Recently, some merry prankster or whatever decided to cover over the word “Brooklyn” on some subway signs so that they would instead read “Breuckelen.” Now, even if pranks weren’t already the lowest form of humor (this does not include prank calls, which are obviously one of the highest), this particular joke would still be lame for one simple reason: It is time to ban “Breuckelen.”
First, a little history. The land that now comprises New York City was unique in that its initial European settlers were Dutch. You probably already know this. New York was first New Amsterdam, and the reason why we have words like “stoop” in our local lexicon is thanks to the Dutch. (For more about what makes New York City the most special place in ~all America~ you should probably read Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World, because it’s very good.)
But so: Brooklyn. What is now all of Kings County (a term adapted from British rule, which immediately followed the relatively brief period of Dutch rule) used to be a collection of villages: Boswijck (Bushwick), Amserfoort (Flatlands), Gravesend, New Utrecht, Midwout (Midwood), and Breuckelen (Brooklyn Heights). Eventually, all these villages incorporated and were known collectively as Brooklyn, and that’s kind of the end of that.
Fast-forward 300 years, though, and you find yourself in present-day Brooklyn where because old is new and the Dutch are cool, the word “Breuckelen” (which, incidentally, the Dutch city which Brooklyn was named after is actually spelled “Breukelen”) has had a new resurgence, and is now gracing everything from coffee shops to small-batch liquor distilleries to… subway signs. But it needs to stop.
The thing with fetishizing the past—whether it’s the New York of the 1970s or the New Amsterdam of the 1670s (which, actually, New Amsterdam became New York in 1664, but symmetry, you know?)—is that it gets complicated because a lot of shitty stuff happened in the past. Care to reminisce about the innocent pleasures of the 1950s? Ok, but let’s not forget the existence of Jim Crow Laws and rampant sexism and nuclear proliferation. Or, like, want to talk about how gentlemanly everyone was in the antebellum South? Do so at your own peril, because they were a bunch of slave-holding morally bankrupt people for whom we have every right to hold no reverence.
And so the Dutch: We all love to love the Dutch. Who wouldn’t? They ride bikes and smoke pot and are tall. But also, Dutch rule in 17th century Brooklyn laid the groundwork for New York City to have the second highest concentration of slaves in all of the colonies, coming in only after Charleston, South Carolina. It is estimated that at the beginning of the 18th century, over 40% of New York City households had slaves. Brooklyn specifically, as a place of fertile land and rich farming opportunities, had a huge percentage of slaves.
All of which is to say, we get that the word Breuckelen is a nice change of pace from boring old “Brooklyn,” but it’s also a dismissal of the borough’s current status as a true mosaic of different races, cultures, and ethnicities, and shows a misplaced reverence for a past in which the only people in power were white, and near half the borough’s population was enslaved. So unless you’re the kind of simpleton who wants to go back to the days of hoop skirts and plantations because it’s “romantic,” it’s also time to back away from the myth of “Breuckelen.”
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