Last December, the Landmark Preservation Commission proposed to designate a section of Downtown Brooklyn as the “Borough Hall Skyscraper District.” The buildings in the district, described here, were mostly built between 1901 and 1927, when Brooklyn was believed to have a future as a financial hub, but the district also includes landmark status for Borough Hall, where at one time the old Mayor of Brooklyn held office - so if it is a strange mis-characterization to refer to any part of Brooklyn as a “Skyscraper District” – as if Brooklyn ever cared for skyscrapers – at least the district gives a nod to when Brooklyn was its own city, “not a suburb or a borough or a place to which taxi drivers object to driving you” (Brock, H.I. “And Now Brooklyn Raises a Skyline,” NY Times, May 22, 1927, Brooklyn Historical Society Scrapbook Collection).
The New York skyscraper is a conjuration of Manhattan, the skinny guy to Brooklyn’s fat guy. One enters Manhattan from an underground tunnel opening to the tallest city in the world. To get to Brooklyn, one crosses New York City’s true first skyscraper, the Brooklyn Bridge, and descends upon the low island. They said it couldn’t be built, but the Brooklyn Bridge rises 276 feet above the surface of the East River at high tide, which in 1883 was taller than any of the newborn office buildings cropped up around Manhattan’s Newspaper Row.
People born in Brooklyn don’t say they’re from New York, but say “I’m from Brooklyn.” The borough has its own museum, park, accent, a Post Office of majestic magnitude greater than had in most major cities, and more residents than Paris. And the best New York movie is Saturday Night Fever, set in 1970s Bay Ridge. But as tall towers boomed for Brooklyn in the 1920s, NY Times writer H.I. Brock worried that “nobody knows how far the rivalry with Manhattan will have been pushed.”
H.I. is elegiac when he cites statistics from a group called “Bigger and Better Brooklyn,” and indicates the Hotel Margaret, since burned down, at Columbia Heights and Orange Street, as for years the “sharpest accent of that skyline.”
The storefronts and tenements “have been looking down on Court Street for generations. Now Court Street looks down upon them.”
It does not seem natural to suddenly perceive a horizontal place as a place that is vertical. But Brooklyn has a mixed relationship with skyscrapers. The island is not ripe for the engineering of skyward architecture. With its own deep indigenous bedrock, which juts out of Central Park, Manhattan is full of schist. Brooklyn veers horizontal because its foundation at the waterfront, where trade and transport huddles, is soft. The Dutch settlers, foremost keen to trade, called the island “broken land.” Not so safe for deep-stook steel rising up where the clouds roll by.
A 1941 WPA historical survey, “The Indians of Brooklyn in the Days of the Dutch,” which includes original hand-sketched maps and tipped in document plates, notes that the Downtown section of the proposed Skyscraper District was referred to by its indigenous corn-growing settlers as Marechkawieck, which translates from the Munsee Delaware dialect as “the sandy place” (also Grumet, R.S. Native American Place Names, 1981, Brooklyn Historical Soc. Library Stacks).
The Triassic history of NYC is described in a 1930 oversized tract, The Physiography of the New York Region, which explains the “relatively recent sand plains of Brooklyn and Long Island….”
Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood was once home to “Little Caughnawaga,” a community of descendants of the Mohawk tribe who excelled as steelworkers for the city in the sky. The Mohawk men from a young age were said to flourish in “high iron,” and since at least the 1920s worked in riveting gangs, “the glamor boys of structural steel work.” Mohawk families left the Caughnawaga reservation in Canada, where the tribe was led by its women, driven by horticulture, and guided by the Three Sisters, “who were the spirits of the corn, bean and the squash.” The onset of modern times turned the tribe from corn to steel, and the family seed-sowers from the ladies to the men, who husbanded the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, and George Washington Bridge (“Scientific Possibilities in Iroquoian Studies” (Freilich, M. Anthropologica, vol. 5, #2, 1963).
A National Geographic article from 1952, “The Mohawks Scrape the Sky,” paints a detailed portrait of Little Caughnawaga’s Mohawk steelworkers, and vaguely comments with the removed supremacy of mid-century ethnography that there is “no sure explanation” for the Mohawk’s “relative freedom from fear of heights.”
The local Cuyler Presbyterian Church, on Pacific Street, was increasingly attended by Mohawk Christians, and in 1957 Pastor David Cory edited a translation of Christian hymns into Mohawk dialect, as well as transcriptions of tribal hymns like “The Great King,” set to an “old Caughnawaga melody.”
The public hearing last December before the Landmarks Commission over the proposed Borough Hall Skyscraper District provoked many a yea & nay. The loudest dissent, as reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, reasoned that “increased maintenance fees and additional special assessments” would malign local real estate costs. Historically, people come to Brooklyn before Manhattan because it’s bigger and cheaper. So that to live in the sky above Brooklyn, so landmarked, it will naturally cost more. Borough President Marty Markowitz, who works in Borough Hall, assured that the plan won’t be “financially onerous.” Still, a tenant rep at 26 Court Street called the layout “a jigsaw piece,” and the Brooklyn Heights Courier quoted a letter to the city by a consortia of commercial building interests, that the district portrays a “sad chapter in Downtown’s economic, political, social and cultural history” (“Tower Power,” Fox, A. Dec. 17-23, 2010).
In 2005, Downtown Brooklyn was rezoned for residential use, and has since skyrocketed in population to 12,000 residents, up from only 400 counted in the 2000 Census. (Gottesdiener, L. “Boomtown!” Brooklyn Heights Courier, Mar 11-17, 2011). And Atlantic Yards may soon be home to the tallest prefab structure in the world. No matter how beanstalked, Brooklyn is still the Borough of Homes.
The last word is had by old Junior’s Cheesecake, the anchorage of Flatbush Avenue, whose menu offers the legacy of a sweet and holy totem: