In many ways, the story of Boerum Hill is the story of Brooklyn. It was settled more than three hundred years ago by Dutch farmers. By the mid-1800s, it was one of America’s first suburbs, a place where an emerging middle class of tradesmen and merchants escaped the teeming streets of Manhattan.
Those families prospered and moved up and out of Boerum Hill in the early 1900s. As they did, the neighborhood they left behind became the home of the working class, most notably the Mohawk Indian steel-workers who migrated to New York from Canada to work on many of the city’s grandest bridges and skyscrapers. By the 1930s, some 700 Mohawks called Boerum Hill home. Later, they too left Boerum Hill, migrating to western cities for work. Today, the Cuyler Presbyterian Church on Pacific Street is all that remains of a community Joseph Mitchell memorialized in The New Yorker in 1949.
That same year, the neighborhood was falling to neglect, and swaths were slated for demolition and urban renewal, under Mayor William O’Dwyer. Enter the Gowanus Houses, 14 high-rises built by the New York City Housing Authority that served the city’s burgeoning numbers of blacks and Latinos. By then, the wider neighborhood had lost its once-fashionable Dutch name, Boerum Hill, and was called just Gowanus or South Brooklyn. Later, in the 1990s, the Gowanus houses would witness the infamous killing by police of a 13-year-old boy who was holding a toy gun. And they would be the setting of Spike Lee’s 1995 film, Clockers, about crack dealers.
In the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, a small but determined group of New York City’s urban pioneers and preservationists set their sights on the neighborhood. They began moving in and restoring the area’s Greek and Italianate 19th-century row houses. They also helped revive its middle-class appeal, and, eventually, its name. Once again, the neighborhood is called Boerum Hill.
This latest reinvention is yet another story that’s been told about Boerum Hillï¿½this time by Jonathan Lethem, in Fortress of Solitude, whose main character is the only white boy in the otherwise black and Latino neighborhood in the 1970s. The son of Jewish idealists, the character watches as his best friend, a black boy, eventually opens a French restaurant in fully gentrified Boerum Hill.
A bright shade of its former, fashionable, middle-class self is an apt portrait of the neighborhood today. Boerum Hill’s stretch of Smith Street is one of the city’s renowned restaurant and bar scenes. Side streets like Pacific, Dean, and Bergen showcase row after row of restored brownstones, with intricate ironwork on porches and windows, lovingly tended gardens, and signs reminding motorists not to honk. Atlantic Avenue boasts nearly a mile of antiques, cafes, and what is probably the city’s most public access to its Muslims: bookstores, shops, and mosques that serve people from a staggering array of countries and sects.
Because this storied neighborhood has been discovered, and rediscovered, there are few real-estate deals here. That said, as you head south toward the Gowanus Houses, the vista gives way to warehouses and wide, treeless streets, and prices to rent and buy get cheaper. Either way, whether you’re prospecting or just visiting Boerum Hill, it’s a place with many a tale to tell.
Boundaries: Much disputed, especially the southern boundary. Roughly: Third Avenue, Atlantic Avenue, Smith Street, and Douglass Street.
Transport: Subway: F; G; M; R; B; Q; 2; 3; 4 or 5. Buses: 37; 65; 71; 75; 103.
Main Drags: Smith Street and Atlantic Avenue.
Housing: To rent: Studios and one-bedrooms: $1,000-1,800; two-bedrooms: $1,800-3,000; three-bedrooms: $2,500-4,500. To buy: From $700,000 for a two-bedroom to $1.45 million for a three-family building.
What to Check Out: The Cuyler Presbyterian Church, 358 Pacific Street, built in the so-called High Victorian Eclectic style, where the reverend once translated religious texts into the language of the Mohawks. Now it’s a private residence with flower boxes, but still something to see. Perhaps the one story you don’t know about Boerum Hill is that of the Gowanus Canal, between Nevins Street and Bond Street, south of Butler Street. At one time the polluted dumping ground of the neighborhood’s light industry, the canal is making a comeback, if slowly. There are a handful of places to access it on foot, such as the bridges at Carroll and Union streets, and neighborhood word has it that a canoe club explores the waterway in summer.
Hangouts, Parks, Restaurants: The only parks are new-ish playgrounds for kids, but even these are a sign that gentrification hasn’t been all bad for the neighborhood. The best hangouts are cafes on Atlantic and restaurants on Smith. There, try any number of Peruvian joints, along with the sometimes too well thought-out spots like Boerum Hill Food Co. and Apartment 138.
Crime: In the police precinct that encompasses the greater area of Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, and Red Hook, crime is down. So far this year there’ve been two murders, up from one this time last year; two rapes, down from six; 113 robberies, up from 109; and 82 assaults, the same as this time last year.
Politicians: City councilman David Yassky, State Assemblywoman Joan L. Millman, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, and U.S. Representatives Edolphus Towns and Major Owens, all Democrats.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 11, 2005