Boerum Hill might be Brooklyn’s most quietly popular neighborhood. For decades it was considered a great place to avoid at all costs, and even today many people raise their eyebrows at the area’s mention. For those who have taken the plunge and moved here it is a calm oasis of city living, a peaceful alternative to the more hectic pace associated with the its surrounding neighbors: Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Fort Greene, and Downtown Brooklyn.
The neighborhood is bounded by Schermerhorn Street on the north, angling down Flatbush Avenue and Fourth Avenue on the east, Warren Street on the south, and Smith Street on the West. Most of the residential streets are lined with one-to-four-family brick or brownstone row houses dating from the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. In addition, there are two mid-rise housing projects built after World War II and a raft of new condo buildings along or near Fourth Avenue on the East side of the nabe. It is consistently in the top five on lists of the most expensive neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
Location is everything, and Boerum Hill is perfectly situated near shopping, dining, entertainment, and transportation. There are stylish storefronts all along Atlantic Avenue between Smith and Nevins Streets; Smith Street is lined with restaurants and watering holes, as well has having a variety of clothing stores and delis; Fulton Mall is just above Boerum Place in Downtown; and the Barclays Center, BAM, and the Fort Greene cultural district are just across Flatbush Avenue. At that same location is Atlantic Terminal, with a full-scale shopping mall and the Long Island Railroad’s Brooklyn terminal and MTA subway hub for the B,D,N,Q, and R trains. The A, C, and G trains are at Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street, and the F and G are at Bergen and Smith Streets.
When the Dutch first arrived in the Boerum Hill area it was populated by the Lenape and Merechewick [spelling varies with sources] Indians. The area was eventually divided into parcels with Dutch owners with now-familiar names such as Bergen, Van Brunt, Cortelyou, Rapelje, and Boerum. England took over new Amsterdam in 1664, but the Dutch families in Brooklyn remained as citizens and landowners in the now English colony of New York. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the area had been further subdivided, but remained mostly farms and mills. During the revolution there was heavy fighting all around the area, in Park Slope Bed-Stuy, Gowanus, and Brooklyn Heights, but other than troops passing through or manning fortifications, not much happened in what’s now Boerum Hill. The nineteenth century was the major period of development throughout the northern half of Brooklyn, with the grid laid out, streets named—many carrying the monikers of those Dutch settlers–and today’s housing stock erected. The area became a magnet for immigrants, and waves of German, Irish, and Italians came into the neighborhood from the 1850s through the first half of the twentieth century.
The 1900s saw the rise of New York’s steel-and-stone skyscrapers, including the iconic Woolworth, Chrysler, and Empire State Buildings. A number of the ironworkers on these buildings were Mohawk Indians from Canada, who were adept at traversing through the steel-beam superstructures high above ground. A large contingent of Caughnawaga Mohawks lived in Boerum Hill during that time, concentrated between Smith and Nevins Streets from Bergen to Schermerhorn Streets. The Mohawk population grew so large that the local stores began carrying products specifically for them, including grains and ales from the Caughnawagas’ home in Canada, and the Cuyler Presbyterian Church held services in the Mohawks’ dialect. This enclave became known as Little Caughnawaga. There are descendants of these workers living in the area today, and, tangentially to our focus, Mohawk Indians still work in the ironwork industry, including being active in the rebuilding of the World Trade Center after the September 11th attack.
All this interesting Boerum Hill history, it has to be noted, didn’t happen in Boerum Hill. The neighborhood is named for the Dutch settler Simon Boerum, who at one time owned much of the land in the area. We’ve heard that back then there was some sort of rise near what is now Carroll Park (in Carroll Gardens) called Boerum’s Hill, but the Boerum Hill name wasn’t applied to the current neighborhood until the 1960s. Until then this section was part of what was generally known as South Brooklyn; in the 1800s, residents called it North Gowanus, and in colonial times the eastern end was a wet, marshy section of the Gowanus creek waterway. There was never a hill here.