No sleep 'til Breukelen

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American expat Danielle Latman takes the train to Breukelen, exploring the past, present and future of the two Brooklyns.

by Danielle Latman,

The train ride from Amsterdam to Breukelen is a little different from the commute I used to take from Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan back home to Brooklyn. The train here passes through city streets to grassland dotted with grazing animals in less than half an hour.

I took the train in late June to attend Brooklyn Night, organised by the Breukelen gemeente (local government) to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Dutch settling in New York.

One to two hundred Breukelenites, mostly native Dutch, gathered in a park by the Town Hall to watch videos of Brooklyn and eat hot dogs. Breukelen Burgemeester (Mayor) Ger Mik, wearing a traditional chain of office, led children in a lantern competition and later to a dazzling fireworks display.

It was a warm show of friendship and community, but I couldn’t help wondering… what is the point? Why should anyone outside of tiny Breukelen care? My answer came from Carla Koopmans, general manager of the gemeente. “If you don’t know your historical roots, you lack something,” she said.

So I visited the related exhibit, "Breukelen-Brooklyn 400", at the Regionaal Historisch Centrum. The one-room display, all in Dutch, uses old maps, newspaper clippings, books, videos and old materials to tell the story of the two Brooklyns.

The Dutch settled in Breukelen, a small section of the current Brooklyn that is now located around Borough Hall, in 1646. They developed five other towns as well: Gravesend, Nieuw Amersfoort (now Flatlands), Midwout (now Flatbush), Nieuw Utrecht, and Boswijk (Bushwick).

Historian Roel Mulder, curator of the exhibit, said several questions arose as he began to research the topic. “Why did the Dutch settlers take the name of this village and give it to a city in America? Breukelen was not a very important village,” he said. The best explanation Mulder could find was to honour the fallen Dutch politician Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, who owned a castle in Breukelen.

After the British takeover of New Amsterdam in the 1660s, many Brooklyn streets and neighbourhoods retained their Dutch names. Even the Brooklyn motto remains Dutch: “Een Draght Maakt Maght”, translated to “In Unity there is Strength”.

The exhibit also documents a post-World War II relief effort, the Brooklyn Adopts Breukelen project.

Brooklyn residents led by a woman named Marguerite Salomon in 1946 collected canned food, clothing, sewing materials and school supplies to ship to the war-wrecked Dutch town. According to the exhibit, several elderly residents said their first toothbrush was from Brooklyn.

“Tante Marguerite” made several visits to Breukelen to perform charity work, although some cultural miscommunication ensued. For example, Salomon attempted to start an American library even though most Breukelenites then were farmers who didn’t speak English.

Bram Donkers is project manager of BrooklynBridgeBreukelen, a small grassroots organisation aimed at re-establishing the connection between the two places. Donkers informed me that Breukelen won’t remain an independent municipality for much longer: the 10,000-resident town lacks the income to hire necessary services, and will merge with small surrounding towns Loenen, Abcoude and Maarssen in 2010.

“Ger Mik will be the last mayor of Breukelen,” he said, adding that Mik will become the chair of a new BrooklynBridgeBreukelen foundation that will form once the municipality of Breukelen ends.

So why is the bridge to Brooklyn - both physical and historical - important here?

“It’s a brand that has emotional value,” said Donkers. “A lot of Americans started in Brooklyn. For a lot of Americans the Brooklyn brand stands for coming home.

“We’d like to remain on the world map as the original Brooklyn,” he said.

I got on the train back home thinking that new Brooklyn may be key to old Breukelen’s survival.


Top photo by Danielle Latman: The original Brooklyn Bridge in Breukelen, the Netherlands.