Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York City
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Bensonhurst is a neighborhood located in the south-central part of the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Bensonhurst runs from about 14th Avenue to 25th Avenue and from Gravesend Bay to 53rd Street, encompassing Bath Beach, New Utrecht, and part of Dyker Heights and bordered by the Bath Beach, Bay Ridge, Gravesend, and Borough Park sections. For many generations of Jewish and Italian residents, Bensonhurst's geographic boundaries have been defined by the streets where the ethnic mix of Bensonhurst begins to fray. Interestingly, since about 1993, the rapid expansion of the population of Orthodox Jews in neighboring Borough Park, has encroached deeply into Bensonhurst, such that the ethnic geographic boundaries now begin from about 18th Avenue to 25th Avenue and from Gravesend Bay to 60th Street. This 1.4 square mile change represents an expansion of Borough Park and a shrinkage of Bensonhurst, as defined by traditional ethnic boundaries. It represents a historical parallel to the shrinkage of Manhattan's Little Italy as a result of the expansion and encroachment of neighboring Chinatown.
Bensonhurst derives its name from Arthur W. Benson, the former president of Brooklyn Gas, who in 1835 began buying farmland that formerly belonged to the Polhemuses family. Between 1835 and 1850 Benson divided the farmland into lots that were sold in the following decades as part of the newly created suburb of Bensonhurst, which was annexed into the 30th Ward of Brooklyn in the 1890s.
In the early 1900s, many Jews and Italians moved into the neighborhood, and prior to World War II the neighborhood was about equally Jewish and Italian. In the 1950s, there was an influx of immigrants from southern Italy and most of the Jewish population left the neighborhood, leaving the area predominantly Italian. In the 1990s, many Chinese and Russian immigrants began to arrive. Today, the Italian American community numbers over 50,000, or more than one-third of the population. Despite increasing diversity, Bensonhurst is still heavily Italian-American, as its Italian-speaking community remains over 20,000 strong, according to the census of 2000. Its main thoroughfare, 18th Avenue (also known as Cristoforo Columbo Boulevard) between roughly 60th Street and Bay Ridge Parkway, is lined with predominantly small, Italian family-owned businesses-many of which have remained in the same family for several generations. 86th Street is another popular thoroughfare stretching from 16th Avenue to Stillwell Avenue and lined by the arches of the elevated subway line BMT West End Line of the New York City Subway. The 86th Street elevated train was popularized in opening credits of Welcome Back, Kotter, however the thoroughfare is not the icon of Italian American heritage and culture that 18th Avenue represents.
On August 23, 1989, a 16-year-old African-American named Yusef Hawkins was shot and killed in Bensonhurst, after he and three friends had been attacked by a group of white youths. At least four neighborhood residents were tried and convicted of charges related to the assault and murder. In connection with the Hawkins murder and the subsequent trials, Reverend Al Sharpton led several protest marches through the streets of Bensonhurst. On January 12, 1991, before one such march, neighborhood resident Michael Riccardi tried to kill Sharpton by stabbing him in the chest. Riccardi later said that he "thought the act would make me a hero in my community." Sharpton recovered from his wounds, and later asked the judge for leniency when Riccardi was sentenced.
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