Among the waterways of southern Brooklyn, Gerritsen Creek has the most naturalistic appearance, lacking the waterfront mansions of nearby Mill Basin and docks of Sheepshead Bay. It is a remnant of a much longer creek that had a tidal mill on it until 1935. At the time, there were discussions taking place on the redesign of the park. One of the designs was submitted to the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics design competition.
Charles Downing Lay‘s design for the park won the Silver Medal in the art exhibition, but as far as actual construction, it never materialized beyond the planning phase.
What we see here
In contrast to the slightly smaller Prospect Park, which has signature Olmstedian features such as winding trails, curvy shorelines and passive recreation, Lay’s plan for Marine Park appeared formal, symmetrical and oriented towards active sports. It would have reshaped the shoreline of southern Brooklyn beyond recognition by eliminating Plumb Beach, Gerritsen Inlet and Deadhorse Bay.
The realignment of the park’s streams is akin to its contemporaries Flushing Meadows, where two lakes were carved from a wetland; and Pelham Bay Park, which fused Hunter Island, Twin Islands and Rodman Neck into a large peninsula. Lay’s plan also resembled the Volksparks (People’s Parks) that were dominant in the Weimar and Nazi periods in Germany.
Perhaps it was the similarity of Lay’s Marine Park design to Volksparks such as Charlottenburg, Rehberge and Wuhlheide that resulted in a Silver Medal for the American entry in an Olympic venue that heavily favored the Germans.
Alternatives to the Olympic Design
The 1933 appointment of Robert Moses as Parks Commissioner spelled the end to Lay’s ambitions for Marine Park. Not only did Moses personally dislike Law, he also regarded the plan as prohibitively costly. In Lay’s place, Moses hired the duo Gilmore Clarke and Michael Rapuano to design an alternative plan. This pair is best known in the city for their design of Flushing Meadows.
Their initial plan favored a golf course in the park’s center, ringed by a meandering waterway. this stream would flow into a circular pool and a yacht harbor on Rockaway Inlet. Despite an infusion of federal funds for public works projects that could have realized this design, the money instead went to the construction of the Marine Parkway Bridge and Belt Parkway.
Clarke and Rapuano then submitted a more modest plan for Marine Park that essentially preserved Gerritsen Creek’s course south of Avenue U. The yacht basin in the design below is today’s Dead Horse Bay, the Plumb Beach section of the park is kept separate by Shellbank Creek, and the artificial islands inside Gerritsen Creek resemble what later became White Island. The plan appears more pastoral than urban, but it still required plenty of work.
Filling in the marshes
Looking north at the park’s western half in this rendering, the neighborhood of Gerritsen Beach would receive playgrounds, baseball fields and a huge lawn all formed using sand dredged from Rockaway Inlet. In reality, most of this reclaimed land became a wildlife preserve, with five baseball diamonds spaced apart, a model airplane field, playground, elementary school, and a skateboard park.
Looking south from this 1930 Fairchild Aerial survey, we see the portion of Gerritsen Creek north of Avenue U completely filled in. Further south, sand from Rockaway Inlet covers the park’s western side. On its eastern side was Mill Creek, which separated Barren Island from mainland Brooklyn. The extension of Flatbush Avenue to Floyd Bennett Field turned the island into a peninsula. What remained of this creek was filled in the 1950s with the golf course finally opening in 1963. To the east of Flatbush Avenue, the former creek was reshaped Mill Basin.
For more information on the history of Marine Park, I recommend Thomas J. Campanella‘s June 2013 article Playground of the Century: A Political and Design History of New York City’s Greatest Unbuilt Park; and Joseph Ditta’s article on the colonial mill that once stood in this park.
In the News: Brownstoner reviewed my book, highlighting five hidden Brooklyn waterways.
Tomorrow: I will be delivering a lecture on Manhattan’s hidden waterways at the NYPL Mid-Manhattan Library at 6:30 p. m. I hope to see you there. Signed books will be on hand.