‘The past is present’: Brooklyn historian unpacks history of Bay Ridge in new book

A Brooklyn historian’s love for his hometown was laid bare Tuesday evening at a launch party for his latest book, “How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge.”

In celebration of the publication’s premiere, author Henry Stewart unpacked a bit of the neighborhood’s history in a live Q&A with Radio Free Bay Ridge co-host Dan Hetteix at a venue emblematic to some of the book’s own themes.

“At the Owl’s Head, we feel a sense of urgency surrounding the existing and growing culture of southern Brooklyn, where we grew up,” said John Avelluto, owner of the Owl’s Head Wine Bar, where the standing-room-only celebration spilled out onto the sidewalk.

The bar-owner, a Gravesend native who attended Xaverian High School, used his introduction to reflect on a time when Stewart came to the defense of the Owl’s Head, a first-of-its kind in the neighborhood when it opened in 2011.

“I was extremely nervous about our reception, as we didn’t fit the mold for a bar in the neighborhood, “ Avelluto said, adding that, when the press began calling him a “hipster invader” and a “gentrifier,” Stewart wrote a rebuttal for L Magazine, titled, “Can a Native Brooklynite Still Be an Invading Hipster?”

In it, Avelluto said, “Henry illustrates a wider, more inclusive vision of Bay Ridge through analysis of its past — a practice that he obviously has continued to partake in and expand. And I’m glad that he has. He has played more than an integral part in the shaping of Bay Ridge over the past 10 years, by not only evoking its history but also by loving it enough to not eliminate it to its past.”

Stewart, vice president of the Bay Ridge Historical Society, has spent his entire life in the neighborhood. He fondly remembers the New York Coffee Exchange and the now-painted over murals on Food City, and he still has his McKinley gym shirt. His parents — of Scandinavian and Scottish descent — took their wedding photos at Owl’s Head Park and held their reception at the Danish Athletic Club.

All of this, coupled with his passion for history, made penning “How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge” a labor of love.

The book is broken up into 20 chapters and three parts: People, Parks and Specters. The latter, Stewart said, focusing on developments and other local institutions “that no longer exist but whose effects we still feel.”

Heavily sourced from news archives like the Brooklyn Eagle’s, Stewart’s work begins with a quote by author Hubert Selby Jr.: “Bay Ridge, I think, is the same for the last 80 years with a few physical exceptions.”

“That’s what I think the book is about, this sort of great transformation of this farming community into an urban and suburban neighborhood,” Stewart said, stressing also that his re-telling begins with the Nayak tribe and the slaves of southern Brooklyn. “The history begins with them,” he said, later noting that the Native Americans were inevitably pushed out by the Dutch, and that Bay Ridge, at one time, had an even higher percentage of slaveowners than South Carolina.

The book also delves into Bay Ridge’s Dutch ancestry, its introduction to modern transportation (well before the notorious R train), and its early days as a resort town similar, in ways, to both the Hamptons and to current-day Coney Island.

Eagle photo by Meaghan McGoldrick

Chapter four — which Stewart read aloud Tuesday night — focuses solely on the neighborhood’s name change from Yellow Hook to Bay Ridge in the 1850s. The local historian debunks the myth that the moniker was changed after an outbreak of Yellow Fever (while the fear was real, the actual local outbreak came later) — and unveils the simplicity behind horticulturist James Weir’s suggestion (after all, the neighborhood did exist on a high ridge that overlooked the bay).

When asked by Hetteix what he took away from his work, Stewart said simply: “You should financially support local historians.”

“The past is present, right?” he followed up. “So, all the sorts of things that we fight for — whether its public spaces, or public transportation or whatever else — I think that this offers you a sort of look back at what people were already doing to achieve those things … so that, when doing that in present day, we can learn from those examples and hopefully not make the same mistakes.”

“How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge” is available now online and in stores, alongside Stewart’s “True Crime Bay Ridge.”

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