Building Brooklyn: Like Coming Home

Season 4, Episode 1

In the middle of the 20th century, a ten square block area in North Gowanus was home to the largest Mohawk settlement outside of Canada. We hear about the Mohawk women who built that community while their husbands and fathers were building skyscrapers. And, we go back hundreds of years in Gowanus and tell the story of the original inhabitants of Brooklyn: the Lenape people, who gave the neighborhood its name.

Want to learn more about the topics in this episode? Check out the following links:

Check out this book list for more reading about topics brought up in this episode.

Episode Transcript

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Over the past year and a half, many of us have been indoors a lot of the time. Or, if we still work in the community, we hurry from place to place, not wanting to linger too long or explore. 

Adwoa Adusei But recently, New Yorkers have been getting out more … we’re going on walks and having picnics with friends. We’re starting to see our neighborhoods again.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This past year has also been a reckoning of sorts … a reckoning about systemic inequality and oppression. And, we’re learning that as the world opens up, we have to understand our history to figure out where we want to go.

Adwoa Adusei So, here at the library, we want to do that at a local level. That’s why we’re bringing you an audio mini-series: five episodes about four different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, their history, and the story of the people who took part in their creation. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras From the one-time Mohawk community in North Gowanus.

Reaghan Tarbell There's something really there's something really special about about Brooklyn, you know, about leaving your home, the only home that you've really ever known and going to someplace that was also like home.

Adwoa Adusei To the women who worked in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard during the Second World War.

Helen Gagliardi I used to arrive about 6:00 AM in the morning, and, uh, I disappeared into the Sand Street gate and that was the end of that.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras To Brooklyn’s Chinatown in Sunset Park.

Tarry Hum The neighborhood at that time was still largely Scandinavian, Irish, Italian, and I don't think that those neighbors were particularly happy to see Chinese people moving in.

Adwoa Adusei And its historic Finnish co-ops.

Robert Saasto You see these buildings? Some day, the Finns will all be gone and we won't have any of us left. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, finally, to Canarsie.

Olga Rose Jones Whatever I was getting every two weeks went into the savings account. That is how stubborn I was about the fact that I was not just going to keep on living in a rented place, yes.

Adwoa Adusei This is “Building Brooklyn,” a mini-series brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library. I’m Adwoa Adusei.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You’re listening to Borrowed: stories that start at the library.


Virginia Marshall Hey, everyone — I’m Virginia and I’m the producer and co-writer of Borrowed. I’m usually behind the scenes of the podcast, recording, mixing, and writing, but I’m joining Adwoa today to help introduce our mini-series. 

Adwoa Adusei It is so nice to have you with us, Virginia! So, we’re going to be taking you to four different neighborhoods in Brooklyn over the next five weeks. You heard clips from those episodes in our opening. But we wanted to start out this first episode with a living land acknowledgment, which is a statement that recognizes the indigenous peoples who’ve been dispossessed from the homelands upon which an institution was built. For us at Brooklyn Public Library, that means acknowledging “Lenapehoking,” or the Land of the Lenape.

Virginia Marshall So, I’m going to read the land acknowledgment that BPL developed in partnership with The Lenape Center:

Brooklyn Public Library stands on land that is part of the unceded, ancestral homeland of the Lenape (Delaware) People. As a sign of respect, we recognize and honor the Lenape (Delaware) Nations, their elders past and present, and future generations. We are committed to addressing exclusions and erasures of Indigenous peoples, and confronting the ongoing legacies of settler colonialism in our work.

Paerdegat Brook in Flatbush in the early 1900s.
(Daniel Berry Austin photograph collection, Brooklyn Museum/Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)

Adwoa Adusei Thank you, Virginia. And, for this podcast episode, we interviewed two leaders of The Lenape Center, an organization run by Lenape elders and committed to continuing Lenape presence through arts, culture, and community. Here’s Joe Baker, co-founder and executive director of The Lenape Center.

