Dispatches from the Urban Heartland, Part 2: Rebooting Crow Hill, Brooklyn

Welcome back. Time to get on the road. Let’s go to Crow Hill. You don’t know where Crow Hill is...well you will after this leg of our journey. From the Lenape to Crow Hill to Crown Heights, the peoples of this Brooklyn region have traversed the entirety of the American experience. “In 1637, Dutch immigrant Joris Hansen de Rapelje ―‘purchased’ about 335 acres around Wallabout Bay in present-day Brooklyn, and over the following two years, Director Kieft of the Dutch West India Company ―secured by purchase from the Indians the title to nearly all the land in the counties of Kings and Queens.” (Source.) The fact that they put quotes around “purchased” explains the difficult history of the region.

We are talking about what is now Crown Heights. It’s quite difficult to definitively say why it was named Crow Hill. This is as close to verifiable documentation as I could find. “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle made frequent reference to Crow Hill in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and accounts of the name's origins vary. In one article from August of 1873, the reporter interviews a retired police officer. 'How did the settlement get to be named Crow Hill?' he asks. To which the officer responds: Well, they [the residents] had to live away from the white people, and they got up there in these woods. The woods were at that time full of crows, and it was called Crow Hill, partly because there were a great many crows there and partly on account of the people nicknaming the darkies 'crows' too.” (Source.)

It’s pretty easy to see, the negative view of this region goes back hundreds of years.  The information provides a framework to see how Crown Heights is seen in modernity. Although now seen as a quickly gentrifying region, its history is intact, rich and deep. I rode around the region putting my drone in the air taking photos. Once people got past my “flying camera,” a few proudly told me the history, as if they needed to say it, as if they wanted me to not be another person who entered their community as if it were a blank slate with no culture to speak of. Conversely, the folks on the stoop next to 1615 Bergen Street were shocked to discover the history of the region they are generations deep in. This is certainly a bonus of this project; to talk with, learn from, and inform the people of the community.  And to translate that discussion into an interesting read as you join me on my journey. One elder Black gentleman spoke at some length about the housing stock, which is incredibly interesting. That was a thread that I as a Black American educator and community organizer found difficult to initially grasp while knee-deep in studying the darker realities of the region. When he was finished, I could then fully understand what he was saying.

By the 1870s, a dense network of horsecar lines served the area, and around 1876, the district‘s earliest row houses, designed by E.B. Stringer, were completed in the neo-[Grecian] style at 1109 to 1117 Bergen Street.” This area is well preserved with not many changes to the housing stock and with a wonderful community park directly next to 1109 Bergen.

1109 to 1117 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, 2017. Photo: Darryl Montgomery

A bit down the street at 1574 Bergen St. is an old 1800’s home nestled in between more modern housing stock.

1574 Bergen Street, early 1940s. Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1574 Bergen Street, mid-1980s. Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1574 Bergen Street, 2017. Photo: Darryl Montgomery

1615 Bergen underwent a massive transformation. Sadly, many of the original buildings, not lucky enough to be landmarked, have been razed to the ground, replaced by dwellings people are happy to call home, but that lack the ornate craftsmanship of years past. In the case of this building, a garage made way for a four-story multi-family dwelling.

1615 Bergen Street, early 1940s. Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1615 Bergen Street, mid-1980s. Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1615 Bergen Street, 2017. Photo: Darryl Montgomery.

As we move around, you’ll notice we are in a border region where the homes of the 1800’s blend with new housing stock. This encapsulates the evolutionary flow of city planning, which is a calculated process of land ownership and cultural upheaval, and political / social prowess. 1264 Bergen is a great example of the regional evolution. Here you can see three stages of architecture: the 1800’s, 1980s, and 2017, which now includes Kingdom Hall to the right of it.

1264 Bergen Street, early 1940s. Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1264 Bergen Street, mid-1980s. Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1264 Bergen Street, 2017. Photo: Darryl Montgomery.

1472 Bergen, FDNY Rescue #2, was an interesting transition.

1472 Bergen Street, early 1940s. Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1472 Bergen Street, mid-1980s. Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1472 Bergen Street, mid-1980s. Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1472 Bergen Street, 2017. Photo: Darryl Montgomery.

The fire company moved in on July 26, 1985. The firehouse is very quaint, but since they have broken ground on a new state-of-the-art facility at 1815 Sterling Place, I would be willing to bet it will be emotionally missed, if not physically. This was the company’s fourth location since opening on March 1, 1925. Like many firehouses in the region, they lost members in 9/11. Weeks prior to this post, they lost another to 9/11-related cancer. As a small company, they’re responsible for endless saves, which, to be fair, is the case with most firehouses. Their new digs will serve them and the community well, I’m sure.

1516 Bergen seems locked in time. Any image I have found looks pretty much the same. Like it was a place where people were able to maintain and grow.

1516 Bergen Street, early 1940s. Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1516 Bergen Street, mid-1980s. Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1516 Bergen Street, 2017. Photo: Darryl Montgomery.

Moving on to 1289 Bergen. By far, this dwelling, more than most in the region, seemed like the years have only helped it flourish. Even considering that any building in an historic district must follow strict rules in relation to the facade and other aspects, the work done to it almost makes me feel like we’re seeing in the 1800’s, minus the cultural baggage of course. It has been amazingly preserved, as is most of the stock in this historic section of Crown Heights.

1289 Bergen Street, mid-1980s. Department of Finance collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1289 Bergen Street, 2017. Photo: Darryl Montgomery.

I selected Bergen Street because it passes through the entire region of Crown Heights. Also, I wanted to show that there are many areas yet to be gentrified that are wonderful bastions of the culture. Many peoples call this their ancestral homeland for varied reasons. For Black people in the late 1800s, Crow Hill / Crown Heights was a refuge away from a society. It was a place for people yet to be full citizens with equal rights, something still very much in play. One of the largest motivations for Blacks moving to the region was leaving slavery from the south and flight from a very violent Manhattan where on July 13, 1863, European immigrants began four days of rioting, which maintains its status as the largest civilian riot in American history (source). Its remote location was a perfect place to finally have the chance to function without dealing with the daily all-encompassing oppression Blacks experienced throughout the country. After the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge and mass European immigration and after the building of Ellis Island, the social and economic oppression would grow through the decades.  This led to systematic redlining by the Federal Housing Authority that locked many Black families in realms of poverty while others were granted federally backed mortgages -- one of the most impactful social policies that developed the generational wealth experienced in modernity, other than the G.I Bill, which was also based on a bigoted framework that minimized its benefits for people of color (although it certainly helped put many on the path of familial betterment). All of these policies and incidents are directly connected the greatly impoverished Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, and Fort Greene of the 1960’s to the early 2000’s, when the NYC real estate industry suddenly deemed these regions as “transitioning neighborhoods.”

This was the history an elder wanted me to promise I wouldn’t gloss over. He said, “people think we just don’t want the good things in life.” The pain in his 80+ year old eyes and voice told me a story that almost brought me to tears. “My grandfather fought for us to have a home and an education. That is why we own our home today,” he said. Though I can’t verify his personal story because he refused to give me his name, the documented history of the region is so culturally ruthless, that would be the story for generations of families. Bergen Street has all this history in its homes, roads, and people. That is the beauty of the urban heartland; hundreds of thousands of people trying to make a way in the world, directly or indirectly sharing the experience.

I would love to share more with you, and I will...but for now it’s time to go and get ready for our next excursion.

In peace...till our next journey,
Darryl