Brooklyn Connections is the education outreach program in the Brooklyn Collection. It focuses on cultivating 21st Century learning skills in students and supporting teachers on the incorporation of archives materials into curricula. As part of our work, we create Primary Source Packets to help students and teachers access primary source material from the Brooklyn Collection about local history topics. Each Packet contains one secondary source which provides a general introduction to the topic, followed by at least ten primary sources accompanied by document based questions.
For the start of the new school year, we’ve refreshed our Primary Source Packet on Housing in Brooklyn. Examining the ways Brooklynites have lived provides a mirror for the ways this borough has changed.
Unfortunately, documentation of peoples’ living establishments in the place we now call Brooklyn before European settlement is difficult to come by. We do, however, have images of some early European homes:
By looking at these images, we can learn a lot about how people lived in Brooklyn before and during the American Revolution: they had free-standing houses that may have been far from their neighbors; they cultivated some of their own food on their property; they used wood-burning fires to heat their homes and cook.
As the population in Brooklyn grew in the mid-19th century, an explosion in housing eventually resulted in the overcrowded tenements that we usually think of more in connection with lower Manhattan:
The obvious health hazards of these living situations led to developments like the Riverside Buildings. From an 1890 publication advertising the benefits of this new apartment building, we learn that “Health is Everything: There are no such guarantees of good health as plenty of fresh air and sunlight, and there are no buildings erected in any large city in the world, for the same class of tenants, in which these primary blessings are so freely afforded as here.”
A plan of the building shows an inner courtyard, pathways, and a children's playground, no doubt a part of that “fresh air and sunlight” hard sell:
If we look up the streets from this plan – Furman, Joralemon, and Columbia – on a current map, we see a different view:
The Riverside Buildings are almost entirely gone in this image, replaced by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. This history of housing being replaced by other city infrastructure provides a great jumping off point for talking about eminent domain with students.
Many different types of housing have existed in Brooklyn, for many different purposes. Students always ask a lot of questions about the Quonset Huts in this photograph:
We can learn what a Quonset Hut might’ve been built for in Brooklyn by looking at this accompanying document:
From this, we learn that 512 quonset huts were built at Jamaica Bay, of a total of 781 in Brooklyn constructed as part of efforts to house veterans returning from WWII. The face of Brooklyn literally changed to construct enough places for these men and their families to live. We see that transformation in this aerial shot from a decade later, with these buildings still in the same location:
These were eventually removed, and the area was developed as NYCHA’s Bay View Houses as well as the redeveloped Canarsie Pier area.
We may not be as familiar with Quonset huts in Brooklyn as we are with the quintessential brownstones; in many parts of Brooklyn, these remain largely unchanged from the day they were built. Compare a 1949 photo from our archive with Google Street View’s 2017 photograph of the same block:
Not far from this block in Park Slope, we see that other neighborhoods have changed drastically. The tiny red squares on this 1929 atlas page are brick houses, and the yellow squares are wooden ones.
While this atlas shows us a neighborhood busy with schools, homes, and businesses, comparing it with the same location on a 1946 plan shows a very different idea for the area: this site was to become one of the housing projects that changed the landscape of Brooklyn in the 20th century – and also dramatically changed the types of houses Brooklynites live in.
This area became the Gowanus Houses, constructed in 1949:
And, as we continue into the latter half of the 20th century in Brooklyn, our archive also reminds us of the struggle many Brooklynites have faced to gain and keep good housing – a struggle exemplified by the Civil Rights struggle of Brooklyn CORE.
To read more about these and other sources, check out our Housing in Brooklyn Primary Source Packet. And, to explore other facets of Brooklyn History, visit the Brooklyn Connections Resources Page for a wide variety of other local history topics.