Inspired by the New York Times's "A History of New York in 50 Objects" which was inspired by the British Museum's radio series on the BBC "A History of the World in 100 Objects," I decided to put together a history of Brooklyn in 20 objects. While the Times and the British Museum spoke with historians and museum curators to compile their lists, I spoke with the voices in my own head—of which there are MANY who possess varying degrees of authority—and came up with a collection of Brooklyn icons that are no less exalted for not being chosen by an expert.
Fuck the experts. This is Brooklyn. This is how we get things done here.
20) Wyckoff Farmhouse
We'll start at the very beginning of Brooklyn's history, when it was called Breuckelen by the Dutch as they settled here, on the western tip of Long Island. Several of the original Dutch farmhouses built in neighborhoods like Boswijck (Bushwick) and Gravenzende (Gravesend) still stand, but the Wyckoff Farmhouse is the oldest house still standing. Built in 1652 (before New Amsterdam was even chartered), the Wyckoff Farmhouse was built by Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, who arrived in Breukelen as an "illiterate teenage farm laborer" to become a "successful farmer and magistrate." He and his wife had eleven kids and are thought to have upwards of 50,000 descendants. So, wow. The house is now a museum. Go visit and imagine living their with eleven kids and feel lucky that you manage to get by with only 2 roommates.
The Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House, 5816 Clarendon Road Brooklyn, NY 11203
19) The Stoop
This is why you moved here, right? To do some stoop-drinking? The Brooklyn stoop is an icon and those who have one are the envy of those who live in those horrible, stabbing reaches of glass and metal on the Williamsburg waterfront. The word "stoop," like the words "cookie" and "coleslaw," is a lexical gift from our friends the Dutch. And you know the Dutch would totally love for all of us here in Brooklyn to knock back a few beers and eat a few cookies, sitting on our stoops.
18) Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument
This memorial in Fort Greene Park was designed by legendary architect Stanford White of the firm McKim, Meade and White, and honors the 11,500 American men who died on British prison ships during the Revolutionary War. Brooklyn was an important location for several events during the war, including the Battle of Brooklyn and the center of the American Intelligence Network. But perhaps the worst atrocities of the war occurred in the waters just off the coast of Brooklyn, where eleven British war ships were used as jails for prisoners of war. The men on the ships died mainly of disease and neglect, but get a load of this fact—more men died on those ships than died in all the battles of the rest of the war COMBINED. Now when you see the elegant white marble column rising up through the greenery of the park, you can horrify your friends with that fact without having to go over and read the plaque.
17) "Red Legged Devils"
The 14th Military Regiment from the great city of Brooklyn was an all-volunteer militia regiment—primarily made up from abolitionists—that was created during the Civil War. Brooklyn was a much more fervent supporter of the Union and the abolitionist movement than its craven neighbor, New York. The men of the 14th fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the War and were known for their resolute and orderly nature and their all-red trousers. Today, the Armory in Park Slope has a statue honoring the 14th Regiment for their tenacity and lofty cause.
16) Prospect Park
Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux—who also designed Central Park, which you might have heard of—Prospect Park was built in 1867, following the completion of Central Park. Prospect Park was built because of a sudden. and spot-on, recognition that the exponential growth that both the city of New York and the city of Brooklyn were experiencing would lead to elimination of green spaces, if the existing green spaces weren't carefully preserved.
And that's how you birth a park!
Prospect Park is the largest park in Brooklyn and features Brooklyn's only lake, (duckweed infested, but still lovely) horseback-riding trails, waterfalls, the first urban Audobon Center, and a small Quaker cemetery where actor Montgomery Clift is buried. Weird! Who knew?
15) Brooklyn Bridge
My lovely, though maybe misguided, brother said to me not long ago, "Kristin, do you think the George Washington Bridge is the most famous bridge in the world?"
I laughed long and hard and replied, "Dude. It's not even the most famous bridge in this city. Not even close."
That honor, of course, goes to the Brooklyn Bridge, whose gothic arches inspire more reverence in me than any of Brooklyn's religious institutions. Sorry, Jehovah's Witness Watchtower! You've got nothing on this beauty!
