A walk along Lapskaus Boulevard
Norwegians find traces of their American cousins in this historically Norwegian neighborhood
This past November the ladies from Vanse, Norway, and beyond took their annual shopping jaunt to New York. These trips have become an annual excursion for about a decade, all organized by Liv Lyngsvag.
About six or seven years ago, Liv thought it would be a good idea to expand the scope of the trip by offering the ladies an opportunity to visit Brooklyn so that they could learn about the history of their fellow country people who settled there, as well as to meet local Norwegian Americans. It is also a way to strengthen the partnership between the Farsund Kommune and the Scandinavian East Coast Museum, who have a Sister Communities Agreement.
This year Liv wished to have the group visit Old Eighth Avenue, which is colloquially known as Lapskaus Boulevard. It is challenging because the once ubiquitous Norwegian lilt has been mostly replaced by the multi-tonal sound of Chinese. But if one looks closely, the built environment and many institutions still maintain their Norwegian core. This is especially prevalent in the social institutions and cultural organizations they created for human betterment. Many of these continue to serve, and have done so for over one hundred years. Those Norwegian immigrants who came before us built to last.
The geography of the area tells all. You can see how close the New York waterfront lies, offering one of the best natural harbors in the world, which is what attracted so many Norwegian immigrants to come here, beginning in the 1600s under the Dutch. The harbor provided jobs for employment-starved Norwegians.
The tour was led by Victoria Hofmo, SECM President. She shared a few high points of this year’s tour with me:
“Any time we get to go inside a place, it is more poignant. This was certainly true when we visited Lutheran Church of the Brethren (59th Street Church). In 2012 they celebrated their 100th anniversary. Another fun part of the day is when the visitors get to experience a new tradition. By chance we hit the church’s Yankee Swap, which I think was a new concept for the ladies. Of course, there were also parishioners present who make the experience warm and welcoming.
“At other times the kismet moments are wonderful. I had not planned to go inside the 52nd Street Free Church, which celebrated their 100th Anniversary in 2013. I was speaking about the history of the church as we were looking at it from outside. At the same time, someone began entering the building. So I asked if we could come in. They enthusiastically agreed. The sanctuary was built in the round, a democratic structure for churches, and very warm and cozy. I had been there many times before. But a parishioner revealed two interesting elements in the church, which caught us all unawares. Under the individual seats, not pews, are strange wires. These were made to hold men’s hats—ingenious. And the huge ornate chandelier in the sanctuary had once graced the ceiling of one of New York’s most elegant hotels.
“This church also serves to illustrate the fact that Norwegians were not only Lutheran, but also Baptist, Methodist, and members of the Free Church. Many of the Protestant churches in the southwest Brooklyn area were built by Scandinavians or served as Scandinavian houses of worship.
“Some of the most important moments occurred when the group got to meet locals, to mix and mingle. For instance, they were greeted by Joannie Nelson at Sporting Club Gjøa, founded in 1911. She spoke to them a little about the club’s history. They had graciously set out coffee and cake for the ladies.
“Another time to mingle was at the Danish Athletic Club lunch. The SECM had invited the local Norwegian-American community to join the ladies. Sharing food always leads to camaraderie.”
I thought it would be good to speak with one of the women who attended the tour to get her take on the Brooklyn visit. I had a chance to speak with Inger Gundersen from Sandnes near Stavanger to see what she thought about the trip to New York.
Lagertha Aslaug: Was this your first trip to the States?
Inger Gindersen: My first trip to the States was 25 years ago. I also drove through New York City in January.
LA: Does your family have a Brooklyn connection?
IG: I have had family in Brooklyn earlier; now I have family in New Jersey and Boston.
LA: What were you expecting or hoping to see or learn in Brooklyn?
IG: I wanted to see the 8th Avenue area, Bay Ridge, and walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. I now understand why the Norwegians liked to live there.
LA: What did you see that surprised you in Brooklyn?
IG: I was surprised to see the big difference between 8th Ave and 95th Street.
The 95th Street section of Bay Ridge is much further south, about a mile and a half away. It is not part of Lapskuas Boulevard. Hofmo had taken the group to the area years ago. Liv wanted the ladies to see that area because it has a beautiful park that hugs the waterfront, the main resource that attracted the Norwegians to this area.
If you are interested in going on the tour “A Walk Along Lapskaus Boulevard,” please contact the Scandinavian East Coast Museum at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re unable to come to New York, the second best way to visit Lapskaus Boulevard is virtually, through the SECM’s website, www.scandinavian-museum.org. Check out the Old 8th Avenue map researched and designed by Arnie Bergman, SECM VP. There are also old photos that will help to illustrate the richness of this Norwegian community.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 22, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.