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Brooklyn, New York

This material courtesy of Celeste Leibowitz

Brooklyn, New York, named after the Dutch town of Breukelen, is one of the five boroughs of New York City, along with Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. Until 1898 when it merged with New York City, Brooklyn was an independent city in its own right. Today, Brooklyn is home to 2.5 million residents, and, standing alone, would be the fourth largest city in the United States. It is also the second most densely populated county in the United States.

While it is a part of New York City, Brooklyn has its own culture and art and music scene. Its neighborhoods are descended from separate towns that were incorporated into the growing municipality, and they retain distinct ethnic and cultural flavors.

Brooklyn is racially and ethnically diverse, with a large immigrant population. In the most recent figures, 37.4% of Brooklyn residents were foreign-born, and 46.1% speak a language other than English at home. Because of the great influx of immigrants, many neighborhood shops and restaurants offer foods imported from Asia, Russia, the Middle East, and other exotic locations. There is an abundance of ethnic restaurants of all kinds.

A large African-American and Caribbean-American community resides in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which is a hub for African-American culture and arts. Brighton Beach and surrounding areas such as Sheepshead Bay are home to many Russians, while Bushwick is home to many of Brooklyn’s Hispanics. Orthodox Jews have flocked to Borough Park and parts of Midwood.

Culture and the arts flourish in Brooklyn, which has been the birthplace and home of many of America’s most famous writers, such as the poet Walt Whitman and author Henry Miller. Betty Smith’s classic novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is a nostalgic look at the struggles of a poor German-Irish family living in Williamsburg in the early years of the twentieth century. Many films have been set in Brooklyn as well.

Brooklyn’s cultural scene includes the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The borough includes two branches of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Prospect Park Zoo and the New York Aquarium. Prospect Park is Brooklyn’s largest park, hosting recreational activities of all kinds: biking, boating, nature walks with the Urban Park Rangers, and Celebrate Brooklyn, a series of outdoor concerts. Prospect Park also includes Lefferts Homestead, a historic farmhouse surviving from Dutch settlement times, now maintained as a museum. Summertime activities for children at the Homestead re-enact everyday life in 18th century Dutch households.

Coney Island, at the southern tip of Brooklyn, was once the playground of the rich. In the early years of the twentieth century, people flocked to the amusements at Astroland, Steeplechase Park, and other entertainments. Coney Island fell out of popular usage once travel abroad became cheaper and easier, and the surrounding neighborhood underwent a decline. The area is now in flux and the subject of controversy, with developers seeking to bring in hotels, malls, and other amusements that neighborhood residents are unsure will benefit them or maintain the slightly offbeat flavor of Coney Island. Astroland closed down in 2008 but the Cyclone, built in 1927 on the site of the first roller coaster in America, has survived through economic downturns that threatened its existence, and is a historic landmark today. The Coney Island Wonder Wheel also survives nearby.

Coney Island remains an amusement area that has seen somewhat of a revival now that its character may change. It is home to the Polar Bear Club’s winter swimming enthusiasts who take a famous plunge into the icy waters off Coney Island every January 1st, to the July 4th hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s, and to the wild and wacky annual Mermaid Parade.

Brooklyn is part of the City University of New York and has several CUNY campuses within the borough: Kingsborough Community College, located in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn College in Flatbush, Medgar Evers College, and the New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn Heights. Private colleges and a law school are also located in Brooklyn.

Many famous Americans were born or lived in Brooklyn. A small sample includes Shirley Chisolm, politician, Bobby Fischer, chess champion, George Gershwin, composer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Supreme Court Justice, Lena Horne, singer, and Carl Sagan, astronomer.

Finally, Brooklyn is the home of the minor league baseball team, the Cyclones, and the birthplace of the New York egg cream. The traditional Brooklyn accent, “Youse,” instead of “You,” and, “Toity-toid Street” instead of, “Thirty-third Street,” has all but disappeared, but lives on in fond memory.