Joe Baker Our ancestors are here. Our families are here, this is the place that gave our culture life, it's the place that sustained us. So, even though many people live at great distance from the original homeland, this is a place that, you know, it's a coming home. It's coming back to your roots, it's coming back to your family.

Adwoa Adusei Joe Baker is an enrolled member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, a federally-recognized Indian nation located today in Oklahoma and Kansas. But, the Lenape people who belong to the Delaware tribe, and four other federally-recognized tribes in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario, Canada, originally lived in Brooklyn and the surrounding area.

Hadrien Coumans The ancestral homeland, the territory Lenapehoking is a vast territory: all of New York City, all of New Jersey, western Long Island, the north part of the state of Delaware. 

Virginia Marshall That’s Hadrien Coumans, the co-founder and co-director of The Lenape Center and an adopted member of the White Turkey/Fugate family.

Hadrien Coumans So, within this region, one sees many place names that are still found today, that reference Lenape communities, villages, and really are a testament to how populated this region once was. 

Virginia Marshall Those place names Hadrien mentioned are everywhere in our borough. Canarsie in Southeast Brooklyn and Gowanus in Central Brooklyn, those are two neighborhoods that take their names from the Lenape people. And, they’re two neighborhoods that are part of our “Building Brooklyn” series. So, we wanted to start with the Lenape as the first inhabitants of Brooklyn — a borough that 2.5 million people from all over the world now call home.

Adwoa Adusei It’s important to point out that the story of the Lenape people has been erased from the narrative of this city, in large part because of the genocide and forced migration of the Lenape people, starting in the early 1600s. But the Lenape people are still in this country — some on the same land where their ancestors lived, a territory that includes everything from Western Connecticut to Eastern Pennsylvania, and the Hudson Valley to Delaware, with New York City at its center. Here’s Joe Baker again.

Joe Baker I think what is most important for audiences to understand is that the traditional beliefs of the Lenape people are based on generosity and beauty and relations. And one of the challenges for not just Lenape people, but all Native people, is that the dominant culture has so often wanted to present us as people of the past. They have wanted to put us within vitrines and glass cases. They have wanted to express our cultures, our vibrant cultures in the form of mannequins and dioramas. And we would offer that the real excitement of our individual communities, which are vital, which are diverse, which embrace the full range of all the professions, can be a really contributing factor to the common good of all people. And we would want to be included in those contemporary conversations and understood as contemporary people. 

Virginia Marshall I think Joe Baker brings up a really good point — that too often I think we talk about Native stories as historical, an ancient people who have disappeared. But that’s a narrative that erases the richness of contemporary Native stories. So, we’re going to come back to The Lenape Center and this idea of belonging and land in the final episode of our series. But, we wanted to start “Building Brooklyn” with another contemporary Native American story. 

Adwoa Adusei This one also takes place in Brooklyn — in Gowanus, in fact, which is a neighborhood that gets its name from the Lenape language. But this Native story is about the Mohawk people — a different linguistic and cultural group from the Lenape, with communities in Northern New York State and Canada. And, in the middle of the 20th century, Brooklyn became the largest Mohawk settlement in the United States.


Reaghan Tarbell Brooklyn slash New York, was always like, I don't know, something amazing, something far away, something … I don't want to say magical, but it was just, it was part of our family history.

Adwoa Adusei This is Reaghan Tarbell. She is the granddaughter, niece and at one time spouse of ironworkers who built parts of Brooklyn and New York. Mohawk ironworkers are skilled men and women who work in high steel and who, since the beginning of the construction boom up until to today, make up 10 percent of all ironworkers in the city. 

Reaghan Tarbell Both of my grandfathers were ironworkers. You know, in any large city or metropolis, you would find Mohawk men working. 

[Sound of construction]

Krissa Corbett Cavouras To paint a picture of what it’s like to work in high steel, imagine being on the highest floor of some of the tallest buildings in Manhattan. Now, take away the walls and the windows, and most of the floor. If you’re an ironworker in high steel, that would be your daily work environment. It’s your job to connect the steel beams together before the rest of the building can go up around it. They’re building into the sky, and it’s very dangerous work.

