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How the Street Grid Created Modern Bay Ridge


My wife and I live on the north side of a street, and whenever we approach our block from the south, I like to turn the corner before crossing to our side so I can jaywalk instead, at a diagonal, across two driveways—a subtle and unconscious effort to rebel against the street grid.


“The desire to escape the prison of rigid lines is universal,” Gerard Koeppel writes in his well-researched 2015 critical history of Manhattan's street plan, City on a Grid. The grid in Bay Ridge and much of Brooklyn isn’t as inflexibly rectilinear as the one in Manhattan, but it still prioritizes ninety-degree intersections (or close to it) where it can. Thing is, there are no right angles in nature, and people seem mystically drawn to avoiding them. It’s just not how we naturally move. “[S]treets cutting each other at right angles,” Whitman once wrote, “are certainly the last things in the world consistent with beauty.”


In 1924, aerial photographs were taken of the entire city, and they offer us now a bird’s-eye view of a Bay Ridge mostly but not entirely as developed as today. Many corner lots if not the occasional entire block at this time were still empty, and one thing that stands out from these photos are the wild foot paths that cross every undeveloped piece of land—pedestrian shortcuts offering relief from the grid wherever possible. Half the corners are X’d, Y’d and /‘d with improvised, human-scale roads. In one of the most striking examples, you could walk that year from Gelston, just off 92nd Street, to 88th and Gatling without adhering to the street plan or even bushwhacking your own trail—just by following various pre-trod zig-zag routes.

The street-grid plan for the rural parts of Kings County, including Bay Ridge, was released in 1875–8, the product of several years of surveying and planning by local leaders (though it took several more decades to fully realize). Before, north-to-south travel around here was available on a series of more-or-less straight roads—Third Avenue, Shore Road, as well as Stewart Avenue (a combination of several modern-day streets) and early versions of Second, Fourth and Seventh avenues. But east-west travel was often by natural trails, possibly adapted from the Native Americans, including Denyse Lane, which went from about what’s now 78th and Third to 81st and Eleventh, where it met the most important of the old country roads—the State Road (or the Kings Highway, in colonial times), which traveled from 85th and Fifth to the town square at present-day 84th Street and Eighteenth Avenue in a winding, wandering manner. It then continued east, linking up with the road we know today as Kings Highway.

Old Bay Ridge was countryside, and when we think about how it became the neighborhood we know today, we usually think about the buildings erected atop the old fields and forests. But before these could be put up, a different kind of destruction had to take place—that of the old roads, replaced mostly with straight lines running parallel and perpendicular. Modern Bay Ridge begins with the street grid.


And this grid almost entirely determines our experience and knowledge of Bay Ridge as a physical place. While most of us inhabit private spaces—our homes—and maybe have occasional access to the homes of our family and friends, as well as businesses and institutions, our experience out in the neighborhood is mostly spent walking, bicycling or driving along this grid, which created Bay Ridge as a series of blocks/public spaces onto which such private developments could be built. (A few extant streets existed before this, such as Bay Ridge and Ovington avenues, but the vast majority of modern-day blocks were created all at once by strokes of the gridmasters' pens.)


Show me a historic photo of a field or country lane in Bay Ridge and it means nothing unless you can give me the present-day cross streets—my Bay Ridge, and your Bay Ridge, is a gridded Bay Ridge.


A Little Background

The modern, much-maligned Manhattan street grid was mostly drawn in 1811 by indifferent commissioners then more invested in working on the Erie Canal. They chose the easiest option: a rectilinear, right-angled series of streets and avenues that linked up with an already surveyed street plan in the middle of the mostly then-undeveloped island—around Times Square, on lands owned by the city.


“On the plus side, grids use space efficiently, distribute property equitably, can be extended indefinitely, are simple to draw and build, and are easy to control militarily,” Koeppel writes. “On the negative side, grids ignore natural topography, impose conformity of building alignment and shape, neglect the travel efficiencies of radials and the beauty of radials and curvilinears, and are dull and ugly generally.” A street grid is a victory of progressive modernism over pastoral romanticism.

