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News & Features » February 2014 » Noir Series Co-Creator Tim McLoughlin Profiles the Danish Athletic Club for the New York Times

Noir Series Co-Creator Tim McLoughlin Profiles the Danish Athletic Club for the New York Times

Tim McLoughlinTim McLoughlin, author of Heart of the Old Country as well as co-creator of Akashic’s Noir Series (and editor of Brooklyn Noir, Brooklyn Noir 2: The Classics, and Brooklyn Noir 3: Nothing but the Truth), penned an article for the front page of the February 16, 2014 issue of the New York Times‘ Metro section. In “The Danes’ New Amigos,” McLoughlin explores the legacy of the Danish Athletic Club in Brooklyn, and how it has grown over the years to embrace the new immigrant groups in the area. From the article:

As happens with fixed points in a changing city, the Danish Athletic Club has migrated across the years from cultural hub to curiosity. Like synagogues in the South Bronx, Italian social clubs on Mulberry Street or German restaurants in Yorkville, it serves more as a reminder of what is no longer there. The choices for such holdouts are limited. Those that are open to the public can hope to be knighted as iconic by hipsters and hold on, if they own their buildings. Those that serve a vanished community fade away. Those in the middle, like the Danish club, try to surf the waves of change.

Over the first half of the 20th century, the Scandinavian population of Brooklyn more than tripled, led by the availability of maritime employment on the Brooklyn waterfront. The extension of the subway line along Fourth Avenue in 1915 resulted in rapid development of the area, and many of the earliest arrivals were from Norway, Sweden and Denmark. By 1940 the Norwegian immigrant population alone topped 30,000 in the borough, and when their first-generation American offspring were factored in, the number surged past 50,000. The stretch of Eighth Avenue from 39th to 60th Street became known as Lapskaus Boulevard, after the stewlike dish that was a staple of the Norwegian diet and ubiquitous in the restaurants that lined the thoroughfare.

Ms. Thompson arrived in New York City in 1962. In her 20s, alone and speaking “not one word of English,” she settled in Sunset Park, known then as Little Norway. She worked first as a nanny in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and eventually as a waitress in neighborhood restaurants. In 1964 she got a job at the Atlantic, a popular diner on 54th Street. She met her husband, a fellow Norwegian immigrant, in one of Eighth Avenue’s many Scandinavian bars. They soon married, moved to neighboring Bay Ridge and began raising a family.

But by the late 1960s a number of factors were converging to significantly reverse the growth of the northern European presence in the area. The loss of most of Brooklyn’s waterfront industry, as well as a reduction in immigration from Scandinavian countries after World War II, coincided with the explosive development of the suburbs. Many of the Danes and Norwegians worked in construction, particularly as carpenters. They found themselves commuting to Long Island or New Jersey for employment during the building boom, and a good number of them, having chased the jobs, remained. In the end it was the success of Brooklyn’s Scandinavian community at assimilating and at reaching its middle-class dreams that doomed the springboard neighborhoods that hatched them. There were those who stayed, of course, but their numbers thinned quickly in two generations, and their children, then their grandchildren, returned mostly for ethnic holidays from which they were becoming increasingly detached.

Newer groups seeking their local niche arrived, from Puerto Rico by way of the Bronx in the 1960s, from China in the 1970s and from Mexico in the 1990s. The Latino immigrants settled around Fourth Avenue, and a large Asian community sprang up along Eighth. By the time the Atlantic Diner was sold to a Chinese businessman in the early 1980s, the street that had been Lapskaus Boulevard was known as Little Hong Kong.

Ms. Thompson worked at the Atlantic until it was sold. The new owner reopened the establishment as a Chinese restaurant called the Wee-Kee. Almost immediately, Ms. Thompson began hearing reports of old-timers continuing to congregate at a place they had frequented for decades, quietly sipping green tea or adventurously sampling an egg roll. In a bit of adaptive maneuvering that would have made Darwin blush, she met with the owner of the Wee-Kee and persuaded him to expand the restaurant’s menu. She was hired back as a waitress, and under her guidance, and with a handful of old Atlantic recipes, she taught the Chinese cooks how to make kumpa, karbonade kaker, fish pudding and a half dozen other meals. Thus the Wee-Kee operated for about 10 years as the only Norwegian-Chinese restaurant in New York, and perhaps anywhere.

Just as the Atlantic had ultimately succumbed to losing its base, so too was the Danish Athletic Club, 10 blocks down the road, suffering the demographic changes when, in 1992, its members tapped Ms. Thompson to manage the place.

You can read the full article and view a corresponding slide show at the New York Times website.

Posted: Feb 18, 2014

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