Adwoa Adusei It’s work that takes them to big cities, especially during the construction boom of the 50s and 60s, which is when Reaghan’s grandparents came to New York.

Reaghan Tarbell My grandmother had actually gone to New York to find work. So she ended up meeting my grandfather later on, after she’d been there for a few years. And so when they got together, they got married and they had children, and they brought their their families, and they found places to live in Brooklyn — State Street, Pacific Street, Atlantic Avenue — where it was certainly cheaper than trying to stay in the city. 

Intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Bond Street in 1949.
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Reaghan spoke to us from her home in Kahnawake, a Mohawk Territory of about 8,000 people located just south of Montreal. The Mohawk are one of six nations that belong to the Haudenosaunee, also known as Iroquois Nation. 

Adwoa Adusei Though she grew up in Canada, Reaghan heard a lot about Brooklyn from her family. 

Yvonne Harmon She said they were always talking about New York and golden opportunities and everything. So she thought, she said, she was so young that she actually thought that the buildings would be made of gold.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Yvonne Harmon, Reaghan’s aunt. This recording is from the documentary Reaghan made in 2008 about Mohawk ironworkers in Brooklyn, called Little Caughnawaga: To Brooklyn and Back.

Yvonne Harmon ... and the streets, and she said she got there, and she was in total shock.

Lana Montour We used to go to the Botanical Garden, and I would take Yvonne and Diane, and of course there was water there… you know, it’s in Brooklyn.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Lana Montour, also Reaghan’s aunt, speaking on the same documentary.

Lana Montour And we used to take our socks off and wash them in the streams and on rocks, and if there was any people looking around, they'd say, "What are you doing?" And we’d say, "Oh, we’re Indians. We’re from Kahnawake and this is how we wash our clothes over there." Which wasn’t far from the truth.

Adwoa Adusei From 1930s up until the 1960s or so, a ten square block area in Downtown Brooklyn and North Gowanus was known as Little Caughnawaga, the Aglicization of the Mohawk name Kahnawake. In the 1950s, there were as many as 700 Mohawks living there.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras The Mohawk ironworkers and their families made their mark on Brooklyn. They were a visible presence in the neighborhood, at schools and at churches, and also at a popular bar where many ironworkers gathered, called the Wigwam Bar.

[Person singing in Mohawk]

Announcer The singer is Lee Shenandoah. He's with a little group of his Indian friends and cousins at the Wigwam Club in Downtown Brooklyn, the favorite Indian hangout where there are ...

Adwoa Adusei This is sound from a 1962 radio segment called “A Wigwam in Brooklyn,” now a part of WNYC Archive Collections. 

Announcer The Indians have a very special talent for the high steel work and for walking the narrow steel ribs of skyscrapers and bridges. This unique skill helped to build the Hellgate Bridge, the Woolworth building ... 

Christopher Lindsey Turner There has been something of a mythology about Mohawks having some sort of innate Native ability to defy, you know, the gravity involved. 

Adwoa Adusei This is Christopher Lindsey Turner, a cultural research specialist and a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Christopher Lindsey Turner Almost every ironworker you'll meet upstate at any point in their career will tell you that that's kind of bunk, and that it has more to do with other things that you might not think of right off, but are very, very much part of Native community and life. And that's that they have traditions of generational support. They have networks of kinship. They teach each other well how to deal with the situations of working on high steel, but specifically just the realities and the ways of being safe.

Adwoa Adusei Ironworking is definitely a tradition that has been passed down from fathers to sons. But, ironworking was not without its tragedies.

Lana Montour It’s been fifteen years now since he died. I drove all the way to New York. They didn’t want me to go.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Lana Montour again, Reaghan Tarbell’s aunt. She’s talking about the day her husband, an ironworker, died on the job.

Lana Montour I had called the hospital and they said don’t come. Well, you know what that means. He’s not going to make it. But he was still alive, and I went anyway because I had to see him ... and I did, and I went to the hospital, you know. so... 

