Brownsville Then and now

by Stephanie Shelton

When I was about 7 years old my family and I went on our regular picnic to Prospect Park in Brooklyn where we found Miss Tour Tell (we thought it was French for turtle).  While fishing in a pond with string, a tree branch and pieces of bread from our sandwiches, my siblings and I came across a land turtle.  This turtle was pretty big and we spirited it away with us when we left the park, unbeknownst to our parents.  There was linoleum tile on our floors and the turtle had very long nails that made a tapping sound on the floor.  There were five of us children so of course my mother had supersonic hearing.  Needless to say, it wasn’t long before our capture was exposed.  We begged our parents to give us permission to keep the turtle and promised to be responsible for its care.  My parents agreed after admonishing us for taking the turtle from its natural habitat and family.  I guess they figured it was the lesser of two evils since we had been asking for a dog to keep in the small apartment that would have been another mouth to feed.  My family lived in one of the NYCHA housing developments called Red Hook.  We had a 5 room apartment that consisted of 3 bedrooms, a bathroom, living room and kitchen.  I have 2 older sisters, 1 younger sister and 1 brother.  My neighborhood consisted of persons of Polish descent and the shopkeepers were Jewish.  My family was one of the first Black families to move into the community.  Prospect Park was filled with foliage, greenery, animals, fish, birds and insects in abundance.

There was even a zoo that exposed us to animals that were not native to our community.  We hunted for frogs, praying mantis, butterflies and the like.  It was such a wonderful experience.  Where it was once commonplace to see land turtles walking about or greenery, or simply being able to use a twig, string and piece of bread to fish, it is now almost non-existent.  The environment has been damaged by pollution and population growth.   The Prospect Park of my youth is long gone.  Oh how I yearn for yesteryear!  The lakes that were once filled with fish are now just muddied, stagnant waters.  The animals in the zoo are almost non-existent and/or very old.  If we don’t do something now, will there be any wildlife or plant life around when my grandchildren grow older?  Will Brownsville Brooklyn really be a concrete jungle?

Brownsville gets its name from speculator Charles S. Brown of Esopus, New York.  He originally named it Brown’s Village in 1862.  Brownsville was filled with land marshes and was considered to be foul and inhabitable by most people.  Charles S. Brown figured that only the working class would see this area as an opportunity to both live and work within their community.   The community was comprised of tenements and factories because it was easier to provide employment within the community as opposed to traveling to Manhattan which was not an easy task.

Brownsville Brooklyn 100 years ago was primarily a Jewish community.  In 1910 Brownsville the first generation of Russian Jews found housing and employment in this area.   This community, nestled in the Brownsville area, was often referred to as “Little Jerusalem”.  (Brownsville and the curse of geography. para. 7) The Jewish population settled in this area after escaping the Lower East Side where unions were being formed and their assimilation in the community was not accepted.  The community grew faster than expected which led to crowded housing and poor sanitation.  Although Brownsville started out as a less than desirable community, and to some extent has remained so due to high crime rates, there were some bright spots.

In 1910, the Brownsville Children’s Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, became the first children’s library in the United States when it was inaugurated in 1914.  Also Margaret Sanger opened the country’s first birth-control clinic on Amboy Street in 1916.  (Brownsville and the curse of geography. para. 10).  The library was used as a social gathering for children but also provided education and books for children who might not have had this level of accessibility to reading material without it.  Margaret Sanger introduced birth control to the Brownsville neighborhood, providing women with the choice, freedom of choice, to decide when they would have children.

In the most recent 50 years, Brownsville has changed from a primarily Jewish community to an African American – Caribbean community.    The community has gone through the turbulent times of the United Federation of Teachers and the mostly black community facing off regarding better education for their school children, high crime rates and low income status – 1967 (Brownsville and the curse of geography. para. 14).  The majority of teachers within the schools in Brownsville were Caucasian.  Some parents felt that these teachers were not providing the same level of education that schools in predominantly Caucasian neighborhoods were receiving.  There was also the thought that resources and funding were not made available to the Brownsville community in the belief that educating Black children was not profitable.  There was a supposed belief that due to the high rate of crime and low income of households that the children in the Brownsville community were not going to amount to much anyway.

