One of the oldest streets in Bay Ridge disappeared more than 100 years ago—or did it? Can you almost find its vestiges today, in the way the houses around its former location were developed?
Denyse Lane was one of the old Bay Ridge roads, laid down before the street grid was imposed on rambling farmlands and irregularly cut estates. It ran from Yellow Hook to New Utrecht—or, roughly, Bay Ridge to Bensonhurst—basically picking up where Van Brunt Lane left off, running east from Third Avenue, just south of present-day 78th Street, until it met “the Kings Highway,” aka the State Road (not to be confused with what we today call King’s Highway), another of these old serpentine roads, at Eleventh Avenue and about 81st Street.
(This King’s Highway ran from the village of Fort Hamilton to the town of New Utrecht, to 84th Street, between 15th and 16th avenues. Van Brunt Lane ran from that family’s property on Shore Road up to Third Avenue, roughly but not quite alongside today’s 79th Street. Ever notice how 79th Street is at a different angle from the surrounding streets between Shore Road and Colonial Road? Imagine if it followed at that angle all the way to Third Avenue.)
Denyse Lane was named for one of the neighborhood’s oldest and most prominent families, different branches of which occupied different areas. The family traces back to Deonys Theunis, who married Brooklyn founding father Jacques Cortelyou’s daughter and settled in the village of Fort Hamilton ca. 1685. His son Jacques Denys built a stone homestead on the shore, within today’s Fort Hamilton armybase; his first son, Denyse Denyse, born 1726, ran a ferry from what’s now the foot of the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island, and this area today is still called “Denyse Wharf.”
The Denyse homestead was attacked by the invading British in 1776, before the Battle of Brooklyn. “Three [cannonballs] had near done damage to Denyse Denyse’s house (located near the battery),” Teunis Bergen writes in his genealogy of the Van Brunt family; “one narrowly missed the kitchen in which were a number of the family, a second struck his barn, and a third destroyed much of the garden fence opposite the front door of the mansion house.”
Denyse Denyse had five children; two sons died young, and two daughters married and changed their names. Jaques Denyse “left numerous descendants,” Bergen writes, and presumably it’s these relations who’re found a bit to the northeast of the original Denyse homestead. Simon, Peter, Adrian and Maria Denyse had estates at the turn of the 19th century, mostly between Stewart and Seventh avenues, 81st and 75th streets. (Imagine drawing a straight line between 85th Street and Fifth Avenue and 67th Street and Seventh Avenue. This was the path of Stewart Avenue here.) Simon donated land at 76th Street and Stewart Avenue to the Methodists for a church. (The same congregation later built the Green Church.)
The large apartment building at 601 79th Street is called The Denyse, after Peter. “Peter Denyse lived on DeNyse Lane above Stewart Ave., now the S. E. corner of 6th Ave. and 78th St.,” a nostalgic William Gollhofer wrote to the Brooklyn Eagle in February 1942. “He lived to be 100 years young plus two months. I was at his 100th birthday party. A wonderful man. Pneumonia got him two months later. He was born and lived in Bay Ridge 100 years.” At least as late as 1928, “Denyse’s Nursery” still occupied the corner of 79th and Sixth, including a relatively large greenhouse.
Denyse Lane got its name from Simon, who owned a tract between Stewart Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway (then, Avenue), through which the lane ran. “Although the Denyse homestead was about the only residence along the line of the lane,” the Eagle reported in 1897, “yet it is said to have been a popular thoroughfare, particularly for the young people of both sexes, who, after the early evening services in the old Dutch Reformed Church at New Utrecht [84th Street and Sixteenth Avenue], on their way home to Bay Ridge, would delight in strolling off from the main highway through the curious windings and under the shady trees of the old Denyse lane, confidently assuring each other, with many a tender clasp of the hand, that the long way around by Denyse’s lane was much shorter and certainly preferable to the straight but unromantic route by the main road of King’s highway.”
According to Old Bay Ridge, a 1934 history pamphlet compiled for the Ladies Aid Society of the Union Church of Bay Ridge:
Many descendants of the Dutch pioneers remember the thrill of going to the ivy covered New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church, and the drive along the country road, over the ridge of Dyker Heights and down to where about 13th Avenue to 15th Avenue, there was a picturesque swamp filled with wild roses, cat-tails and cheerful bird notes. Every childish heart thrilled to the varied scenes.”
Back to the Eagle:
Within the last decade or two many changes have come upon the old town folks of New Utrecht. The descendants of the phlegmatic but shrewd early Dutch settlers have at length been induced to part, for large considerations, with highly prized farms. The real estate speculator and boomer has entered upon the scene, has cut up the farm into building lots and villa plots and has laid out the streets and avenues according to the town survey commission map, and the old romantic lanes and ancient highways have gradually disappeared.
Denyse’s lane was long ago abandoned and the land which formed the bed of it absorbed into the adjoining lots.
The entire road, from Third Avenue to the King’s Highway, was officially closed by law in 1897. But it lived on longer, appearing on maps as late as 1907, and it seems to me that traces of it survived. For example, many blocks in Bay Ridge have long shared driveways behind attached houses, but the block surrounded by 78th and 79th streets, Third and Fourth avenues, through which Denyse Lane once crookedly jutted, has three, more than any other street in Bay Ridge, as though the developers of these lots respected the popular old road that once ran there and preserved its essence. Almost the entire block, on both sides, has what’s essentially one big private lane running through it—which lets out on the 79th Street side just about where Denyse Lane would have!
And where Denyse Lane once would have emptied onto Seventh Avenue, between 78th and 77th streets, today another private shared driveway behind attached houses also empties out. I can’t say for sure that Denyse Lane influenced the building of these alleyways, but it seems to me unlikely that they just happen to align so closely and copiously with its former route.
But maybe it is mere coincidence. Or maybe it’s what Luc Sante, in his book The Other Paris, calls “the mystical phenomenon of unexplained recurrence. ‘There is always a certain public square or a certain intersection that, through mysterious and providential forces, seems forever devoted to a single specialty,’ wrote a mid-nineteenth-century chronicler. ‘I don’t know what secret instinct impels the same classes or the same professions always toward the same places. Thieves, pickpockets, beggars, streetwalkers, street performers have still not left the haunts they have inhabited since the Middle Ages.” Perhaps the same is true of moving things—they trace and retrace the same pathways, even when governments build them new ones.
Denyse Lane wasn’t the only old country path in Bay Ridge to be destroyed by development; several such roads, including parts of Van Brunt Lane, Couwenhoven Lane, DeBruyn’s Lane and others were lost. But Charlotte Bangs, in her 1912 Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus, seems to rue Denyse in particular. (Old Bay Ridge explains why some people sometimes called the whole Van Brunt’s Lane: “passing the various farms it took on the name of each farmer as it passed his acreage, so it became the lane of many names.”)
“[79th] street,” she writes, “from the Shore Road to New Utrecht village limits [in present-day Bensonhurst], has been made into a broad city street. Gone are all the pretty wooded sections, the little pond, the ‘Lanes,’ etc….
“This became an area for homes of city people who wished a taste of country,” she adds, as new streets were cut through old farmlands. Today you don’t even get a taste of the country—just, maybe, suburbia, where driveways for cars replaced country lanes for people.