Past and Present: 4th Avenue Near 55th Street

4th Ave from 53rd St. composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

What a difference a century makes. Busy 4th Avenue is one of Brooklyn’s older thoroughfares, an important north-south conduit linking the old towns of New Utrecht and Brooklyn. As the city of Brooklyn developed, the modern neighborhoods of Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, Park Slope, Gowanus and Downtown Brooklyn all lay along its route. As each neighborhood developed in its own unique way, and in its own time, 4th Avenue developed as well, with a mixture of commercial, residential and civic buildings.

Today, many people think of 4th Avenue as either a street of modern high rise condos or run down stores and auto repair shops. Both may be part of 4th Avenue’s story, but most of the street’s buildings are neither new high rises nor auto shops. There are blocks and blocks of turn of the century flats buildings with stores, many of them quite fine buildings, as well as a great number of churches and municipal buildings such as a courthouse, public library, police and fire stations, and schools.

During the late 19th century, the street was lined with a smattering of row houses, as well as private free standing homes in wood and later bricks and stone. But it was still a busy street, nonetheless — then, as now, juggling both commercial and residential traffic. In 1880, the city wanted to pave 4th, which had recently been made wider, with Belgian block stone. The Brooklyn Eagle opined that it was a waste of time, as it was pretty much common knowledge that an elevated railroad was going to run along it soon, and besides, according to the paper, “at present its chief frequenters are funeral processions on their way to or from Green-Wood Cemetery.”

Edwin Litchfield, who owned much of Park Slope’s land down through Gowanus and the canal, which he built, wanted to have a 4th Avenue elevated train, but in spite of the heavy hitters who advocated for it, the line was never built. The elevated trains ran on 3rd and 5th avenues, instead. So 4th Avenue became a grand boulevard, especially as it ran through Sunset Park and into Bay Ridge. Between 1896 and 1900, the street was paved, sidewalks and electric lights installed, and a landscaped median strip was established.

The period postcard photo dates from between 1905 and 1907. The only recognizable structure in the photo is the Old Reformed Church, which no longer stands, but there are documented photographs of it, with an address -– the corner of 55th Street and 4th Avenue. The church was organized in 1840, an offshoot of the Dutch Reformed Church. Its first structure was a wooden church on the corner of 43rd and 3rd Avenue. In 1875 the church built a new building on 3rd and 52nd Street, and then, escaping the elevated train, moved to a new building again, this one here at 55th Street. In 1975, the Old Reformed Church merged with Bay Ridge United Presbyterian to form Bay Ridge United Church. The church was torn down and a series of low rise affordable apartment buildings was built in 1984.

As we can see from the photograph, the rest of 4th at 55th was taken up by storefront flats buildings and a wood framed private house on the left side of the picture. The storefront buildings are still here, but the wood framed house is long gone. Children are playing and one can’t help but be impressed by the beauty of the median and 4th Avenue’s majestic tree-lined sidewalks. Like I said, what a difference a century makes — unfortunately, not for the better.

In 1915, the BMT trains began to roll underneath 4th Avenue. Their coming spelled the end of the avenue’s brief period of great beauty. The street was dug up to lay the tracks, destroying the trees and the landscaped roadway, as the grassy median became a paved expanse, dotted with ventilation grilles for the train line. The trees on the street today were planted long after the subway was dug, and don’t come close to the majesty and planning of the originals. Today, 4th Avenue is still a busy and important street. Hopefully it can once more be made to be a beautiful and attractive street. We shall see. GMAP

Fourth Avenue near 55th Street. Postcard from between 1905-1907

4th Avenue near 55th Street. Postcard from between 1905-1907

Photo: Googlemaps

Photo: Google Maps

Postcard dates from between 1905-1907.

Postcard dates from between 1905-1907

One Comment

  • Thanks for this, Montrose. It used to look grand indeed. Here’s hoping with traffic calming and new plantings it can be more tolerable again. Surely there’s a way to put planters in that still allow for ventilation?