greatest Brooklynites, Part Two: 90 to 81
100 Greatest Brooklynites, Part Three: 80 to 71
100 Greatest Brooklynites, Part Four: 70 to 61
100 Greatest Brooklynites, Part Five: 60 to 51
100. (tie) TODD P AND LARRY TEE
These two single-initialed scene-building Williamsburgers are, respectively, in many ways responsible for creating a certain image of the neighborhood—impossibly cool, art-hungry and bohemian—that in turn has become international shorthand for the entire borough. That’s obviously pretty silly, but you can’t deny the impact, in image if not art, made by Tee
. (the turn-of-the-century electroclash impresario), and P.
(the King of DIY) on what we think of as “new” Brooklyn.
99. LJ DAVIS
We were lucky enough to have the delightful Davis write for us
a few years back, before he died, and the forthright godfather of Brownstone Brooklyn didn’t disappoint. One of the earliest to see the value of the borough’s now-totemic townhouses, rehabilitating a Boerum Hill building in 1965, Davis also had a keen eye for the self-aggrandizing myopia of his fellow “pioneers” and wrote an essential account of first-wave gentrification in his wonderful novel, A Meaningful Life
(reissued in 2009 with an intro from Jonathan Lethem, a childhood friend of Davis’s son).
98. DOUG STEINER
You know Steiner Studios
, the giant Navy Yard film complex that livery cars will occasionally sneak through on the way from DUMBO to Williamsburg? (Can we reroute that bike lane, already?) Yeah, that’s Doug Steiner’s joint. In a move some saw as “totally crazy” Steiner spearheaded the rehabilitation of the Navy Yard back in 1999, slowly converting his “little” corner of the former shipyard into an enormous, state-of-the-art film studio. Over a decade later, the studio shows no signs of slowing down, hosting blockbuster productions, creating educational partnerships with both Brooklyn College and Carnegie Mellon, and setting an aggressive employment goal of 6,000 jobs over the next decade. So Doug, seriously, that bike lane?
97. ZERO MOSTELSamuel Mostel
, born in Brownsville, is best remembered for his stage work—especially for originating the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof
. But his storied theater career was almost accidental. Surely he would have made a career in pictures and television, had he not been blacklisted after B-movie screenwriter (and one of Brooklyn’s Worst People Ever) Martin Berkeley fingered him as a Communist, along with 154 other industry members; Mostel survived the 1950s mostly by selling paintings—he was also an artist—but there was no blacklist on the New York stage, where he would eventually win a Tony for Tevye, earning him an invitation to the White House. Take that, HUAC. Later, he would return to the movies, starring in The Producers
as Max Bialystock, dubiously laying the foundation for Nathan Lane to make a billion dollars.
Bjork might not immediately come to mind as a Brooklynite, but the wonderfully idiosyncratic
Icelander was a Williamsburg regular back around the turn-of-the-century (when it was… kind of cool?) and now makes her home in Brooklyn Heights, where she contracts locals to craft one-of-a-kind instruments for her and just generally spreads her quirky Bjork goodness across the borough. You ccould even say that where Bjork goes, she’s in Bjorklyn. Heh. Sorry.
95. RICHARD DREYFUSS
Born in Flatbush, little Richard Dreyfuss would leave Brooklyn by the age of nine, eventually settling down in Beverly Hills. Which, yeah, California was really the best place for a budding actor to be; in his late 20s, the wheezy-voiced performer would team up with Spielberg to become not only a star but a part of film history—first in Jaws
, then Close Encounters of the Third Kind
, in which he would forever change the way we played with our mashed potatoes. The rest of his career has been varied: he narrated Stand By Me
, freaked the fuck out
in What About Bob?
, took on Academy tearjerking in Mr. Holland's Opus
, and was a dead ringer for Dick Cheney in W
. But to us he'll always be James Krippendorf, the corrupt, embezzling anthropologist from Krippendorf's Tribe
94. JOAN RIVERS
Yes, Joan Rivers
, a great Brooklynite. Sure, you might find her crass, narcississtic and in a constant fugue of self-promotion, but Joan Alexandra Molinsky is actually pretty funny. And c’mon, she’s basically been in the public eye, as a funny lady, for over half a century. Fun fact: one of Rivers’s earliest roles on stage was as a lesbian attracted to a then-unknown (and fellow great Brooklynite) Barbra Streisand.
93. BEN VEREEN
Benjamin Augustus Middleton may not have been born in Bed-Stuy, but his adoptive family moved him there while he was still an infant. Less than 20 years later, he was dancing
for Bob Fosse, and quickly landed starring roles in some of the era's defining musicals: Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar
, and Pippin
. For the latter, he won a Tony, after which he didn't appear on a stage for more than a decade. Instead, he did more movies and television work—like, um, a little-seen miniseries called Roots
92. BETTY SMITH
Some of us might blame Betty Smith for the literally thousands of “A ___ Grows in Brooklyn” headlines that have cursed the Fifth Estate nigh on these 50 years; and while, yes, that particular construction is deeply irritating, it’s unfair to blame her lovely tale of a Williamsburg childhood for the sins of headline writers. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a lovely, bittersweet book, immensely popular in its day, and is perhaps more valuable to us now as a time capsule of Brooklyn at the beginning of the last century, than it is as a literary masterwork.
91. PAT BENATAR
Born Patricia Mae Andrzejewski in Greenpoint, the woman we know (and some of us love
) as Pat Benatar went on to become a major pop star in the 80s, earning four (consecutive!) Grammy Awards, recording 19 top-40 singles, and creating a fashion template that abides to this day in certain of the more ridiculous backwaters of youthful adornment. Benatar’s best song is, arguably, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” which has inspired generations of hockey players to improve their level of play, and is one of our favorite things to hear between face-offs.