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.
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.
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.
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.
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).