“With its thirty-two square miles of surface, Jamaica Bay has room enough for the principal parts of the harbors of Liverpool, Antwerp, Hamburg, and Rotterdam.”
– The Times, October 22, 1930
The story of Paerdegat (the neighborhood) is best told in the context of Paerdegat Basin (the waterway). The neighborhood, which dates from the 1960s, was a disappointing finish to what had been hoped to be a very bright future for the area.
Paerdegat Basin came to its present form only in the late 1920s. Before then, it was a freshwater-fed tidal creek known at various times as Bestevaar Kill, Bedford Creek, and Paerdegat Creek. It was much longer than the present-day basin, and had several branches.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, growing commercial and industrial interests around Jamaica Bay pushed for improvements to the area; the city saw an opportunity to provide relief to an overburdened New York Harbor. (The original plan included a five-mile canal from Jamaica Bay to Flushing, Queens, but that was soon dropped.)
Work on dredging Jamaica Bay and its associated waterways began in 1912, thanks to a $300,000 ($7 million today) appropriation from Congress. Hopes were high, with some even pushing for a World’s Fair. By 1931, the city had invested $10 million to improve the area, while the federal government had given $2 million for dredging, and had pledged up to $13 million more. There was also private work done by the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific Dredging Company. (One dollar in 1931 would be worth about fifteen today. Fun fact: the drop in value from 1912 was due to a deflationary period immediately following World War I – not to the Great Depression.)
There were a few assumed advantages of Jamaica Bay as a major port. It was huge: 32 square miles in all, with 25 miles of shoreline – plenty of room for ships. It had a low tidal variation (less than five feet between low and high). And it was just three miles from Ambrose Channel, the main entrance to New York Harbor. Three miles might have been too far, though, just as Floyd Bennett Field would eventually be deemed too distant from Manhattan to remain a viable airport.
Paerdegat Basin was to become an important part of the plan. It offered easy access to the growing population of Canarsie, and was at the extreme northwest of Jamaica Bay. The problem: there was no easy way to move the freight once it had been unloaded from the ships. Enter the Long Island Railroad.
The city approved a plan to add two new branches to the Long Island Railroad, one on either side of Paerdegat Basin. The western branch would run down the shore to the recently completed Floyd Bennett Field, while the eastern branch would terminate at the recently expanded Canarsie Pier.
Once the city ensured it had the money to proceed with the project – this was the Depression, after all - support was overwhelming: Mayor James Walker, President of Aldermen Fiorello La Guardia, City Comptroller Charles Berry, and the borough presidents of Brooklyn and Queens championed the idea. (A lone dissenter, Miss Louise Sommer, spoke up at the final approval-hearing, claiming the procedure was illegal.) The state’s congressional representation lobbied for federal funds; New Jersey’s delegation was adamantly opposed to the proposal, as they wanted Newark Bay to become the alternative port to New York. Still, even as federal appropriations dried up, there was enough for both, as they were considered high-priority.
Jamaica Bay would soon fall out of favor, though, to spots closer to the city proper, just as airline-passengers would prefer even Newark to Floyd Bennett. The building of the Shore Parkway along the shore of Jamaica Bay in the late 1930s served as a final nail of sorts.
Paerdegat Basin, dredged to be 16 feet deep in the middle, was left without upkeep. In the 1950s and 1960s, the city sold 115 of its 155 acres around the waterway at fire-sale prices. This caused outrage; instead of the city building middle-class housing, private developers would likely build more row-houses. (Hence, it seems: Paerdegat.)
Morris Alex, the Chairman of the Paerdegat Development Committee, captured this sentiment in a March 1, 1964 letter to the Times. New York City, he wrote, will “lose the opportunity to cut the vicious circle of segregated-house-segregated-schools by providing thousands of apartments available to all on an open-occupancy basis. It will hasten the process of making the city a place for the very rich and the very poor.” (I realized upon reading this that I frequently think about historical debates in the context of economics, while disregarding race, segregation, and discrimination. I must be more cognizant of this.)
Now, Paerdegat Basin is polluted, thanks to the former under-capacity combined sewer overflow (CSO) facility. The new CSO facility should put an end to this issue in the future, but the previous effects will likely last for decades. (Check my posts on Georgetown for more info.)
“Brooklyn’s last village: Canarsie on Jamaica Bay” by Brian Merlis and Lee A. Rosenzweig (Israelowitz Publishing, 2008)