Bay Ridge’s Parks Were Once Envisioned as a Single Super Park

The Bay Ridge Parkway

On June 17, I delivered a lecture to the Bay Ridge Historical Society about The Bay Ridge Parkway. This is an extended version of those remarks. 

When I was in high school, I had friends who lived on Narrows and friends who lived in the Towers, and we’d take the scenic route from the former to the latter, cutting around Owl’s Head Park to the fence that runs along Wakeman Place. Around the year 2000, the highway on the other side was closed to traffic for repairs, so we’d squeeze through an opening in the wrought iron and slide down to the road below, strolling down its middle like it was our own broad promenade.

On most maps, this bit of road, more of an exit ramp, is called “Shore Road Drive,” though it little resembles its eponym, the waterfront street you know: it’s a bit of verdant highway that curls around Owl’s Head Park, usually as a way on or off the Gowanus Expressway. As a teenager, my friends and I had used this road incorrectly, for pedestrian purposes; ironically, though, we were using it the way it had been intended to be.

Sort of.

At the turn of the 20th century, Bay Ridge was in transition; it still had a few farms, but they were being rapidly developed into urban housing. What it didn’t have were any parks to brag about (though it’s probably fair to say that the area was so underdeveloped that you had more access to nature just walking down the street than you do today in a park buttressed by a highway). City planners were ambitious: they envisioned not just one greenspace but a whole network of parks that would travel uninterrupted from Prospect Park to the armybase, Fort Hamilton. That is, they didn’t envision parks. They envisioned parkways.

Prospect Park had opened in 1867 and became the center of the growing City of Brooklyn. Park architects Olmstead and Vaux envisioned roads extending outward, a simple system of arteries and veins that would ferry people to and from the city’s beating heart. They coined the word “parkway,” which the parks department defines historically as “a landscaped road built expressly for ‘pleasure-riding and driving’ or scenic access to Prospect Park.” The word has lost its meaning today, particularly in Brooklyn where “Bay Parkway” is just another name for 22nd Avenue; it has no deliberate lines of trees, no tables and benches—it’s all “way” and no “park.”

The true parkways were grand boulevards, inspired by similar streets in Paris, and the two prime examples remain: Eastern and Ocean. Eastern Parkway extended out from Prospect Park’s northern loop, Prospect Park Plaza (later renamed Grand Army Plaza). It opened in 1870 and ran about two miles east to Ralph Avenue, from where it was later extended northeastward another mile and a half to Evergreens Cemetery. More than a thousand trees were planted rows-deep alongside the broad roadway, and developers built grand apartment buildings that attracted elite families. Though construction of the 2/3 line marred its intended beauty, and the road was allowed to go to seed over the 20th century, much of its grandeur in recent years has been restored.

Ocean Parkway Bike Path
Ocean Parkway bike path. Via the parks department

Ocean Parkway curves southward from the park’s southwestern traffic loop, Park Circle, and goes almost five miles until it reaches the ocean, forming the boundary between Coney Island and Brighton Beach. (Today, the first half mile is only access roads, the parkly middle replaced by the end of the Prospect Expressway, which was built between 1953 and 1962.) Ocean Parkway opened in 1876 and, in 1894, its pedestrian path was split to create the country’s first bike path. The eastern side boasted a bridle path until the 1970s. Both Ocean and Eastern parkways are, to this day, extrawide roads, leafy with benches and tables—a true combination of park and street.

A third hasn’t quite lived up to the others. In 1890, the road that extended southwestward from the park’s southwest loop was called Fort Hamilton Avenue, and it extended from Flatbush to the armybase. Within the next 10 or 20 years, it was redubbed Fort Hamilton Parkway, and today has more in common with Bay Parkway than Ocean Parkway: a major commercial strip dotted with businesses and lined with double-parked cars. But around the turn of the 20th century, that wasn’t the idea. Vol. 62 of American Architect and Architecture (from 1898) described it as “a wide thoroughfare in charge of the Park Department.” Back then, parkways were under the jurisdiction of parks—not the bureau of highways.

