Remembering The ‘Lost Neighborhood’ Of Brooklyn Square

“How could they have done this? Didn’t they know it was more than just a street of houses? The street had memory. It had voices, music, husbands and wives shouting in Italian, it had pain and sorrow, births and deaths, generations come and gone…and years went by and we had to leave to find our lives and by the time we came back, the houses telling the stories of our lives were gone.”

These poignant words, penned by Anthony Tripi, embody the emotions of the nearly 100 families displaced by the Urban Renewal project of the 1960s-70s, which changed forever the character of Brooklyn Square. And yes – Brooklyn Square had character!

Actually, it was never a square … it was more triangular in shape. The appellation “Brooklyn” appeared in the mid 1860s. Some persons supposedly said it reminded them of Brooklyn, N.Y., but no one really knows. In honor of President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit in 1919, the name was changed to Roosevelt Square. Highly unpopular, City Council changed the name again in 1925, reverting back to the original “Brooklyn Square,” the name by which many of Jamestown’s old-timers continue to refer to this area.

The square was home to a diverse array of businesses. Almost anything you wanted or needed to purchase could be found within those few blocks. Just to the east of the business periphery, a residential neighborhood had sprung up, a neighborhood exhibiting its own unique character. South Main, Harrison, Allen, Victoria and Derby streets served as home to nearly 100 families, many of them recently arrived immigrants seeking opportunities for a better life.

Predominantly Italian-Sicilian, the first generation Americans in the area grew up bilingual, as their parents retained their native language. They brought with them their deep Catholic faith, their regional customs and the wonderful Mediterranean food, adding another dimension to Jamestown’s predominantly Anglo-Saxon and Swedish makeup. Many of the immigrants found employment in the early 20th century industrial boom in the city. Others set up their own businesses, gradually integrating into the community at large.

In the 1960s-70s, the federal Urban Renewal program found its way to Brooklyn Square. Federal dollars supplied the bulldozers and all related equipment to get rid of the old and build new. The project demolished 150 buildings, displacing 125 active businesses and nearly 100 families in the closely-knit residential section. The businesses and the families relocated elsewhere in the community. The unique cultural community was no more.

It was gone, but not forgotten. On a very warm Sunday afternoon June 22, 2003, 300-plus former Lost Neighborhood residents gathered at the new St. James Church hall. I attended as the city historian, and, along with Mayor Samuel Teresi, promised an historical marker commemorating “The Lost Neighborhood.” Discussions between the city’s marker committee and Lost Neighborhood representatives regarding the marker’s text quickly ensued and the marker was dedicated that year on a chilly, but sunny October afternoon. It stands proudly on South Main Street, reminding all of a piece of Jamestown’s history which must never be forgotten.

Also attending that meeting was Joan V. Cusimano Lindquist. It became clear to her that there were many (hi)stories which needed to be told, and told by the people who had lived in the Lost Neighborhood and who had lived those (hi)stories. Her dream became reality in November 2010 with the publication of her first collection of remembrances, most of them penned by former residents of the neighborhood. The (hi)stories continued to come, necessitating a second publication. We are indeed indebted to Joan for preserving for future generations this vital part of Jamestown history.

One of the many beloved memories old-timers have of Brooklyn Square is the annual Christmas tree. In the center of the Square’s triangle, was a small garden, maintained by the city’s Parks Department. During the spring, summer, fall months, it bloomed with colorful plantings. For the Christmas holiday season – a huge tree, brilliantly lighted. Without it, the new Brooklyn Square had lost yet another piece of its unique history. Ultimately, Tony Raffa and the Lost Neighborhood Committee remedied that loss with not just one, but three brightly lit trees, utilizing existing trees in 3 different, but close locations in the Square. They are another reminder of our heritage as a community.

Europe and Far Eastern countries, with centuries old histories, realized long ago that it was imperative to preserve and recognize those histories. We of the New World are hopefully beginning to realize this. The new is not always necessarily better than the old – it is only different. We cannot plan for tomorrow if we do not know where we were yesterday.

Those who left their families, their homes, their friends to travel to an unknown land with a different language and perhaps different way of life and facing an unknown future were truly brave souls. They paved the way for our lives today. We owe them our gratitude and our recognition of their legacy to us.