Norwegian Brooklyn

A brief history of one of the nation’s original Norwegian neighborhoods

Photo courtesy of the Norwegian Immigration Association Before moving to a permanent building, the Bethel Ship church served Norwegian sailors.

Photo courtesy of the Norwegian Immigration Association
Before moving to a permanent building, the Bethel Ship church served Norwegian sailors.

Lois Berseth
The Norwegian Immigration Association

Many of us know the history of the Norwegian colony in Bay Ridge. However, was this the first neighborhood Norwegian immigrants inhabited? Where was the first colony? And when did it start?

Although some Norwegians had been in New York as far back as the 1600s, many people consider that the beginning of Norwegian immigration to the U.S. took place on July 4, 1825, when the “sloop” Restauration left Stavanger, Norway, for the U.S. Just like the passengers on the Mayflower, they were coming in search of religious freedom. Most of those passengers continued on to Kendall, Orlean County, in upstate N.Y. Forty years later, in 1865, the first mass migration of over 100,000 people occurred, but many of them continued on to the midwest.

The second mass migration occurred in 1880 when Norway suffered a great depression. At the same time, there was a transition from sail to steam. Many of the young sailors who came on these ships “jumped ship” and stayed in New York.

The first colony of Norwegians in the Northeast was in Manhattan, in an area bounded by the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, and the East River.

In the late 1800s, the population of New York increased, technology advanced, and the East River was spanned by bridge and ferry. Industries seeking more space began to move out of Manhattan. Brooklyn replaced Manhattan as the shipbuilding, ship repairing, and docking center. This provided even more work for Norwegians. By the 1870s, the Norwegian population began to migrate to the first Brooklyn settlement, “Old South Brooklyn,” near the shipping activity in Red Hook.

The third mass migration of Norwegians occurred in the early 1900s—over 200,000—and many of them settled in this first Norwegian community in Brooklyn.

The churches followed the people to Brooklyn. The church was very important to the Norwegian immigrant and provided social and charitable benefits as well as religious activities.

One of these churches was the Bethel Ship, which was actually a ship moored off a dock in Red Hook. This church later moved to a regular building on Carroll Street before following the next migration to Bay Ridge. The Norwegian Seamens Church was a place where young seamen could find a place to stay. In addition to a brownstone building next door, the church had a huge basement and could house over 200 sailors.

This downtown settlement lasted through the 1920s. The Norwegians were becoming more prosperous and wanted to get away from the unsavory area of Hamilton Avenue and the stench of the Gowanus Canal. Two more factors contributed to the Norwegian immigrants moving out from “downtown Brooklyn” as they called it: the fact that new docks and warehouses began to extend out to 59th Street, and the completion of the Fourth Avenue subway in 1915. So this next move was out to what was at the time called Bay Ridge, but is now called Sunset Park.

After World War II, conditions were very bad in Norway. Norwegian Americans used to send care packages of clothing and food to their relatives back home. And so the next group of immigrants came—young men who went into construction and carpentry and young women who were au pairs, “cleaning ladies,” seamstresses, etc. Eighth Avenue (nicknamed Lapskaus Boulevard) was the center of the Norwegian community. Their grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants dominated the scene.

The peak of the Norwegian community in Bay Ridge lasted through the 1950s or 60s. After that, the children of immigrants and the immigrants themselves moved in more scattered directions—Long Island, New Jersey, upstate New York, and Connecticut.

What is the current status of the Norwegian community in Brooklyn? In the 1980s, the Norwegian Seamen’s Church relocated from “downtown Brooklyn” to Manhattan. Their mission today is no longer to sailors but to au pairs, students, visitors, and others. They hold church services in Norwegian every Sunday, have an art gallery featuring Norwegian artists, and hold special events. Although most of the old “Norwegian” churches in Bay Ridge house other ethnic groups as well, some hold Norwegian services or events periodically.

The last Scandinavian bakery, Leskes, closed in 2011, but has reopened under new management and still carries some of the old Norwegian specialties. In January 2015, Nordic Delicacies closed after 29 years—a big loss to the Scandinavian community. It was the last place available to purchase Norwegian foods, sweaters, and jewelry.

The Scandinavian East Coast Museum was founded in the 1990s. Its mission is to preserve the history of the Norwegians in Bay Ridge and to hold events celebrating Scandinavian holidays. They sponsor outdoor festivals in May and October. The Leif Erikson Society of Brooklyn meets once a month in Bay Ridge to “study the Vikings.”

Two of the Sons of Norway Lodges established in Brooklyn are still active today and meet regularly in Bay Ridge: Brooklyn Lodge and Færder Lodge. Gjøa Sporting Club is still also active.

The 17th of May Norwegian Constitution Day Parade is still held in Bay Ridge on the Sunday closest to May 17. People come from all over to march or to view the parade and then get together afterwards at one of the churches or clubhouses.

There is a new group on Facebook called Brooklyn Norwegians. It consists of people who grew up in the Norwegian community of Brooklyn. They reminisce, trade recipes and old photos, and plan to march as a group in this year’s parade.

What is the future of Norwegian Bay Ridge? Only time will tell. Although many third-generation Norwegian Americans have moved out of Brooklyn, there are still people who are keeping the traditions alive.

The author welcomes additional info and comments sent to motherberseth@aol.com.

This article originally appeared in the July 10, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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