After a 55-year hiatus, professional sport is back in Brooklyn. The Brooklyn Nets moved from Newark and began play at the new Barclays Center. The NHL’s New York Islanders announced they’ll be relocating soon, too. The teams are riding a wave of communal change, as gentrification and revitalization have redefined whole sections of the gritty borough. Brooklyn has become a brand as much as a community, and many of its neighborhoods are as fashionable as anything in Manhattan.
The population of Brooklyn today is about 2.6 million people. If the borough was its own city, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago would be the nation’s only larger metropolises. There are nearly 100 languages spoken throughout Brooklyn, as people from all corners of the world have set up camp somewhere in the borough.
“Anything you can find in this world, you can find in Brooklyn,” said Brett Yormark, the chief executive of the Nets and Barclays Center.
Until last month, professional sport was not included on that list. The bustling borough has cycled through its share of identities and living conditions in the past half-century, a coarse but proud community of working-class underdogs, a mecca for music, a melting pot of poverty. But it had been a wasteland for sport.
“Brooklyn was the subject of jokes,” said Brooklyn-born writer Roger Kahn, who authored the best-selling tome “The Boys of Summer,” about a father, a son and the Brooklyn Dodgers. “The thick accents and always losing. I mean, Brooklyn wasn’t even a city. Topeka was a city but Brooklyn wasn’t. We were Manhattan’s dormitory.”
Where the Dodgers reigned
In the early part of the 20th century, Brooklyn was an industrial, commercial power, said Julie Golia, public historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society. It had a working-class economy that thrived especially on waterfront commerce. It was always diverse, but the Dodgers — named after locals who dodged trolley cars in the busy streets — managed to tie together all the different factions.
“I think that’s one of the reasons the Dodgers have become a pivot point of nostalgia,” Golia said. “The Dodgers symbolically became this glue that held together Brooklynites.”
The Dodgers blossomed into a perennial contender with Branch Rickey running the front office and filling his roster with stars such as Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson. But as the interstate highway system grew and business fled the borough following World War II, people followed. White flight coincided with African Americans migrating from the South. With the loss of the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1957 and, within a decade, the closure of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the borough’s makeup and identity were permanently altered. It was still diverse and packed with people from all backgrounds, but they no longer assembled under the same tent.