By way of Canarsie

Now that you know how I got to Canarsie, let’s talk about my visit to the nabe itself. The first thing I learned about Canarsie: it’s big.

The nucleus of my tour was the area around the Canarsie–Rockaway Parkway station. This is the oldest section of the neighborhood; most everything farther south used to be marsh. Rockaway Parkway today is a bustling commercial district with an absurd number of buses (a good thing, except when there’s an argument holding up the one in front).

My first stop was the corner of Avenue J and Rockaway Parkway, which used to be center of a community called Colored Town in the mid-1800s. At the southwest corner is Canarsie Educational Campus. I couldn’t find anything acknowledging the site’s history, and neither the librarian at the nearby Canarsie branch of the Brooklyn Public Library nor the associate editor at the Canarsie Courier was familiar with it. A future area of research, perhaps?

Three churches from the 1800s remain: Grace Church (1840), now known as Church @ the Rock; Canarsie Reformed Church (1876); and Plymouth Congregational Church (1877). All three are within four blocks of each other, so they were easy hits.

Canarsie Cemetery opened in 1843. It has plenty of open space; an advertisement appealed to those plotting ahead.

The cemetery has mostly graves, with a few mausoleums. Crews were moving dirt to a new area. I spoke with one of the workers, David, who said the idea was to raise the level of the land significantly above the water-table. More graves and a large, common mausoleum will go in here.

Varkens Hook Road is unusual: it diagonally bisects a block! It is a remnant of a longer route on which pigs were driven and occasionally sold. (Varkens Hook means “pig market” in Dutch.) The surface remained unpaved until the 1980s. It reminded me of a street one might find in a beach-community. In the first picture, E 86 St is on the left, while Varkens Hook Road is on the right.

One of the more-unusual sights in Canarsie is the Log Cabin. Originally a popular ice-cream parlor, it now houses an office of Fillmore Real Estate, one of the first agencies to show properties to minority populations (under court order). As thanks, the building was firebombed several times in the early 1990s.

Lunch was back on Rockaway Parkway, at Pizza Villa, which purports to be oldest pizzeria in Canarsie (1951). It was fun to hear the pizza-makers joust with the high-schoolers looking for a bite, and to hear some unexpected old-timey talk (“Can I have a slice of pizza, mister?”). I had the chicken-caesar-salad panino.

Full, it was time for me to explore other areas. The B42 has to be one of the straightest (and shortest) routes in Brooklyn. It connects the Canarsie–Rockaway Parkway terminus with Canarsie Pier, using only Rockaway Parkway. I got off at one of the housing-projects I wanted to see, Bayview Houses. There was plenty of construction going on at the Shore Parkway.

When I can be flexible, I try to plan my visits for sunny days. This week, it didn’t quite work out. The view of Jamaica Bay was obscured, but there were still plenty of people enjoying the public space on the Pier. The most-popular activity was fishing. I checked with a few of the anglers; nothing was biting. I almost stepped on a dismembered fish. (Yes, I took a picture, but I’ll keep it to myself.)

Around the way, a group of guys played dominoes, while another pair flew a kite, which got lost in the clouds after a while. (If you look closely at the photo of the entrance above, you can see the kite close to the ground.) The kite-fliers blasted Bob Marley from their car.

I decided to hop on the B17, which runs along Seaview Avenue to Fresh Creek. On the way, I checked out some side-streets off of Rockaway Parkway. Nothing too exciting there.

Fresh Creek was calm. Across the way you can see Starrett City, which is still in the hat. I think the bird in the second picture is a double-crested cormorant, but maybe one of my bird-watcher friends can confirm that for me.

The layout of the east end of Canarsie looks exactly like Paerdegat’s on the west end: long blocks run west-east instead of north-south. These streets are called Flatlands 1 Street, Flatlands 2 Street, up to Flatlands 10 Street (with Avenues K-N thrown in for good measure). The area is about as suburban as you can get.

To save some time, I flagged down the B103. The waiting-area at Avenue M and E 105 St is serene.

I got off across the street from the Breukelen Houses. I walked around for a few minutes, but I had a sense that I shouldn’t take too many pictures, but not because of anything anyone did (in fact, one little girl said “hi” to me).

Actually, all around Canarsie, I got the feeling someone had an eye on me.

My final stop was the Vanderveer house, the house that used to have a mill. It’s at the corner of Flatlands Av and E 107 St (the original Fresh Creek now runs under E 107 St). I had my doubts that it was the original, but then I found this picture in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection from the early 1900s.

Canarsie is a huge place — far bigger than any one person could cover in a day. I feel like I short-changed certain areas (sorry, northwest corner!), but my hunch is I would have just seen more of suburbia. If I find I missed something important, I’m up for a return at some point.

Walking around Canarsie, even though I know it’s true, I found it hard to believe its complexion was almost totally white in the early 1970s. The cultural change the neighborhood has undergone in the 30+ years since Jon Rieder interviewed locals for his book would be a fascinating read. I’d be most interested to discover how the long-standing icons, such as the churches, adapted to the shift.

This entry was posted in Visit recaps and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to By way of Canarsie

  1. babend says:

    “Plot”ting ahead, eh? Unintentional pun?

  2. Linda Steinmuller says:

    Hi Keith: Thought you might like to know that Pizza Villa, which you state is Canarsie’s oldest pizzeria, actually closed a couple of months ago.

Leave a Reply