These folks are about as Old Brooklyn as it gets.
The Society of Old Brooklynites is a group that first formed to oppose the incorporation of their beloved city of Brooklyn into the City of Greater New York, which went through in 1898 despite their best efforts. Now, 134 years after its founding, the Society remains an active social club and some members still bristle at the mention of the accursed consolidation.
“It was a sell-out job,” said Tony Ibelli, who has lived in Brooklyn for all of his 78 years and thinks our neighbors across the East River clearly got more out of the deal. “We were more successful than Manhattan. They didn’t have any deep-water piers.”
Since its crushing defeat at the hands of those bureaucrats across the water, the group has plodded along, redirecting its focus to extolling the virtues of old, independent Brooklyn, especially the borough’s role in the Revolutionary War. “Promoting Brooklyn is what we really like to do,” said Mike Spinner, who has been part of the club for 25 years and whose father Frank Spinner spent 16 years as president before passing away in 2005.
A life-long membership runs $50 and the only criteria for joining is that a person must have lived or worked in Brooklyn for at least 25 consecutive years. That said, group gatekeepers do not exactly pore over old tax returns to verify that prospects are the genuine article.
“We kind of use the honor system,” Spinner said.
Membership peaked in 1922 at around 12,000 and the group still claims around 5,000 members today, Spinner said.
Certified Old Brooklynites meet once a month to talk about the bygone days. The long bygone days.
About 25 stalwarts turned out for this month’s meeting, which was held in Borough Hall. Robert Furman of the Brooklyn Preservation Council gave a talk about Fort Defiance in which sat on a small island off the coast of Red Hook.
A meandering conversation followed, some of which revolved around the naming of Brooklyn streets.
“There is a street named for every city in New York State,” one member said.
“Williamsburg has streets named for the signers of the Declaration of Independence,” another explained.
“But they spelled ‘Keap’ wrong,” a third added, referring to early planners’ misreading of Thomas McKean’s name on the document.
The remark was met with knowing laughter.
Furman explained that Red Hook gets its name from the shape of the land and the color of the soil there.
He added that Bay Ridge used to be called “Yellow Hook” until an outbreak of yellow fever prompted residents to rethink the moniker.
So it went for hours. Each Old Brooklynite cares about particular aspects of borough history and, at meetings, members go around the room sharing factoids.
“My history revolves around the Village of Brooklyn,” Ibelli said, referring to what is now Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo. “Because I live down there.”