Prior to 1898, Brooklyn was a separate city, comprising the entirety of Kings County. Prior to 1894, Kings County was comprised of smaller towns, including Brooklyn, Flatbush, Flatlands, New Utrecht and Gravesend. Each has its own water supply, collected from local streams, reservoirs and wells. As the towns merged into Brooklyn and Brooklyn merged into New York City, those former sources were no longer needed. But there was one exception: Flatbush.
Paerdegat is the Dutch name for “horse gate,” a stream that originated to the south of the Flatbush settlement and flowed in a southeast direction towards Jamaica Bay. Today, the only surface remnant of this stream is Paerdegat Basin, an inlet of Jamaica Bay that reaches a mile inland with its head at Flatlands Avenue.
Town of Flatbush
Founded in 1651 by Dutch settlers, the town’s English name is a corruption of its Dutch description, Vlacke bos, meaning flat woods, or a wooded plain. On the 1842 map above, little has changed in Flatbush since its founding. The main north-south route through town was and still is, Flatbush Avenue which runs the length of Brooklyn. At the edge of town was Paerdegat Pond. Its thick forest setting served as an unofficial park for Flatbush residents and as site of pitched battles during the American Revolution.
In 1881, wells were constructed around Paerdegat Pond run by the Flatbush Water Company. In contrast to the highly rated Croton water that was consumed by Manhattanites, the Flatbush water was condemned by its users as too salty, hard, corrosive and with a high lime content.
ON the 1891 Bien atlas above, Flatbush is still an independent town, but the Brooklyn street grid is beginning to march across the wooded plains. Despite becoming part of Brooklyn in 1894 and New York City in 1898, the Flatbush Water Company maintained its monopoly in the former town turned neighborhood after signing a contact with the city. It was a lingering vestige of Flatbush’s past.
A street grid was laid out around the pumping station and gradually developed, but the pond remained untouched by urbanization, as seen on the 1909 map above. Outside of Prospect Park, it was the only remaining forest in Brooklyn. By 1913, Flatbush Water Works diluted its supply with that of Croton to make it more palatable but complaints persisted. The company’s 99-year lease with the city appeared ironclad, to the dismay of residents.
In 1941, local residents launched a lawsuit against the monopoly and on June 27, 1947 the 350,000 residents of Flatbush were finally released from the contract.
Three days later, Mayor William O’Dwyer and Brooklyn Borough President John Cashmore toasted the end of Flatbush Water Works at Brooklyn Borough Hall, raising glasses filled with “Ye Olde Flatbush Cocktail.” Speaking to a New York Times reporter, one resident remarked, “Flatbush Water is wonderful to drink but it’s kind of hard on the pipes.”
In the decade when the lawsuit was fought, developers looked at the site with promise. It was virgin land, and close to the Nostrand Avenue subway line. The alternative proposal was for a high school athletic field. The developers won and in 1949, the forest was cleared, the pond was buried, and construction of 59 apartment buildings began at the 30-acre site, called Vanderveer Estates, in memory of a local colonial landowning family.
Among its early residents was Barbra Streisand, who lived there while attending nearby Erasmus Hall High School. Like many developments built atop former streams, this one defies the grid with its own superblock and small loop roads within the property such as Farragut Road, Brooklyn Road and Victor Road.
For the next five decades, Vanderveer Estates became the byword for mismanagement as the promising development was plagued by violence and drug dealing. In 2006, it was renamed Flatbush Gardens, in the hope of distancing itself from Vanderveer’s seedy reputation.
A little bit of water
The only portion of the old forest that was reserved for parkland was a corner tract at Nostrand and Foster avenues, which opened in 1953 as Nostrand Playground. The water coming from the spray showers is the regular city water, free of the high salt content that brought the demise of Flatbush Water Works.
Nearly a mile to the east, Paerdegat Park also occupies the site of a former pumping station on the bank of Paerdegat Creek. A couple of blocks from this park 703 East 38th Street is diagonally placed, following property lines set by the now-buried stream. The stream emerges to the surface at Flatlands Avenue near Ralph Avenue as an inlet of Jamaica Bay.