Smelling the salty Sheepshead Bay air

My friend Michael, who had joined me on my trip to Brighton Beach, took me for a tour of his native Sheepshead Bay on Sunday. This time, he brought his 12-year-old twins along for the ride.

We also met up with his mother-in-law, Arlene, who has lived in the neighborhood for forty years; before that, she lived in Brighton Beach. She was very generous with her time, sharing stories and answering questions.

Often, when you take someone on a tour of your childhood home, you skew toward nostalgia. Michael successfully balanced interesting personal stories with points of general interest – not an easy feat. He shares some of his Sheepshead Bay memories here.

We began our walk from the Sheepshead Bay stop on the Q. We followed the meandering Sheepshead Bay Road, a remnant of the original Gravesend system. It winds its way through the grid. Under the Shore Parkway overpass, we found a long-dead pigeon.

Emmons Avenue has many enormous buildings, including Lundy’s (which in its heyday seated nearly 3,000) and the newer Loehmann’s building, built in the late 1990s. Some locals wanted a replica fishing village on the spot. Arlene thinks the discount retailer was the final nail in the old Sheepshead Bay.

It was a beautiful day to check out the waterfront. The Ocean Avenue Footbridge connects Sheepshead Bay with Manhattan Beach. The original bridge dates from 1880; Austin Corbin would shut it down frequently to keep out “undesirables” (recall he was anti-Semitic). Arlene remembered a few instances when the bridge had to be repaired due to storms.

We chose Pier 1 to explore. We were greeted with a warning to any sheepsheads remaining in the bay. (I told the kids how the English used to put human heads on pikes.)

We had heard a police boat in the distance; as we were walking away, it moored at Pier 1, so we went back to investigate. There was an unconscious man on the boat behind them, and they had been called to assist. As none of us likes to gawk, we left the police to do their job in peace.

Webers Court is a small pedestrian-only street on the waterfront, next to a remnant of the old Millionaire’s Row. At the water’s edge is a small junkyard.

When you think of an avenue, what comes to mind? Probably a four- or six-lane thoroughfare like Flatbush. Not here, though: Canda Avenue and Hitchings Avenue defy this interpretation.

The Sheepshead Bay Islamic Cultural Center is under construction on Voorhies Avenue. Even though it’s far from Ground Zero, at least one local political candidate is using it as a hammer to turn fear of Muslims into votes. Arlene, who lives a block away, says she and her neighbors are more concerned about its effects on parking.

In suburbia, you tend to see plenty of strip malls. Even more offensive: at the end of Brooklyn’s longest road, Bedford Avenue, is an Applebee’s.

Farther to the east are the Kings Bay Houses, a Mitchell-Lama complex. This page has some of the original brochures for the complex. My favorite is the one that exhorts the reader to “Live Modern!!!” – apparently, having a huge parking lot at your disposal fills this bill.

The Coney Island Wasterwater Treatment Plant was built after World War II to stem the flow of raw sewage into Sheepshead Bay and other local waters. It is an enormous structure, measuring two long blocks by three short blocks. Next to it are some ball fields. Michael said that, when he played, the tanks would sometimes boil over and the outfielders would have to run for their lives from the advancing froth.

The green fence that separates the sewage from the street is an art project called Wave Wall in Green. At various points the fence resembles waves, sails, and other nautical themes. According to Michael, many residents were aghast that the city would spend a dollar more than necessary to keep people out. Arlene confirmed his claim. (Not that you’d want to come near this place, anyway – the stench was overwhelming in spots.)

Burger King on Knapp Street closed in February. Michael said the Public Storage building next to it used to be a giant arcade. The back parking lot is now a makeshift dump.

Plumb Beach Channel separates Sheepshead Bay from Gerritsen Beach.

We walked back to Firemen’s Corner, the site of the 1978 Waldbaum’s fire. A Staples is now at the location; a memorial plaque hangs on the outside wall.

There are many large buildings on Ocean Avenue dating from the 1920s, when the city had a tax holiday for new residences.

We found some very nice houses of worship on Ocean Avenue.

The area just north of Shore Parkway was the last to be developed; Michael can remember when Dooley Street was unpaved and served as a sledding hill. Often, larger residences would be knocked down and replaced by two buildings. The architecture is a bit funky in spots.

We saw several open houses. Arlene said, “They might have been kicked out of their homes, or they might be moving to Florida – you can never be sure.”

It was time for a late lunch. After some debate (and a visit to a closed restaurant), we drove – when in Rome – to Il Fornetto on the Emmons Avenue waterfront, because one of the twins wanted to “see the swans”, which you can do from the dining-room window. A few cormorants supervised the action from some old pier-supports.

Arlene dropped us off at the Sheepshead Bay station, and I took a moment to check out the set-up of Sheepshead Bay Road. Right around the subway entrance are several chain stores – a contrast to the rest of my trip (the Applebee’s a notable exception). With that, after a full afternoon in the salty (and occasionally sewage-y) air, it was time to go home.

Here’s the map of our walk. Western and northern Sheepshead Bay will have to wait for another time.

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2 Responses to Smelling the salty Sheepshead Bay air

  1. Thanks for coming to the neighborhood. I’ve got to disagree with your assertion that Sheepshead Bay Road is dominated by “chain stores,” though. In fact, I think our neighborhood has pretty successfully staved off chains. We have no Starbucks, that’s for sure.

    On SB Rd, yes, there’s a 7/11, a Subway, and several major banks. But just about everything else is a mom and pop. A fact I’m rather proud of, despite the frequent calls for, yep, a freakin’ Starbucks.

    • Keith says:

      Hi Ned – thanks for stopping by, and for the wealth of information on your site.

      I was surprised and pleased at the few chains in Sheepshead Bay, which is why I was so struck by the large number right around the subway entrance, particularly the metroPCS / UPS Store / Baskin-Robbins / Dunkin Donuts block on the other side. As this was the last thing I saw on my visit it carried extra weight.

      You are right, though – “dominated” is not the right term. It was a comparative idea in my mind, but it fails without that internal frame of reference. Certainly a reminder that I need to think more about how my audience will read my entries.

      Michael had a good story about one of the mom-and-pops across the street from 7-11, which I hope he’ll share on his blog.


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