The Fort Hamilton Parkway would run two miles from the park to about 67th Street, where it would connect with what would be known as The Bay Ridge Parkway, which would turn westward, down through what’s today Leif Ericson Park, all the way to Owl’s Head Park, which was then still a private estate, though work had already started to convert it to public land. (More on that in a minute.) It would then continue southward all the way to the armybase. Today, we think of Leif Ericson, Owl’s Head and Shore Road parks as three distinct open spaces, maybe even accidentally contiguous, but in fact they were conceived as interlocking pieces of a grand whole, “destined to become one of the most notable landscape features of Greater New York,” according to that same American Architect and Architecture. “The general character is that of Riverside Parkway [now Drive], with which it is comparable; a worthy sequel, as it were.”

Today, the neighborhood has almost no parks but these around its border; the playground and track in back of Fort Hamilton High School, which is just an adapted piece of the Crescent Athletic Club’s tennis lawns; McKinley Park, more Dyker Heights’ than our own. (Cannonball Park, at the end of this network, was also developed close to the turn of the 20th century, and called Fort Hamilton Park. By 1899, the land was already owned by the parks department, but that year it cleared the undergrowth and graded it above the street. The cannon was in place by at least 1910.)

The Bay Ridge Parkway today
Ruins of the Bay Ridge Parkway at Third Avenue today. Photo by Hey Ridge

But this epic plan for a grand parkway didn’t quite survive into the present day. Leif Ericson Park technically ends today at Fourth Avenue, though it appears to continue west for another fifth of a mile; the highway-adjacent pieces that survive down to Ridge Boulevard are nameless parks with little oversight—especially west of Third Avenue, which must be why a grand staircase there opens into raw parkland, appearing to end in weeds and ruin; that’s why, when the park ends at Ridge Boulevard, it does so with a whimper and not a bang. Highway exits and twisting ramps have replaced the piece that continued one more block to Colonial Road, linking up with Shore Road, which curves around the north end of Owl’s Head Park. Stand today at Ridge Boulevard and try to imagine the highway doesn’t exist; the roadway and parkland could easily continue to Owl’s Head, an avenue away, which is what it once did! An aerial photo of Owl’s Head Park, dated 1937 by the parks department, shows a bridge over Colonial Road, too, where today there’s just a dead end, and how a pedestrian path and roadway, densely lined with trees, took you there from Ridge Boulevard, before the roadway went under the bridge and curved around the shore as the highway does today.

This stretch of the Bay Ridge Parkway—soon just the Bay Ridge Parkway, as the development of Owl’s Head and Shore Road progressed separately—proved a popular sight in its day; anyone who has searched on eBay for “Bay Ridge” has seen myriad postcards from countless vantage points showing the bridges that today cross Third Avenue and Ridge Boulevard. The sides of the roadway were lushly verdant hillsides with benches and paths that led to and from the street.

Bay Ridge Parkway map
Plan of Bay Ridge Parkway, 1895. From the New York Public Library

Work on the project began in 1892, when the legislature authorized the appointment of a commission to oversee it, and within two years there was already talk of extending it almost as far as Coney Island, at least as far as 22nd Avenue (Bay Parkway!) or Ocean Parkway, looping you back to Prospect Park. By 1899, construction contracts had been drawn up. “When this is completed,” according to that year’s annual report by the New York Department of Parks, which aimed for early summer, “it will afford one of the most beautiful driveways in the world.” Three years later, the parks commissioner left his job and bragged to the Eagle about the work he’d done, particularly “[t]he extension of the Bay Ridge parkway, or Shore drive.”

This improvement is a very important one, as it will form a connection between Fort Hamilton avenue and the Shore road at First avenue, a distance of about one and a quarter miles. A 40-foot roadway has been completed from Fourth avenue to the Shore road, winding in graceful curves between Sixty-sixth and Sixty-seventh streets, and artistic bridges or archways have been erected at Second and Third avenues to carry all the street traffic and permit the driveway to be unobstructed by any crossing from Fourth Avenue to the Shore Road.

In addition to the work already completed, a contract has been entered into for a walk for pedestrians, to be laid with hexagonal asphalt tiles, for the entire distance of the improvement, and arrangements have been made for the purchase of trees and shrubs for planting on the parkway in the early spring….the work when completed will be artistic and of great benefit to all parts of the city as well as to the people of Bay Ridge…Proceedings are pending for the opening of Sixty-seventh street, from Fourth avenue to Fort Hamilton avenue, the same to be paved with macadam when opened, and the eastern border to be planted with trees and shrubs. This will make a complete connection and drive.