So, this isn't actually an OBJECT, but this year is iconic in Brooklyn's history, because this is the year that all five boroughs became incorporated into one larger City of New York. No more was Brooklyn the "Twin City" of New York, as was referenced in the Emma Lazarus poem that graces the base of the Statue of Liberty. It's not that Brooklyn was diminished exactly, but, well, let's face it—Brooklyn was diminished by this. More than one hundred years later, Brooklyn is diminished by no one, especially not some dinky, little phallic island to our direct north-west. Brooklyn is part of Long Island, after all, and that's the largest and most phallic island in the WORLD. Yeah, Brooklyn!
Dreamland was a Coney Island amusement park that was built in 1904 and stood until 1911, when it burned to the ground in a horrific fire. It was primarily a freak show, complete with a one-armed lion tamer, premature babies languishing in incubators, and a "Lilliputian Village" with hundred of little people in residence. What's not to like? Unfortunately, the night before it was set to open for the season in 1911, a fire broke out in the area called Hell's Gate (HOW can that even be thought of as just a mere coincidence? creepy!) and chaos ensued. Premature babies needed to be rescued, lions broke loose! It was insanity. Dreamland did not re-open after the catastrophic fire, but its thrills live on every time someone pops his or her Cyclone cherry and gets mild whiplash.
12) The Trolley
Before being taken over by the NYC Board of Transportation in 1940, Brooklyn was crisscrossed by trolley lines that simply MUST have gotten people around better than the subways currently do. I mean, the subways are great and everything for going inter-borough. But taking the subway from one place in Brooklyn to another? Without having to detour into Manhattan? It's not so easy! Can you be nostalgic for things you've never experienced? Of course you can! And so I'm nostalgic for the Brooklyn trolley system. But it's gone. Gone!
11) Brooklyn Dodgers
Much like the trolleys from which their name derived, the Brooklyn Dodgers are nothing but a memory anymore. But it's important to preserve their memory, because if ever a team defined its hometown, it was the Brooklyn Dodgers. Originally called the Brooklyn Grays, the team became known as the Trolley Dodgers because of the obstacle course-like feat it took to get through the speeding Brooklyn trolleys and over to Ebbets Field. Soon shortened to the Dodgers, the team was involved in two major inter-city rivalries, against its fellow National Leaguers, the New York Giants, and its hated American League opponents, the Yankees (boooo!!! hissss!!!!) The unofficial Dodger slogan of "Wait till next year!" came about after the Dodgers faced the Yankees FIVE times in the World Series in the 1940s and early 50s, losing every time. Finally, FINALLY, the team won in 1955 and was vindicated at last. Brooklyn was the first team to integrate its roster with the addition of Jackie Robinson in 1947, and while the fact that Robinson was a truly stellar player had a lot to do with that decision, the General Manager of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, was also a man who was very committed to social justice. Which, how Brooklyn is that? Very!
Unfortunately, the still reviled O'Malley family moved the team to Los Angeles of all places in 1958 and Brooklyn has been without a professional sports team ever since. All of that will be remedied with the coming of the Nets this November though, so, let's go Nets!
10) Farrell's Bar
Located in the traditionally blue-collar neighborhood of Windsor Terrace, Farrell's tells a very specific kind of Brooklyn history, one that seems to be vanishing quicker and quicker every day. Although it was built in 1933, Farrell's does not choose to cash in on its original speakeasy cred. In fact, it is both a testimony to a certain anti-nostalgia feeling that is very rare in Brooklyn these days, and also a kind of resolute old-fashioned quality that can't be replicated. Farrell's is perhaps best known for not allowing women to come in until only a few years ago (with the possibly lone exception of Shirley Maclaine back in the 70s.) However, it ought to be known for being one of the last true neighborhood bars, one that serves its beers in styrofoam cups, so you can drink them on the street, the way god intended.
9) Brooklyn Social Clubs
They still exist. These groups of guys—older, they're always older—who hang out together on chairs outside of their storefronts, smoking cigarettes, talking a little, staring out at their neighborhoods. They disappear inside for a while, talking about their...well, who knows what? I certainly don't. I'm about as far from being in one of these clubs as a person could be. But they are a part of the fabric of many Brooklyn neighborhoods: Bensonhurst, Sheepshead Bay, and Carroll Gardens—the hood where men like this were immortalized in "Motherless Brooklyn." Even as their neighborhoods change around them, they'll still be there, drinking their espressos, watching.
