4

I'm wondering about the origin of the phrase "darkest Brooklyn".

I imagine it is meant to suggest unexplored wilderness and perhaps also primitive social conditions. I've found a citation from the late 19th century:

[George B. Buzelle], The Third Annual Report of the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities… presented May 1, 1884. District Conference of Wards 3 and 10, Secretary's Report, (Brooklyn: Tremlett & Co., 1884), p. 21.

The end of another year finds us returning with our reports from Darker Brooklyn; not darkest Brooklyn; that region few of us have explored.

That makes it sound as though the author is nodding to "darkest Brooklyn" as an established phrase. It certainly predates the books In Darkest Africa (1890) and In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890).

How old is this expression, actually, and what associations of Brooklyn are being referred to?


Edit, 19:30 EDT: Contrary to some of the comments, this phrase is attested well before the 1970s:

  • Library of Congress possesses a 1958 work, "Through Darkest Brooklyn," by Gerson Lieber. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003668972/

  • Truman Capote (1946): "As you see, I have changed addresses, have moved to a little lost mews in darkest Brooklyn... for various reasons...". Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote, ed. Gerald Clarke, (New York: Vintage International, 2004), p. 39.

  • James Huneker (1920): "adjacent to all the cemeteries and frog ponds of Darkest Brooklyn", letter to Alice Wade Mulbern, Dec. 12, 1920, Letters of James Gibbons Huneker, ed. Josephine Huneker, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920), p. 308.

  • New York Times (1911): "Contrary to Eastern conceptions, he said, the only cowboys and Indians to be seen in the West nowadays are found in Eastern magazines shipped in trainloads out there; while Western gamblers make their habitat onIy on Broadway and take their money exclusively from 'citizens of Harlem and darkest Brooklyn.'" Article "WEST EXULTS OVER EAST. Gerrit Fort, Railway Man, Tells of Marvelously Superlative Attractions." June 01, 1911, p. 7.

  • New York Times (1908): "Sir Oliver seems to have told the Ruskinians nothing definite about the Myers messages. Instead he discussed the relation between the psychical and the physical, and his remarks must have had all the Intellectual vigor that marks the utterances old Uncle Peleg or Little Bright Eyes at a materializing séance in Darkest Brooklyn." Article "TOPICS OF THE TIMES. More Science from Sir Oliver." February 7, 1908, p. 6.

  • Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1901): "In that particular settlement the bath tub is a prime neighborhood attraction, and benighted visitors from darkest Brooklyn and Jersey City are escorted proudly to the settlement and given an opportunity to enjoy the tub as the greatest luxury of belonging to a woman's club in the city." Article "Hopeful Side of the 'East Side'." May 17, 1901, p. 4.

  • Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1896): "In the center of 'Darkest' New York and 'Darkest' Brooklyn is the home in which the sun never shines." Article "Christ in the Tenements." Jan. 13, 1896, p. 9
  • 2
    It seems to me that darkest Somewhere is a fairly obvious metaphor, not specific to Brooklyn per se. Darkest Africa is quite familiar, and both darkest New York and darkest Chicago get about as many hits as darkest Brooklyn. – Hot Licks Oct 21 '16 at 0:16
  • 1
    Growing up in New York in the 1970s, I certainly experienced "darkest Brooklyn" as a cliché. I'm interested in its early usage. Neither darkest New York nor darkest Chicago had any currency that I can remember. – brannerchinese Oct 21 '16 at 2:03
  • I wonder if In Darkest Africa could have been published in a different form earlier than in 1890. Perhaps it was serialized or perhaps Stanley who was a journalist used the phrase in reporting. His earlier book Through the Dark Continent is supposed to have coined the "Dark Continent" phrase in 1878. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – AllInOne Oct 21 '16 at 13:40
  • @AllInOne: I wonder the same thing. Care to contribute some legwork? – brannerchinese Oct 21 '16 at 19:25
3

The Corpus of Contemporary American English has only one entry in its database that uses the phrase "darkest Brooklyn" -- an article in the Spring 1998 issue of American Scholar by Alfred Kazin titled "The art city our fathers built."

