Why is 69-year-old William Regan Sr. so happy about this pitcher of water?
Perhaps “wistful” is a better word. This picture was taken for the Brooklyn Eagle in 1947 to mark the closure of the Flatbush Water Works Company. Mr. Regan was one of the few who enjoyed the salty, hard water that plagued Flatbush residents for decades – and ignited a six-year legal battle for the facility’s closure.
The original twelve wells of the Flatbush Water Works Company were built on Paerdegat Pond in 1881. At its height in the early 20th century, it would be a 24-hour operation with 62 wells. Its engineers took several precautions to protect the springs from being contaminated, but by 1913 the water had gotten so brackish that the company used city water to dilute its product. The high lime content, while not unhealthy per se, tasted bad and caused corrosion.
Other Brooklyn water sources were being closed in favor of supply from upstate, but the original owners had negotiated a 99-year monopoly with the Town of Flatbush. This agreement was transferred to Brooklyn in Flatbush’s 1894 annexation, and then to New York City in the consolidation of 1898. Quite simply, the city could not do anything until 1980 – or until the Water Works property was condemned.
The lease still had 39 years remaining when advocates filed a lawsuit seeking the latter route in 1941. Said one fed-up person: “Flatbush water is the worst water in the world. I’d recognize it in Timbuctoo.”
On June 27, 1947, the agreement (now owned by New York Water Services Corporation, thanks to a 1926 merger) was terminated by court order. 350,000 residents finally had access to pure water from the Catskills. Restaurants no longer had to worry about filmy residue on their pots and pans; teenage girls no longer had to take special measures with their hair before dates.
Victorious advocates joined political players for a ceremonial “valve-turning” at Borough Hall on June 30. Here, Mayor William O’Dwyer enjoys a sip of “Ye Olde Flatbush Cocktail”. Longtime Borough President John Cashmore looks on with amusement.
In 1950, the Water Works facility and part of a nearby park called Farragut Woods were razed and replaced with housing projects called Vanderveer Estates. This federally financed endeavor was horribly mismanaged, changing hands like a hot potato.
Vanderveer Estates was privatized in 2006 and changed its name to Flatbush Gardens. (Check out this swanky YouTube promo!) The new identity didn’t stop the complaints; tenants filed a lawsuit against the landlord earlier this year.
For more details on the Flatbush Water Works Company, check out Brooklyn’s East Flatbush by Brian Merlis (Israelowitz Publishing, 2009).
Special thanks to Ben at the Brooklyn Collection for letting me look through these photos. Cheers!