From resort nights to white flight: a brief history of Canarsie

Canarsie has long been the butt of jokes, from the archaic term “by way of Canarsie”, meaning in a roundabout manner, to The Three Stooges and The Honeymooners. Its storied history as a resort has been overshadowed by the actions of some of its white residents when forced to integrate; as a result, the area has undergone significant ethnic changes since the 1970s, as many white families have moved to Long Island and Staten Island.

The name Canarsie comes from the Dutch term for the native Lenape, “Canarsee”, perhaps meaning either “fenced land” or something relating to ducks (from the French canard). The first mention of Canarsee was in 1647. Like most land around Jamaica Bay, it was a marshy area unsuitable for development until it was filled in later years.

Fun fact: Canarsie was the last piece of property in Brooklyn “owned” by the native Lenape.

A few buildings remain from the days of Dutch farming. One is the home of Peter Wyckoff, built in 1664, making it one of the oldest houses in the city. It lies just over the border in East Flatbush, so I’ll have to visit it another time (and I did – almost exactly one year later). Within the boundaries of Canarsie is the Vanderveer home (c. 1750). It once had a grist mill to take advantage of the tidal fluctuations in Fresh Creek. The original, smaller creek was buried under E 107 St, and the wheel was dismantled, but the house remains.

Vanderveer Mill, 1891. (From BPL’s Brooklyn Collection/Brooklyn Museum)

There was a district known as “Colored Town” around today’s Rockaway Parkway and Avenue J. It attracted freed slaves around the time of the Civil War. I’m interested to see if any reminders remain.

Canarsie was ideally located as a half-way point between northern Brooklyn and the beaches of the Rockaways. Starting in 1865, the Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach Railroad Beach offered train-service to Canarsie, with a ferry taking passengers to the Rockaways. The L train follows the same route from East New York to its eastern terminus.

The area became popular in its own right. Some Brooklyn residents would visit just for the evening to watch the setting sun play on the ocean; some would stay for days in one of the many hotels that popped up to serve the need. In an attempt, perhaps, to make Canarsie a rival to Coney Island, the Golden City Amusement Park opened in 1907. It was on the site of the present-day Canarsie Pier.

1900s drawing of Golden City Amusement Park by R. Stollmack. (From BPL’s Brooklyn Collection)

Most locals at the time made their livings through fishing and oystering. As I’ve discussed, Jamaica Bay is a dumping-ground for sewage, and this was true back then as well. Outbreaks of typhoid linked to shellfish in 1904 and 1915 led to the demise of these industries, and with it, the beginning of the decline of Canarsie as a destination.

The final blows came in the Depression. The shuttered Golden City Amusement Park burned down on January 29, 1934. Later in the decade, the Shore Parkway was placed along the water. Today’s Canarsie Pier was thrown in as a WPA project; it was intended as a public promenade, which it remains today.

1941 photo of the Canarsie Pier under construction; taken from the Belt Parkway. (from BPL’s Brooklyn Collection)

Due to its location, Canarsie, like Georgetown and Paerdegat (which is part of Canarsie), was one of the last spots to be built up. In 1950s the wetlands were filled in and several large projects were instituted, among them Seaview Village, the Breukelen Houses, and the Bay View Houses.

Like residents of Georgetown, Canarsians — mostly Italian and Jewish by the 1960s — were opposed to the idea of integration in their own area. Sociologist Jon Rieder lived in Canarsie for two years during the 1970s, interviewing residents as they grappled with an influx of blacks and Puerto Ricans. His book Canarsie: the Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against liberalism paints a vivid picture of the politics, the emotions, and the hatreds of the era.

In 1972, the school board ordered Canarsie to take in a few dozen black children from neighboring Brownsville. 10,000 white students boycotted school for a week in protest. (“Canarsie Schools for Canarsie Children” was a popular motto.) As tensions became violent, retaliations were planned, and individuals began arming themselves. Some advocated the slogan of Rabbi Meir Kahane: “a .22 for every Jew”.