Bay Ridge, part of the town of New Utrecht (along with modern Dyker Heights, Bath Beach, Bensonhurst and Borough Park), was still largely pastoral in 1873, when it was almost annexed by the city of Brooklyn. But on November 4, “more than 70 percent of voters in the five rural towns”—New Utrecht, Flatbush, Flatlands, Gravesend and New Lots—“opposed it, thus defeating the initiative,” Marc Linder and Lawrence S. Zacharias write in their 1999 study of Brooklyn agriculture, Of Cabbages and Kings County. This was mostly thanks to obstinate farmers, who were not ready just yet to abandon the cultivation of vegetables and yield to municipal taxation and assessments. New Utrecht would not become part of Brooklyn until 1894, four years before Brooklyn became part of New York City, which then kickstarted local development (including of our many parks and our subway).


It seems likely though that surveying for the grid had begun in anticipation of the prospective 1873 unification. The city of Brooklyn had had a street grid since 1839 (the product of a commission formed in 1836); it ended abruptly at 60th Street, the city line, before surrendering to the mostly unmathematical country lanes of New Utrecht.

A Commission’s Formation

The State Legislature created the Town Survey Commission of Kings County on May 7, 1869, tasking it with mapping 36.5 square miles of New Utrecht, Flatbush, Gravesend and Flatlands. (New Utrecht was 5,584 acres—or 8.725 square miles.) It consisted of seven members: Chairman William J. Osborne, Secretary John L. Ryder (Flatlands), and Philip S. Crooke (Flatbush), Gilliam Schenck (New Lots), William J. Cropsey (New Utrecht) and Jaques J. Stillwell (Gravesend); the previous five were the supervisors of their respective towns, then the central political authority, like something between a modern mayor and councilmember. (Osborne was the chairman of the Kings County board of supervisors.) They each received $500, which was paid, in addition to all the expenses of mapping, by a tax on the towns. The final expenditures amounted to $75,993.80.


Via the original legislative act, as well as future amendments and supplements, “The commission [was] given the exclusive power to ‘lay out streets, roads, and avenues, locate monuments, make special surveys, determine the width of carriage ways, sidewalks and court yards; provide for the custody of street monuments, and for the arrangement of bulk-head and pier lines, and interior basins, also to make maps of all work,” as well as copies for each of the towns’ clerks, according to an 1875 issue of The Engineering-News Record. ("Monuments" were three-and-a-half-feet stakes of granite, stuck into farmland to mark the physical locations of future streets. The commission's staff placed 2,800 of them.)

The grid was to conform “to the avenues and streets and plan of the city of Brooklyn, as now terminated at the city line, as nearly as may be practicable and judicious,” a later legal decision explained. “The commission could not condemn land, or close streets then existing, but only lay out and design a plan to aid in establishing a system of roads and streets as the same might from time to time be taken and dedicated to public use in the future expansion of the environs of Brooklyn.”


Samuel McElroy was the superintendent of the survey, directing the actual fieldwork, which ran from July 1869 to November 1873, when he filed his report. He had impressive credentials: chief engineer of the Brooklyn Navy Yard before he became chief engineer of the Brooklyn waterworks, overseeing construction of the city’s first water supply, from the reservoir in Ridgewood. Later, he was in charge of the construction of the Sea Beach railroad, most of which still exists as the N train. He's buried in Albany, mostly forgotten despite his major contributions to modern Brooklyn.


“The entire area was laid out [as] a regular city system of blocks, [because] it was [thought] that the interests of the public would be best served by doing so, and all future trouble of subdividing would be obviated,” Engineering-News continued. “The district surveyed was laid out into blocks averaging 200 feet by 700 feet. A proximate estimate gives 4,992 blocks, 1,966 miles of streets, 279,548 lots, which at seven persons per lot, provides for a possible population of 1,956,836 persons”—not including the city of Brooklyn (which included Williamsburg–Bushwick) or New Lots. At its height, in 1950, all of Brooklyn had almost 2,740,000 residents, fewer than the entire grid could accommodate.


