Lifespan of a (Brooklyn) Fact: Can One in Seven Americans Trace Roots to Brooklyn?

Can one in seven Americans really trace their roots to Brooklyn? It’s a decades-old factoid too tantalizing to ignore, too fuzzy to confirm.

Since 1980, writers and Brooklyn boosters have eagerly repeated versions of this statistic, bolstering Brooklyn’s reputation as “America’s hometown,” usually with an attenuated attribution like “it is said.”

The ratio sometimes creeps higher — one in six, one in four — or lower. A pair of academics this year wrote, perhaps wishfully, that according to “popular folklore,” “most U.S. residents” have Brooklyn in their blood.

However plausible, at least in the lower ratios, the statistic hardly seems provable, and most but not all experts queried were doubters. The claim, as an essayist in American Heritage wrote in 2005, is a “fact-checker’s nightmare.” But where does it come from?

The trail led back through time, including a May tweet from the Brooklyn Nets; a 2008 oral-history book Song of Brooklyn (quoting Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes); the introduction to Brooklyn: An Illustrated History, a 1996 book published in association with the Brooklyn Historical Society; and then-Borough President Howard Golden’s introduction to The Brooklyn Cookbook (1991).

Golden, who worked tirelessly to raise the borough’s profile during his tenure from 1977-2001, prefaced the statistic with “legend has it.” That legend, apparently, was built during his administration.

Golden, now 86, directed a reporter to his communications director from the ’90s, Michael Armstrong. “I think it was invented,” Armstrong said. The promotion of Brooklyn, he proposed, always came with a grain of salt: “If it isn’t exactly true, it’s somewhat true.”

The trail continued through the pages of National Geographic and Travel/Holiday to what appears to the be first press citation: a May 1980 travel article in the Boston Globe that quoted Anne Bauso, an editor at New Brooklyn, a short-lived magazine founded by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. (Thanks to Philip Sutton of the New York Public Library’s Milstein Division for finding the earliest citations.)

Bauso, a Brooklyn resident, recalled that her boss had decreed that the statistic would “be our hook” in promoting Brooklyn. The source? The “I Love New York Brooklyn Travel Guide,” issued in 1980, which stated, “One of every seven Americans can trace family roots back to Brooklyn.”

Neither the writer of the guide nor the two researchers contacted could remember how the statistic was found, though one was sure it came from a legitimate source.

The coordinator of the guide was another Golden communications director, Nanette Rainone, who, when reached recently, could offer no authority for the claim, which also appeared in Brooklyn Fact & Trivia Book, published in 1986 by Golden’s Fund for the Borough of Brooklyn.

Still, Rainone observed, if the statistic “was ever true, it would no longer be so, given the sources of recent major migrations” — Ellis Island, Brooklyn’s neighbor, has not been the nation’s main point of entry for decades.

One authority on the borough, Jerome Krase, a sociology professor emeritus at Brooklyn College, said he considered the one-in-seven figure legitimate, given Brooklyn’s longstanding large population and residential turnover of 20 percent per decade.

Columbia University historian Kenneth T. Jackson, in his introduction to The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn (2004), wrote that “as many as a quarter of Americans can trace their ancestry to people who once lived in its 81 square miles.”

Upon request, he offered a back-of-the-envelope calculation: his estimate drew on the fact that at least three-fourths of American immigrants before 1970 came through New York, that at least half of them remained in the city for a while, and that perhaps half of those moved to Brooklyn, which by 1870 had begun outgrowing Manhattan. “But there is no way you can prove it,” he acknowledged.

Indeed, Jackson’s math requires some rounding up, plus a post-1970 adjustment factor. (Similarly, while the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation has claimed, as late as 2007, that 40 percent of Americans can trace their roots to Ellis Island, a spokesperson confirmed that the ratio was calculated in the early 1980s and likely has slipped somewhat.)

Philip Kasinitz, a sociologist and immigration expert at the City University of New York, called the one-in-seven claim a “pseudo-statistic.” He added, “That it is so often repeated without proper attribution is a testimony to the gullibility of readers and writers.”

In his preface to the 2001 compendium Brooklyn: A State of Mind, Michael W. Robbins called the ratio “impossible to verify.”

“It’s probably just something somebody wrote, and it’s accepted as truth now,” said Brian Merlis, an author of popular books based on old photographs of Brooklyn photos. “I think it’s a crock, but it sounds good.”

Sure does. The statistic might be likened to how the number of Americans claiming Irish heritage far exceeds what demography suggests, as two academics observed in a 1994 essay, “How 4.5 Million Irish Immigrants Became 40 Million Irish-Americans.”

Detail from the Brooklyn Community Foundation website
Detail from the Brooklyn Community Foundation website

The two most recent Brooklyn Borough Historians, Ron Schweiger and John Manbeck, also expressed their doubts, albeit less earthily than Merlis. The Brooklyn Historical Society, however, repeats the “one in seven” statistic on its website without caveat or citation.

The “most U.S. residents” factoid, acknowledged Timothy Shortell, a co-editor of the 2012 scholarly book The World in Brooklyn: Gentrification, Immigration, and Ethnic Politics in a Global City, is “probably not strictly accurate.” The true ratio, speculated Shortell, a Brooklyn College sociologist, “is probably closer to one in seven.”

Closer, perhaps, but still fuzzy. Perhaps that’s why the Brooklyn Community Foundation cautiously attributes that estimate to “rumor” and why Seth Kamil, founder of Brooklyn-based Big Onion Walking Tours, a company known for hiring historians, said that a while back he “just stopped saying any statistic.”

In John Ford’s 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, we were told, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That often goes for Brooklyn, too, though this iconic borough, one might think, no longer needs such boosterism.

Norman Oder is a journalist who has written about the Atlantic Yards development — and other urban issues — in his watchdog Atlantic Yards Report blog since 2006 and is now working on a book about Atlantic Yards. Until late 2010, he spent 14 years as an editor at the magazine Library Journal. In 2000, he began operating a tour guide business specializing in Brooklyn, New York Like a Native. He lives in Brooklyn.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Jacquie August 9, 2012

Well, I can. My mother was born in Brooklyn, although her family was from Canada.

Michael Rogers August 9, 2012

A very nice piece. Debunking is hard work–which is why hardly anyone bothers to do it–but makes for a great, satisfying read.

Ironic that the opening line of the quote about fact and legend from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is “This is the West, sir.” Implication presumably being that back then, in the East they still did fact-checking. How times change…

Howard Freeman August 16, 2012

In view of Brooklyn’s size as a relative “mega-city,” though, in late 19th century America when few other large urban areas existed, coupled with the proximity of Ellis Island, it’s not hard to imagine that many Americans now could trace their history back there.

tacony palmyra August 22, 2012

Whether it was once true or not, it becomes less true year by year. The number of current-day immigrants who come to Brooklyn isn’t exceptional as a proportion of the nation. (And more come to Queens, even.)