I first walked into the Metropolitan Museum seventy-one years ago, as a boy of eleven, led by my father, an immigrant house painter from darkest Brooklyn who liked his firstborn to accompany him as he timidly looked into the city's public places -- the Met, the Brooklyn Museum, the great library on Fifth Avenue, the Aquarium on the Battery, the Staten Island ferry when it charged a nickel. [American Scholar, Spring98, Vol. 67 Issue 2, p17, 10p]

Kazin seems to be using darkest Brooklyn in the sense of Brooklyn's innermost ethnic core, where the gentry dare not tread.

  • I agree about Kazin's use, and that was my understanding of the phrase until I started looking for citations. – brannerchinese Oct 20 '16 at 23:48
3

The archives of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle are searchable online.

The string "darkest Brooklyn" can be found several times but it does not appear to be a stock phrase. Contrary to your suspicion I don't believe your writer is referring to a established place.

Later occurrences appear to be a play on "Darkest Africa" as you suggested.

  • 1
    That's a good idea. Two hits are posted to original post. I will continue to hope for more clarity. – brannerchinese Oct 20 '16 at 23:46
  • But I'm not asking about an established place; I'm interested in when the expression came into the language and what, if any, its associations were at that time. – brannerchinese Oct 21 '16 at 2:07
2

The expression "darkest Brooklyn" does not appear to be a very common one. Ngram shows usages only from the late '70s.

In a recent book (2015) Social Imaginaries they mention the concept of "deepest, darkest Brooklyn" as related to the hippie communes of the '60s.

  • ... the new, cool, worlds of design and worlds of entrepreneurship work, and we have a map, in a sense. That's not the mechanism of producing the map, they aren't imaginary, necessarily, it's the map. I loved in that article—somebody quoted in it introduces the notion of “Deep Brooklyn” (laughter) “Deepest, darkest Brooklyn. Well you know, we also saw this in the '60s with the rise of the communes of the hippie culture.

My impression is that the concept may have been used trough the years in a generic sense, referring to the less known and possibly most dangerous parts of Brooklyn. Darkest in this context conveys the idea of something "unknown and dangerous".

  • I don't see how the quote relates the two. Perhaps they compare, but that's different. Right? – We oath to creation Oct 20 '16 at 17:40
  • Yes, the darkest [place]. – Lambie Oct 20 '16 at 18:08
  • As shown in an edit to the original post, there are plenty of examples older than Ngram is finding. – brannerchinese Oct 20 '16 at 23:47
  • @brannerchinese - all answers and comments suggest that it is not a common and established phrase. The fact that is was used earlier does not make it idiomatic. The extract I mention refers to the "notion" of "deepest, darkest Brooklyn" something you could probably hear in the '60s. That said, the is no "origin" of the expression since it is just the use of a common adjective with a noun. – user66974 Oct 21 '16 at 5:33
2

Does it strike anyone else as odd that the expression is

Darker Brooklyn; not darkest Brooklyn;

(emphases mine)? I'd like to suggest that "darkest Brooklyn" is, as JOSH suggests, the common use of the superlative, which the OED attests to be of long standing, for example in locutions like darkest dungeon. It's the comparative adjective that intrigues me. In 1900, Wards 3 and 10 straddled Bergen St in the northwest of Brooklyn. I have no reason to believe that the boundaries were much changed from 1890, when Brooklyn wasn't yet part of New York City. A little rummaging around on the intertubes finds that an earlier census records that Ward 3 was 40% black and Ward 10 was almost all white. The Draft Riots of 1863 (really race riots) drove most of the black population out of Manhattan. Brooklyn became a refuge for those black New Yorkers, possibly changing the racial makeup of Ward 10.

One ward to the east of Ward 3 stood an important black church, the Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church (established 1854). One ward to the southwest of Ward 10, was Ward 12, described in the Annual Report as having "a swarming population of mixed races".

None of the designations Negro, African, or black appear in the Annual Report, and I don't plan to spend more time investigating the demographics of 1890 Brooklyn, but I'd like to suggest that the capitalized "Darker Brooklyn" is a racial reference.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.