A New Home for Brooklyn History: ‘Everybody’s Story Is Here’

Ask a Brooklynite to define New York’s most populous borough, and you’ll get 2.7 million answers — or more. At the renovated and rebranded Center for Brooklyn History, they’re going with an ellipsis.

“Brooklyn Is …,” a new exhibition, marks the opening of the center, which welcomed visitors on Thursday after a three-year renovation and rethinking of the grand Romanesque revival landmark at 128 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights, formerly known as the Brooklyn Historical Society.

In addition to the new name, there’s now free admission, a more welcoming front entrance, lots of comfortable sofas and an emphasis on drawing a bigger, broader audience, who might not have thought their own stories can be found inside.

“People who are interested in history come from many different places, walks of life, perspectives,” Dominique Jean-Louis, the center’s chief historian, said during a pre-opening tour. “We hope they will see this as a real place to gather.”

The center’s inaugural exhibition, “Brooklyn Is …,” aims to give a “stereoscopic view” of the borough’s people and neighborhoods.Credit…Sarah Shatz for The New York Times

The center was born out of a 2020 merger of the historical society and the Brooklyn Public Library, which now owns the building. (The center’s annual operating budget is $2.4 million, according to the library.) It was the end of an era, but also just the latest rebranding of an institution, and a borough, with a long history of reinvention.

The historical society was founded in 1863 as the Long Island Historical Society, with the mission of preserving the region’s rapidly vanishing rural past. It was renamed the Brooklyn Historical Society in 1985, when the brownstone revival was in full swing.

Since then, the global prestige of the “Brooklyn” brand has only grown. The term “historical society,” which a number of institutions have dropped over the past decade, is another story.

“One of the first things we decided is that we would change the name, since the word ‘society’ was off-putting,” Linda E. Johnson, the library’s chief executive, said. (It remains etched on the facade, which has landmark protection.)

“Everybody’s story is here,” she added. “It’s not just one little slice.”

The merger brings together the historical society’s deep holdings, which include items dating back as far as the 17th century, with the library’s Brooklyn Collection, whose anchors include the vast photo morgue of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, acquired in 1957.

The Brooklyn Collection, with its predominantly 20th-century holdings, had been housed on the second floor of the Art Deco central library on Grand Army Plaza. It lacked a full archival staff and state-of-the-art archival climate control. “That really limited what we could collect,” Johnson said.

Linda E. Johnson, left, the chief executive of the Brooklyn Public Library, with Natiba Guy-Clement, the deputy director for collections and public service at the library’s newly opened Center for Brooklyn History.Credit…Sarah Shatz for The New York Times

The combined holdings now include 36,000 books, 325,000 photographs, 2,000 maps, 57,000 artifacts and 1,650 distinct archival collections, whose total number of pages would be as hard to quantify as the sand at Coney Island.

The hope is to periodically send samplings on the road to the library’s 66 branches throughout Brooklyn, as outreach. But everything is available in the center’s grand upstairs reading room, the Othmer Library, which will now be open to walk-in visitors, giving anyone and everyone access to one of the city’s most dreamily atmospheric 19th-century spaces.

“We’re going to have esteemed scholars doing research on all kinds of topics next to teenagers who are on their way back from school, researching for a school project,” Jean-Louis said, as well as people who might come for a quick selfie — “by all means,” she said — but stay for something else.

The old historical society had hardly been a bastion of narrow, upper-crusty history, but evolved over the decades toward a broad-based social history. (One of the last shows before the merger focused on Muslims in Brooklyn, drawing on an ambitious oral history project.)

“Brooklyn Is …” extends the inclusive, ground-up approach, offering what Jean-Louis (who joined the center in April from the New-York Historical Society) called a “stereoscopic view.”

It’s organized geographically, but hopscotches across themes and periods, with the help of first-person wall texts from community “narrators,” including Charlie Sahadi, of the venerable Middle Eastern grocery on Atlantic Avenue; Annie Ferdus, the president of the Bangladeshi Ladies Club, a collective in Kensington; and Elizabeth Sweetheart, famous in Carroll Gardens (and on Instagram) for dressing only in lime green.

Each section of the exhibition is anchored by a map from the collection, like this 1956 map of leisure activities, which reflects the city’s postwar prosperity.Credit…Sarah Shatz for The New York Times

Each section is anchored by an archival map, surrounded by photographs from the collection, like Jamel Shabazz’s 2009 shot of a sidewalk haircut in Bedford-Stuyvesant, or George Cohen’s deadpan 1987 portrait of a paddle-tennis player in Brighton Beach.

A projection wall, operated by a touch-screen map, allows visitors to call up more images, which are drawn from the collection or submitted digitally by ordinary Brooklynites. (A QR code lets you upload your own for consideration.)

There are more images and texts lining the rails outside the building, and plenty of Brooklyn boasts. Who knew the borough had bragging rights to the blackout cake, the curveball, the credit card, the air-conditioner and the deep-fried Twinkie?

But it’s not all feel-good boosterism. The East Brooklyn section includes a map from 1953 (the year before the Brown v. Board of Education decision) showing “school utilization” across the borough, with patterns of overcrowding that correlate with residential segregation.

Many people associate integration battles with the South, Jean-Louis said. But New York City has its own history of activism, including a citywide school boycott in 1964 during which roughly 500,000 children stayed home in protest against segregation.

“We’re still in one of the most segregated districts in the country,” she said. “This maps helps explain why.”

Overall, there’s a shortage of images of stereotypical Dutch burghers or starchy 19th-century grandees. But visitors can find them upstairs, in the oil paintings hung in the Othmer Library, where Natiba Guy-Clement, the assistant director for collections and public service, had pulled a sampling of treasures from the research collection.

Treasures of the collection include an 1856 second edition of “Leaves of Grass,” signed by Walt Whitman.Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

There was iconic Brooklyniana, like a signed 1856 edition of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” Washington Roebling’s handwritten notes and sketches for the Brooklyn Bridge, and baseballs signed by Jackie Robinson.

But there was also a 1643 deed granting 200 acres of land near Coney Island to Anthony van Salee, the first known person of Muslim origin to settle in America; fliers and pamphlets from the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality; and archival snapshots from the Tribute to the Ancestors, an annual ceremony at Coney Island commemorating the Middle Passage.

The center is also starting a family history initiative, directing people of all backgrounds to resources that can help them find their own ancestors. Genealogy, Jean-Louis said, is many people’s entry point into history, which also flows back into scholarly understanding.

“The more people find out about their family history, the more we know about Brooklyn,” she said.

It has been claimed — perhaps by someone trying to sell a bridge — that as many as one in four Americans can trace some ancestry to Brooklyn. Whatever the math, Johnson said, what Brooklyn, and Brooklyn history, “is” is its people.

“We want people to feel like their stories are important,” she said, “because they live here.”

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