Although no known physical evidence remains in the Crown Heights vicinity, large portions of what is now called Long Island including present-day Brooklyn were occupied by the Lenape, (later renamed Delaware Indians by the European colonizers). The Lenape lived in communities of bark- or grass-covered wigwams, and in their larger settlements—typically located on high ground adjacent to fresh water, and occupied in the fall, winter, and spring—they fished, harvested shellfish, trapped animals, gathered wild fruits and vegetables, and cultivated corn, tobacco, beans, and other crops.
The first recorded contact between the indigenous people of the New York City region and Europeans was with the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524 in the service of France when he anchored at the approximate location where the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge touches down in Brooklyn today. There he was visited by a canoe party of Lenape. The next contact was in 1609 when the explorer Henry Hudson arrived in what is now New York Harboraboard a Dutch East India Company ship, the Halve Maen (Half Moon) commissioned by the Dutch Republic.
European habitation in the New York City area began in earnest with the founding of a Dutch fur trading settlement, later called "Nieuw Amsterdam" (New Amsterdam), on the southern tip of Manhattan in 1614. By 1630, Dutch and English colonists started moving into the western end of Long Island. In 1637, Joris Jansen de Rapalje purchased about 335 acres (1.36 km2) around Wallabout Bay and over the following two years, director Kieft of the Dutch West India Company purchased title to nearly all the land in what is now Kings County and Queens County from the indigenous inhabitants.
Finally, the areas around present-day Crown Heights saw its first European settlements starting in about 1661/1662 when several men each received, from Governor Peter Stuyvesant and the directors of the Dutch West India Company what was described as “a parcel of free (unoccupied) woodland there” on the condition that they situate their houses “within one of the other concentration, which would suit them best, but not to make a hamlet.”
Early and mid-20th century
Crown Heights had begun as a fashionable residential neighborhood, a place for secondary homes in which Manhattan's growing bourgeois class could reside. The area benefited by having its rapid transit in a subway configuration, the IRT Eastern Parkway Line (2, 3, 4, and 5 trains), in contrast to many other Brooklyn neighborhoods, which had elevated lines. Conversion to a commuter town also included tearing down the 19th century Kings County Penitentiary at Carroll Street and Nostrand Avenue.
Beginning in the early 1900s, many upper-class residences, including characteristic brownstone buildings, were erected along Eastern Parkway. Away from the parkway were a mixture of lower middle-class residences. This development peaked in the 1920s. Before World War II Crown Heights was among New York City's premier neighborhoods, with tree-lined streets, an array of cultural institutions and parks, and numerous fraternal, social and community organizations.
From the early 1920s through the 1960s, Crown Heights was an overwhelmingly white neighborhood and predominantly Jewish. Population changes began in the 1920s with newcomers from Jamaica and the West Indies, as well as African Americans from the South. In 1950, the neighborhood was 89 percent white, with some 50 to 60 percent of the white population, or about 75,000 people, being Jewish, and a small, growing black population. By 1957, there were about 25,000 blacks in Crown Heights, making up about one-fourth of the population. Following the end of World War II, suburbanization began to rapidly affect Crown Heights and Brooklyn. Robert Moses expanded the borough’s access to Long Island through expressway construction, and by way of the G.I. Bill, many families moved east. Most of these opportunities were limited to whites. Levittown in Long Island, for example, forbid applications from black families. As the Jewish, Irish and Italian populations of Crown Heights moved out of Brooklyn, black people from the south and immigrants from the Caribbean continued to move there. The 1957 departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the destruction of Ebbets Field for public housing for its black population symbolically served as the end of the old white ethnic Crown Heights and in the 1960s the neighborhood experienced mass white flight. The demographic change was astounding; in 1960 the neighborhood was 70% white, by 1970 it was 70% black. The one exception to this pattern was the Lubavitch Hasidic Jews.
There were thirty-four large synagogues in the neighborhood, including the Bobov, Chovevei Torah, and 770 Eastern Parkway, home of the worldwide Lubavitch movement. There were also three prominent Yeshiva elementary schools in the neighborhood, Crown Heights Yeshiva on Crown Street, the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway, and the Reines Talmud Torah.
Late 20th century
The 1960s and 1970s were a time of turbulent race relations in the area: With increasing poverty in the city, racial conflict plagued some of its neighborhoods, including Crown Heights, with its racially and culturally mixed populations. The neighborhood's relatively large population of Lubavitch Hasidim, at the request of their leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson stayed in the community after other whites left.
In 1964 the Labor Day Carnival celebrating Caribbean culture was moved to the neighborhood when its license to run in Harlem was revoked. It now attracts between one and three million people and is held on the first Monday in September.
During the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, Crown Heights was declared a primary poverty area due to a high unemployment rate, high juvenile and adult crime rate, poor nutrition due to lack of family income, relative absence of job skills and readiness, and a relatively high concentration of elderly residents. Violence broke out several times in the neighborhood during the late 20th century, including during the New York City blackout of 1977: More than 75 area stores were robbed, and thieves used cars to pull up roll-down curtains in front of stores.
In 1991, there was a three-day outbreak known as the Crown Heights Riot, which started between the neighborhood's West Indian/African American and Jewish communities. The riots began on August 19, 1991 after Gavin Cato, the son of two Guyanese immigrants, was struck and killed by a car in the motorcade of prominent Hasidic rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. A mob began to attack a Jewish volunteer ambulance, which withdrew. False rumors circulated that the ambulance refused to treat Gavin Cato's injuries while removing members of Schneerson's motorcade instead. Yankel Rosenbaum, a visiting rabbinical student from Australia, was killed in the riot, while Jews and blacks were assaulted, and there was property damage amid rock throwing in the ensuing riots. The riot unveiled long-simmering tensions between the neighborhood's black and Jewish communities, which impacted the 1993 mayoral race and ultimately led to a successful outreach program between black and Jewish leaders that somewhat helped improve race relations in the city. Through the 1990s, crime, racial conflict, and violence decreased in the city and urban renewal and gentrification began to take effect including in Crown Heights.
Early 21st century
In the 2010s, Crown Heights experienced rapid gentrification. In some areas the increasing rents have caused the displacement of long-time residents. Not only did rents for each apartment increase drastically but building management firms such as BCB Realty, affiliated with companies that buy up buildings in the neighborhood, aimed to remove long-term residents by buying them out or pressuring them to move by "failing to adequately maintain apartments," according to a housing activist, with the aim of deregulating the rent-stabilized. Other tactics include relocating residents from their apartments claiming renovation and locking them out, as employed by another realtor in the neighborhood, ZT Realty. In 2017, real estate developer Isaac Hager faced opposition from activists when he proposed building a 565-unit apartment complex in Crown Heights; in April 2019, a judge issued a restraining order against the project.
In the wake of the 2010 opening of Basil Pizza & Wine Bar, a series of upscale, kosher, foodie restaurants opened in Crown Heights, which The Jewish Week described as "an eating destination."
In November 2013, a series of attacks on Jewish residents were suspected to be part of "knockout games". Media attention to knockout attacks increased following the incidents in Crown Heights. In response to the violence, the Jewish community hosted an event for African-American teens, designed to promote greater understanding of Jews and their beliefs. The event, hosted by the Jewish Children's Museum, was coordinated by local Jewish organizations, public schools, and by the NYPD's 71st and 77th precincts.