Fading footprints of the American Dream

Miss Norway parade in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo: Scandinavian East Coast Museum

Miss Norway parade in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo: Scandinavian East Coast Museum

Documentary pays tribute to strong ties between Brooklyn and Norway

By Christy Olsen Field

Managing Editor

Norwegian American Weekly

The documentary film “Fading Footprints of the American Dream” tells the stories of a group of Norwegian families who emigrated to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, N.Y., then moved back to the Farsund region of Norway, which maintains a strong American influence.

The documentary was filmed and edited by Maurice “Reno” Bergman and Arnsten “Archie” Ariansen. Bergman, who grew up on Lapskaus Boulevard (8th Avenue in Bay Ridge), worked as a police officer in Bay Ridge and now resides in Kristiansand, Norway. He reflected on the importance of documenting the exchange between Brooklyn and Farsund.

“Vanse, a small community on Lista just beyond Farsund, Norway, was one of the great staging areas for emigration to America. Once it started, many joined those who packed and left, wanting to stay as a group of friends and neighbors, wherever that may be, in America. Most wound up in the old Norwegian colony of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

“It was my idea to produce a film depicting the outcome of this exodus and then the return of most of them.  Those who came back to Norway brought American cars, homes and wealth,” he said.

Why was Brooklyn, specifically Bay Ridge, a destination for Norwegian emigrants? The New York City metropolitan area has had a Norwegian presence for 300 years. Norwegians began to move into Bay Ridge in the early 20th century. The earliest settlers came as carpenters and dock builders who labored on many of the great projects in a burgeoning New York City, including the Brooklyn Bridge and the subway system.

The Norwegian presence in the neighborhood, centered around 8th Avenue, blossomed during the interwar years.

Syttende Mai 1945 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Syttende Mai 1945 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, N.Y.

“As other nationalities moved in, the settlers continued to move further into Brooklyn, eventually ending up in Bay Ridge,” said Arnie Bergman of the Scandinavian East Coast Museum and brother of Maurice Bergman. “During the start of the war, the German delicatessens and bakeries were boycotted and the Norwegians were waiting buyers. Many of the Norwegian churches originally were in the downtown Brooklyn area and then moved into Bay Ridge, being built from 46th Street and 80th Street.”

Astrid Tollefsen, author of “Following the Waters: Voices of the Final Norwegian Emigration,” writes, “To the American, the Norwegian was the foreigner; to the Norwegian in Bay Ridge, the American was the foreigner… Bay Ridge was about as Norwegian as one could get in another country. Language, food, churches, clubs, bakeries, delicatessens, craft shops, social activities – all Norwegian.”

The end of that era of influx was in the 1960s. Bay Ridge residents became more mobile as cars were more affordable for families, and residents set out to the suburbs where they built churches and homes to escape city life in the late 1970s. Others returned to Norway. Arnie Bergman points out another reason for leaving. “Several blocks of families were forced to move out of Bay Ridge to make way for the highway being built for the approach to the bridge that would join Bay Ridge and Staten Island,” he said.

Today, Bay Ridge keeps its Norwegian identity alive with the annual Syttende Mai parade, Leif Ericson Park, Sons of Norway lodges and a vibrant Norwegian-American community. Lista, Norway, maintains its American influence with the 8th Avenue Bar and Supper Club, which serves a traditional Thanksgiving every November, and the store Trunken, which sells many American items. One family in Lista dismantled their American house, containerized it, shipped it to Norway, and reconstructed it there.

Sons of Norway folk dancers from the late 1950s – early 1960s.

Sons of Norway folk dancers from the late 1950s – early 1960s.

Motivated by the desire to preserve the memories of these emigrants for future generations, Maurice Reno Bergman and Arnie Ariansen set out to conduct a series of interviews of people whose lives had been shaped by Bay Ridge. The great love felt for both countries is evident with the interviewees, who fondly remember the American customs, cars and clothing brought back to Norway.

Making the film was an ambitious project. Ariansen, who filmed and narrated “Fading Footprints of the American Dream,” is a semi-professional filmmaker. Bergman and Ariansen had to drive great distances from their homes in Kristiansand to Vanse to set up and film interviews. The film project was self-funded, and proved to be a significant financial undertaking.

“The expense of the film will never be recovered, but we had fun in meeting all those who took part,” said Reno Bergman.

The film has been shown by the Scandinavian East Coast Museum at the Danish Athletic Club in Brooklyn, as well as Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church.

“The reception to the film has been wonderful,” said Arnie Bergman. “People really enjoy seeing the old cars, clothing and motorcycles. They also enjoy the interviews and in several cases, the viewers know the people. Some purchased the DVD with someone in mind to give as a Christmas gift.”

Maurice Reno Bergman adds, “[We hope to] encourage those people to come to Vanse, Farsund, to see the Americaization of that part of Norway.”

Though the Norwegian footprints of the American dream may be fading, they will never be forgotten. This documentary records an important part of the Norwegian-American story.

To purchase a copy of “Fading Footprints of the American Dream,” contact Arnie Bergman at (718) 851-6899 or scandia36@optonline.net. The cost is $25 + $4 shipping and handling.

This article was originally published in the Dec. 10, 2010 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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