Reaghan Tarbell Where? I know it was in Brooklyn…

Lana Montour Yeah. What do they call it … the Gowanus Parkway. And they had the nets up, but they had taken it down to clean it and they never put them back. He might have lived, he might have been okay, but everything underneath him I think collapsed. Everything was rotten. It was 100 feet. 

Construction of a portion of the Gowanus Parkway in 1941. 
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)

Adwoa Adusei Unfortunately, the kind of shock and pain that Lana went through in losing her husband is something that Mohawk women have had to deal with since the men in their family started working in high steel.

[Construction sound]

Krissa Corbett Cavouras One of the earliest projects that relied heavily on Mohawk labor was the Quebec Bridge. In 1907, the bridge collapsed while ironworkers were on it, killing 75 people, 35 of whom were from Kahnawake. Whole families were destroyed, with brothers, fathers and uncles passing away all at once. It’s hard to convey how devastating the disaster was in such a small community.

Rita McComber The women had to suffer that loss. But they were so resilient and so strong, we are here today.

Adwoa Adusei This is Rita McComber, an elder in Kahnawake. Reaghan interviewed her for her documentary in 2007, just before the 100th anniversary of the Quebec Bridge disaster, and right in the midst of the creation of a memorial in Kahnawake for those who died in the bridge collapse. 

Rita McComber The reason why these women have been so anxious to have this done is to memorialize, really, what the effects of this tragedy was. And I think this monument can fulfill that. It’s uniting us all and making us all realize, making our men realize exactly who we are as women, that we have helped develop this community to be what it is today.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras What makes Reaghan’s story unique, and her documentary so interesting, is that she tells these stories of the sacrifice and ingenuity of Mohawk ironworkers from the women’s perspective.

Adwoa Adusei With that lens, the Mohawk ironworking story became a Brooklyn story, because this is where the families made their home. 

Reaghan Tarbell The different films or documentaries that we'd see growing up, it was always from the men's perspective, of course, because it's a very, you know, when you when you think about it, it's a very exciting profession. They're high in the sky. And it's a very dangerous job. But my perspective growing up,  I always heard about Brooklyn and New York from the women in my family. You know, and it was these stories of going to church, Sunday school.

Dorris Montour David Cory is the name of the minister. One day, he realized he had so many people coming into his church and he heard them speaking their own language and he was quite thrilled, you know, to have them. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That last voice is Dorris Montour, speaking to Reaghan for her documentary. She remembers going to Cuyler Presbyterian Church with her family when she lived in Brooklyn. Reverend Cory, the pastor of that church, learned to speak Mohawk from his congregants and, with the help of Montour’s mother and other Mohawk women, translated many church readings into the Mohawk language.

Adwoa Adusei Nancy Deer, another of Reaghan’s aunts, remembers the community of women and children when she was growing up in Brooklyn.

The Rev. Dr. David M. Cory with Norma and Carolyn Diabo, two Mohawk girls of his parish in 1950.
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)

Nancy Deer We lived at 485 Pacific Street. There was many families on my street, Atlantic Avenue and State Street, that was the hub. We'd see each other every day, went to the same stores, we went to the same park, we went to the same schools. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Myrtle Bush remembers her grandmother’s role in bringing the family to Brooklyn. Her husband was injured on the job in the 1920s, so in order to support the family, Myrtle’s grandmother ran a boarding house for Mohawk ironworkers in Brooklyn.

Myrtle Bush ... on Myrtle Avenue, which is maybe how I got the name Myrtle.

Adwoa Adusei Myrtle’s sister, Pearla Hash, wasn’t named after a Brooklyn street, but Brooklyn left its mark on her in another way.

Pearla Hash I made a phone call to the government for a reason ... and they said, "Where are you calling from? You’re from the States, you’re either from New York or from—I don’t know where." Everybody says Brooklyn, why? Whatever reason? I says, "No, I’m living here in Kahnawake." And they started laughing. They got a kick out of it. I says, "It's just the accent, I can’t get rid of it."