8) Ken-Tile Floor Sign
A beloved part of the skyline for those of us who take the F as it rises for two stops above the Gowanus Canal, as if on the knobby spine of a brontosaurus, the Ken-Tile Floor sign is a reminder of both Brooklyn's industrial past and of the economic ruin that those industries eventually dealt with. The Ken-TIle company once employed hundreds of people in Brooklyn, reaching the peak of its success in the 1960s. Unfortunately, its best-selling product was a floor tile made of asbestos. So—long story short—the company went bankrupt in the early 1990s. But we've still got the sign! So there's that.
7) Di Fara Pizza
There are a lot of foods that scream Brooklyn. Bagels, hot dogs, egg creams, artisanal pickled ramps (ok, that's a newer addition) but maybe none more so than pizza. And choosing the iconic Brooklyn slice is no easy feat. Do you go with Grimaldi's, where the lines have been known to reduce a grown man to tears? Or L&B Spumoni Gardens, with their perfect square but less than perfect slice? I'm going to have to go with Di Fara, I guess, because, not only is the pizza delicious and the assembly of each pie an act of artistic genius, but the fact that it's a family run business on an out of the way corner in Midwood makes it a true Brooklyn gem.
Di Fara Pizza 1424 Avenue J Brooklyn, NY 11230
6) Water Towers
Brooklyn is not the vertical sprawl of Manhattan, it stretches out horizontally, splaying out gently to the coast line. What this means is that we get a lot of roof views. And one of the most recognizable objects springing up from roof tops is the humble water tower. The typical NYC water tower is a Platonic design ideal, spare and functional, yet interesting to look at and immediately recognizable for being what it is. So, we love them, these water towers. They are Brooklyn.
5) Do the RIght Thing
There have been so many movies and TV shows shot in Brooklyn, but "Do the Right Thing" was made by a Brooklyn filmmaker, Spike Lee, and defines a place and time in Brooklyn that is essential to understanding Brooklyn's history. Plus? This was the movie that Barack and Michelle Obama saw on their first date. Mitt and Ann Romney saw "Birth of a Nation." No! No, they didn't. They saw "The Sound of Music." Which DEFINITELY does not take place in Brooklyn. Not even close.
4) Game of Thongs
The thong defines a certain part of Brooklyn at a certain time of year. That's right. I'm talking about Brighton Beach in the summer time. All the men wear thongs there. Big men, small men, skinny men, fat men, hairy men, more hairy men. MORE HAIRY MEN. This has come to define Brooklyn bathing. No cool Rockaways-esque impromptu fashion shows occur on the Brighton Beach boardwalk. Oh, no! Over here—like, I suppose, in Mother Russia—it is all about the thong.
3) Street Art
There is a huge variety in the street art in Brooklyn, from crudely scribbled tags to elaborately crafted and conceived wheat-paste murals that transform the sides of building into canvasses. The one thing Brooklyn street art is, though, is everywhere. This borough is a feast for the eyes. And sometimes the food tastes like shit (we're looking at you, guy who tags "backfat" everywhere!) But often times, it is a beautiful way of communicating a message to a large, public audience who might never have known what the artist was otherwise trying to tell them. And there's no better way to have commemorated the life of Biggie than the crazy, awesome murals that went up all over Bed-Stuy after his death.
Are writers objects? No, no. I decided that writers could not be objects. But their laptops certainly are. And they are everywhere. No self-respecting Brooklynite would dare use a computer that wasn't a Mac these days. Their ubiquity is evident in every coffee shop in the borough. I really should have put iPhones up here too. Because no one uses a Droid in Brooklyn. You just can't pull that kind of shit over here. Take it to Staten Island. Tell them that a Droid is just as good as an iPhone. They might not look at you with total contempt. Standards are different over there, I hear.
Ah, hipsters. If there's anything that Brooklyn has come to be known for these past few years, it is the rise of the hipster. But what is a hipster exactly? Is it just a totally oblivious asshole who ruins things by taking himself and his aesthetic considerations too seriously? Or is "hipster" just a contemptuous way to dismiss the influx of young people who came to Brooklyn after being priced-out of Manhattan? I don't know! Obviously, many awful people descended on Brooklyn in the last decade, people who care for little more than artfully arranging their scarves. But I think those people are in the minority. I think that most people who are derided as hipsters are just people who care about the things they put on and in their bodies, people who care about their immediate environment and the environment at large. There's nothing wrong with that.
I wish people would stop saying hipsters are the worst people in the world. Everyone knows that bankers are the worst people in the world. And they represent Manhattan. Naturally.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen