Photo of the Week

Among the public beaches of Brooklyn, Plumb Beach is the least known, tucked behind the dunes on the eastbound Belt Parkway between exits 9 and 11. The beach was once an island, separated from mainland Brooklyn by Hog Creek.

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This week’s selected photo was taken by prolific city photographer Percy Loomis Sperr and found in the NYPL Digital Collections. It shows a footbridge connecting the mainland with Plumb Beach but the tide is low enough to render the bridge redundant. It led to an independent-spirited squatter community that was razed in the 1930s to make way for Belt Parkway.

Where was Hog Creek?

Depending on the mapmaker, bureaucrat or property owner, the community was also spelled as Plum Beach. Prior to the 1890s, it was just another nondescript sandbar at a point where Gerritsen Creek and Sheepshead Bay flow into Rockaway Inlet.

Its modern history begins in the 1890s, when the federal government took possession of it, intending to build a fort on this tip of land. Not a surprise considering that nearly every other point or cape in the metro region had a fort on it to deter a foreign invasion. But did Washington really think that the Germans or Spanish would send a navy to invade Jamaica Bay? It already had Fort Hancock at the tip of Sandy Hook to guard the leading maritime gateway to the city.

The fort was never built and instead Plumb Beach became a squatter colony accessible by a five cent ferry across the creek during high tide. A New York Times article on Plum Island in 1924 describes the rowboat operation as a “Toonerville Ferry,” the shortest in the city.

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Looking at the 1924 aerial survey from the DoITT NYCityMap, we see on the bottom the tip of Manhattan Beach. Emmons Avenue is highlighted, and at the top the neighborhood of Gerritsen Beach was being developed. The S-shaped inlet at the eastern tip of Emmons Avenue was Hog Creek. At best, the inlet was an ephemeral stream shaped by tides, storms and currents.

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In the 1929 aerial survey above, we see the sand of Plumb Beach fusing it to the mainland, so in that year the one-minute ferry operation probably was not needed. In the background across Plumb Beach Inlet is the completed Gerritsen Beach neighborhood and behind it the preserved wetlands of Marine Park.

Rent War

Having failed at building a fort on the island, Plumb Beach was leased in May 1907 by Secretary of War William Howard Taft to former judge Winfield S. Overton for five years. Overton charged squatters rent and used the federal property to conduct activities that were illegal anywhere else in New York, such as gambling and boxing matches. To evict those not paying rent, Overton persuaded a company of soldiers from nearby Fort Hamilton to “invade” and expel the squatters.

In light of the activities that Overton conducted the government broke its lease with Overton and appointed a new administrator for the island, former city alderman Frank Dotzler. The 95 squatter families then were divided into Dotzlerite and Overtonian factions, paying rent to either man. On May 17, 1909, the army staged its second “invasion” of Plumb Beach to quell illegal activities and preempt Overton’s return. The federal government transferred Plumb Beach to the city in 1924 with the intention of transforming it into a park.

Bridge Replaces Rowboat Ferry

In the early 1930s, the city attempted to fill in Hog Creek, transforming the Plumb Beach into a peninsula. On the morning of Dec. 3, 1933, three buses carrying Gerritsen Beach residents pulled up to the location of Hog Creek and in a coordinated effort, nearly 1,000 volunteers dug up the former streambed.

A resident of Plum Beach awoke to the sight of his home severed from the mainland. He telephoned local precinct commander Capt. Edward Walsh, who sent officers to Plum Beach. Gerritsen Beach residents argued that a promised dredging of Shellbank Creek never occurred and its stagnation was becoming a health hazard. The city’s Dock Commissioner John MacKenzie agreed with the protesters and gave them permission to dig, provided that they built a footbridge for Plum Island residents.

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The bridge looks like a matchstick sculpture, easily at the whims of the stormy sea behind it.

Moses Sweeps Away Squatters

The colorful settlement did not survive long after that. Between hurricanes and Robert Moses’ plans to build Belt Parkway, Plumb Beach was doomed. The last squatters were evicted by 1940. In 1974, the portion Plumb Beach facing Rockaway Inlet was restored to the federal government as part of Gateway National Recreation Area. The beach is open during daytime hours as a popular swimming, windsurfing and kiteboarding location.  It is also a popular place to observe horseshoe crabs, that ancient spider-crab hybrid creature from the age of the dinosaurs. Access to the beach is managed by the city’s Parks and Transportation departments.

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Because of its isolated location and proximity to a highway, it has for decades functioned as a lover’s lane for teenage couples and gay men. On October 8, 2006 one such man, Michael Sandy, 29, drove there for that reason and was killed in a hate-inspired attack.

Near-Return of Hog Creek

As my book points out in many examples, nature has a habit of retaking what has been hers. In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy battered the shoreline of Plumb Beach, creating a gap in the bike trail that follows Belt Parkway with waves lapping up against the roadway.

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The diagram above from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers shows how close the water got to the roadway and the solutions proposed to hold back the waves. So for now, Hog Creek will not be returning. Despite nature’s best attempts, Plumb Beach will remain a peninsula, not an island.

As the graphic above shows, the water is very shallow and during low tide, the land extends far from the highway. It gives an impression of what the world would look like if the sea level were to drop (more real estate for humans, that’s what) But instead, we are faced with storm surges and a rising sea level in a gradually warming world.

In the News:

Atlas Obscura has a photo essay on some of the most intriguing underground urban spaces around the world, including a few hidden urban streams.

Curbed contributor Nathan Kensinger writes about Alley Creek in eastern Queens. (really amazing photography)

It’s Official:

FMCP Route

On Sunday, July 17 at 10 a. m. I will be leading a bike tour in partnership with the advocacy group NYCH2O along the course of Flushing Creek from the Union Turnpike subway station to Mets-Willets Point. Details to come!

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