On the stretch of Belt Parkway between exits 9 and 17, the scenic highway rings the shore of Jamaica Bay, crossing over six inlets of the bay. A century ago, these inlets were freshwater streams that originated further inland, each with its own history.
Among these streams is Fresh Creek, which separates the neighborhoods of Starrett City and Canarsie.
Where it Flows
Looking at an OASIS NYC map, Fresh Creek Basin takes a winding course that is almost entirely enveloped in parkland. The head of this basin is Flatlands Avenue, the southernmost street in Brooklyn that is not interrupted by streams. The depth of this creek is between five feet and 19 feet on average. Not having a single dock or boat launch, it serves as a wildlife preserve.
An ancient road, Flatlands Avenue is an extension of the Canarsie street grid, a 5.3-mile nearly straight line with a green median. Those early planning maps also had Seaview Avenue as its twin, running parallel to Flatlands Avenue. While Flatlands Avenue has a long route and history, Seaview Avenue was never completed, and comprises of segments in Canarsie, Starrett City, and East New York. Above is Seaview Avenue looking west from its dead-end at Fresh Creek. It looks like an empty boulevard designed for a heavier volume of traffic.
Looking south from the dead-end of Seaview Avenue is Belt Parkway crossing the mouth of Fresh Creek, with Jamaica Bay in the background. This bridge was completed in 2016 as part of a larger project to replace all bridges on the parkway between Fresh Creek and Plumb Beach Channel. The treeless hill on the left is a decommissioned landfill that is now parkland.
Looking upstream, on the left bank are the apartment towers of Starrett City and on the Canarsie side, a set of townhouses from 1989 with a waterfront promenade.
Frontier of Brooklyn
Looking at the late 1950s map from the Parks Commissioner’s office, Starrett City was a wasteland and Canarsie was mainly confined to the eight blocks between Rockaway Parkway and Ralph Avenue. Paerdegat Basin, Fresh Creek, Hendrix Creek, and Old Mill Creek all have ample land along their banks, comprised either of marshland or sand dunes.
The Seaport that Wasn’t
When traveling on the Belt Parkway it appears that the sights of Jamaica Bay are natural and not. Why is the Marine Parkway Bridge so high above water? Why is Paerdegat Basin as long and straight as a canal?
For the answer, one good source is Jamaica Bay a book on its history and ecology by Dan Hendrick.
On the left is a 1914 plan to straighten Fresh Creek and have it dredged to a depth of 18 feet as part of the seaport plan. While Paerdegat Creek on the west side of Canarsie was filled upstream of Flatlands Avenue and straightened into a basin, Fresh Creek kept its winding course. The international seaport serving the New York metropolitan region was instead built at Newark Bay, which is on the mainland and has more railroad and highway connections.
A map from 1898, the year of Brooklyn’s annexation by New York City, shows completed streets in yellow and paper streets in white. Vandalia Avenue is the southernmost extent of the grid as planners were unsure what would be done with the marshland along Jamaica Bay.
It’s crazy to imagine that in 1898, southeast Brooklyn had more public transportation options than the crowded Brooklyn of today. The Long Island Railroad’s Bay Ridge Branch had passenger service and what is today the L train had a 3-mile trolley shuttle that extended to Canarsie Pier.
Vanderveer’s Red Mill
Near the present-day head of the basin used to be a tidal gristmill dating to the late-17th century. The photo above is from 1895, by Eugene Armbruster, from the NYPL Digital Collections. Known as the Red Mill for the paint on its walls, it was built by Cornelius Janszen Van Der Veer and his son-in-law Daniel Polhemus. Formerly of Amsterdam, he immigrated to New Netherlands in 1659 and petitioned Governor Stuyvesant for land in what became Flatlands, Brooklyn. His property stretched as far west as today’s Brooklyn College and as far north as Bushwick, where there is a Vanderveer Street. The Flatlands property passed down to his descendants, whose last parcel was sold in 1906 and would become the site of Brooklyn College in the 1930s.
Almost every hidden stream in my book had its own gristmill. Above is an Armbruster photo of the mill from 1891, by then a ruin. The only remnant of the sizable Vanderveer estate in Canarsie is the nearby 1829 Charles Vanderveer House at Flatlands Avenue and East 107th Street. I doubt that the LPC would give it recognition as it hardly looks the way it did when its last Vanderveers moved out in 1926.
Covering the Creek
As the street grid crept closer to Fresh Creek, calls grew to have it covered. The creek that once marked the border between the towns of Flatlands and New Lots was dividing eastern Brooklyn.
In 1934, as seen in a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, plans were made to have it filled north of Flatlands Avenue. At the time, the creek’s furthest inland point was at Avenue D near present-day East 108th Street, nearto the L train tracks. Curiously, across the tracks there is the grid-defying one-block road called Bank Street. I didn’t see any financial institutions there, only warehouses. Perhaps this street preserves memory of the long-buried riverbank of Fresh Creek.
Looking at a 1910 survey of Fresh Creek from the NYC Department of Records, I highlighted some of the present-day streets around Fresh Creek. The streambed here was filled in the 1930s and remained empty until 1952, when the 1,595-unit Breukelen Houses and Breukelen Ballfields were completed, a 30-building mega-block of public housing.
Along the Course
On the winding course of Fresh Creek Basin, the stream appears timeless, if one ignores the apartment towers poking above the treetops. Like Central Park, this is a constructed landscape, completed in 1996 when it was officially designated as a preserve.
At Avenue K, a concrete culvert extends into the park with construction equipment and excavated rocks on top of it. Looking south, the stream narrows towards Belt Parkway.
Looking north towards Flatlands Avenue, the stream also narrows towards its head, the once-vast salt marsh constrained by development. As seen on the 1950s map from the Parks Commissioner’s office, the west bank of the creek did not see development until the 1960s. The marshland was filled and sewers were constructed to handle runoff from the streets.
In 2016, a $57 million sewer restoration project began at this site, designed to reduced storm water runoff going into Fresh Creek, and flooding on local streets. Expected to be finished by 2018, the project will also restore parts of the Fresh Creek preserve that is currently a construction staging area. The water quality of Fresh Creek Basin depends largely on how Canarsie residents treat their streets. Many of the sewers on these streets drain directly into the creek.
As with Fresh Creek, I hope to document the history of all streams that flow into Jamaica Bay. To date, you may read about:
- Bergen Basin
- Hawtree Creek (Forgotten-NY)
- Gerritsen Creek
- Paerdegat Creek (its source)
- Barbadoes Basin
In the News:
My book was mentioned in this week’s Queens Chronicle in an article on places to see along the Queens waterfront.
On July 23, I will be giving a bike tour of Flushing Creek with NYC_H2O. Reserve your place on the tour here.