Jacques Barzun instructs us that you don’t know America unless you know baseball. And when I think of suburbs—which I did in reading John R. Stilgoe’s “The Suburbs” (February/March)—I searched for that sine qua non of their history, namely Brooklyn.
Brooklyn was the very first modern American suburb, a niche achieved because the confluence of technology and nature offered easy accessibility to Manhattan. Its boosters took advantage of an innovation in transportation—the steam ferry. Service to Manhattan began in 1814, quickly resulting in the growth of the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. And this was just the beginning.
By 1830 the pace of Brooklyn’s population increase surpassed Manhattan’s. At mid-century, laments surfaced about people of wealth deserting the city for the attractions of this peripheral locale. And by 1860—over two decades before its much-regaled bridge—Brooklyn had become distinctly more than a suburb, ranking third in size of population, behind New York City and Philadelphia, among the cities of the nation. Brooklyn’s urbanization proved so rapid that some contemporary observers were blinded to its suburban beginnings.
Brooklyn has been dropped, regretfully, from modern-day major league baseball standings, but it should remain forever first in the annals of suburban history.
Dr. Stilgoe replies: The most casual examination of old flashlights, hand tools, and factory machinery reveals the ubiquity of the “made in Bklyn” stamp. By the 1940s the former collection of suburbs had blossomed into a tightly knit, proud, prosperous borough , having abandoned (in 1898) its status as a separate city. Brooklynites chose neither suburban nor urban status, but instead opted to amalgamate themselves into a large urban entity. Perhaps the wistful nostalgia for the long-vanished baseball club masks a more subtle and serious longing to be a free city again. Once upon a time, most Americans knew of Brooklyn as a city; now it remains a shadow of itself, something called a borough, something that must be explained in odd political and economic terms. I did not mention Brooklyn because I have only begun studying the suburbs that became, cities and that later abandoned cityhood for amalgamation.