New York City has no official neighborhood boundaries. It has community districts, which often encompass multiple neighborhoods, and it has police precincts (ditto), and council districts, and so on. But “Bay Ridge” or “Dyker Heights” or any other neighborhood is a social construction, which is why their borders can become such sensitive political topics when real-estate interests get involved. (See Pro-Cro, or Heights Park.) It’s about feeling ownership of one’s community.
Bay Ridge was once a village, previously Yellow Hook, in the town of New Utrecht, which eventually became a part of the city of Brooklyn and then New York City. Before New Utrecht joined Brooklyn (in 1894), the old cityline was 60th Street, so into the 20th century many people considered that the border of Bay Ridge. Others fudged it to 59th Street, or even farther north: the official “Bay Ridge” branch of the post office is on Seventh Avenue and 55th Street; there’s a “Bay Ridge French Cleaners” on Fifth Avenue near 44th Street, and the “Bay Ridge Day Nursery” (built in the 1930s) is on the corner of 44th Street and Third Avenue. As Brooklyn Visual Heritage puts it, “At the time of cataloging [i.e., now], the neighborhood is Sunset Park.” Yeah it is! Indisputably!
Neighborhood boundaries shift as physical and cultural boundaries change. Today, our thinking about the endpoints of Bay Ridge is typically shaped by borders natural and manmade: to the west and south, the water; to the north and east, huge housing towers and a highway. The Gowanus Expressway approach to the Verrazano Bridge that divided Seventh Avenue and razed thousands of homes and businesses was built around 1960; the Bay Ridge Towers at 65th Street, which created a sense of neighborhood finality, of a transition between communities, were built in 1972.
This month, DNAinfo asked locals to draw the boundaries of their neighborhoods, and Bay Ridge came out looking something like this.
Most people seem to agree on most of the borders: that the waterfront at Shore Road is our western border, even that 65th Street (or thereabouts) is the northern border, and that the southern border is where Shore Road, the Verrazano Bridge and the Fort Hamilton army base come to a point. What gets tricky is the eastern border, because Bay Ridge isn’t rectilinear. On the north side of the neighborhood, it seems clear to me: when you’re on one side of the highway, you’re in Bay Ridge; when you’re on the other, you’re in Dyker Heights. (Conveniently, the highway-adjacent avenue on either side is called Seventh Avenue.) But some people disagree, wanting claim to McKinley Park and St. Ephrem’s and the Purple Rose. Wasn’t the Fortway once in Bay Ridge? And anyway, this rule starts to break down around 82nd or 83rd Street, when Fort Hamilton Parkway crosses the highway and Seventh Avenue West disappears by becoming Gatling Place.
Some people might draw the line at Seventh Avenue, welcoming into the community that strange triangle of streets east of the highway but west of the golf course: Dyker Place, Dahlgren Place, Battery Avenue, Parrott Place, taking in Poly Prep and its neighbors, particularly because, before the Bridge and the resulting highway, most residents of these blocks would have considered themselves Bay Ridge residents.
Then there’s the whole problem of “Fort Hamilton.” In the 19th century, when Bay Ridge/Yellow Hook was a village, its sister village to the south was Fort Hamilton, the area surrounding the army base, at one point a beachfront resort destination. As the area developed in the 20th century, Bay Ridge expanded south, Fort Hamilton expanded north, until the two seemed like one big community. Growing up here in the 80s and 90s, I never heard anyone call the southern portion of the neighborhood “Fort Hamilton,” but the name endured for some longtime residents, at least as a “microneighborhood” (like how some people divide Flatbush into a dozen little pockets).
It has since taken off with renewed energy, as newcomers to the area have seen the designation on MTA maps, the Ork poster and Yelp, all designed by people without a detailed history of the neighborhood’s cultural history, I’m sure. DNAinfo listed “Fort Hamilton” as one of the neighborhoods whose boundaries you could draw, and several people took a try at defining its borders, from 83rd Street or 86th Street or 87th Street or 94th Street (!) to Cropsey Avenue or the army base or Seventh Avenue.
I kind of like the idea of splitting Bay Ridge into two neighborhoods, just because otherwise it’s so big; I can’t shake the suspicion that neighborhood boundaries were so broad in the 20th century because areas like Bay Ridge were written off as outerborough nowheres that could encompass hundreds and hundreds of blocks, while in Manhattan you change neighborhoods every 12—like, here everything’s the same for miles, but elsewhere it’s not. But c’mon: standing underneath the Verrazano feels different than standing at an entrance to the Bay Ridge Towers; the northside has a vibrant Arab–American community that has much less presence on the southside; and Shore Road in the 90th streets feels totally different from Shore Road in the 70th streets. Like Yellow Hook and Fort Hamilton, North Ridge and South Ridge are siblings. I’m just not sure they’re twins.
Anyway, if we want them to be separate neighborhoods or just one superneighborhood, that’s up to us—it’s the people who live here who decide which neighborhood they live in. What do you think?