“The End of Bay Ridge”: The Unusual Story of Battery Avenue and Fort Hamilton

Battery Avenue dead end
Photo by Michael Gaffey

There are roads that run farther south or lie farther east than Battery Avenue, but no such southeasterly block in the Bay Ridge area exudes such bleak finality. The street ends in desolation in both senses of the word—deserted and unhappy—and even without the END sign, there’s no mistaking you’ve reached The End of wherever it is you are.

Battery Avenue runs inside that odd little triangle of blocks between Seventh Avenue/the golf course and the highway; it’s not quite Bay Ridge, but also not quite Dyker Heights—it’s borderland, borrowing a bit of character from each. The street starts two-thirds of a mile north of its dead end, at 86th Street, and continues parallel to Dahlgren Place. But it keeps going after that street calls it quits at the last side street to connect them, Fort Hill Place; Battery Avenue weirdly swerves, then continues another 350 feet between the armybase and Poly Prep before it peters to a close at a fence, nothing on either side of its unmaintained sidewalks but more chain-link.

After that dead ending, the block becomes part of the armybase, where it functions as a parking lot. Many streets within the armybase seem to have been laid out in line with the street grid outside it: Seventh Avenue becomes Washington Drive, 101st Street becomes General Lee Avenue, and Poly Place becomes…well, it remains Poly Place. (If indeed it’s even really called Poly Place.)

Battery Avenue seems to suggest a time when Fort Hamilton (the military installation) and Bay Ridge weren’t separated by so many fences, when the boundary between the two felt more fluid—when Fort Hamilton was a part of the community in which it’s based, not a citadel, 150 impenetrable acres of land hiding out in the neighborhood’s southeast corner. A short flight of cement steps on Battery Avenue, before it slinks off to its death, leads right up to the armybase.

Except today, it takes you smack into to a fence.

Battery Avenue Staircase
Photo by Michael Gaffey

But the story of the street and the base is a little more complicated—because Battery Avenue isn’t, and was never supposed to be, part of Fort Hamilton.

In general, the public was afforded reasonable access to the fort and its environs from its opening in 1831 until the Spanish American War,” Richard Cox, the retired director of the fort’s Harbor Defense Museum, writes in an email. “As one Brooklyn Eagle article noted in 1872, ‘Everybody of any consequence in Brooklyn knows where Fort Hamilton is situated, and almost everybody has been there.’ That changed in 1898 when war was declared on Spain, and security concerns regarding the fort’s strategic batteries of coastal defense guns led to new restrictions and road closings.”

That year, the Brooklyn borough president wrote to every local elected official to protest the country’s War Department’s decision to close to the public the road in front of the fort, an “old road that has been in use for a hundred years,” which joined the Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights portions of what was then known as The Shore Road, on which the city had spent millions of dollars for improvement.

No one could object to shutting off travel over the government road during a time of war, when the battery might be called into use at any time; or in time of peace, if the guns in the battery were in practice. At such a time a barrier might be put across each end of the road, or a soldier might stand with a red flag and caution people not to go over the road, just as is done in our city streets when blasting operations are about to take place. But to entirely close up this road simply because the guns may once in a great while be used for practice, or because at some future time the country may be at war, seems to all of us here an unnecessary deprivation of a great and long enjoyed privilege.

Battery Avenue opened around the same time. Though there are mentions of it as early as 1896 (as well as of its early alternate name, Warren Street), it seems to have opened, at least officially, around 1903-4; according to the Brooklyn Eagle archives, the City of New York applied for acquiring title in December 1900, “for the use of the public, to all the lands and premises, and the appurtenances thereto belonging, required for the opening of a certain street or avenue known as Battery avenue, from One Hundred and Seventh street to Eighty-sixth street.” (Emphasis mine.)

1898 Map of Fort Hamilton area
1898 map, with proposed streets up to 107th. Via NYPL

I know what you’re thinking—107th Street?! Poly Prep didn’t relocate to this area until 1916-1917. Before that, according to an 1898 map in the New York Public Library archives, the land that would become the country day-school was proposed to be laid out with streets that would connect Battery Avenue to Seventh Avenue; after 92nd Street would come Bath Avenue, then—for some reason—102nd Street, 103rd Street, Cropsey Avenue, 105th Street, 106th Street, and 107th Street, which appears to be (or be very close to) the present-day Poly Place, now also fenced off and used for parking by the military. An earlier map, from 1890, proposed developing some of the armybase and the Dyker Beach Golf Course, extending Battery and Seventh avenues all the way to the waterfront—to what would have been 113th Street!

