There’s a saying that one in seven Americans can trace their roots to Brooklyn, and while it’s impossible to prove accurate, there’s no denying that Brooklyn is one of the most important immigrant destinations in the entire country. For decades, this borough was where immigrants arrived straight from Ellis Island, earning Brooklyn the moniker of “America’s hometown.” Read on to learn more about the major waves of immigration into the borough, and how it still impacts Kings County today.

1766 Brooklyn map photo courtesy of Tommyill via Wikipedia.

Football at Fort Greene, ca. 1872-1887 | Brooklyn Museum via Wikipedia

Brooklyn began as a modest village — or, more accurately, six modest villages — before eventually evolving into a major city. The reason for this dramatic growth was the arrival of immigrants. At the beginning of the 19th century, Irish immigrants settled around Wallabout Bay (now known as Vinegar Hall and the northern edge of Fort Greene), working at waterfront factories and in the new Brooklyn Navy Yard. With the 1825 completion of the Erie Canal, merchants, mechanics, and manufacturers continued to pour in for work. Many of these new workers, however, were not immigrants but rather New England transplants.

What soon followed was Brooklyn’s first major wave of immigration, from 1840 to 1845. European immigrants came from all over, and included Irish peasants escaping famine and Germans fleeing the disruption of a failed revolution. During those five years, the population doubled to nearly 80,000. Ten years later, nearly half of Brooklyn’s 205,000 residents had been born overseas — half of that foreign-born population being Irish and the rest mostly Germans and Britons.

The Brooklyn Bridge, ca. 1872-1887 | Brooklyn Museum via Wikipedia

A more diverse crowd arrived in the late 1880s. This second wave of immigration brought Russian Jews, Italians, Poles, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, and Finns. 1883 also marked an important event that helped boost Brooklyn’s population. The Brooklyn Bridge opened, allowing easy access between Manhattan and Brooklyn for the first time. All of a sudden, immigrants were arriving to the borough in seek of relief from the high rents and poor, crowded living conditions of New York City. By the end of the 19th century, more than one million people lived in Brooklyn and more than 30 percent were born in another country.

Female factory workers | Eberhard Faber Pencil Factory photography, ca. 1920 via Brooklyn Historical Society

In the early 1900s through the 1930s, transportation, jobs and industry flourished in the borough. The next great wave of newcomers were African Americans arriving from the south — by 1930, more than 60 percent of the African American population in Brooklyn was born outside the borough. Thousands of Puerto Rican immigrants also settled in Brooklyn, landing in Red Hook, Downtown Brooklyn, and Greenpoint.

The industry boom began to wane in the 1950s, with manufacturers suddenly moving to cheaper locations in other cities. And so the makeup of Brooklyn changed yet again, with many upper and middle class families moving to the suburbs. Many Jewish communities stayed in Brooklyn but moved to Flatbush, Borough Park, Eastern Parkway, and Brighton Beach, where there are still strong Jewish communities today. And many Italian families moved to Bensonhurt and Gravesend, which are also still Italian enclaves — though you can count on the demographics of any Brooklyn neighborhood to change over time.

Today, Brooklyn is still home to a diverse population and immigrants from around the world. You will find thriving immigrant communities from the Caribbean, Latin America, the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, China, and Korea across the borough.