Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: Brooklyn! An Illustrated History

When I was at The Genealogy Event last year, I attended a session by Laura G. Prescott on Timelines: Putting Your History into Historical Perspective, and it made me realize that I need to do more background research on my family's history. Luckily, after they immigrated, every line of my family (except 1) settled in Brooklyn, New York, and stayed there. While there's plenty of research still to do in various areas of Ireland, two towns in southern Italy, and Rio de Janiero, Brazil, I've been focusing my reading on Brooklyn, because it kills so many birds with one stone.

I started with Diocese of Immigrants: The Brooklyn Catholic Experience 1853-2003, which was a very interesting read, but I found it too heavy on the modern-day experience to be particularly useful in my research. Once I'd gotten through the first couple chapters, on the founding of the diocese, etc., I felt like I had to keep reading, in case anything good was in there, but wasn't finding it relevant to my work.

The next book I read was Brooklyn! An Illustrated History by Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier, and it was fantastic. This book covers so many aspects of Brooklyn's rich and varied history, from its relationship to New York City, to the rise and fall of industry, to entertainment and recreation (Coney Island, anyone?) to a whole chapter on the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The book starts near the beginning*, with the original 5 Dutch towns that made up what is now the Borough of Brooklyn, and includes everything up to the more modern trends that were emerging when it was published in 1996. With nary a mention of hipsters, it's clear that this is not a book about Brooklyn that was published within the last decade! However, I know plenty about hipsters from my own friends, relatives, and personal observations - I don't need a book to tell me about skinny jeans, yoga, and mustaches. Brooklyn! An Illustrated History covers all the other important aspects of the borough. I found it particularly useful that it focused on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as those were the years of my family's primary residence in the area. (My earliest immigrant ancestors arrived circa 1851, and stayed until the mid-1950s.)

Of all the topics that the book touches upon, a few that interested me the most, in terms of situating the facts of my ancestors' lives in historical context, included the New York City draft riots in 1863; the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883; the expansion of the subway system through the early 20th century, the industry centered around the docks in Red Hook through the 19th and much of the 20th centuries; the development and popularity of Coney Island; and the rise and fall of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I particularly appreciated that the chapter on industry gave so much insight into Red Hook and South Brooklyn, where the docks were located, and also where my ancestors were located.

It would probably be an overstatement to say that this book is a tearjerker, but I'm beginning to worry that I've gotten a bit too invested in the lives - and geography - of my ancestors, because it made me cry. Twice.
  • I couldn't quite hold back a few tears - on the subway, no less - when I read about the Dodgers' move to LA. This one hit particularly close to home, as I could imagine my Brooklyn-born, baseball-loving grandfather's dismay at the loss, made all the more vivid by the book's archival images of protesting fans.  
  • After reading about the vibrant industrial center that Brooklyn once was, and the long and defunct history of brewing beer there, and knowing that my great-great-grandfather Michael Mulcahy was probably serving locally brewed beer at his pub in South Brooklyn, reading that "In a former matzoh factory on North Eleventh Street, the Brooklyn Brewery . . . revives Brooklyn's brewing tradition" made me cry. On the subway, once again. Now, this was not news to me. I've walked past Brooklyn Brewery dozens of times. I've drunk plenty of their beer. And I happen to be well aware that in the decade and a half since this book was published, Brooklyn Brewery has been joined by a number of other brewers making beer in the borough. But apparently I'm a big crybaby anyway.

While I can't guarantee that you'll be as moved as I was - probably a good thing, considering that this is not actually a book that's aiming to play on readers' emotions - I can unreservedly say that Brooklyn! An Illustrated History is a must-read for anyone looking for a good overview of the important parts of Brooklyn's history and development. It also has a very thorough bibliography at the end, offering lots of further avenues for research for those who are looking for a more in-depth examination of any particular topic.

*The earlier Indian inhabitants are treated with an unfortunately cursory description.

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