The Odd Histories of Bay Ridge’s Car-Free Streets

Barwell Terrace, a dead-end, car-free street in Bay Ridge
Barwell Terrace. Photo by Michael Gaffey.

If you’ve ever known someone to leave their house, drive to Bagel Boy, double park, get a coffee, and drive back home, you know that Bay Ridge has a strong (if weakening) car culture—which makes its car-free blocks all the more intriguing. All four of them were developed in the 1920s and 30s, around the time of the building boom that irrevocably transformed the neighborhood from rural outskirts to semi-urban center; they were privately built to resemble colonial alleys or English-garden cul de sacs, dead-end side streets too narrow or garden-packed to accommodate automobiles (which, back then, were owned by far fewer Americans than they are today), and they attracted an inordinate number of Brooklyn Dodgers. To set eyes upon these blocks today is to get a little taste in Bay Ridge of European courtyards, of Breezy Point’s pedestrian paths—or of what the world might have looked like if residential developers had placed pedestrians above gas-powered carriages.

Barwell Terrace and Colonial Gardens are both up short flights of steps that prevent access to cars, as well as scare away pedestrians who might feel like their mere presence on such streets will mark them as trespassers. Though street names often seem chosen more for how they sound than what they literally describe—what’s so park-like about Bay Parkway?—these blocks are exceptions. Barwell Terrace lives up to its name: it’s separated from 97th Street by seven brick steps, a veritable village in the sky. And though that keeps out the cars, it didn’t used to keep out the fowl. “There are plenty of chickens on Barwell Terrace,” a stranger wrote in 1934 to Margaret Mara, a week after the Brooklyn Eagle columnist had written that there weren’t. “And, believe it or not, no traffic, except baby buggies, is allowed on the terrace.” Mara had made what proved an ill-informed joke after receiving and disbelieving a Christmas card from the artist George Silvia, who lived on the street, that appeared to depict the block, chickens and all.

Another notable resident of Barwell Terrace was Brooklyn Dodger Pee-Wee Reese. (No. 9714, according to this blog.)

Barwell Terrace ad from the Brooklyn Eagle
From the Brooklyn Eagle archives. In 1926, $9,750 was worth the equivalent of $129,000 today (adjusted for inflation).

A legal notice in the Eagle in 1928 dates the creation of the street to May 26, 1926, when the Barwell Homes Corporation (then located on Third Avenue between 79th and 80th streets, at the present-day location of Senator Realty) established it by declaration in the county Register. Real-estate listings for homes on the Terrace are found in the paper as early as 1929. The same corporation was also responsible around the same time for the creation of Shore Court, a side street on 89th Street between Narrows and Colonial that, if not for its last house, might have touched the back end of Colonial Gardens.

Colonial Gardens in Bay Ridge
Colonial Gardens, via Velsor Realty. See that yellow house in the back? That’s Shore Court.

Colonial Gardens is a dead-ender off Narrows Avenue, just a few steps from where it meets Shore Road. It also lives up to its name: up one step and then another three from the street, it’s divided by a broad strip of greenery with narrow footpaths on either side, which allow access to the relatively modest though covetable homes. Local realtor Velsor dates the block to 1925, but real-estate listings for Colonial Gardens don’t begin to appear in the Brooklyn Eagle until the mid 1930s; in 1937, 37-year-old Mariano Fanti was living at 18 Colonial Gardens when he was charged with the first-degree murder of his business partner. (As recently as 2008, the block was again in the news as one of the 19 privately owned blocks in Bay Ridge, including the other three profiled here, that united to fight the fact that they didn’t receive basic city services; that January, a water pipe had busted on Colonial Gardens, and residents had to pay to fix it themselves.)

Colonial Gardens isn’t exactly off-limits to car owners: both sides of the block have wide driveways behind them, active ones at that; I wouldn’t be surprised if most residents enter their homes through their backdoors. I’ve seen them do it at Hamilton Walk—even when they’re on foot!

Lafayette Walk in Bay Ridge
Lafayette Walk. Photo by Hey Ridge.

The other two car-less streets are both “walks” off the north side of 94th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. Their layout is sort of the opposite of Colonial Gardens’; rather than a shared central green bordered by walkways, the blocks’ center is a cement walkway, bordered by small private yards (though like the Gardens, they have driveways built-in behind; when I visited on a recent evening, a resident-pedestrian entered through there rather than the walk itself, on which only lost-looking deliverymen seemed to tread). Lafayette Walk—which at the time of its development would have shared an eponym with the small island fort off the coast of the army base, later swallowed up in the construction of the Verrazano—first showed up in the Eagle in a 1926 real-estate listing, and within a few years ads were bragging of its English Garden Houses. Carl “Oisk” Erskine rented a house on the block with his family during baseball season when he was a Brooklyn Dodger. (No. 9318, according to this blog.)

Hamilton Walk, a few yards to the west, shares its eponym with the army base, and was first mentioned in the Eagle in March 1925, in a real-estate roundup that mentioned it in reference to where Ainsworth Construction Corp. was building homes on 94th Street. Later in 1925, in December, Ainsworth was offering “a beautiful ‘Old English Village’ brick house” at 9323 Hamilton Walk for “reasonable rent”—back when anywhere in Brooklyn offered such a thing! Let alone a place with no cars outside.

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One thought on “The Odd Histories of Bay Ridge’s Car-Free Streets

  1. While I’ll agree about the story you present of knowing people who drive 10-15 blocks for a bagel and coffee ( I know too many people like that as well), the census shows that something like 45% of all households in bay ridge do not own a car.

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