Why Does Bay Ridge Have Fancy Names for First and Second Avenues?

Second Avenue in Bay Ridge
Postcard of “Second Avenue” (looking north, I think), ca. 1913, Via eBay

“There is a move on foot to change the names of First and Second avenues, in the Bay Ridge end of the borough,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported on January 4, 1906, “and if the old time residents in that locality are not wide awake, they will see painted upon the lamp posts and fences names that perhaps would not be in keeping with the old settlement.”

“It had been told around Bay Ridge,” the paper continued, “that the section, so far as its advantages as a residential place are concerned, would be greatly improved should the names of the avenues be changed.”

This wasn’t an uncommon tactic for 20th-century Brooklyn developers to use, hoping to attract new buyers: in Gravesend, Avenue R is “Highlawn Avenue” for a spell; in today’s “Ditmas Park,” names like Stratford, Westminster and Marlborough were assigned in 1901 to lend faux British dignity to E. 11th through E. 15th streets. And so on.

Ridge Boulevard street sign
Photo by Michael Gaffey for Hey Ridge

“I think we can be fairly assured…that [real estate] development was the reason for the change,” Kevin Walsh writes about Ridge and Colonial at Forgotten NY. While the subway wouldn’t open for a decade, planning for one had begun in 1900, culminating in 1902 with a formal proposal by the borough president; land speculation ensued, and money poured into southern Brooklyn housing. Many houses and rowhouses that still stand were built at this time.

Earlier, in the late 19th century, “Narrows Avenue was only a wagon road through farms, not even named,” Grace A. Glen writes in her 1962 pamphlet memoir, Old Bay Ridge. “Colonial Road, then called First Avenue, wasn’t much better though it was more like a road, but there was not a single house upon it. Second Avenue, now Ridge Boulevard, was beautiful with its lovely homes and green fields. The trees, too, were magnificent.”

A generation later, in 1906, that the first suggestion of changing the names of the avenues in Bay Ridge is made—from Patrick J. McKenna. “Mr. McKenna moved to Bay Ridge in 1888 and became one of the pioneer real estate promoters there,” according to his 1939 obituary in the Eagle, “although his principal interest was horse racing. His association with that sport covered a period of about 60 years. He was said to have made the first racing chart about 1895.”

Horse racer or real estate magnate, McKenna had in mind “two names that, in his opinion, would add to the beauty of Bay Ridge,” according to the Eagle—and they weren’t Ridge or Colonial. He wanted to call First Avenue “Holland Avenue,” and he wanted to call Second “Emerald Avenue.” (The designations would apply only south of 66th Street.) These were clearly meant to pander to different immigrant groups—an Irishman tossing a bone to the older and old-money residents in order to get one in return for his more recently arrived peoples.

Ridge Boulevard
Ridge Boulevard, at the southeast corner of 72nd Street, 1929. Photo by Percy Loomis Sperr, via NYPL

“From some of the old time residents in Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton it was learned that the name Holland had been suggested because of the fact that nearly all of the old time families along the Shore road and in other parts of Bay Ridge are descendants of old Holland stock,” the Eagle reported. “Very few of the old Hollanders…could be brought around to see what Bay Ridge would gain by having Second avenue changed to Emerald avenue. If it was decided that a change is necessary it was suggested that Bay View avenue would be a much better name than Emerald avenue”—thinly veiled anti-Irish sentiment, obviously!

The counter argument, anonymously voiced in the Eagle: “What is prettier than emerald? Then, again, there are many descendants from the Emerald Isle who are settling in Bay Ridge and who feel that the name Emerald would be an honorable one. Let the members of the old Long Island Dutch families along Shore road have a Holland avenue and give us an Emerald.”

But what about the rest of us, or even just those who didn’t need their streets renamed in their honors in order to feel at home? “The majority of  property owners in the section are in favor of continuing the present names…It was explained that First and Second avenues have been known as such for many, many years and that any change in the names would result in confusion. While the changes would mean very little, in a way, it was argued, it would take years for the settlers in Bay Ridge to get accustomed to the names of Holland and Emerald avenues.”