The Basic Bay Ridge Grid

The commission's mission seems to have been to connect the various existing grids, town and city, with each other in the least awkward ways, and then to fill them in with as many more streets and avenues as would reasonably fit. In Bay Ridge, the grid was an extension of Brooklyn's to the north: the streets ran east to west, the avenues north to south, though the latter bent southeasterly after 66th or 67th streets. Third Avenue, and then Second and Fourth, had been drawn to run roughly parallel to the shoreline, which curves inward here, thus the change of angle. Otherwise, the avenues in Bay Ridge would be much shorter, dead-ending at the water sooner than they do now. (If Third Avenue ran straight from Brooklyn, it would intersect with Shore Road where Narrows Avenue does today; Colonial Road would make it to about 76th Street.)

West of Fourth Avenue, most of the streets run parallel to each other, in right angles to the avenues; from 72nd to 89th streets, Fourth to Narrows avenue, there is an almost uniform, rectilinear grid. East of Fourth, the streets conform to the small grid that had already existed around the Fort Hamilton armybase—from 86th to 101st streets, from Fourth/Fifth/Stewart Avenue to Parrott Place—which had been drawn to create right angles around the borders of the government’s property. The Fort Hamilton grid was more or less extended to cover Dyker Heights and Bath Beach, all the way to Bensonhurst and Borough Park—the limits of New Utrecht. (An exception is south of 90th Street, where the blocks between Third and Fourth avenue conform to the Fort Hamilton grid, while those north of 89th Street conform to the Bay Ridge grid; this is where the two bump up against each other awkwardly to this day.)

“In the vicinity of Ovington and Bay Ridge avenues,” McElroy wrote in his report, “a special plan was adapted to their lines for a limited district, to accommodate improvements previously made, which required modification of the main system.” I believe this refers to a few of the irregularities around here: the existence of Senator Street, as well as Mackay and Wakeman places, all on the 1875 map, plus the absence of a 71st Street between Third and Fourth avenues, the irregular angle of Ovington Avenue, and so on. “A local plan” was also made for Fort Hamilton village, “to accommodate existing streets”—thus the persistence of Gelston and Battery avenues, Gatling and Dahlgren places, and their double-long blocks.

Parks

One thing the 1875 map does not account for is future parkland; though the creation of “public squares” was part of its mandate, the commission neglected to consider this aspect, “leaving this appropriation of property to be regulated as the city growth may dictate,” McElroy wrote. This just left the problem to future generations, as the relentless Manhattan grid had. Some future parks in Bay Ridge would conform to the street grid: Leif Ericson Park, Cannonball Park. Others, such as McKinley Park, would semiconform.


But the 1875 map drew streets throughout what became Owl’s Head Park: Senator and 67th streets continue to the waterfront, as does Wakeman Place. They even drew a new street, Latting Place, which would run parallel to Wakeman Place between it and 67th Street. Narrows Avenue was imagined to run through the water (presumably on landfill) all the way to 39th Street.

In a similar way, the commissioners did not imagine a Shore Road Park, the earliest plans for which were still decades away. Instead, they imagined each street, from 69th to 90th, extending farther into the water, perhaps creating a new shorefront road, though they didn’t dare dream to draw it.


The commissioners marked the borders of several old roads in dotted lines then colored them red, several of which were later demapped, including sections of Stewart Avenue, Ovington Avenue and Couwenhoven Lane. Shore Road is also a dotted line marked in red, suggesting perhaps that the commissioners imagined it could be rendered obsolete by new roads running on new dry land. South of 92nd Street, where the commissioners did not apparently imagine much landfill, they labeled Shore Road a continuation of Narrows Avenue.


Other Small Differences

The 1875 grid has blocks between Battery and Seventh avenues, later taken over by Poly Prep and the armybase, numbered from 102nd to 113th streets. At the same time, the plan lacks Bay Ridge’s many side streets, most of which were built later by developers to maximize profits on large parcels of land they were able to purchase—the former estates of early Bay Ridge elites. Ridgecrest and Perry terraces, for example, were built through Joseph Perry’s old property; Madeline Court had been the location of Henry Kent’s castle-like mansion; Jackson Court had been the rear of the old Church family's estate.