Krissa Corbett Cavouras What I find really revealing about this whole story is that, you know, I’ve lived in Brooklyn for fifteen years, but it was news to me that this community had a strong presence. But if you lived in Gowanus in the 1960s, you would absolutely have known about the Mohawk community. They would have been a visible presence in the neighborhood. Sometimes, that visibility was intentional, and sometimes it felt harmful. We asked Reaghan about that.

Reaghan Tarbell I would go to my grandmother's house and she had these wonderful old photo albums. And I'd see these photos of my aunt and my mother dressed up, you know, like it's black and white, but you could tell that it's like a leather kind of fringe, you know, with the headband with a little bit of beads or feathers.

Adwoa Adusei In her documentary, Reaghan met up with Dorris Montour to look at some of those photos and programs from the pageants Mohawk families would put on at Cuyler Church. Here’s Montour reading through a printed program with some of the names of pageants they would perform.

Dorris Montour "Indian Love Call. Scalp Dance. Marriage Ceremony." That was funny. This was her husband, he was Italian so he always played the part of the white man. 

Reaghan Tarbell Did you find it funny that they were so interested in wanting to know who you were? 

Dorris Montour I think so, I think a lot of people thought we were scalpers, thought we weren’t very nice people.  

Reaghan Tarbell It was show business, as one of the elders explained it to me. You know, because they would take part in different pageants, in the community in Brooklyn, and at the church, at the Cuyler Church. So they would put on these pageants, I think because there was a lot of interest, like, hey, there's a community of Indians living in our community. And I think they were more than happy to kind of put on these pageants to showcase, you know, um ... I don't want to say the culture, but it was show business.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras We came across an article in our library archives — printed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1945 — of three Mohawk women working at a wartime factory in Brooklyn. They’re wearing traditional beaded dresses and headbands for the photo — probably not outfits they would normally wear to work. We’ll put a link to that article on our show page with a note here that the descriptions in the article, which is broadly about Mohawk women from Kahnawake working in wartime factories in Brooklyn for patriotism’s sake and to be closer to working Mohawk men — reads as pretty racist and relies very heavily on stereotypes of Native Americans.

Adwoa Adusei It’s so interesting to think about the visibility of these families, because they were regarded by other Brooklynites as outsiders, and therefore a group to take note of. Though really, the Mohawk and other Haudenosaunee people have been in New York State longer than those who were treating them as visitors and outsiders. There are still Mohawk and Haudnesonee ironworkers in New York City, but they live in other parts of Brooklyn now. And, for the most part, their families aren’t here. 

Cuyler Presbyterian Church at 360 Pacific Street in the early 1900s.
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras When Reaghan moved to Brooklyn in 2002 with her husband at the time, who was himself an ironworker — they didn’t settle in North Gowanus, as Reaghan’s parents and grandparents had, but in Bay Ridge. 

Reaghan Tarbell "Little Caughnawaga" is definitely, you know, a thing of the past. It's still a community, but a very different kind of community.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Even though there’s no longer a significant concentration of Mohawk families in Gowanus anymore, their impact on New York City, and on cities across the country, cannot be overstated. Here’s Chris Turner again.

Christopher Lindsey Turner Ironwork was brought to them, that first bridge in 1886. So, they saw the opportunity and they took it. And, it's a very similar way in which we see that Native people become part of these economies and really make the most of it and put their stamp on it forever. Seven generations later, ironwork is a Mohawk tradition. And any family you speak to will talk to you about the pride that they feel in the generational continuity of the workers that have been in it. And in this sense that they have of their stamp that they put on the skyline of cities. They see the skyline of Brooklyn or Manhattan as being, that's a Mohawk view right there. They built it.

