Boerum Hill

Boerum Hill

In 1973, the Boerum Hill Association presented the city with a history of the Boerum Hill Historic District and the name became official.

During the 18th century, the name Boerum occurred frequently in the writings of Brooklyn. Simon Boerum (1724 – 11 July 1775) represented Brooklyn in the Continental Congress in 1774 and 1775. He purchased a home at what today is the southwest corner of Fulton and Hoyt streets. He and his wife, Maria, are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.

The area was first settled in 1645, when three Dutch settlers to the area - Jan Eversen Bout, Jacob Stoffelson and Gerrit Wolfertsen van Couwenhoven  - purchased the land tracts from the Dutch East India Company in 1645 that lined the road from Flatbush to the Ferry. The properties stretched from what today would be Fulton Avenue, Smith and Nevins Streets. The village which grew at this location was known as Breuckelen, named for a village 18 miles from Amsterdam.

The land owners petitioned and received permission to hire a constable and justices in 1646, and by 1660 had grown to over 30 families and a population of 134.

The Revolutionary War featured many names connected with Boerum Hill that still are known today, usually as street names. Peter Wyckoff served as a quartermaster, William Boerum was a first lieutenant in the Brooklyn Light Horse Brigade, and Isaac Boerum and Hendrick Boerum both served as privates in the Brigade.


Susan Gardner's Wyckoff Street Mosaic House is a local favorite for tourists. ©Mark D Phillips

George Washington ordered the construction of two forts to protect the village prior to the Battle of Long Island. Fort Box was fortified at the present day location of Pacific and Bond Streets. In the War of 1812, Fort Fireman may have been built on or near same site.

Brooklyn was incorporated in 1834. Boerum Hill's largest landowners were the Gerritsen and Martenese families, related by marriage and long-time residents. The families' estates were lotted beginning that same year and sold over the next twenty years. Charles Hoyt, and his business associate, Russell Nevins, purchased much of the Martenese property in 1834.

When Boerum Hill was developed between 1840 and 1870, the layout of the area was set down for our generation. An 1838 map of the area shows the street layout to be almost exactly what it is today. Many of the homes along Pacific and Dean Streets in the northern part of the neighborhood were constructed in the 1840s, with the southern section along Bergen and Wyckoff Streets added at the end of the Civil War in the 1860s and 1870s.

The area has many styles of architecture throughout its tree-lined blocks. The earliest houses feature Greek revival to Queen Anne, with the post-Civil War era predominantly in the Italianate Style. The building boom brought in unique styles in small quantities, including a row of gabled Victorian cottages, and the use of French Second Empire style characterized by the occasional mansard, the steep roof with windows that creates an additional floor of habitable space.

In the late 1960's, the area had fallen to hard times, with many buildings slated for destruction. Residents banded together to resurrect the area and it was at this time that the neighborhood was officially renamed Boerum Hill. During the late 60's to early 70's, new residents could purchase one of the lovely brownstone rowhouses for a mere $20,000.

One of the turning points for the neighborhood occurred with the upswing of Smith Street in the late 1990s. On the western border of the neighborhood, Smith Street developed into a shopping and gastronomic destination now known worldwide.

The street was named for Samuel Smith, the tenth mayor of Brooklyn, elected in 1850. Smith Street connected downtown Brooklyn to the Red Hook docks, and over the decades served as one of the main business streets in the area. In the 1860s, horse drawn trolleys bring public transportation along the thoroughfare, bringing a boom of rowhouses and low-rent apartment houses for dockworkers and the local gas factory. Gaining the moniker of the "Gashouse District," the street becomes known for its many bars and gangs, two of which are known as the Creekers and the Pointers, who fight for control of the district.

By the 1880s, Italian immigrants were the new residents of Smith Street and began to spread throughout the area. Electric trolleys replaced horses along the street in 1893, bringing another leap forward for Boerum Hill and Brooklyn. Soon after the turn of the century, Smith Street becomes a furniture store mecca setting a long term precedent for the neighborhood. In the end of the century, Boerum Hill became known as the antique store mecca of the city.

Throughout the 20th century, Smith Street changed in 20-year cycles. The 1920s and 30s featured German, Irish and Jewish immigrants and the storefronts catered to these families and their needs, with an influx of butcher shops and clothing stores. A Spanish trend occurs in the 30s and 40s as a wave of Puerto Rican families move onto the street bringing specialty shops and bodegas, which are still here today. The 50s and 60s saw the decline of the docks and an exodus of the dockworkers that had built the Boerum Hill neighborhood for so long. The decline continued throughout the 70s and 80s as the city struggled through its long fiscal crisis, leading to crime and decay.

Bette Stoltz, president of the South Brooklyn Local Development Corporation, began a campaign in 1984 that culminated with a 12-year rebuilding campaign and brought Smith Street and Boerum Hill back to life. The antique style lighting, wide sidewalks and new paving opened to great fanfare in 1996. In less than a year, the first upscale restaurant, an intimate French bistro named Patois, opens at 255 Smith Street near the corner of Degraw. The numbers have grown exponentially with nearly no vacant storefronts and a broad selection of cuisines.

This change has brought a new type of resident to Boerum Hill. Over the last decade, it has become a destination for Hollywood hipsters, with new residents including Michelle Williams, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke, Keri Russell, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

The neighborhood holds a distinction for convenience to eleven subway lines (A, B, C, D, F, N, R, 2, 3, 4, and 5) and the Long Island railroad, all within walking distance.

Places of interest include:

The Mosaic at 108 Wyckoff Street by Susan Gardner explained by her on her website; "One day in 2001 I went outside and started gluing things to the front of my house. I have not stopped yet. My hope was to make a celebratory statement that would cheer and amuse. The neighborhood has embraced and encouraged the project. The joy of sharing it with strangers has made me very happy. The materials include shells, beads, buttons, jewelry, tiles, mirrors, broken cups/dishes and much more."

Temple Square is the home of the Baptist Temple, a Romanesque Revival fortress complete with tower. Its interior includes a 1918 organ designed by J. W. Steere, known as the Stradivarius of the organ.

Barclays Center, opened in 2012, brings world-class entertainment and the Brooklyn Nets to the edge of Boerum Hill in a new complex built to rival Manhattan's Madison Square Garden. The Brooklyn Nets are the first major league sports team in Brooklyn since the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in the 1950s.

Brooklyn House of Detention looms over Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill. ©Mark D Phillips
Brooklyn House of Detention looms over Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill. ©Mark D Phillips