Many whites had moved to Canarsie to escape places like East New York and Brownsville, which had become crime-ridden ghettos. They saw this coming shift as a threat to their safety and their property. (Of course, by their actions, they were denying other cultural groups the same opportunity they themselves had had.)

Canarsie had supported FDR and many liberal candidates since, but when faced with the fruits of the policies it supported (such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act), it turned against them, voting overwhelmingly for Reagan. Rieder’s case-study is a seminal work in explaining why lower-to-middle-class whites fled the Democratic Party starting in the late 1970s.

In 1980, Canarsie was the site of a brutal murder of a cop. Salvatore DeSarno, known as “Crazy Sal”, shot Officer Cecil Frank Sledge four times, then sped down Avenue I with Sledge hooked to the rear bumper. In my announcement of Canarsie, I discussed a more-recent death involving the police, that of Tamon Robinson last month.

Canarsie is also home to the Canarsie Courier, the longest-running weekly publication in New York City. It’s published every Thursday, so I’ll get one hot off the presses.

Bound sources:

The Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach Railroad, the Canarsie Railroad by William W. Fausser (Fausser, 1976).

The neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Kenneth T. Jackson, Ed. (Yale University Press, 2004).

Brooklyn’s last village: Canarsie on Jamaica Bay by Brian Merlis and Lee A. Rosenzweig (Israelowitz Publishing, 2008).

Canarsie: the Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against liberalism by Jonathan Rieder (Harvard University Press, 1985).

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13 Responses to From resort nights to white flight: a brief history of Canarsie

  1. Pingback: Black neighborhood that is not poverty(no racist) - Page 16 - City-Data Forum

  2. Joe says:

    Grew up in Canarsie in the 60-80s

  3. Lloyd S Mapp Jr says:

    I grew up in the Bruekelen Houses (Brookline) houses. My father and mother my sister Valerie and I were about two and two. we moved into 270 Stanley Avenue, Apt #1D. There were three other buildings in my court. I have great pictures of that era. There were no streets, grass, benches or chain fences at that time. I have a great photo of me at the corner of Stanley Avenue and east 108th St. No roads just sidewalks. You can see straight up to Flatlands Avenue. Key Food supermarket, and the candy store were on the right. the photos I have clearly show black and white kids playing together in the courtyard. In 1959 ( the year of the hula hoop), my sister Robin was born and we moved to 968 Williams Avenue, apt 2C. it was a building facing the park across the street and no courtyard. it was the best time of my life. my sister and I were latchkey kids. our Jewish neighbor next door took take of us until my mother came home from work. I was not a basketball player but I excelled in handball. That’s were all the girls were in the 60′s. We were now a family of 5: Lloyd, Valerie, Reggie, Robin & Kellie. We all went to PS 260 down the block on Williams and Stanley Avenues. One of Valerie’s teacher once told my mother that Valerie would never amount to anything. That’s funny because my sister Valerie just retired from that same school this year after over 20 years of teaching. My mother doesn’t live there anymore but every time I drive by y Williams Avenue, the found memories of my childhood come alive. my crew is still alive, Sonny, Pandy, Andre. RIP Barry L.

    • maritza says:

      I came across this passage and I have been wanting to know what ever happened to Mr. Mattola who was a 5th and 6th grade teacher in PS260 in Breukelen carnarsie in the 1960′s … If you have any knowledge if he retired or if he is still around can you email me at marilu492002@yahoo.com . He was my 5th and 6th grade teacher and he was one of my favorite teachers.

