This post is by Harley Nemzer, a reader who grew up in southeastern Brooklyn in the 1950s and 1960s. I asked him to put together a piece after he added some information to my research on the Jamaica Bay Project, and I’m thrilled that he was willing to oblige.
In July 1958 we moved to East 57th Street between Farragut and Foster Avenues; a one-block mostly dirt street with a junkyard at one end, and the Glenwood Projects at the other. The junkyards were allowed to spill into the adjacent streets back then; old worn-out cars carefully parked at what would be curbs. We were east of the old Bedford (later Paerdagat) Creek which placed us in Canarsie. Canarsie Road ran east of us. After the creek was filled in the 1920′s people commonly considered Ralph Avenue the border. So today this bit of land is not considered East Flatbush, Canarsie or Flatlands.
The LIRR Bay Ridge Line ran right behind the junkyards; very handy for putting coins on the tracks for the freight trains to crush and to watch a huge electro magnet pick up old hulks dropping them into a compactor that made them into small cubes.
But this was not virgin land below our house. The area was low-lying swampland and Bedford/Paerdegat Creek ran nearby. The area was expensive to develop, so the city got
the ball rolling when it completed Glenwood Houses in 1947 over the old creek and marshes. Many houses were moved to East 53rd Street.
Our houses were surrounded by small frame houses, and the occasional brick, all “below grade” owned by proud Italians with grape arbors, fig trees and tomato plants. This civilization would not last very long as we noted these huge cement towers going up on 58th Street. What the heck were they? Manhole covers in the sky to accept the new elevation that would bring the area to about 5 feet above sea level.
It was great playing in the old musty houses and the brand new cement-smell houses that replaced them.
If you follow the course of Bedford Creek to Nostrand Avenue on an old map, and compare to Google Earth, you will find many city parks and housing developments. Flatbush Water Works was located at the creek’s terminus near Nostrand. Its notorious flavor was well known.
Paerdegat Creek was turned into a basin in the early 1920′s with its new terminus (Department of Sewers Building) at Flatlands Avenue as part of the grand plan to turn Jamaica Bay into a huge port. The bay bottom was dredged and Canarsie Pier built. This was the beginning of the end for the bay: disturbing the bottom, with sewage and chemicals poisoning shellfish. And the creek was just one of many that emptied into Jamaica Bay.
Cities often treat waterways as convenient places to rid themselves of offensive things. Beckers Aniline & Chemical Works, East 83rd Street and Ditmas Avenue, was built in 1916 and was closed in 1922; the property was acquired by Brooklyn Union Gas Company. The former main office building of Beckers Aniline is still used today by KeySpan (now National Grid), the energy company that acquired Brooklyn Union Gas.
The dye effluent was carried by a sewer line that emptied into Paerdegat Basin, contributing pollution that eventually caused Jamaica Bay to be closed for swimming and oyster gathering after January 1, 1920. This eliminated the oyster business, which had supplied 300,000 bushels of oysters yearly. We caught and ate mussels and fluke in the early 1960s with no ill effect that I know of!
The marshlands near these creeks were filled with sanitary landfill, coal ash and quite a few bodies from the Murder Incorporated days.
In 1904, the Brooklyn Ash Removal Co. received the New York City contract for ash removal, and used this coal ash as well as the ash produced from their on-site incineration of dry garbage to fill in marshlands near Jamaica Bay. They built railways to deliver to horse drawn carts for delivery. Steam pile drivers were used to stabilize the land for foundations, but not sidewalks or streets. To this day you can see areas with undulating sidewalks as they settled into the fill.
I left in 1975 when I made enough money to rent the upstairs of a 1908 house in Homecrest (Sheepshead Bay, Town of Gravesend). My parents moved in 1979 for Florida.
I’ve lived in Wantagh since 1981, and yes, I occasionally go back. I used to work in field sales with a company car so it was very easy to visit the places Keith now writes about. Of course, this was before cell phones!