Scandinavians have largely disappeared from Bay Ridge and Sunset Park, just as other neighborhoods have radically changed over the years. Immigrants from northern Europe first began arriving in Brooklyn in great numbers in the 1890s, and work was readily available in the great port city New York was at the time. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, also a major employer, reached its peak when the Second World War made a lot of construction jobs available.
At the peak of Scandinavian influence in Brooklyn there were as many as a hundred thousand people who traced ancestry to Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland living in Bay Ridge and Sunset Park, including 60,000 Norwegians. Most have now moved on.
My family and I went to a restaurant called the Scandia; bought bread at Lund’s Bakery; our super was Norwegian (he was followed by a Jamaican); Nordisk Tidende (Norway Times) was on every newsstand; and I was regularly bullied by guys named Bergstol and Hedberg.
ABOVE: Norwegian Day Parade on 8th Avenue, Sunset Park, May 1961
The Norwegian Day Parade commemorates Norway’s adoption of its constitution on May 17, 1814 (it dissolved its union with Sweden in 1905). As you can see from these archival pics the parade used to be a much bigger deal than it is now; throngs lined 8th Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway and New York State governors (Nelson Rockefeller, left, expostulated from McKinley Park in the 1960s) and other politicians attended; even whoever was king of Norway would turn up in some years.
8th Avenue was formerly the Main Street of “Little Norway” and was colloquially called Lapskaus Boulevard after a traditional stew. Norwegian bakeries and specialty stores lined 8th Avenue from 45th to 60th Streets. (The last, Signy’s Imports, closed in 2004; Chinese and Asian immigrants replaced the Norwegians beginning in the late 1970s and have made the 8th Avenue area a new Chinatown.)
These days the Norwegians still parade in Bay Ridge, but it’s a much smaller-scale affair on 5th Avenue. I lived in Bay Ridge between 1957 and 1993 and, other than a couple of times with my father when I was a kid, I never paid much attention to the parade. Now, of course, all these years later I’m playing catchup.
There was absolutely NO coverage of the parade in newspapers or online (and I alerted a couple of online sites about it) before or after the parade; it seems now to be a forgotten parade. The same day there was a Puerto Rican parade of some sort in Manhattan (do they parade several times a year or what?) that warranted a few pictures. Not this one though.
In the USA, at least, it’s been neighboring Sweden that has enjoyed more pop culture success from Jenny Lind to Ann-Margret to ABBA (Norway’s response is a-ha) but Norway can claim it is the home of more sophisticated work from its best-known brilliant lights in America: essayist/playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) (Emperor and Galilean, Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, A Doll’s House) and composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) (Peer Gynt Suites including Hall of the Mountain King). I counted at least two “Ibsens” in the parade (the one on the left gave a rousing speech in character at Lief Erickson Square, 6th Avenue and 67th Street, after the parade (left). (When I first heard of Ibsen as a teenager, my first reaction was: “Henry Gibsonfrom Laugh-In? He wrote plays?)
The All-City High School Marching Band played Jungle Boogie. In the Norwegian Day Parade? Why not? The band is composed of many talented student musicians from many high schools around town.
Blue Man Group. OLPH Ridgemen Alumni Drum & Bugle Corps.
FDNY participated as always. During his speech, “Henrik Ibsen” claimed that the Vikings never wore horns on their helmets.
A remaining bastion of Scandinavian influence in Bay Ridge, the Norwegian Christian Home recently celebrated its centennial. Norwegian Lutheran Deaconess Home and Hospital, now Lutheran Medical Center on 1st Avenue and 55th Street, founded by Elizabeth Fedde in 1883, is another. Many Scandinavians are Lutheran.
The fraternal organization Sonner av Norge was founded in January 1895 by 16 Norwegian immigrants in Minneapolis, MN, as a means of protecting families of members from financial hardships and other difficulties in their adopted country, the USA. The purview of the organization was later expanded to promoting Norwegian cultures and customs; it has grown to become the largest Norwegian organization in the world outside Norway itself. There are 70,000 members worldwide including 60,000 in the USA, distributed in 400 “lodges,” many of which were represented in the parade…
Most of the banners featured some representation of a longboat.
Don’t ask me how, but I recall Sunset Park’s Fredheim (or Friedheim?) Restaurant, located on the second floor of an apartment building on 5th Avenue and 48th Street. I think it closed sometime in the 1980s.
Sporting Club GJOA, based on 62nd Street near 8th, is one of the (mainly Scandinavian members) soccer clubs still in existence in Sunset Park/Bay Ridge.
The Soccer Tavern, 6004 8th Avenue, is another soccer-themed venue in the area. The soccer theme is not coincidental; for decades, a dusty field, part of Lief Erickson Square fronting on 8th between 65th and 66th Streets, has been home to soccer matches. My father was an avid fan and spent many a weekend afternoon taking in games there. photo: shield
The Danish Athletic Club, located on 65th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues on a block otherwise occupied by auto collision repair joints, is nevertheless convenient to the Lief Erickson soccer fields and served as the parade’s HQ, with refreshments available after the marching. The Club, by the way is open to the public and now one of the few places you can find home-cooked Scandinavian fare in now-heavily Chinese and Asian Sunset Park. It is also home to several soccer clubs as well as the Telemark Ski Club.
Around the corner, in the 1970s to early 90s at 7th Avenue and 64th Street, was the Crazy County Club (“warm beer lousy food” now on Bay ) on the old space occupied by the Bay Ridge Roller Rink; and a large 7-Up bottling plant on 6th Avenue and 64th.