  4. Joe L says:

    i grew up in Canarsie amd East flatbush in the 1970 s. Moving from e flatbush to canarsie meant that I could walk the streets safely without fear of being “jumped,” Many of the Jews and Italians in Canarsie expressed animosity for the blacks from neighboring areas, this is true. But the basis of the animosity was fear of being robbed, beaten or raped, and not a desire to “deny other cultural groups the same opportunity they themselves had had.” Being white in Brooklyn and being a potential victim of Black on White violence were synonomous. We had a law abiding black family living on our block E 88 st. for years and they were respected and no one bothered them, because they were nice people. When I went away to university I was subjected to priveleged white liberal ideology that told me that because I was white that it was my inherent white privelege that was responsible for black rage. I always wished those liberal professors and rich kids would try living in east flatbush for a few months and see if their views would change.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Joe.

      It still dumbfounds me that the white flight in Canarsie and several other neighborhoods contributed to the Reagan Revolution. Liberals tend to focus on ideal states (equality for all, for example), but it’s hard to hold on to those ideals when they have consequences that directly affect you – a predicament the liberal professors and rich kids didn’t have to experience, as you noted.

      If you haven’t read Canarsie, I recommend it. I’m sure it will ring especially true for you.

      Keith

    • Dee says:

      ” But the basis of the animosity was fear of being robbed, beaten or raped….” Because all people of color do this? Those people had those sort of irrational fears because of the stereotypes they have of people of color, it was not based in truth.

      Also, you speak of the “law abiding black family” in your neighborhood like this was completely outside the norm. My family was the 2nd black family to move onto my block and I have been living in Canarsie, abiding the laws and all, for about 15 years and I’m glad to report that the neigborhood hasn’t gone down the drain yet. Thanks.

      • Joe L says:

        Hi Dee,

        Thanks for your reply. I have been out of Brooklyn since 1977. When I was growing up my parents and my teachers taught me that there are good and bad in all groups of people. I was not taught to hate.

        My experience in Brooklyn, and the fear of crime, was based on real experiences. On a regular basis, going to Meyer Levin JHS, I was approached by Black kids, older, bigger and or in groups, asking “you got a nickel?”, When I replied “no” the common refrain was “All I find I keep?”. THis was a normal experience for hite kids in my neighborhood.

        I was threatened with knifes and robbed by Black kids in the park on Ave D next to Nazereth HS. I was physicaly assaulted and almost robbed in Meyer Levin JHS during school hors but the incident was stopped by sceurity. I was also physically attacked (seriously harmed) and robbed on the railroad tracks behind my apartments. These are just a few of the incidents I can recall offhand of my short time in East Flatbush in the the 1970′s.

        So, while I do not deny that stereotyping exists, my story is based on real experience, and not mental fantasies.

        That being said, I have known many black people who are some of the finest, nicest people I have ever met or had the privilege of being friends with. I am happy that my parents and teachers taught me to see the forest through the trees, and I would never hold an entire race responsible for the actions of a few.

        The black family on my block E88th Street, were well-respected in my community. This statement is not a casual remark. They had a reputation as good people. Many of the white families in my neighborhood did not warrant this description or have as a good a reputation. I used the Black family as an example to show that social dynamics of racial relations in Canarsie in the 70′s, was NOT based on groundless stereotyping. It is interesting that you reached the opposite conclusion.

        I have been outside the USA for 20 years. Unfortunatly, based on reading the news, race relations in the USA seem worse today than when I was a kid. In my opinion, these divisions between people are, st least in part, artificially created and promoted by special interest groups that benefit from keeping people divided. I am not your enemy. I was just relating my experience.

        All the Best,
        Joe

    • andy says:

      I feel sorry for you that your so ignorant. You actually believe white women have to fear being raped by black men.People like you have instilled fear about black men since the days of slavery. What a waste of a life.

  5. Pingback: What’s in a Name? How The Brooklyn Neighborhoods Got Their Names | The Index

  6. Don Singer says:

    Born in Canarsie in 1935…..lived there until 1966…. Loved every minute there….especially the 40′s and 50′s…..

  7. dotty dee says:

    lived in canarsie 1940 thru 1970 was a great place it was the real country.

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