By Becky Bratu and Lillian Rizzo
To understand Brooklyn, you have to know its history, its neighborhoods, its people. And its Bedford Avenue.
The southern end of Brooklyn’s longest thoroughfare begins at a Sheepshead Bay pier and ends at Greenpoint’s 35-acre McCarren Park, which was once a public pool, then concert venue and now, once again, a pool-to-be. Bedford Avenue crosses through 10 neighborhoods and is 10.2 miles of houses, big and small, storefronts, churches, synagogues, schools, a college, playgrounds, restaurants and a housing development where Ebbets Field once stood.
The avenue traces its name to a 17th-century Dutch settlement near what is now Bedford-Stuyvesant. The Dutch were the first among colonial settlers in that area; they bought the woodlands from the Canarsie Indians and named the site Bedford. The area was used mostly for farming throughout the 18th century.
In 1869 Bed-Stuy was home to the Temple Israel, a synagogue located on Bedford and Lawrence avenues, according to the New York Historical Society. In 1905 the congregation had 600 members. When Jews began to leave the area, the building was demolished and the site has been used a municipal traffic court and then as a linoleum discount store. Temple Israel merged with another congregation, Beth Elohim, and reopened on Eastern Parkway near Flatbush Avenue.
By the turn of the 20th century, Brooklyn neighborhoods were getting their names from real estate developers and were made permanent once telephone companies named their exchanges after them. Neighborhoods along Bedford Avenue such as Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick and Bedford Stuyvesant were a part of this group. By the 1950s it was one of the few Brooklyn neighborhoods where blacks could buy houses. Heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson, musician Eubie Blake, and baseball legend Jackie Robinson lived in Bed-Stuy, as have rappers Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and Lil’ Kim.
Greenpoint, one of the few Brooklyn neighborhoods that kept its original name, was another Dutch purchase used for farming. After 1840, the neighborhood was a center for shipbuilding. The Polish community was already settled in Greenpoint by the late 1930s.
Long before Williamsburg was to become the social scene that is today, it was a rural settlement in the Dutch town of Boswijck (Bushwick). During the mid-1800s, the neighborhood was known as a playground of the rich, who visited beer gardens, clubs and fancy hotels. But Williamsburg began to change again after the Williamsburg Bridge was opened in 1903, and Eastern European immigrants began to leave the crowded Lower East Side to live in airy Brooklyn. Jewish immigrants fleeing the Nazis settled in Williamsburg in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and today the area hosts more than 20 separate Hasidic sects.
In Crown Heights, Bedford Avenue intersects with Eastern Parkway, the first six-lane parkway in the world and host of the annual Labor Day West Indian parade. The Dutch first settled this area in the 1600s, and African American slaves farmed it. The neighborhood was once known as Crow Hill, and some suggest the name was a reference to the original African settlement in the area. According to an 1873 Brooklyn Eagle story, the whites of the area called these settlers “crows.” The 20th century brought many changes to the neighborhood, including its name. Immigrants from the Caribbean began to settle here and by the mid-1940s the area had attracted a number of Lubavitch Hasidim whose world headquarters is at 770 Eastern Parkway.
Sheepshead Bay gets its name from a type of local fish. The area remained undiscovered by European colonists until the late 18th century. In the late 1800s, The Sheepshead Bay Race Track made this area a hot spot where wealthy New Yorkers ate steaks between races or gambled in local casinos. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, singer Carole King graduated from the neighborhood’s James Madison High School.
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A few bullet points about Bedford Avenue’s history:
The institution that became Brooklyn College was opened in 1910 in Manhattan as an extension of City College for Teachers. The Board of Higher Education authorized it to become a four-year institution called Brooklyn College in 1930, and in 1937 the present-day campus opened its doors on the site of the Flatbush Golf Course. President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid the cornerstone in 1936. It was Roosevelt’s New Deal Federal Emergency Public Works Administration that put people to work in constructing the college. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and violinist Itzhak Perlman taught here. In fall 2010, 16,912 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at the college.
Just diagonal to the college at 2939 Bedford Avenue is Midwood High School, opened in 1940. Midwood was also constructed and opened as a part of the WPA. Some of Midwood’s famous graduates include director Woody Allen and author Eric Segal.
In 1929 a portion of Bedford Avenue, from Fulton Street to Eastern Parkway, was known as Brooklyn’s automobile row. The street was filled with car dealerships such as Buick, Ford, and Chrysler. Of all the buildings that housed these dealerships, only the gothic Studebaker building is still standing on the corner of Sterling Place. In 2000 it
received landmark status. Traffic along automobile row became so hectic that in 1929 the police installed a traffic tower at Grant Square, the same tactic used on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to slow traffic.
From 1919 to 1933 it was illegal to sell, manufacture and transport in the United States, although that didn’t stop people from drinking. The Bedford Nest speakeasy was located at 1286 Bedford Avenue. It was the borough’s most popular speakeasy and was raided almost weekly. Brooklyn’s liquor came through rumrunners who operating along the south shore of the borough.
While Brooklyn was home to several baseball clubs by the mid-1800s, the Brooklyn Dodgers became the team of the borough in 1893 and stayed that way until they left for Los Angeles in October, 1957.
The home of the Brooklyn Dodgers was Ebbets Field, located on Bedford Avenue in Flatbush. Nicknamed “Dem Bums” the Dodgers won the National League championships in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953, but couldn’t make it past the New York Yankees in any of those World Series. In 1955 they finally won the World Series against the Yankees, bringing Brooklyn to a state of pandemonium.
Ebbets Field sat in one of the borough’s most diverse neighborhoods, and that diversity was mirrored on the field in 1947 when the Dodgers broke baseball’s color line with the arrival of the game’s first black player, Jackie Robison. The Dodgers’ owner, Walter O’Malley, was eager to leave cramped and aging Ebbets Field. But unable to convince the city – and its ultimate power, Robert Moses – to sell him the land cheaply for a new park in downtown Brooklyn, O’Malley took the club away, and broke Brooklyn’s heart.
Ebbets Field was demolished in 1960. And in 1962 the Ebbets Field apartment complex was built on the site.