When the Gowanus Expressway arrived in 1964 the DOT created a connector road along the expressway between 6th and 7th Avenues, naming it Eirik Place, likely for Leiv Eriksson, the 1st Millennium-era Norse explorer commemorated by Leif Erickson square. The road doesn’t turn up on most Brooklyn maps.
The Gerritsen Beach Marching Band was formed in 2006.
The Lutheran Elementary School, located on Ovington Avenue between 4th and 5th, was formed in 1957 when Scandinavians were much more of a local force.
BRAVO Volunteer Ambulance Service, 7th Avenue and 85th Street, was formed in 1974 by Hank Vogt; its name was inspired by the John Wayne/Dean Martin/Angie Dickinson Western, Rio Bravo. An acronym, Bay Ridge Ambulance Volunteer Organization, was formed.
I was beginning to despair of seeing any leggy majorettes in the Norwegian Day Parade, but then the Fort Hamilton High School Band rescued me. The school is located on a prominent hill overlooking the Narrows at Shore Road and 82nd Street, in a space formerly occupied by the Crescent Athletic Club.
The Irish were not to be ignored.
Neither were the Scots.
St. Olaf College, all the way from Northfield, MN.
From the 59th Street Lutheran Church
The Norwegian Folk Dance Society, and I bet you didn’t know there was one.
More Sons of Norway lodges. By the way, the long flowered jumper the women wear and the knickered men’s suit are traditional Norwegian outfits called, collectively, the bunad.
There were about a half dozen longboat floats in the parade including the most impressive one by the Scandinavian East Coast Museum.
The Vikings ruled the seas of northern Europe between 800 and 1050. They came principally from what is now Denmark but also from Sweden and Norway; the Scandinavian aspects of the Faeroe Islands and Iceland and Denmark’s possession of Greenland are legacies of their influence.
The dragon heads on the longboats may be representations of the great sea serpent Jörmungandr.
For a time the Vikings held much of England, Ireland, France, the Low Countries, the Baltic area and other regions, but found Newfoundland and Canada unconquerable and so quickly gave up on settling there. It was likely that a population spurt and a diminution of native resources in the centuries before and after the First Millennium prompted the Norsemen of that era to take to their warships to conquer other lands.
After the parade
…I decided to shoot remnants of Bay Ridge’s Norwegian and otherwise Scandinavian community, after the inevitable rain shower, as well as other old or classic signage in the region. Leske’s is one of the few remaining Danish bakeries, and Scandinavian delicacies are available in Mejlander & Mulgannon. There are also a couple of delicacy shops on 3rd Avenue; most of them were in a 20-block stretch on 8th Avenue.
Old-fashioned ice-cream shoppes, such as Hinsch (5th Avenue and 86th Street) Jahn’s (Richmond Hill and Jackson Heights) and Eddie’s in Middle Village hang in there for decades. Hinch’s chief competition, Pohl’s, closed decades ago.
Kleinfeld, NYC’s premier bridal boutique, put Bay Ridge on the map with the Sex and the City crowd for decades. However, it decamped to Ladies’ Mile, West 20th Street between 6th and 7th, a couple of years ago. Its old space on 5th and 82nd, complete with signage, still remained, somewhat forlornly, in 2006.
Joe’s Appliances has something of a history. It began as JGE (Jamaica Gas & Electric) Appliances, a 40-branch outfit owned by the rather rotund Jerry Rosenberg, who would offer “That’s the story!” to the offscreen question, “What’s the story, Jerry?” JGE offered discounts to union members only, which I found somewhat discriminatory. It only lasted a year or so in 1973-74 but not before Rosenberg launched a JGE Jewelry store, whose TV commercials featured a production number starring Rosenberg feebly warbling “J-G-E jewl-er-ry” while dancing girls pranced. Ah the 1970s. JGE folded and this branch became Joe’s.
How does the name “Alpine” turn up so often in Bay Ridge? Was it a telephone exchange? The Alpine Theatre, now a multiplex on 5th Avenue and 69th Street (Bay Ridge Avenue) is now the only game in town for area moviegoers as one by one, its competitors, the Dyker, the Harbor, the Fortway, have died off one by one. The Alpine was originally a Loew’s and opened in 1921. Mutant Comics, next door, was Nielsen’s Furniture for several decades.
Alpine Real Estate, 5th Avenue and 84th Street, still has the same handcrafted wood sign it has sported for the better part of 50 years.
A pair of Scandinavian businesses, a deli and a bakery.
While Scandinavians dominated Bay Ridge for decades, these days Arabic and Chinese are the foreign languages you are most likely to hear on the street and see in signage Sometimes, on the same sign! Bay Ridge has had a lively Syrian community, even while the Norwegians held sway, and these days a stretch of 5th Avenue between Bay Ridge Avenue and Bay Ridge Parkway (69th and 75th Streets to the locals) is heavily Middle Eastern. Chinese eastern Sunset Park is also beginning to expand, while western Sunset Park remains largely Latino.
Who is this guy? This time I’m really asking. When the Gowanus Expressway was built the new 7th Avenue expressway overpass formed a triangle at 66th Street, which was named Henry Peter Square. The Parks Department historical signs website doesn’t list it.
Across the street, another mystery: this old house, of indeterminate age, does not quite square up with Seventh Avenue and looks like it could have been built on and older road that originally passed through. Or was it moved there when the expressway was built?
A series of apartment buildings on 57th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues in Sunset Park featured chiseled names with Scandinavian themes above their doors. Skansen is a celebrated open air museum and zoo in Sweden, while Upsala is Sweden’s oldest university.
Perhaps the builder was Swedish?
This page was photographed May 2006 and completed June 4, 2006.