Thursday, January 07, 2010

Brooklyn Where the Trains Don't Run: Gerritsen Beach

My job used to take me all over the borough, and my wanderings between appointments spawned this blog. I don't get out of the office nearly as much anymore, but every now and then I escape for an afternoon and get to admire the remarkable diversity of Brooklyn. This afternoon's project took me to Gerritsen Beach.

Named for Wolphert Gerretse, a Dutchman who settled in the area in the mid-17th century and who built a mill that survived until 1931, Gerritsen Beach has a decidedly small-town feel to it (to the very untrained observer's eye, of course) that comes across in the local website and the website's memory board (there are some great family histories posted here, and a fabulous collection of photos . . . Re-Brooklyn, take note). The area's tight streets, small lots, and waterside nature have led to comparisons to a New England fishing village, but to my mind, it's more like the rest of Brooklyn and parts of Queens (or London, for that matter), a little old town center that was built out in the interwar and postwar periods and now looks and feels somewhere between suburb and city. The area, which is close enough to Sheepshead Bay to warrant coverage on Sheepshead Bites, almost got a subway line through the extension of the Nostrand Avenue IRT (2 and 5 trains) in 1951, but the plan was quashed by the legendary Robert Moses (whose reputation has been in hot dispute recently after decades of shame on account of Robert Caro's magnum opus) and the only NYC Transit that serves the area is a pair of bus lines, the B31 and the BM 4. This lack of mass transit and its attendant high-density development are probably a contributing factor to Gerritsen's suburban feel--parking lots and shopping centers abound, and few buildings rise above three stories.

Speaking more broadly, the trip was a reminder that when I and most everyone I know talk about Brooklyn, we're talking about the borough north of Prospect Park South and west of Broadway Junction. A full half the borough more closely resembles Gerritsen than Crown Heights, and yet to me, it felt like I'd almost left NYC completely (until I looked north on Nostrand and caught a glimpse of the Citicorp Center glinting in the distance). It also brought home the reality that the city's infrastructure decisions (in this case, building access to the Belt Parkway rather than extending the subway) have a profound impact on the character of a neighborhood.

Final Robert Moses note: You can read Moses's response to The Power Broker here, and Caro's response to the response here. Ah, to be in NYC in the 1970s bickering over responsibility for the city's decline!

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