Welcome to The Flatbush Diaries

This blog is devoted to one of the most (if not, the most) ethnically, culturally  and economically diverse neighborhoods in a little town called Brooklyn.  

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Enjoy.

- Lydia Noone (New York, NY via Philadelphia, PA)

Flatbush: Brooklyn’s Melting Pot

It is a Sunday afternoon at the corner of Church and Flatbush Avenues.  The streets are brimming with people. Colorful shops line the streets. Grocery stores that sell fish hake bones next to the Frosted Flakes. A Chinese restaurant that serves fried chicken and collard greens. I am the only White person here. Nobody seems to care. I venture south down Church Avenue. I make a right on Rugby Road. Suddenly, I find myself in the middle of a quaint fairytale suburb. Grand Victorian mini-mansions and old-fashioned lampposts line the streets. Privileged parents pushing pricy Peg Peregu baby strollers and children riding bicycles. Hello, Flatbush.

As I discovered that day, Flatbush is one of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in all of Brooklyn. Its homes vary from detached Victorian homes of a different era to high-density apartment complexes, with Flatbush Avenue serving as its commercial backbone. While Flatbush began as a community predominately inhabited by Irish, Italians and Jews, its population is now primarily comprised of Caribbean, Hispanic, Indian and Chinese immigrants. It is this recent influx of immigrants that has contributed to this trend of diversity the most. Such cultural progression among the residents of Flatbush has shaped the community both geographically and socially.

In order to fully understand this idea, it is important to first examine the history of Flatbush so that one might recognize how this notion of cultural progression came to be.

Flatbush began as a Dutch settlement called Vlackebos, or “wooden plain,” in 1634. Eighteen years later, in 1652, it became known as the town of Flatbush, one of six original towns that would eventually become Brooklyn (Bleyer 2). At the end of the nineteenth century, Flatbush remained a sleepy village rooted deeply in its Dutch colonial past. The influence of Dutch merchant and farming values remained strong in the area until around 1894, when Flatbush was merged first into the city of Brooklyn, and ultimately into the City of Greater New York. With the expansion of the New York City transportation system came Flatbush’s shift from rural farmland to bustling suburb (Liff 2).

As Flatbush began to experience this move into the modern realm of 20thcentury America, thousands of immense, Victorian-style homes suddenly defined its landscape. This architectural shift transformed what had previously been mostly vacant farmland into a self-proclaimed “Mecca” of Victorian Suburbia. In an introduction to Herbert Foster Gunnison’s 1908 publication, The Realm of Light and Air: the Flatbush of To-Day Edward D. Fisher describes the development of this new bustling community with the following remark:

Modern Flatbush, with its beautiful streets, handsome homes and impressive buildings, is to-day generally regarded as the most attractive and desirable place for residence in the great City of New York. (Fisher 15).

As Flatbush developed into a prosperous suburb, its main commercial district, centered on the intersection of Flatbush and Church avenues became a main thoroughfare for the entire borough of Brooklyn. Nedda C. Allbray, author of Flatbush: The Heart of Brooklyn, says it best, “embedded in Flatbush Avenue is the historical and cultural timeline of Flatbush”. Although Flatbush was mostly lined with small mom and pop stores in at this time, it later went on to boast such mainstream establishments asLoehmann’s, which opened its doors in the early 1920’s, and Macy’s which opened its doors after World War II in 1948. These stores added “glamour” and validated the importance of Flatbush Avenue as a major retail thoroughfare (Allbray 149-150).

The 1920’s also ushered a new focus of residential development into Flatbush that shifted from planned suburban communities made up of single-family homes for the middle-class, to multi-family buildings to accommodate new populations. It was the spirit of the new working-class, immigrants and first-generation Americans who began to move there at this time that transformed it into the community it is today (Allbray 151). Flatbush found itself urbanized almost overnight, with the new influx of Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants to the region. The corridors of Flatbush Avenue had suddenly found itself at the crossroads of several beliefs, ideologies and cultures – a place where cultures could happily collide.

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Another aspect of Flatbush culture during the first half of the 20thcentury includes Ebbets Field, home to the Brooklyn Dodgers who played baseball there from 1913 to 1957 before “breaking Brooklyn’s heart” and moving to Los Angeles. Although technically outside Flatbush borders, the team was very heavily involved in the culture of Flatbush. Players for the Dodgers served as personal heroes and role models for many Flatbush residents. According to Allbray, perhaps what connects Flatbush to the Brooklyn Dodgers is the team’s ability to inspire its fans to strive for the American dream. “The team, like [Flatbush] was scrappy, tough and boisterous. It offered the comforting predictability of America’s pastime and the hope that the next season – or the next day- would be the winning one” (Allbray 153).

            To most, it seemed implausible that the Dodgers would ever leave Flatbush. But in 1957, they did. As they packed up their bags and headed for Los Angeles, Flatbush as many knew it was no more. The 1960’s were on the horizon, and with it would come great change.

            In the early 1960’s, in an act that is often labeled “white flight,” many young Flatbush families left for the suburbs, believing that there they would find a better life for their children and themselves. At that time, many preferred new construction to the stately Victorian houses found in the old neighborhoods of Flatbush. Mary C. Waters, author of Black Identities,says that growing up in Flatbush during the 1970’s, she saw the neighborhood “becoming black.”

