Robert Moses executed a one-two punch on Bay Ridge. With a right, he crossed the Gowanus Expressway through the neighborhood, parting it from Sunset Park. With the left, he hit Bay Ridge with an uppercut in the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
When the bridge, the longest suspension span in the United States at 9,865 feet, opened in 1964, it had forced the relocation of roughly 7,000 Brooklynites. Since then, it’s brought traffic to the area as people from New Jersey use the free ride across the bridge to take the expressway up to Manhattan to take advantage of the free crossings at the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges.
The Verrazano’s towers have loomed high over Bay Ridge since then as well and have served as a symbol of the city’s callous disdain for its neighborhoods before eventually become a source of pride as many local businesses have named themselves after it.
But back in the 1960s, many people across the city and south Brooklyn were leaving, with or without help from Moses. A promised container port never materialized and ended up devastating much of the Brooklyn waterfront, driving away residents and driving up crime. Bay Ridge, where many dockworkers had lived, was not immune to the sharp downturn, but many residents decided to stick by the neighborhood and ride out the bad times, which made for a more closely knit community.
Bay Ridge is often thought of as an Italian neighborhood because of movies like “Saturday Night Fever,” said Victoria Hofmo of the Bay Ridge Conservency. But many more people of diverse backgrounds live there as well, including, traditionally, Irish, Greeks, and Scandinavians and, more recently, Latinos, Middle Easterners and Chinese.
The neighborhood is “welcoming to new people,” Hofmo said, while it retains a sense of community that has always been strong there. “The common culture is here, very much alive,” she said, adding that she still recognizes many faces around the neighborhood and many people who have left also come back to visit.
Hofmo notes that the texture of the neighborhood reveals its Scandinavian roots and gives the lie to those who ascribe to Italian dominance of Bay Ridge. The protestant churches go back more than 100 years and were built in a Scandinavian style. Norwegians also started the local medical center, and built an old-folks home, too. She remembers a time, also, when Norwegian was taught in the local high school.
Time was that a new immigrant group would come to Bay Ridge every 15 years or so. “Now they’re coming quicker,” Hofmo said. “That doesn’t mean it won’t change again.”
When it does, the new folks will be welcomed too, while expected also to “respect what already exists,” she said.
— Michael P. Ventura