(Also in 1903, there was a petition to close Battery Avenue from 107th Street to Warehouse Avenue, which would have run at an angle, cutting right through what became Poly Prep’s football field, and terminated at/intersected with Battery at 106th Street. Before the Belt Parkway, “Warehouse Avenue” ran along the waterfront of Gowanus Bay all the way to Coney Island Creek and eventually the peninsula itself. Most of it now is basically Shore Parkway.)

The origin of Battery Avenue’s name is self-evident. “This avenue refers to Fort Hamilton’s nearby battery,” according to Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss’s Brooklyn By Name, “defined as a grouping of artillery pieces defending the shoreline.” Most mentions of the street in the Eagle are legal notices of street gradings and sewer-system installation, or like the item from 1912 about the construction of sidewalks and a curb on the stretch from 90th to 92nd Street.

But there are also interesting tales, including an oddly touching story from 1911 about two boys, aged 14 and 15, one of whom had “no home,” who were charged with burglary. “During the early hours of last Tuesday morning thieves broke into the grocery story of Adolph Lange, at 645 Ninety-second street, Fort Hamilton, and helped themselves,” the Eagle reported. “It was not until Friday afternoon that anyone was arrested. The detectives were passing an old deserted farm house on Battery avenue, when one of them looked in. It had evidently been recently occupied and a quantity of Mr. Lange’s groceries were scattered about. There was no one in the house at the time and the officers decided to await the return of the occupants. The two boys entered about 7 o’clock and set about to prepare supper.”

House at Battery Avenue and 88th Street
Battery Avenue and 88th Street, 1922. Via NYPL

Battery Avenue was also the home (No. 241) of a man, John F. Gray, and his 12-year-old son who, in 1914, lost his eye playing with ammunition improperly discarded by soldiers from the fort performing drills on the golf course. “I called the police to prevent the boys from throwing ammunition into a fire which they had built outside the golf links,” the father wrote to his congressmember. “The police reported the matter, but, it seems, without results.”

My boy picked up a clip of five of these bullets, [and on] the Fourth of July, set one of them off, and it almost killed him. The nearest hospital, outside the fort, is at least two miles away. Naturally, I ran with him to the fort for first aid. Instead of doing what they could to relieve his sufferings, they refused to call their doctor, and cursed and abused me for daring to come up there for treatment.

The boy is injured for life, having lost the sight of one eye, and received other numerous injuries. It is a sad thing to have a fine healthy boy of 12 years a cripple because the soldiers are too lazy to fire off these bullets, as they are supposed to do. If their officers were doing their duty the men would not dare throw away their ammunition.

In 1906, Edward Kelly and his wife Nora lived on Battery Avenue and 95th Street. They had “not been traveling along the road of conjugal bliss of late without stumbling over some of the obstacles there. Occasionally they had fights that not infrequently terminated sadly for the wife. They recently had a combat in which, she said, her husband struck her on and cut her head with a sharp instrument. The justices told Kelly that a thirty days sojourn in jail would awaken him to the fact that his wife has some redress in assault matters.” The amazing subhed: [Wife Beater] Edward Kelly Gets Thirty Days in Which to Reflect on His Own Unmanliness.

Battery Avenue under construction at Poly Place
Battery Avenue under construction at Poly Place, 1935. Via NYPL

Anyway, three years later, in 1909, residents of Battery Avenue and surrounding blocks met to call on the borough president to improve their streets: to grade them, pave them, and install water pipes. “Members of the [Fort Hamilton Citizens] association feel that their section is being neglected by the borough officials and they intend to make a fight.” In 1925, Fort Hill Place officially opened, connecting Dahlgren and Battery right before the former ends.

An aerial photo from around the same time, 1924, as well as another from 1960, emphasize the one-time rectilinearity of Fort Hamilton, the sensibleness of its street grid, at least the part behind the original waterfront batteries and fort. Google Earth today shows something far more sprawly and suburban: acres of parking lots, winding roads and cul-de-sacs. The construction of the Verrazano was particularly significant; its onramps (between 92nd Street and 101st Street, Fort Hamilton Parkway and Dahlgren Place) were built atop the Fort’s original parade ground, a once wide open field that’s now coils of hideous highway.