“While my liberal parents welcomed the diversity and I felt no fear about this change, I watched with sadness as my friends and their families quickly bought homes in Long Island or New Jersey, and as white immigrant neighborhoods of Jews, Italians, and Irish became Puerto Rican and black neighborhoods” (Waters 1)

It is, however, interesting to note that a small number of the newly rising well-educated, two-income professional class of the 1960’s and ‘70’s began a movement into the neighborhoods of Flatbush. These individuals saw potential in the history of Flatbush, ignoring the notion that “new is better,” disregarding the “race issue” and initiating the task of buying and renovating the old Victorian houses that make up so many of its most historic neighborhoods (Allbray 154).

Following in this trend of  “redesign,” Flatbush experienced what is perhaps its greatest known shift in demographics in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The community went from being a mostly White, Irish, Italian and Jewish community to a mostly Black, West Indian community. In describing the once predominately Jewish culture of Flatbush, Bob Liff of the New York Daily News says, “By the 1980’s, many of the Jews had moved on. Thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean flowed into Flatbush and East Flatbush. Island-lilted English and Haitian Creole replaced Yiddish, much as English had earlier replaced Dutch” (Liff 2). 

Unfortunately, the 1980’s also provided the community of Flatbush with an unpleasant economic downturn and spike in crime. Even though most sections had always been working class before the great shift in demographics, few affluent areas remained throughout this time period. As the decade progressed, several abandoned buildings were left in the community, with many apartment complexes falling into despair. Lower income residents replaced many of Flatbush’s former upper-middle class residents (Ahramsky 2)

Towards the end of the 1980’s, groups like the Flatbush Development Corporation began a revitalization effort that that managed and repaired hard-pressed buildings and evicted difficult tenants. Efforts like this, in conjunction with newly-elected Mayor Giuliani’s demands for stronger police enforcement brought stability, ultimately leading to an upswing the community atmosphere of Flatbush (Berger 3).

Although the 1980’s had hung a dark cloud over the development of Flatbush, the 1990’s brought restoration to the community. Today, Flatbush exists as the ultimate combination of its former lives – a multicultural coexistence that finally got it right.

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Despite its former spells of adversity, Flatbush is currently one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Brooklyn.  It is currently made up of several thriving neighborhoods, each of which provides its own unique flavor to the Flatbush community. While the area known as Victorian Flatbush is still comprised of mostly white, upper-middle class residents, almost 70% of Flatbush is comprised of foreign-born, immigrant citizens (Ahramsky 1).

The cultural dynamic that such demographics provide remains unparalleled by any other Brooklyn neighborhood. Although there are physical neighborhood boundaries that separate different ethnic groups from one another, and overall spirit of coexistence reigns over the streets of Flatbush. As Susan Miller, a Ditmas Park resident who lies on a block of Victorian houses with people of India, Pakistani, Polish, Italian, Jamaican, and Orthodox Jewish backgrounds, “the reason why this works is there’s no majority of one – it’s a majority of many” (Berger 2).

This great underlying trend of diversity has delivered a great transformation to the Flatbush community. Its wide array of Caribbean immigrants has delivered a huge boost to its local economy. Just one walk down Flatbush Avenue is all it takes to understand this notion, where flourishing Caribbean and West Indian businesses, shops and restaurants abound.

Gregg Richards, a native of Jamaica who immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1980’s describes this portion of Flatbush Avenue as, “the closest thing to home before my yearly visits to my homeland Jamaica. A place where I can go to purchase groceries not found in any other grocery stores in Manhattan. A place where I can go to hear my native dialect and a collage of other dialects spoken by other Caribbean islanders who call this neighborhood home” (Life in Flatbush).

Finally, Flatbush’s recent boom in diversity has led to several social movements, which serve to redefine the public climate of the community.Sustainable Flatbush, a nonprofit organization, seeks to “bring neighbors together to discuss, educate, and advocate for sustainable living in our Brooklyn neighborhood and beyond.” Their vision of a sustainable neighborhood includes equal access to healthy food and open spaces and preserving affordable housing along with the diverse population, among other causes (Sustainable Flatbush).

            Additionally, and initiative called, Imagine Flatbush 2030,established by the Flatbush Development Corporation in 2007, seeks to maintain a sustainability discussion and planning process for the greater Flatbush community. This initiative continues to evoke a community-wide discussion of how residents want their neighborhoods to look like in future and how they can accommodate population growth while maintaining the things about the neighborhood’s character that brought so many there in the first place.

It is groups such as these that recognize the importance of taking advantage of Flatbush’s culturally diverse dynamic, striving to learn from one another and improve upon one another’s standard of living.

In stride with this trend of social impact among Flatbush residents, many have created their own blogs in which they hope to establish as sense of community and keep locals updated on nearby happenings. In blogging, members of the Flatbush community hope to strengthen community ties, build up local businesses and promote community events. Topics found on such sites range from new business openings and restaurant reviews to sightings of one of the many TV or film shoots that frequently take place in the areas known as Victorian Flatbush.

Ultimately, the story of Flatbush is one of change and diversity. The sense of community that it continues to exude is all too rare in today’s society, and yet, somehow it manages to work. Although things have changed, there is a great constant of community that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. Hundreds of years later, the Victorian homes of Flatbush’s inauguration still stand and Flatbush Avenue still remains the community’s most popular thoroughfare. Though the inhabitants of Flatbush have changed, its propensity for greatness has not.

The tale of Flatbush will continue with new arrivals and departures no doubt, but its 21st century narrative of diversity will certainly live on. 


- Lydia