For the past forty years southern Brooklyn has been a magnet for Russian-speaking immigrants, nicknamed Little Odessa for its waterfront. One feature of this coastline is Sheepshead Bay, mistakenly nicknamed “the canal” by some newcomers but in reality, named after a fish whose image appeared on the first hotel in the neighborhood.
Formerly a tidal strait that separated Coney Island from mainland Brooklyn, it was given a seawall shoreline in 1936, as seen in this photo from the NYPL Digital Collections.
As it was
Looking at the 1890 Elisha Robinson map of Brooklyn, I highlighted the path of the proposed Coney Island Canal, present-day crossings in red, and circled, the present-day heads of Coney Island Creek and Sheepshead Bay. What we know today as Sea Gate was called Norton’s Point. Brighton Beach was mostly a racetrack while Manhattan Beach comprised of seaside resorts operated by Long Island Railroad executive Austin Corbin.
While plans for a canal were debated, above is how Sheepshead Bay appeared in 1905, from the George Eastman House Collection. Extending far inland, it has wildly fluctuating tides that exposed plenty of land during low tide. The only crossing on the bay was and still today is, Ocean Avenue Footbridge.
The bridge has its origin in 1880, when Corbin built a footbridge to connect the mainland with his grand Manhattan Beach Hotel. At the time, Manhattan Beach was part of an island that also included the present-day neighborhoods of Coney Island, Sea Gate and Brighton Beach.
On the mainland side, the construction of Sheepshead Bay Racecourse brought gambling and lower-class hotels to the area. Seeking to preserve the elite atmosphere of Manhattan Beach, Corbin attempted to demolish the bridge in order to keep out Jews and other minorities. The Town of Gravesend argued that the privately-built bridge was a public highway. Corbin sent workers to demolish the bridge anyway and the town then had it rebuilt. In 1881, New York’s Commission of Highways ruled that the bridge was a public highway, and the Supreme Court issued an injunction against its demolition.
Since then, it has remained a charming and unchanged feature of Sheepshead Bay, even as the waterway was reduced to a bulkhead-lined inlet.
Bulkhead on the Bay
By the 1930s, plans had changed and instead, the section between Shell Road and West End Avenue was filled and covered by the Belt Parkway, while the remaining section of Sheepshead Bay was given a seawall shoreline as a Depression-period public works project.
Above is the southwest corner of Sheepshead Bay, which in 1986 was designated as Holocaust Memorial Park. Prior to 1936, the inlet extended further inland. In this photo is it looking east towards the Sheepshead Bay Piers and the Ocean Avenue Footbridge.
Above is the northwest corner of the bay with 1725 Emmons Avenue dominating the skyline. At the time, most residences along Sheepshead Bay were old Victorian structures with porches, dormer windows and plenty of yard space. 1725 Emmons was the first apartment building on the shoreline and would soon be followed by many more.
Sheepshead Bay today is as defining of its borough as the Brooklyn Bridge, Prospect Park, and Coney Island. On Emmons Avenue, it has numerous seafood restaurants overlooking the bay, a residential mix of bungalows and condos, a handful of yacht clubs, party and tour cruises and group fishing boats. On the opposite side, Shore Boulevard has a mile-long promenade extending from Holocaust Memorial Park to Kingsborough community College, passing by the mansions of Manhattan Beach.
When I have a question about the history of Sheepshead Bay and news in the neighborhood, my top online source is Sheepshead Bites, founded by Ned Berke. It is an excellent resource on this waterway.
Come bike with me
Next week, I will be away from my desk and may not be posting articles. Now that summer is upon us, in partnership with NYC Parks and the advocacy organization NYCH2O, I am planning a public bike tour along the course of Flushing Creek in July. The exact date will be announced shortly.
To reserve your spot on the bike tour, contact Matt Malina email@example.com
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