“Parade grounds, such as the old one at Fort Hamilton, were the traditional focal point of U.S. Army posts,” Adam Smith and Suzanne K. Loechl explain in their wonky but fascinating 2000 report, Fort Hamilton, New York: Historic Landscape Inventory. “The old parade ground was a landscape feature associated with the development of Fort Hamilton from a small coastal defense post to a major coastal artillery post and the Embarkation and Separation Center for metropolitan New York. The pre-1899 dirt roads of the post were set into their present configurations during this era. Once this parade ground and its surrounding streets were established, all subsequent Fort Hamilton development revolved around it until 1955,” when planning for the bridge began.

In both aerial photos, Battery Avenue is visible; in 1924, it extends to where Poly Place would be, but the road there looks more like a vacant lot. (Parts of Battery Avenue appear to be still unpaved in this photo, despite those 1909 protestations.) In 1960, it also extends to Poly Place. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the military annexed the street, according to Forgotten New York, creating what the site calls “a lengthy dead end”—and many new parking spaces.

Fort Hamilton and Bay Ridge, 1924
Aerial photo of Fort Hamilton and surrounding area, 1924. Battery Avenue and Poly Prep visible in top center-right; the fort’s parade ground is at center-left. Via FortWiki

As far as I can tell, Battery Avenue wasn’t a piece of military road eventually sealed off from the public—it was a public road, the eastern border between Brooklyn and federal property, public land demapped in late 20th century for military use. Interestingly, the military does not actually own this land. “Part of Battery Avenue and…of Poly Place are used by Fort Hamilton and are within the fenced boundary but are not officially part of the installation,” Smith and Loechl write. (Emphasis mine.)

This bit of commandeered road would once have allowed the public to continue down to Poly Place, where it would grant access to Seventh Avenue, a way around the backs of Poly Prep as well as the golf course. Is that connection necessary?

The rest of Battery Avenue and the closed segment of Poly Place would be bordered by no homes or businesses or even entrances, just fences protecting the grounds of a United States military installation and a tony private school with its fancy football field. These are bona fide backroads, with no purpose but to connect—and in a car, how much time would it really save? (In the early 20th century, it would have also intersected with Warehouse Avenue, too, though that road, or at least this western leg of it, seems to have been demapped as early as the 1920s.) In fact, it might make the block sleepier, and more attractive to its residents. “That dead end is packed with kids most afternoons playing sports without worrying about oncoming traffic, which I dealt with all too frequently!” a Brooklyn-raised buddy of mine, who just moved nearby, tells me.

How many people are truly inconvenienced by the dead end? Who needs to travel from Fort Hill Place to Cropsey Avenue? Why not take it for parking, right? Which the armybase apparently cannot get enough of! (Seriously, look on Google Earth at how many spots there are! On a base you could walk across in ten minutes! What a little piece of car-crazy America tucked into mass-transit New York, the Staten Islandiest part of Bay Ridge.) If there weren’t already private residences on the block, the army might have taken the whole thing.

Battery Avenue 2015
Leafy and suburban Battery Avenue, just before the swerve. Photo for Hey Ridge

So, maybe the dead-ending of Battery Avenue isn’t a practical matter. If it’s an issue at all, it’s a psychological one—one more wall as part of the fort’s intensifying lockdown. The chapters in local history books I always skim are the ones about the the fort; to me, it doesn’t feel like part of Bay Ridge. The army-brat friend I had in high school (who never invited me to his home!) moved away after graduation and didn’t keep in touch. I remember watching Fourth of July fireworks on the base as a boy, but the “new” parade ground, which replaced the one destroyed by the bridge, has since been paved over with housing, and no new new parade ground has taken its place. Fort Hamilton residents have access to on-base restaurants, stores and religious services, precluding the need to engage with the surrounding neighborhood. There’s not only a physical separation, but also a cultural one.

It’s not the friendliest place to outsiders (the Soldier Show notwithstanding). Approximately ten years ago, the last time I visited the base, I arrived with a friend, and the guard asked us where we were going.

“The Harbor Defense Museum,” we said.

“Why?” he asked.

Which was an excellent question for its unanswerability: why does anyone visit a museum? Why do people care about the places they live, or history, or, for that matter, art or music or literature? Why are they curious about anything?

Granted, this wasn’t long after September 11th, and surely the base’s staff was still on edge. (And the guy working at the museum was exceptionally warm, once we actually got there.) But it raises that old problem about what you sacrifice for security. In this case, we’re not giving up freedom so much as we’re giving up a sense of community.

Sometimes, good fences make the worst neighbors.

Fort Hamilton and Bay Ridge area, 1960
Fort Hamilton and the surrounding area, 1960. Battery Avenue visible on the left. Via Harbor Defense Museum
Battery Avenue
Battery Avenue at the swerve. Photo by Michael Gaffey