Brooklyn in the 1920s Was Pretty Much the Same As Brooklyn Is Today…Except for One Thing

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 12.49.44 PM

It was just about a year ago that we wrote about The Brooklyniteour borough’s answer to The New Yorker—and asked ourselves the age-old question: “Were flappers the original hipsters?” And then our heads promptly exploded and it was quite a mess and we’re only now recovered. It was awful.

But so, were we a little skeptical when we saw that Gothamist had discovered a tourist’s guide to New York from 1920? Sure we were. Upon what could it possibly shed light that we didn’t already know? That “of the five boroughs… Brooklyn has distinctively the flavor of Arts and Letters”? Nope, not surprising. That “Brooklyn is as different from New York as day is from night. It thinks differently, lives differently, acts differently”? Well, obviously. That “a Brooklyn audience, as has often been remarked, is discriminating and exacting”? Sure. Fine. What else is there to know?

Only this: “Brooklyn College [is] the center for Catholic instruction in this city.” Which, what? How could that be? Brooklyn College, which is one of the gems of the CUNY system (and, really, of affordable higher public education in general) wasn’t established until 1930 and was most definitely not a place exclusively for Catholics. In fact, Brooklyn College was colloquially known as both the “poor man’s Harvard” (the school was free until 1976) and “Harvard for the Jews” because of its non-discriminatory admission policies. This level of accessibility has served the school well as it is the college with the most students who went on to earn PhDs in the country. Plus, CUNY graduates tend to be unburdened by the crippling student loan debts that afflict so many other graduates, so basically what I’m saying is, way to go Brooklyn College, which was never, EVER a Catholic institution.

But so what school is this guide book talking about? It’s probably referencing St. Francis College, a Roman Catholic college located in Brooklyn Heights and founded in 1859. But St. Francis was never referred to as Brooklyn College.* It was just a college in Brooklyn! Not the same thing, guide book from 1920. Not the same thing at all. Am I the only person driven crazy by this 96-year-old mistake? Probably! All of which is to say, if I had a time machine, I just might use it to back to 1920 and write a very strongly worded letter to the publisher of that book. Like, very strongly worded. Or maybe I’d use it to go to 2120 and see if Brooklyn is still the center of Art and Letters in this city, which it probably will be, unless we’re all buried under layers and layers of ice because of Polar Vortex CLVII. Anything’s possible.

*At least not according to the extensive (like, not just Wikipedia) Internet research we did on the subject.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

Around Brooklyn

See More


  1. Hey Kristin,

    Gotta tell you, I’m a huge fan of your work; I look forward to reading all your new posts… Seriously! You’ve had my heart since you wrote about the Yankees a few months ago.
    Have a question about your Brooklyn College article. Where’d you get your sources for that because actually City College, the oldest of the CUNY’s, with arguably the most history wrapped up with the Ivies, is known to be the “Harvard of the poor,” rather the “Harvard of the Proletariat.”

    Understandably, I’m a little bias as a City College Alumna – and, it could just be something all CUNY students tell themselves to make themselves feel better about their academic choice in the wake of their friends’ NYU and Columbia matriculation statuses… Just thought I’d let you know of the discrepancy.

    At any rate, keep up the awesome work! I very much look forward to reading your next piece!


  2. Ummm this is a huge error on your part Brooklyn Magazine. The Poor Man’s Harvard, with all it’s academic successes was in fact The City College of New York, CCNY. The original campus was located where Baruch is now and the new(ish) campus, moved at the turn of the 20th century is now uptown in Halimton Heights in West Harlem. Apart from being a CUNY senior college, like Brooklyn College, and the fact that I commuted there every day for two years FROM Brooklyn, CCNY has no ties to the borough of this publication.

  3. It is the CUNY flagship school, City College, that is colloquially referred to as the “poor man’s Harvard” and holds the aforementioned PhD record.

  4. Hello everyone,
    My reference to Brooklyn College as the “poor man’s Harvard” and to the fact that BC has more graduates that go on to get PhDs than any other college were both things that I read on Wikipedia (link below). Although, also, I have heard Brooklyn College called the “poor man’s Harvard” by many older people I know who went there or knew people who went there in the 50s and 60s. Of course, that’s just anecdotal, and I have no doubt that CCNY was also called the “poor man’s Harvard.” I guess the real takeaway is that it’s great to be in a city with such a strong tradition of affordable higher education? That’s my takeaway anyway. I certainly didn’t mean to insult any CCNY alumni. Thanks for reading!

  5. I hope no one was paid for this article.

    And to this commenter: “it could just be something all CUNY students tell themselves to make themselves feel better about their academic choice in the wake of their friends’ NYU and Columbia matriculation statuses?

    Get out.