Colonial Road
“Exterior view of wooded area with Colonial Road, near 75th Street, in the distant background.” Undated. Early 20th century? Via Brooklyn Public Library

A month later, the fight ended with “a rather warm argument,” according to the Eagle. “A strong opposition developed from the property owners on both sides. Mr. McKenna declared he had talked with a number of property owners on both First and Second avenues and all appeared to be in favor of the proposed changes.” The matter was voted on by the Citizens Association of Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton—and the “motion was lost by a big vote,” the Eagle reported, despite support from the pastor of Our Lady of Angels.

“Mr. McKenna said the matter would probably be brought up again.”

He was right. Just two years later, on December 2, 1908, another “row over street names” erupted in Bay Ridge. A committee of the citizens association, tasked with determining the advisability of a renaming, selected “three names—Bayview avenue, in place of Narrows avenue; Colonial Road, in place of First avenue, and Beechwood avenue, in place of Second avenue,” the Eagle reported.

These names were conspicuously more banal, less controversial, impossible to cause offense or to alienate. Especially that last one: beeches were a common and beloved type of tree in the area; in fact, on Second Avenue, across from Christ Church, a cluster of beech trees were nicknamed the “twelve apostles” and were often written about and photographed by old-timers. Read more about them here. (Ms. Glen writes fondly of these trees, too. “When 75th Street was cut through, the trees still stood where the Jacobus family built a house, but when it was sold, an apartment house was built on the site and the trees were destroyed.”)

Bay Ridge beeches
“In November 1907, stately beech trees, known locally as the ‘twelve apostles,’ are pictured on Ridge Boulevard between Seventy-third and Seventy-fourth Streets. There is no trace of the apostles [anymore]…Some people still remember the apostle trees.” From Bay Ridge: Then & Now by Peter Scarpa and Lawrence Stelter
Bay Ridge Beeches
From Charlotte Bangs’s Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus, 1912

A heated argument followed. Some of the members were in favor of taking immediate action and others were equally determined that it was a matter to be considered at leisure. Fred C. Cocheu thought that property owners and residents of the streets in question should have their say, and acting on his suggestion the matter was deferred for a month, when a public hearing will be had.

That meeting was held on January 6, 1909. “The matter of changing the names of First, Second and Narrows avenues was brought up,” the Eagle reported, “and a majority were in favor of calling First avenue Colonial avenue and Second avenue Ridge boulevard. It was decided that the name of Narrows avenue should not be changed.” (There may have already been a Bayview Avenue in Brooklyn—in Coney Island, where it is today.)

Ridge Boulevard today
Ridge Boulevard today, looking south from 73rd Street, just about where the famous beeches once stood. Photo by Michael Gaffey, for Hey Ridge

The suggestions were passed on to the board of aldermen (like today’s city council), which presumably approved them. “Ridge Boulevard” begins appearing in the Brooklyn Eagle in May 1909—in a real estate ad.

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Ridge Boulevard in Eagle
May 16, 1909, Brooklyn Eagle advertisement featuring the paper’s first mention of “Ridge Boulevard” (not counting news stories about the name change), advertising the still-standing row houses built atop Ovington Village‘s Athaneum, one of which would become the childhood home of present Federal Reserve Chairperson Janet Yellen

An aside about Mr. Patrick J. McKenna

The Eagle, perhaps politely, referred to him over the years as a “prominent resident” and a “well-known resident” of Bay Ridge, without mentioning his affinity for horse racing. Various addresses are listed: 76th and Fourth Avenue, or 156 76th Street (one of the handsome houses just east of the steps), or Colonial Road and 83rd Street—smack dab in Crescent Hill, where anyone who was anyone in his generation would have lived. Eventually, he moved to Rockville Center, Long Island, and he died at a daughter’s home in Douglaston, Queens.

In 1894, McKenna’s 29-year-old wife had died of tuberculosis, shortly after two of their children had died, though he remarried.

2 comments on “Why Does Bay Ridge Have Fancy Names for First and Second Avenues?

  1. “This wasn’t an uncommon tactic for 20th-century Brooklyn developers to use, hoping to attract new buyers” – some Real Estate tactics never change, hence why changing neighborhood names across Brooklyn is a common thing

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