There are also a few differences around Marine Avenue, drawn to accommodate the early Shore Road settlers in the vicinity of Fort Hamilton village. An extension of First Avenue (now Colonial Road), between 92nd and Oliver streets, was to run to Shore Road, like Second Avenue/Ridge Boulevard does farther south, but it was never built. Today’s 96th Street was named Stanton Street, after Henry Stanton, a retired brigadier general who lived on Shore Road until he died during the yellow fever epidemic of 1856. 101st Street, near the armybase and today’s Cannonball Park, was called Denyse Street, after Denyse Denyse, the one-time ferryman who’d lived nearby.

But for all the nitpicky differences, the map is surprisingly modern. With a few exceptions, how the commissioners envisioned the geography of the neighborhood is how it remains today. “As to the theory of its arrangement,” McElroy wrote, “we submit [the grid] to the present and future generations, with full confidence in the integrity of its principles.”


Execution

Development progressed slowly in Bay Ridge, even with the outline of a plannable grid. Streetswise, a map from 1886 doesn’t look especially different from another from 1873. Many of the streets that appear on it were the ones that McElroy had written were completed or in progress: Fourth Avenue, Second Avenue, Fort Hamilton Avenue, 60th Street, 65th Street, Ovington Avenue and 86th Street.

Though some nonfarmers had moved to Bay Ridge in the 1840s and ’50s, it remained an exclusive settlement; more newcomers didn’t follow until the 1880s and ’90s, as methods of transportation improved. Color-coded maps from 1898 give us a very good sense of which gridded streets had been opened by then and which hadn’t. At that point, many had.


The grid usually privileged its cold mathematics even over influential citizens' property. As more streets opened, homes in their way were torn down, even though they’d been built before such roads had even been imagined. In the 1890s, Benjamin Townsend’s old home was cut almost in half by the opening of 75th Street, between what became Ridge and Colonial.

John Bullocke was one of the earliest nonfarmers to move to Bay Ridge, in the 1850s, to a hill near Third Avenue that marked the southern boundary of the community (before you crossed into Fort Hamilton village). His property was known for its well-cultivated verdancy; his handsome house was a copy of his old home in Belfast. It sat in the middle of the planned 84th Street, near Ridge Boulevard, and when the street was finally cut through, ca. 1905, his house (then owned by William Dowling) was knocked down.


John Furman’s storied homestead, on Stewart Avenue (near Sixth Avenue), stuck out a little into 78th Street once the grid was drawn, and when that street was finally opened in 1915, his house was razed, too. The local Methodist congregation had a church on Stewart Avenue, which became, when the grid-map was released, the middle of the intersection of Sixth Avenue and 76th Street; that same year, the congregation moved to Ovington Avenue, where it would later build its Green Church. The timing is probably not a coincidence.


The old country lanes that the commission didn't have the authority close were finally erased by the city around the turn of the 20th century, including all of the State Road; Denyse’s Lane; Couwenhoven Lane, from Fifth to New Utrecht avenues; and Stewart Avenue, from 85th to 74th streets.


The 1875 plan not only paved the way (ha) for the Bay Ridge of the future, it played an essential role in demolishing the Bay Ridge of the past. “We have now reached the point where the old city, which had grown up at haphazard, with crooked streets, wooded hills, and fertile valleys traversed by streams and winding country roads, begins to be absorbed into a new city, in which antiquity and nature are no longer respected, with streets laid out in accordance with a carefully considered, symmetrical plan,” I. N. Phelps Stokes wrote about the Manhattan of 1811, though he may have been describing the Bay Ridge of 1875.


He continues:


“Unfortunately, this plan, although possessing the merits of simplicity and directness, lacked entirely the equally essential elements of variety and picturesqueness, which demand a large degree of respect for the natural conformation of the land. The new plan was entirely deficient in sentiment and charm, and with its gradual development, little by little, the individuality, the interest and the beauty of one choice spot after another have been swept away [until] scarcely anything remains to remind us of the primitive beauty and the fascinating diversity of natural charms.”

Learn more about the history of the neighborhood in our book How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge.


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