Back to Conference Participants Abstract: The Borgwardts of Bushwick  




The name Borgwardt is not German, although everyone always thinks it is-- it is Alsatian and was originally pronounced "Bour-qwar"-- because my Dutch and French great-grandparents spoke German fluently and found the German community in Bushwick and Ridgewood most congenial. Although Alsatians were not a major group in the new immigration-- the first Max Borgwardt arrived in Brooklyn in 1893--the story of this family (my mother's) illuminates may trends in both twentieth-century American and Brooklyn history: close family ties and geographic proximity in the first generation (everyone lived near each other in the northern part of Brooklyn or the bordering Ridgewood section of Queens) and maintenance of "old world" customs (pigeon raising, belonging to German singing societies, going to beer gardens, etc.).
The second generation, my grandfather's, demonstrated (on the part of my mother's parents) downward economic mobility, but the maintenance of close family ties between generations alleviated poverty and kept people above water during the Depression, as did government social programs. The third generation (my mother's) achieved middle-class status mostly through civil service jobs, although they moved to Queens, Staten Island, and Westchester in the 1950s. The fourth generation (mine) remains close and lives only slightly farther away: Long Island, New Jersey, upstate New York. In fact, so insular was the family that many members never learned to drive a car, and rarely ventured outside the New York metropolitan area (the author of this paper had only been outside of New York twice, and for but a few hours, before he went to Boston to research his dissertation). Family members have obtained jobs through family and friends, and only one (the author of this paper) has moved far away from the New York metropolitan area. With this exception, patterns of generational residence form almost concentric circles around the original neighborhood. This paper will show how family ties and new forms of transportation (automobiles and expressways) have kept at least one family close as the century progressed, in addition to telling some interesting (I hope) stories which illustrate reasons for immigration, women rebelling against traditional roles, and loyalty to Brooklyn in spite of everything (my father and two uncles continued to work in Brooklyn till the ends of the careers although they could have moved to cushier jobs nearer to home).