In the course of its development, the flaw in Brooklyn is that it has large parks such as Prospect Park and Marine Park, and in contrast large neighborhoods without sizable parks such as the ironically-named Borough Park and Midwood.
In an apparent attempt to correct the borough’s shortage of parks, starting with Robert Moses in the 1930s, waterfront parks were built throughout Brooklyn. Problem is that they were built together with highways, ribbons of traffic separating them from neighborhoods.
Once such example is Calvert Vaux Park, built on landfill at a point where Coney Island Creek flows into Gravesend Bay.
Where it is
The park is located on an 86-acre peninsula created on reclaimed land to the south of the Bath Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn. It is sandwiched between Coney Island Creek and Belt Parkway, along with Marine Basin Marina, Six Diamonds baseball fields, and a Home Depot built on a former bungalow community called White Sands. Brooklyn’s Canal Avenue is also located between the highway and creek. In the creek near the park is the rusting yellow submarine built by a local resident.
The peninsula at the mouth of Coney Island Creek was completed by the end of the 1960s, partially using debris from the construction of Verrazano Narrows Bridge. In the above Parks archival photo from 1968, a footbridge connects the undeveloped park to Dreier-Offerman Park. At the time, the landfill was marked on maps as an expansion of this park.
Similar to how the street grids of the boroughs were laid out decades before the streets became reality, the expansion of land into the city’s harbors was also envisioned decades in advance, with bulkhead and pierhead lines extending far beyond the natural shorelines. On the 1920 Belcher-Hyde atlas of Brooklyn, a grid of paper streets covers the landscape; Coney Island Creek is straightened with Canal Avenue lining its shores. The bulkhead line will later serve as the boundary for Calvert Vaux Park.
The architectural partner of Frederick Law Olmsted, Vaux’s creations include Central Park, Prospect Park, Morningside Park, and Fort Greene Park. The peninsula seems distant from his Victorian Gothic designs, but there is a personal connection. Calvert Vaux was last seen alive on November 19, 1898 taking a walk on the shoreline of Bath Beach. His son Calvert Bowyer Vaux lived in the neighborhood.
The elder Vaux was reported missing by day’s end with his body washing up the following day. A century after his mysterious death, the landfill portion of Dreier-Offerman Park was designated as a separate park and renamed after Vaux.
As readers may have noticed, I am a strong supporter of interpretative signs in parks that educate visitors about the natural and human history of the site and what makes it unique. In partnership with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, the sign facing the Coney Island Boat Basin describes the local wildlife: horseshoe crab, great egret, fiddler crab, and ribbed mussel. Many Parks signs are bilingual with the second language based on the neighborhood. This sign is subtitled in Russian.
Landfill Beyond Calvert Vaux
Some rivers meet the sea with deltas and others with undersea canyons that form beneath the rivers. The Hudson River flows too fast to form a delta, but alongside its exit into the ocean there are shoals that nearly reach the surface.
I’ve wondered whether the filling of Gravesend Bay was ever an option. Looking at the above 1959 nautical chart of Lower New York Bay, areas in darker blue are less than 20 feet in depth. The site of Calvert Vaux Park has not yet been constructed, I highlighted it in yellow. To the west of the Hudson’s mouth is the vast Orchard Shoal that is shallow enough to have two artificial islands on it. Hoffman and Swinburne islands, constructed in 1873 as quarantine stations and presently off-limits as nature preserves.
In contrast to Hong Kong and Singapore, which have greatly expanded their territories in the past century through land reclamation, in New York, efforts to reclaim more land ended in the 1980s with the failed Westway proposal in Manhattan. Concerns over loss of wildlife habitat, cost of the work, and climate change, will likely keep the city’s present shorelines as they are for the foreseeable future.
Holding back the Tides
Instead of expanding into the sea, the city is making plans to protect waterfront neighborhoods. In the renderings below, the Coney Island Creek Resiliency Study seeks to reduce the impact of a storm surge on Coney Island Creek using a barrier connecting Calvert Vaux Park to Coney Island Creek Park. This barrier would prevent 100-year storms such as Sandy from impacting the back side of Coney Island.
For now, the only resiliency element in the park is the Coney Island Boat Basin. Despite its name, it never became a marina. Instead, it is a habitat for wildlife with underwater wrecks and salt marsh serving as soft barriers along the shore. Most of the park was developed according to a 2007 design that includes six soccer fields, kayak launches, picnic areas, a central lawn, new restrooms, a bicycle path, new nature trails, amphitheater, playground, recreation center, and a pavilion.
Inside the park, drainage ditches collect rainwater and channel it to the creek, reducing the burden on sewers in a naturalistic manner.
For more on the history of the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, visit Joseph Ditta’s Gravesend Gazette.
In the News:
New York Times reports on the salt marsh at Pelham Bay Park as it relates to climate change.
DNAinfo reports on plans for the redesign of Astoria Park in Queens.