Later in 1902, the new commissioner petitioned to “condemn” (acquire by eminent domain) the last remaining parcel, bet. 67th and 66th streets, needed to complete the Bay Ridge Parkway. In 1905, the Board of Estimate issued $1.875 million in corporate stock to fund improvements and completion, and by 1908 public notices were placed in the Eagle, announcing that it would be paved.

Owl's Head Park in 1934
Owl’s Head Park in 1934. Via the parks department

The progress of Owl’s Head Park did not progress so smoothly. (The following six paragraphs summarize a lengthy piece I wrote for Bklynr in January, which you can read here.) The idea of transforming E. W. Bliss’s estate, which he’d bought from State Senator Henry C. Murphy, into a public park dates back at least to 1894, when an unnamed advocate outlined his ambitious plans to the Brooklyn Eagle, including a full-time gardener, a casino, park police, concert grounds, a restaurant and more. Bliss thought turning it into a park was the best way to preserve the land from development, as the City of Brooklyn kept expanding southward. He just wanted to live out his years there with his wife—and get half a million dollars from the city.

But the city wanted to pay only $450,000, a difference of more than $1 million adjusted for inflation, and the standstill took decades to overcome, resulting in real loss—Bliss then owned 50 acres, more than double the size of Owl’s Head Park today. Such pennypinching gave us the Edison electricity plant, which became the wastewater-treatment plant; and who knows where Robert Moses’s Belt Parkway might have gone if the waterfront there had already been protected as park? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When the Board of Estimate (like the city council of back then) took up the issue of conversion into parkland, it at first opposed it, but by 1905 had changed its position and began proceedings for eminent domain acquisitions, marking it on planning maps as Owl’s Head Park. But the plan fell apart within two years, when the Panic of 1907 tightened the city’s belt. (That was the same economic disaster that inspired the creation of the Federal Reserve, to give you an idea of how serious it was.) The courts began to hold the city responsible for not buying the land, imposing fines (in the ballpark of $1.5 million, adjusted for inflation) to cover fees to lawyers and appraisers.

By 1911, the Board of Estimate struck the park from the planning maps and the land went up for sale. That summer, Bliss’s daughter opened the grounds to the public for a season, and hundreds of people showed up the first day. Advocates scrambled to come up with potential uses: piers for the “giant passenger craft of the future,” or the site of a Native American monument (Congress had set aside money to create one somewhere in the city, and bones and relics had been discovered here), or for parks and playgrounds, which an assistant DA said, in 1923, would curb juvenile delinquency.

The next year the Board of Estimate finally voted to acquire the land, but it took another four years for the purchase to seem likely, and the price of the land just kept going up. After pressure from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, the Bliss family finally sold what was left for $950,000—or more than $13 million, adjusted for inflation. The old mansion still stood, as did the unique Observation Tower and grand stables, but the park desperately needed investment it wouldn’t get—the stock market crashed the next year. Within a decade all those relics would be demolished.

“Why do they not repair it, keep it and cherish it?” the then-principal of Charles O. Dewey Junior High School asked the Brooklyn Eagle about the Bliss mansion. “It is again a case of anything to make the parks uglier and less useful and of finding another way to waste money. What were once the nice rolling hills of Shore Road Drive are now wastes of dirt and dust forever. Owl’s Head Park is rapidly being torn to pieces. Our beautiful mansions are coming down to be replaced by $30,000 comfort stations. It is all because we have people in office without taste and without qualifications for office.”

Bay Ridge Parkway homes
A 1907 ad for homes on 75th Street. Via Brownstone Detectives

In 1928, the year Owl’s Head Park was finally opened to the public, 75th Street reclaimed its name. An 1892 law stated that 75th Street would be made into a parkway, called Bay Ridge Parkway, and taken over by the parks department—but not until paving and grading were completed, which took almost four decades. In the meantime, some property owners still called the block “Bay Ridge Parkway”; you see it in real estate ads in the Eagle as far back as 1909, when No. 343 advertised its “house, stable, hen house and fruit trees.” In the meantime, though, 67th Street had taken the name, but it was decided that it would instead now be called Shore Road Drive.