In 1980, the East Brooklyn Industrial Park opened making the area attractive to businesses with expansion needs and to businesses from other areas looking for industrial sites. (Brownsville Brooklyn:  Blacks, Jews and the Changing Face of the Ghetto. Chapter 9, pgs. 269-270).  In the 1990’s Brownsville witnessed an increase in the economy due to retail stores springing up that increased employment opportunities and building.

The community of Brownsville and surrounding areas were ripe with plant and animal life, some of which are now non-existent or endangered.  The area was first used by the Dutch in 1860 for farming.  The area was rich in vegetables such as turnips, potatoes, spinach, cabbage, carrots, celery, lettuce, peas, broccoli, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, bell peppers, asparagus, beets and brussel sprouts.  There was an abundance of fruit – watermelon, cantaloupe, strawberries, pumpkins, raspberries, peaches, pears, grapes, cherries and apples.  The land was also able to support plant life – zinnias, wisteria, tulips, Shasta daisies, rhodedendrons, pansies, peonies, hyacinths, aster and daffodils.  Herbs did very well in this area also – rosemary, thyme, sage, garlic, parsnips and chives.

The animal life in this area consisted of birds – piping plover, short eared owl, black tern, loggerhead shrike; reptiles – mud turtle, bog turtle and three sea turtles (Atlantic hawksbill, Atlantic Ridley and the Leatherback); amphibians – tiger salamander, northern cricket frog;  fish – short nose sturgeon, silver chub, pug nose shiner, round whitefish; insects – tomah mayfly, karner blue butterfly, bog buck moth and mollusks – rayed bean, fat pocketbook, pink muckett that are now endangered.  These animals have died out due to pollution and building that have either killed them off or through expansion (building) has taken over their territory.

The only plant life that seems to be around in this community today are the ones that are planted by humans.  The land has been taken over by housing developments, industrialized sections and the decay that comes along with population growth.  Pollution has infected and affected the waters along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean disturbing the wildlife that was once in abundance in the area.

The land that was once available for farming and planting has been covered over with concrete to lay foundations for much needed housing to support the growth of humankind.  There still exists the presence of the herbs that are familiar to this area.  You can taste and smell them through the varied foods that are available in the melting pot of Brooklyn. There are so many different ethnicities in Brooklyn, including Brownsville that you can walk from one block to the next and savor the smells and tastes of the community.  There is the jerk chicken of the Caribbean, the southern fried chicken of the African American, the fragrant smell of arroz condules in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods and the rich textures of the African and Jewish communities.

Yet aesthetically, it is so barren of the natural life that once existed here.  I was able to locate an evergreen shrub, Maple tree, bunchberry, wild strawberry, false lily of the valley, beach strawberry, dagger leaved rush, minuteman shrub and red leaf plum tree that were all planted by humans.  I found this plant life in my neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods planted in the backyards of homes and along sidewalks.  Their presence brings about a life of its own.  The beauty of the greenery in areas that are stark and almost devoid of any promise or hope.  They give a sense of community and stability to the neighborhood.  Their presence lets everyone know that someone plans to stay around to care for them.

There are several community gardens springing up in the community such as the Hull Street Garden and the Brownsville Student Farm Project – an 8, 000 square foot farm project – that is tended by the students at P.S. 323.  These projects represent the hope that at least in Brownsville, the community is being educated in and receptive to the importance of sustainability. There appears to be hope on the horizon.  More and more communities are being provided information about sustainability and living in harmony with our environment.  There are 64 compost sites in Brooklyn in various neighborhoods so that we can begin to again take care of the land. (NYC Compost Project).

Although seeing a raccoon in your backyard or hearing a coyote howling in the near distance, was once seen as unfathomable in the city, we are beginning to realize that we are encroaching on the natural habitat of many animals.  There is less land for them to feed on.  There is less opportunity to care for themselves and their families.  They are also trying to survive during this period of expansion. We all need to live and survive in harmony.  If we continue to grow, and I am sure that we will, then we are going to have to come up with a way to maintain the food supplies and natural resources that are needed.


Stephanie S.


References/Citations –Brownsville Brooklyn:  Blacks, Jews, and the Changing Face of the Ghetto. – Brownsville and the curse of geography – Turning Brownsville Green… – NYC Compost Project




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