|Chapter 3.1: Woodland to City Neighborhood: 300 Years of Change|
1. Symbolism, Self and Urban Environment
4. Invasion and Succession
5. Micrological Aspects of Urban Problems
The official history of the Lefferts Manor, and surrounding areas, begins with the colonization and development of Brooklyn by the Dutch settlers over three hundred years ago. In 1661 a large parcel of woodland was deeded to Cornelius Janse by Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of New Amsterdam on behalf of the West Indian Company, Netherlands Charter. Map 8 is a reproduction of a seventeenth-century map of Brooklyn. Today, the Lefferts Manor, Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens, Crown Heights, East New York, Brownsville and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Flatbush and Bushwick have replaced the thick woods, running streams, ponds and marshes. The deer and other abundant wild life of pre-colonial Brooklyn have been replaced by stray cats, dogs, and descendants of Norwegian rats.
Cornelius Janse was the first of what was later to be called the "Lefferts family" to settle in the Americas. The Lefferts family eventually became prominent in town, city and state-wide political affairs. The land deeded to Janse was acquired by the Dutch West Indian Company in typical Peter Minuet fashion. The Canarsie Indians, who inhabited the territory, gave it over to the Dutch for one hundred guilders in "sewant" (mostly sea shells), four blankets, pistols, a few rounds of gunpowder, one and a half barrels of strong beer and three cans of brandy.
Dutch control of New Amsterdam and the surrounding area did not last very long. In 1664 English rule came to the Dutch colony. Due, however, to the terrible mismanagement of the Duke of York, who over-saw the English colony, "New York" experienced a number of fiscal and political crises which caused the citizenry to revolt. In 1673 the city was recaptured by the Dutch. They evidently did not intend to keep the territory for they voluntarily returned it to the British the next year after only a slight show of force. The continued inefficiency of local English officials led the British Governor, Thomas Dongan, to call a Representative Assembly in 1683 to try to straighten out the city's problems and those of nearby towns. One of these problems was a dispute between the towns of Brooklyn and Flatbush over their respective boundaries. The argument was finally settled after intense negotiations in 1685 with the setting of their common town borders at the northern edge of the Lefferts (Janse) family property. This placed the Lefferts estate in the town of Flatbush. Map 9 shows the boundaries of the estate in relation to the present-day Lefferts Manor.
An oak tree on the northern limit of the Lefferts estate served as the benchmark for separating the municipalities. The tree, called "Dongan Oak", stood just off Flatbush Road, which was the major route connecting the two towns. The original Lefferts family homestead building stands near the Dongan Oak and serves today as a museum-landmark in Prospect Park. The site is about a quarter-mile north of the Lefferts Manor. The house was first located near the center of the Manor, but was moved to the park location shortly after the major urban development of the area took place.
During the eighteenth century John Lefferts, the family patriarch, was very active in the political and social life of Flatbush, as were the members of the Vanderbilt, Cortelyou and other power clans who had estates near the present-day Manor. John Lefferts, for example, served as a member of the American Provisional Congress. During the Revolutionary War the Crown Heights and Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens area was the site of many important skirmishes and strategic troop movements in the wide-ranging "Battle of Long Island" (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Brooklyn). Map 10 shows the Battle in relation to Crown Heights today.
One of the most fateful encounters between Revolutionary and British troops took place near the Manor:
It was in the vicinity of the northerly edge of the Lefferts farm that the historic revolutionary battle of Brooklyn Heights took place, markers of which appear at various points in Prospect Park. It was a disastrous day for the Americans, many prisoners being taken, among them Generals Sullivan, Sterling and Woodhull. After an orderly retreat, General Washington took his army to Harlem.
During the extended Long Island campaign, the northern slope of the present-day neighborhood served as a "Crow's Nest" for Revolutionary Army spotters, who were guarding the Bedford Pass at the juncture of the towns of Brooklyn and Flatbush. Some historians attribute the current name of Crown Heights to its role in this important battle. The British were expected to attack at this pass in their northward advance through Brooklyn. Therefore, General George Washington's army heavily defended the pass. It seemed logical that British forces would attempt to defeat the American forces at this point as it was nearest the two important roads, which provided the shortest and easiest routes to the rest of Washington's army.
The major confrontation between opposing forces, however, did not take place as anticipated at the Bedford Pass. The British outmaneuvered the Americans and ran an end-run around the heavily defended positions. As a result the battle was lost and Washington's troops were forced to retreat.
Flatbush Road now exists as Flatbush Avenue, a major commercial street which still funnels traffic from the south of Brooklyn toward "downtown" businesses and industries, as well as to Manhattan. The other road, Clove Road, has been for the most part obliterated by the present grid street pattern. Its skeletal remains are still visible to the careful eye in the form of narrow parcels of city-owned property, which traverse the back yards of homes located, on the eastern extreme of Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens. As is true for most of New York City's historical relics, very little remains standing which would indicate the area's importance during Colonial and Revolutionary periods.