Adwoa Adusei So, we get to look at a Mohawk view every day. From many parts of Brooklyn, you can see those tall buildings in Manhattan. It’s part of what makes our city a global destination. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras As ironworkers continue to labor in our city, many of them make the return journey to Kahnawake every Friday. Because of improved highways, it only takes six hours to drive back home, instead of the twelve hour journey that it used to be. So, many Mohawk men choose the grueling commute over bringing their families to live in Brooklyn. 

Adwoa Adusei And, that highway between two homes … it holds a powerful place in the memories of many Mohawks in Kahnawake and in Brooklyn. Here’s Kahnawake elders Kahentinetha Horn and Dorris Montour speaking in Reaghan’s documentary.

Kahentinetha Horn We used to have a song that we sang, and it would be just as we got over the border. Then we would start singing that song as we drove in. The Kahnawake song?

Reaghan Tarbell Can you sing it?

Kahentinetha Horn [Laughs] You know that song…

Reaghan Tarbell Which one? I don't know it.

Kahentinetha Horn Well, it just goes like this ... [starts singing in Mohawk]

Dorris Montour [Continues singing]

Adwoa Adusei "Building Brooklyn" is a mini-series from Brooklyn Public Library’s Borrowed podcast. It’s produced by Virginia Marshall, with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman, and Robin Lester Kenton. This episode was a collaboration with Reaghan Tarbell and it was written by Virginia Marshall. Our music composer is Billy Libby. You also heard music from Blue Dot Sessions.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me and Adwoa Adusei. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website.

Adwoa Adusei Sound on this episode came from WNYC Archives Collection and the documentary “Little Caughnawaga: to Brooklyn and Back,” directed by Reaghan Tarbell and produced by Mushkeg Media. You can check out a copy of the documentary from our library. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Our beta listeners on this episode were Kat Savage and LaCresha Neal.

Adwoa Adusei Be sure to check back next week for the next episode of "Building Brooklyn." We’re taking a cue from the Mohawk women who worked in a wartime Brooklyn factory and telling the story of Brooklyn’s Navy Yard during World War Two, an important piece in the history of women at work.

Dianne Esses Did it feel strange to be doing work that was typically male?

Lucille Kolkin Oh, of course. It was also romantic and exciting. You know, to wear pants and ... the physical conditions were very rough, and I must say I wasn't crazy about the cold or the heat.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That is sound from the Brooklyn Navy Yard's Oral History Collection at our own Center for Brooklyn History, and the speaker, Lucille Kolkin, a tack welder at the Navy Yard, was a big inspiration for acclaimed writer Jennifer Egan’s novel Manhattan Beach. Egan helped to create and then use our oral history collection as research for her novel.

Jennifer Egan What the oral histories initially provided was almost like an alternate memory bank; a feeling, a sense of a time and a place and details and voices that would normally be my own, but I couldn't use my own because it didn't reach back that far. So that was what they did first. And in a way that was sort of vague, like it just gave me a way to start. 

Adwoa Adusei That’s next time, on "Building Brooklyn."

Sound on this episode came, with permission, from "A Wigwam in Brooklyn" (WNYC Archive Collections) and the documentary Little Caughnawaga: To Brooklyn and Back (Mushkeg Media). You also heard music and sound effects from Blue Dot Sessions and BBC Sound Effects Library.

What does Gowanus look like today? We sent out a call for Brooklyn teen photographers to go out and take pictures of the four neighborhoods in our "Building Brooklyn" mini-series. Evan Goings's photo won the category for Gowanus.

Corner of Bond and Sackett Streets in Gowanus/Boerum Hill in August 2021.
(Courtesy Evan Goings)

About the photo, from Evan Goings, 18: I am both a visual artist and a photographer. ... I took the picture because the area has changed a bit, and there are contrasting buildings; between humble and impressive, old and modern. I used to go to school in the neighborhood, and some things have stayed the same, while other things have changed a lot. This picture shows that the neighborhood of Gowanus has become a lot more green, and that there is still a culture of art there. There are art pieces on the walls of warehouses. The huge bushes, trees, and plants in Gowanus surprised me when I went to take the picture.