Brooklyn is big. If it were its own city, and not part of Gotham, its 2.5 million residents would make up the fourth largest metropolis in the United States. Brooklyn covers almost a hundred square miles of intensely varied terrain, from the beaches of Coney Island and Sea Gate to the brownstones of Park Slope and the thronging sidewalks of Williamsburg—a neighborhood filled with stoop-shouldered young men who, evidently, can afford fedoras but have difficulty finding socks, or pants that fit.
There’s cobblestoned Dumbo; the mean streets of East New York; the mansions of Brooklyn Heights; the tree-lined avenues (and, miracle of miracles, driveways) of Ditmas Park; the glories of Prospect Park; the soaring container cranes of Red Hook; the unnameable, party-colored, aromatic ooze of the Gowanus Canal.
The borough boasts countless ethnicities, creeds and religions. It’s somehow wildly bustling and unselfconsciously low-key at the same time. It has given the world memorable phrases (fuhgeddaboudit) and immortal delicacies (the egg cream—with no egg and no cream).
But somehow, recently, Brooklyn has maybe gotten a little too big—or, rather, it’s started to believe the hype about itself, which is another way of saying that it’s not quite as hip as some of its residents, new and old, like to think it is.
Not long ago, GQ pronounced Brooklyn the coolest city in America—a verdict that elicited eye rolls everywhere, not least in Brooklyn itself. Meanwhile, Vogue (yes, that Vogue) tried to explain “why New Yorkers are flocking to the borough”—evidently forgetting that Brooklynites are already, and have always been, New Yorkers.
“Models, writers, actors, and artists have been flocking to New York’s Left Bank for its destination restaurants, bustling farmers’ markets, Parisian-style parks, and passionate dedication to l’art de vie,” panted the vogue.com post. “Welcome to the new bohemian chic.”
And yet, despite the growing number of creatures swarming Kings County in hopes of hunting down, hog-tying and sucking every last ounce of life from that “new bohemian chic,” Brooklyn remains full of genuinely creative people, great restaurants, fascinating history, eclectic music, art, parks and architecture—in short, the sort of stuff you’d expect from a world-class city. Even one besieged by “New Yorkers.”
Here, LIFE.com offers photos of Brooklyn, made by LIFE’s Ed Clark right after World War II, that all these years later reveal something that’s long been elemental to the borough’s enduring appeal: namely, a free-wheeling and, above all, an unpretentious self-confidence.
And if that ain’t the key to l’art de vie, what is?
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.