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Downtown Brooklyn, a rapidly-changing Brooklyn neighborhood, has played a significant part in the borough’s history as a whole.

The first European settlers attracted to the site were Dutch farmers and tradespeople who acquired the land from the Lenape Indians. The first superintendent of Brooklyn was then appointed in 1625. In 1646, the settlers who lived close to the East River were granted a charter by the Dutch West India Company and named their town Breuckelen.

Rowboats and sailboats shuttled travelers between Fulton Ferry Landing and Manhattan as early as 1642, but when Robert Fulton introduced the steam-powered ferry to the area in 1814, the neighborhood began to change.

With the ferries’ immense popularity, thousands of Brooklynites crossed the East River each day by the middle of the 19th century. Business owners saw this as an opportunity and began to open up shops around the area, which were met by a growing population.

The City of Brooklyn was chartered in 1834 and a parcel of land was designated for a city hall. What is known today as Brooklyn Borough Hall was completed in 1849. 

Then after completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, Downtown Brooklyn became even more of an energetic commercial district. However, a retailing downturn in the late 1950s and 1960s from economic and social upheaval caused businesses to close.

To win back some shoppers, the Fulton Street Mall began construction in 1977. 

Downtown Brooklyn then began to expand rapidly and rezoning in 2004 has led to the construction of high-rises, co-ops and condominiums that have reshaped the Brooklyn skyline.

  • The entrance of the Brooklyn Municipal Building is often filled with residents socializing, relaxing and checking the wares of sidewalk sales.
  • Four landmarked homes on Duffield Street provide a contrast to the neighborhood's rapid development of skyscrapers.
  • The landmarked Dime Savings Bank that was built in 1907 is surrounded by a construction site as Brooklyn's soon-to-be tallest skyscraper will rise behind it at 1,066 feet.
  • Junior's at Flatbush and DeKalb avenues opened in 1929 and is most famous for its iconic cheesecake.
  • A sign at Tillary Street directs people to popular destinations around the downtown area.
  • More and more skyscrapers are rising in Downtown Brooklyn, changing the borough’s skyline. The new high-rises, often luxury apartment buildings, began popping up after rezoning in 2004.
  • With Brooklyn Supreme Court, Criminal Term and Brooklyn Criminal Court close by, New York City Department of Correction buses can often be found on the streets transporting inmates to court.
  • The City Point building, left, houses a new shopping mall, movie theater and food market while the Brooklyn Point building aimed at offering apartments is quickly rising next to it.
  • The New York Marriott Brooklyn opened in 1998 on Jay and Adams streets, standing as a symbol to the borough’s renewal.
  • Filled with daily workers, restaurant goers and shoppers, Downtown Brooklyn crowds can be similar to the Manhattan streets at certain hours.
  • Brooklyn Law School across the street from Borough Hall.
  • The DeKalb Market Hall opened in June 2017 with 40 food vendors including the famous Katz's Deli.
  • The lively Fulton Mall is filled with various shops and sidewalk sales.
  • One Metrotech Center, holding multiple large businesses, is part of the 16-acre Metrotech complex of new and renovated buildings and green space that have brought thousands of jobs to Downtown Brooklyn.
  • The mall's street is often owned by pedestrians, cyclists and buses.
  • The former Bridge Street Methodist Church in Metrotech is now called the Wunsch Building of New York University Tandon School of Engineering. The building with history dating back to 1847 was the first independent black church in Brooklyn and a stop on the Underground Railroad.
  • The owner of an informational sidewalk stand engages a passerby.
  • The former Bridge Street Methodist Church in Metrotech is now called the Wunsch Building of New York University Tandon School of Engineering. The building with history dating back to 1847 was the first independent black church in Brooklyn and a stop on the Underground Railroad.
  • On Duffield Street, renamed Abolitionist Place in 2007, was the home of Thomas and Harriet Truesdell and an Underground Railroad sanctuary for fugitive slaves in pre-Civil War days.
  • Downtown Brooklyn holds 13 subway lines, providing ample transportation to anywhere in the city and drawing residents to the area.
Photos by Paul Frangipane

How Downtown Brooklyn Got Its Name

The “downtown” section of any city or town is considered its main business section. Downtown Brooklyn is more a civic center, as well as a center of education and commerce.

And “center” it is, in the midst of Brooklyn Heights, Vinegar Hill, Dumbo, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, Park Slope and Fort Greene.

It developed out of the old Dutch town of Breuckelen, settled by Dutch farmers and tradesmen who lived close to the East River.

Like so many other neighborhoods in Brooklyn, it was transportation that was the catalyst in its growth. First came Fulton’s steam ferry, then the bridges, Brooklyn (1883) and Manhattan (1909), then the subway. There are 13 subway lines (13!) in Downtown Brooklyn today. Transportation brought people there and created the need for shops, houses, services, banks and financial offices.

When Breuckelen became the City of Brooklyn in 1834, a parcel of land one mile from the waterfront was designated as the site for its City Hall. It was completed in 1849 and remodeled in 1895 after a fire. After Brooklyn’s consolidation into the City of New York in 1898, it became Borough Hall.

The main Brooklyn branch of the U.S. Post Office was completed in 1891 and the Brooklyn Eagle built its new headquarters a block or so away in 1892, in the midst of numerous federal and state courthouses (thus, Court St.).

Urban renewal projects beginning in the 1930s created new housing projects and razed the Fulton St. elevated subway that had brought with it poor housing and pollution. After World War II, a public improvement program meant new buildings for state and city agencies, the widening of streets in the area, and more residential housing construction.

New York’s first pedestrian shopping mall, the Fulton Street Mall, was created in 1977 and the MetroTech business and education center was formed in 1992. 

After rezoning in 2004, new high-rises, co-ops and condominiums changed not only Downtown Brooklyn but also the look of the Brooklyn skyline.

Norm Goldstein

Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook. He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism. He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.