Clifton Hood, professor of history and the George E. Paulsen ’49 Professor of American History and Government, gave a paper at the Urban History Association’s conference, held in New York City on Oct. 27. His paper, “The Ferry Not Taken: Why Upper Class New Yorkers Stayed in Manhattan Instead of Moving to Brooklyn” is from his work-in-progress about the cultural history of New York City’s upper class.
The standard history of suburbanization of the U.S. maintains that Brooklyn Heights – located directly across from lower Manhattan on Long Island – was the first commuter suburb in the world. After Robert Fulton inaugurated the use of the steam ferries on this route in 1814, the heights certainly did boom – and so did the ferries. By the 1840s there were three lines – two of which operated around the clock and the third from 4:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. In 1860, 32 million people took the ferries.
Scholars more or less assumed that upper and upper middle class Manhattanites were the ones who moved there – but when Hood looked at the 1850 manuscript census and other historical materials, he discovered that wasn’t the case at all. Despite the easy availability of ferry transportation, virtually no upper-class New Yorkers – either members of established old families or nouveau riches – left Manhattan. Instead, the newcomers were part of a general migration of New Englanders – sea captains, merchants, and so forth – whose home towns had been eclipsed by the economic growth of New York City since the 1820s. These New Englanders who settled in Brooklyn Heights made it into an outpost of their distinctive regional culture, along the lines of Ohio’s Western Reserve or Lawrence, Kansas. They had no particular reason to settle in Manhattan because they had no particular attachment to Manhattan.
“The real question is why upper-class Manhattanities didn’t go to Brooklyn Heights,” explains Hood. “The answer is that New York (Manhattan at the time) and Brooklyn were separate cities, and anyone who left New York City would have given up any and all governance and stewardship – and the upper class regarded NYC as their city. In a larger sense, they had an established and deep-seated way of life in NYC that they did not want to see disrupted, a way of life that consisted of complex households and family and friendship networks.”
Earlier urban histories mantained that transportation advances determined where people lived. There’s a “new suburban history” that argues that cultural forces are more important. This new suburban history has been confined to the post-1945 period. What Hood is doing, he says, is “pushing it back to the 19th century.”
This is part of a much larger project Hood is completing on the history of New York City’s upper class.
Hood has been a member of the HWS faculty since 1992. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Washington University, as well as a master’s degree and doctorate from Columbia University. His main fields of study include elites, New York City, historical memory, and mass transit. Hood is the author of “722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York” and is currently completing his second book, “In Pursuit of Privilege: New York City’s Upper Class and the Making of the City, since 1754.” Courses taught regularly by Hood focus on American urban history, elites in America, U.S. environmental history and U.S. ethnicity and immigration. In spring 2001, Hood served as a senior Fulbright Lecturer in Seoul National University in Korea.
According to its website, the Urban History Association was founded in Cincinnati in 1988 for the purpose of stimulating interest and forwarding research and study in the history of the city in all periods and geographical areas. It is affiliated with the International Planning History Society.