In 1788, Peter (son of John) Lefferts was sent to the New York State Convention in Poughkeepsie as a county delegate. The convention was called to adopt the United States Constitution and Peter Lefferts was later to become a New York State Senator. In 1821 Peter Lefferts was the sole Kings County delegate (today the Borough of Brooklyn is coterminous with the county of Kings), and Congressional Representative to the New York State Convention at which the property qualification for suffrage was removed.
The populations of the town of Flatbush and the City of Brooklyn grew rapidly during the nineteenth century, but the Lefferts area remained largely undeveloped and rural in appearance. The luxurious mansions and broad estates of the Lefferts, Vanderbilts and other notables were virtually the only structures in the Lefferts Manor neighborhood standing on either side of Flatbush Road. In 1860, however, the City of Brooklyn began expanding at an exponential rate, and its spreading web of streets crept toward the semi-rural areas of Flatbush. Although the Town of Flatbush was still a separate municipality, it was included in planning maps for City of Brooklyn development. This was typical of the "imperialistic" acts of the City of Brooklyn, which began in 1854 to absorb neighboring towns and villages to meet the growing demand for commercial, industrial and residential properties.2 Flatbush itself was not annexed into Brooklyn until 1894, but the pre-annexation growth of Brooklyn had a major impact on the eventual social and physical character of the area. The boundaries and significant features of the Town of Flatbush in 1842 are shown in Map 11.
The Lefferts Manor area was, in 1880, still largely woodland and a few partially cleared farms close by to a sprawling urban park, Prospect Park. The section retained its suburban charm until relatively late for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that local elites continued to maintain their estates in the area. Unfortunately, shortly after 1880 these estates began to be subdivided and sold to developers. In place of the sprawling grounds and palatial homes of the rich and powerful, a wide variety of single and multiple-family dwellings were constructed. Flatbush Avenue quickly became a busy commercial street with many stores. The residential development of the area picked up more steam in the first two decades of the twentieth century, and continued until the 1950s when construction of residential buildings ceased completely. Virtually all of the housing built since 1890 still remains standing in the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens area. A few buildings have been replaced over the years, primarily by higher-density apartment houses. In general, it is the single and two-family homes which have best weathered the passing of the years.
The Lefferts Manor and Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens have benefited greatly by an early experiment in Garden City urban planning. In 1870, Eastern Parkway, a wide tree-lined boulevard was constructed on the northern ridge of Crown Heights to the north. it was part of a comprehensive city plan for Brooklyn designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, which included large urban parklands such as Prospect Park. Magnificent thoroughfares were planned to facilitate the development pattern of a "Garden City". Although the plan was never fully implemented, it captured the interest of the city's wealthy and middle-class families. Exquisite mansions as well as luxurious apartment houses eventually lined the parkway, encircled the park and insured that Crown Heights, Lefferts Manor and other strategic locations in the borough would be protected from the ugly urban sprawl that was to rapidly overcome less advantaged neighborhoods. The parkway and related development of plazas and cultural centers meant that Crown Heights and the Lefferts Manor would become fashionable communities. It was not until the 1950s that local homes and apartment houses, originally built for the elites of Brooklyn society, were to fall into the hands of the less affluent Brooklynites.
The Lefferts Manor has a long history as a place, but a relatively short one as an urban neighborhood. It began as a "potential" neighborhood at the end of the nineteenth century when many of the real estate holdings of "blue-blooded" Brooklyn families were sold off and subdivided for industrial, commercial and residential development. The Lefferts family occupied a homestead estate and a larger surrounding tract of land which included the Lefferts Manor and most of Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens. The estate had roughly the same boundaries as today's Manor community. The fact that the site was the original family patriarch's homestead convinced the Lefferts heirs to sanctify the Manor section by placing restrictions on the use of the land. A covenant which "ran with the land" (into perpetuity) was included in the deed for the property, then largely vacant.
The covenant stipulated that the section be built up as a respectable single-family community. No commercial use of property was permitted; therefore there were to be no stores, rooming houses or multiple-family dwellings, only substantial single-family homes. In this way the Lefferts heirs sought to preserve symbolic integrity of their ancestors in much the same way as did the ancient Romans and Greeks. The property was not, however, sanctified by religious ceremony but by legal process.
Notes to Chapter 3.1
1. Lefferts Manor Brochure (Brooklyn, NY: Lefferts Manor Association, 1938), pp. 11-12.
2. See Kotler (1969) for an extensive discussion of the process by which American cities have expanded at the expense of nearby communities.