Robert Furman’s book Brooklyn Heights: the Rise, Fall and Rebirth of America’s First Suburb (The History Press, 2015) is a substantial illustrated history of Brooklyn. The book takes a look at the moving forces of history, and shows that technology is the great creator and destroyer, especially in the rise and fall of cities.
Brooklyn was once a great industrial city, like many others. It was enabled by transportation technology: steam ferries, railroads, canals. It was once the largest freight port in the world, in particular in Red Hook’s Atlantic and Erie Basins. They were the discharging end of the Erie Canal, and later expanded into international shipping.
But cars and trucks helped diminish the city’s industrial base. Nowhere is this clearer than in the port. Container ships are huge vessels transporting truck bodies, and require huge amounts of land which is simply not possible in a big city. A drive through Port Elizabeth or Port Newark reveals that it occupies a vast amount of land for storage of cargo (especially imported autos), and for companies that find it economical to locate there. In addition, they require access to interstate highways, railroads and airports, possible in New Jersey and not in Brooklyn. In fact, the Port Authority was founded to build a tunnel under New York Bay to provide trains and trucks access to the American mainland. Of course, this never happened.
In an economy based on the manufacturing and distribution of goods the shift to trucks was disastrous for Brooklyn. Factories and warehouses moved out of town where interstate highway access was easy, and there was lots of land for one-story factories and warehouses, and people followed them to Nassau, Westchester and Suffolk Counties, suburban New Jersey.
The result was a decline in Brooklyn’s population from 2.7 million in 1950 to 2.2 million in 1980. Not to mention the departure of the port, the closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the departure of the Dodgers, etc.
As cities have begun to recover with the changes in the American economy, Brooklyn is back to 2.5 million and on track to skyrocket to 2.8 for the 2020 count.
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