New York 11th District
Brooklyn. Just saying the word in a comedian’s monologue used to elicit laughter. It evoked an accent of twisted English, a raucous, in-your-face style, a sense of humor with an edge, and the chip-on-the-shoulder assertiveness of those sure they will always be in second place. Brooklyn would never be more important than Manhattan; the Dodgers would always lose the World Series to the Yankees or the pennant to the Giants, and when they finally did win, in 1955, they moved to Los Angeles two years later. As its name testifies, Brooklyn was a separate community (named after the Dutch town Breukelen) from the 17th century on, and in the 19th century, it was one of the largest cities in the country, with its own celebrities—Henry Ward Beecher, Walt Whitman, John Roebling. By 1898, when the five boroughs were welded into Greater New York, 1 million people lived in Brooklyn, but the Brooklyn of the comedians really came into being as the subways were built in the early 20th century. In 1913, a transit agreement was struck to link the city’s then-independent lines and triple the track to 619 miles. The agreement helped Brooklyn expand well beyond its established neighborhoods near the Brooklyn Bridge and into then-rural southwestern Brooklyn.
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Suddenly, Manhattan factory workers no longer had to live in the crowded Lower East Side tenements that social reformer Jacob Riis had exposed in the 1890s. They moved in droves into neighborhoods of three- to five-story apartments and four-family houses. Brooklyn grew from 1.1 million in 1900 to 1.6 million in 1910 to 2 million in 1920 and to 2.6 million in 1930. The old Brooklynites were mostly Protestant—Dutch, Yankee and German, plus some Catholic Irish. The new Brooklynites were heavily Italian and Jewish, and they populated the sports and entertainment businesses for a long generation, making their hometown nationally famous. In 1940, Brooklyn had 2.7 million people: One of every 49 Americans lived in Brooklyn. The heart of the old Brooklyn was Ebbetts Field, where the Dodgers played. Around the time Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 as the first black player in Major League Baseball, Brooklyn was experiencing an influx of blacks into Brownsville and Crown Heights near Ebbetts Field. Just as rapid was the flight of ethnic whites, driven away by “blockbusting,” in which hard-nosed real estate brokers stoked white fears, then bought their homes cheaply and re-sold high. After “Dem Bums” left for Los Angeles in 1958 and Ebbetts Field was knocked down for an apartment complex, Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods continued to grow.
By 2007, Brooklyn had 2.5 million people and was no longer a staple of national comedy. Some of its old neighborhoods have been ravaged by crime, but there is also great vitality among upwardly mobile Hispanic, Asian, Caribbean and Russian immigrants, among the hard-working, middle-class blacks, and among new generations of Italians and Jews. A change in zoning laws in 2004 resulted in a burst of new residential and office-space construction that has reinvigorated Brooklyn’s commercial district.
The 11th Congressional District of New York begins at the edge of downtown Brooklyn and includes some of the borough’s jewels: the Grand Army Plaza, the Parisian-style Eastern Parkway (the world’s first six-lane parkway) and Prospect Park, home to the Brooklyn Library, the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, with its Japanese landscaping and placid duck ponds. Park Slope, on Prospect Park’s west side, has become increasingly affluent, filling up with young professionals who appreciate the easy commute to downtown Manhattan. On the east side of Prospect Park is Crown Heights, with its mix of modest apartment buildings and nicely restored row houses. However, it was the scene of violent clashes between blacks and Hasidic Jews in 1991 (the Lubavitch Hasidim, who make up the largest Hasidic sect in the world, are headquartered in Crown Heights). Prospect Park South, also adjoining the park, is an affluent neighborhood with artsy yuppies whose stately mansions contrast sharply with the vibrant Caribbean street life just around the corner on Flatbush’s Church Avenue and with struggling, depopulated Brownsville to the east. Most of these neighborhoods have great ethnic diversity. One minute you are in “La Saline,” a center of the Haitian community in the East Flatbush-Crown Heights area, nicknamed for the slum district of Port-au-Prince, and the next, you are in “Little Pakistan” in Midwood, home to the largest concentration of Pakistanis in America. The district’s population is 56% black, roughly half Caribbean in origin, and 12% Hispanic. Politically, the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, but the borough’s party organization has been weakened by allegations of corruption.