The same Brooklyn Eagle article that discusses this also mentions that the Bay Ridge Parkway Civic Organization “decided to take no action against the proposed rezoning of Shore rd. to permit the erection of apartment houses, charging that ‘as long as the McCooeys are interested in the zone it will come and nobody can stop it.’” John McCooey was a predictably corrupt Brooklyn Democratic Party machine boss, nicknamed “Tammany’s Uncle John.” In the 1930s, his son became a well-paid justice of the NY Supreme Court, despite having little juridicial experience, and was a nephew by marriage of J. J. Byrne, borough president and eponym of the Park Slope playground around the Old Stone House.

What they were talking about was a major issue in 1920s Bay Ridge: What to Do With Shore Road. Back in 1887, J. Perkins Tracy wrote in a tourists guide to southern Brooklyn:

One of the finest and coolest shades in the vicinity of New York is the South Shore road leading to Bay Ridge. It is bordered by handsome villas set amid artistically laid out pleasure grounds. Here the overhanging majestic trees interlace their broad foliage, and the observant spectator will note a thousand beauties in this charming thoroughfare where art and nature both unite to form a picture of perennial beauty.

But forty years later, in 1927, the Eagle said the road had been “neglected for years,” and described its “dilapidated houses, a few mansions, many vacant lots and an ancient narrow motor road.” New plans called for a 50-foot drive fringed with parkland to create what Byrne said would be “a shore front and a shore drive which will challenge in scenic beauty that of any similar driveway in this country”—specifically Riverside Drive, in Manhattan. The wealthy had stopped moving to Bay Ridge as they had in the late 19th century, and to make the land available to people of more modest means, Byrne suggested changing the zoning so apartment buildings as high as 15 floors could be built.

Shore Road in 1927
1927 photos of Shore Road, including recent landfill and houses likely to be torn down.

Such private property would abut eight-foot sidewalks, then the 50-foot road (five lanes!), then park space to separate the road from a 12-foot “tiled walk,” then a railing and some trees and shrubs along the sea wall. The development of these parks was tied directly to the construction of apartment buildings, or so said Byrne, who said property values would soar and bring with them higher tax revenues.

That’s not quite how it turned out, but it’s close. Plans for the Shore Road became folded into Robert Moses’s plans for his Circumferential Parkway, later renamed the Belt, construction on which began in the 1930s. Our segment was called the Shore Parkway. Bay Ridge novelist Gilbert Sorrentino, who often wrote about his youth in the neighborhood, describes the construction in the short final chapter, set in 1939, of his 1970 novel Steelwork.

[T]he entrance to the park was choked with bulldozers, cranes, heaps of rock and brick and soil, where they were tearing out a gigantic strip of grass and trees to make a highway to connect with the new parkway going through along the bay, and then out the length of Long Island. It was sad to see the park going like that, the tunnels would soon have highway streaking under them, instead of the old, cobbled walks he knew.

It can be easy to write off Moses as a man who hated history and nature, paving over it all to build more roads, but it’s a little more complicated. After all, we have Moses to thank for Owl’s Head Park, which he invested in as parks commissioner, turning it from an undeveloped wasteland into a real greenspace, with paths and bathrooms. To a man of a simultaneously small yet epic imagination, a single parkway looping around a neighborhood or two was nothing. Moses envisioned a parkway that would connect parks throughout a borough, throughout multiple boroughs, throughout counties.

Old Belt Parkway postcard
A 1930s postcard of the Belt Parkway at 86th Street. Via Ephemeral New York

This was the Belt Parkway, which updated Olmsted and Vaux’s vision of broad and leafy lanes to the age of the expressway. Moses’s Belt is an epic connection of greenspaces: not just Owl’s Head and Shore Road and the old Bay Ridge Parkway, but also Dyker Beach Park, Bensonhurst Park (which it actually cut in half), Calvert Vaux Park (né Dreier–Offerman), Coney Island, Marine Park, Floyd Bennett Field, Canarsie Park—and that’s just in Brooklyn, because eventually the Belt turns into the Southern State Parkway, which could take city dwellers out to the state parks Moses was building in Nassau County, like Jones Beach.

