Canal Avenue, Brooklyn

Manhattan’s Canal Street is known worldwide, and recently I documented the history of Canal Street in the Bronx. Staten Island also has a Canal Street in its Stapleton neighborhood. The shortest of all the canal-named roads in New York City is the one-block Canal Avenue in a neighborhood historically known as White Sands. It connects Cropsey Avenue to a one-block segment of West 17th Street.

canal 1

The humble road is located between the traditional-looking Parkview Diner and a gas station. In the background is a parking lot for a Pathmark Stop & Shop supermarket. But where is the namesake canal?

The barely-there Canal Avenue of Brooklyn is located a few hundred feet to the north of Coney Island Creek, an inlet of the ocean that once separated Coney Island from the mainland of Brooklyn. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the state had plans to straighten the creek, transforming it into the Gravesend Ship Canal. Along the northern and southern banks of the reconstructed stream, Canal Avenue would follow.

hubbard 3

Above, the one-block section of Canal Avenue that as completed is circled. Along with the canal, basins for boats were proposed on the site of tributary streams and wetlands. One of them, the unbuilt Gravesend Basin, later became Coney Island Yard. As late as 1918, the state legislature still expressed its support for the canal. Below is an 1899 map of the proposed canal from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle archive.

canal 1899

By 1924, the year that the city commissioned its first aerial survey, the creek was still crooked and the section between Ocean Parkway and Emmons Avenue was mostly filled in. By 1951, the section between Ocean Parkway and McDonald Avenue was also filled and covered by Belt Parkway.

Yet Canal Avenue still remained on the planners’ maps as part of the overall grid imposed on Brooklyn. Across Cropsey Avenue, the White Sands enclave comprised of 68 homes, former summer bungalows and fishing shacks that became permanent residences over the decades. The community’s best-known resident was Jerry Bianco, who built a yellow submarine on Coney Island in 1971. Between 1993 and 1999, the mega retailer Home Depot purchased two-thirds of the properties in White Sands, transforming a neighborhood into a parking lot.

canal ave today

Sandwiched between Belt Parkway and Coney Island Creek, Canal Avenue is not exactly in Bensonhurst or Gravesend, nor is it part of Coney Island. Neighborhood purists can debate to which larger neighborhood the former White Sands and Canal Avenue belong.

canal 2

Looking south from the Belt Parkway service road, we see a short segment of West 17th Street that connects to Canal Avenue. In the background, the iconic Parachute Jump reminds us where we are.

Another Canal Avenue

I though I was finished with Canal Avenue but realized that nearly a mile to the west, near the border of the Coney Island and Sea Gate neighborhoods, there is another Canal Avenue!

west canal

Slightly longer at one and a half blocks, it connects with West 36th and West 37th Streets. On the planners’ maps, this other canal Avenue would have continued east along the Gravesend Ship Canal’s southern bank. In total, four blocks were laid out but were later truncated to one and a half after urban renewal projects transformed the bungalow-filled blocks of Coney Island into public-housing high rises. A 1951 aerial below shows Canal Avenue at its greatest extent, with present-day segments circled.

west canal 2

If I had to write a second edition on the streams of New York City, an entire chapter could be dedicated to streams that were planned but never completed, such as a Flushing to Jamaica Bay canal, and a Newtown Creek to Flushing Creek canal, among others. The Gravesend Ship Canal is just one example of the unbuilt infrastructure of New York.

Speaking of canals, the New York Daily News published a photo essay today on the cleanup of the Canal Saint Martin in Paris. Plenty of discarded bikes, along with various fish species were found.


12 thoughts on “Canal Avenue, Brooklyn

  1. Sean F January 13, 2016 / 6:21 pm

    Just discovered your site, through a mention on Very interesting articles. I can’t wait to read through all of your entries.

    This one, in particular, is of interest, since I live in the area. I drive along Canal Avenue and that bit of West 17th Street all the time, heading for the supermarket. However, the Pathmark is no more. It’s now a Stop and Shop.

    Bianco’s yellow submarine can still be seen in the waters nearby at low tide.

    It’s a bit of pity that Coney Island is no longer an actual island, though one can feel a change in the air when one crosses the bridges that cross Coney Island Creek on Cropsey or Stillwell.


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