And of course these parkways connected to others. The Gowanus Expressway, in initial documents, was called the Gowanus Parkway when it was built in 1941 using in part elevated train tracks whose use had just been discontinued.

This is a bit of sidetrack, but it’s interesting: until 1940, an elevated train line terminated amid the Bay Ridge Parkway, at Third Avenue. The Third Avenue El was a relatively brief offshoot of the Fifth Avenue elevated line that ran through Park Slope and Sunset Park, turning west at 36th Street. (It extended north through Downtown Brooklyn, not too dissimilar to the present-day R train, and went over the Brooklyn Bridge.) After being extended past 36th Street in 1893, it made stops at 58th, 52nd, 46th and 40th streets. It last ran on May 31, 1940, and was dismantled the following year, rendered redundant by the subway like the Verrazano Bridge would later do to the ferry to Staten Island from the 69th Street pier. (The eastern turnoff at 36th Street was “the Culver Line,” which went up 37th Street till it hit Gravesend Avenue, now McDonald Avenue, and took up the route of what we now call the F train. A shuttle train followed this 37th Street route and connected the present-day D to the present-day F until 1974; the tracks were torn down a decade later.)

The old Third Avenue El station
The last stop on the Third Avenue El, at the old Bay Ridge Parkway (ca. 67th Street).

Underneath the Gowanus’s four lanes would be “ten lanes of surface highway,” according to a 1941 report signed by the Triborough Bridge Authority. The Gowanus connected the Belt with the rest of the highway system, soon including the Battery Tunnel, which would open in 1950. The Prospect Expressway turns off from that junction to connect the Gowanus with Ocean Parkway. And it continues north to become the BQE, which connects with more parkways and expressways. Moses saw this network as, he said, a “continuous park system, not merely an automobile artery, a system of shoestring parks and recreational facilities encircling the entire metropolis.”

“He wanted 124 miles of parkways,” Robert A. Caro writes of Moses in The Power Broker. “And he wanted the parkways to be broader and more beautiful than any roads the world had ever seen, landscaped as private parks are landscaped so that they would be in themselves parks, ‘ribbon parks,’ so that even as people drove to parks, they would be driving through parks.”

The Belt’s construction was less controversial than other Moses highway projects; unlike, for example, the Gowanus, which had torn through Sunset Park, destroying Third Avenue and separating the neighborhood’s west end from the east, much of the Belt, especially in Queens, was built on city-owned land that wasn’t in use. (In the 19th century, before the boroughs consolidated, it was aqueduct, used to ship water from the Ridgewood Reservoir to Brooklyn. Thus “Conduit Avenue.”) It even created new parks in Bay Ridge; many of the Shore Road playgrounds and ballfields were built atop landfill used to build the parkway, to fulfill Moses’s vision of interconnected shoestring parks. But these highways were also a curse.

The juncture of the Bay Ridge Parkway with Shore Road at Owl’s Head became a viaduct to connect the Belt to the Gowanus, severing the eastern leg of the original Bay Ridge Parkway plan—what became Leif Ericson—from the rest of the network. And though motorists along the Shore Parkway might enjoy the waterfront view, it forces pedestrians, cyclists, joggers, ballplayers and other parks users to inhale auto exhaust, hear the racket of passing traffic, and have their views of the bay marred by automobiles zipping past. Moses may have created easy access for Bay Ridge residents to reach Jones Beach (or their relatives who’d ditched the city for the suburbs). But in the process? He disconnected us from our own shoreline. He built parks that were more like scenery, parks barely meant for people that people still use every day.

After a few months in or around the year 2000, my friends and I were back to taking the streets: construction work was completed, and the old Bay Ridge Parkway reopened to car traffic. I’ve never set foot on it again since—just looked out at it from the windows of occasional taxis, admiring the bridges, yearning for the greenery, wishing this manicured nature was meant for me and not machines.

Shore Road Drive Today
Shore Road Drive today, formerly the Bay Ridge Parkway. Photo by Hey Ridge