Walkabout: Trashing Atlantic Avenue, Part 1

Atlantic Avenue at 4th Ave. El construction. 1907. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

(Railroad crossing at Atlantic and Bedford Avenues, 1905. Photo: New York Public Library)

Atlantic Avenue is one of Brooklyn’s great thoroughfares, today stretching from the East River waterfront to Jamaica, Queens. It is Brooklyn’s only east-west truck route, and serves a vital purpose in getting goods and people from Long Island to the East River and beyond. Like much of Brooklyn, its origins lie with Dutch settlement, and in fact it began as a private road, ending at Ralph Patchen’s farm on the East River, in the early 1700s.

As Brooklyn grew, that road became District Street, the southernmost boundary of the Village of Brooklyn, which was incorporated in 1816. That’s certainly hard to imagine now, and it didn’t take long for that to be obsolete. By 1855, as the street grid developed, District Street became Atlantic Street, running parallel to Pacific Street next door. In the 1870’s the street, already a busy thoroughfare, became an Avenue, running all the way to Nassau County.

The section of the Avenue closest to the river became a busy industrial and commercial hub, with maritime businesses and warehouses mixing with shops, small businesses, tenements and social gathering places like the Brooklyn Athenaeum. Later, Atlantic Avenue became home and businesses for a large Arab community. Further down, the Times Plaza area became a transportation hub, with the Brooklyn and Long Island Railroad, then the trolleys and the El service, which later became the large Atlantic Avenue subway nexus. But after you cross Flatbush Avenue, then what? This would be the question asked, literally, for over one hundred years.

In March of 1912, the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide, the weekly magazine chronicling the building, selling and general real estate goings on in New York City, penned an article about Atlantic Avenue. In addition to listing real estate sales, mortgages, building permits, conveyances, and the like, the Guide was also a gossipy trade magazine which noted trends in the building industry, as well as took note of how the city was developing. Architects and builders could submit their projects, real estate agents their sales, and of course, advertisers hawked their wares. The magazine also looked at what was going on in the larger city, and development in general, often coming up with great insight as to how the city would look in the future.

It was also a mirror of the times, reflecting current social mores, with a casual racism, ethnic, and economic bias that often is quite disturbing when one considers that their editorializing was simply accepted, and in fact, was a barometer of the feelings of the general society, especially those in the business of building a profitable city. But that’s a whole other side story, because this one is about Atlantic Avenue, and as far as the Guide was concerned, the fate of Atlantic Avenue in 1912 was in the hands of the Long Island Railroad.

In 1912, many things were coming together on Atlantic Avenue. At this time there was no central Metropolitan Transit Authority. The transit system was a mixture of different independent companies, each with its own trains, tracks, and trolleys. They all wanted to have profitable and convenient routes, and were always seeking to expand their territories. That year, the Nassau Electric Railroad Company, as subsidiary of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, petitioned the Board of Estimate and Apportionment for permission to construct maintain and operate a double track surface railway along Atlantic Avenue, from Fifth Avenue, downtown, to Shepherd Avenue in East New York. The same day, the Coney Island and Brooklyn Railroad Company petitioned the same board for permission to build and operate a branch of its road through Atlantic Avenue from Franklin Avenue to Fourth Avenue, then along Fourth to Ninth Street, in South Brooklyn. This would have been a trolley line, connecting its already existing Franklin Avenue trolleys to the Flatbush station of the railroad, and further down, to the Ninth Street subway.

If the Nassau Electric Railroad got its way, it would be running its trolley up the middle of Atlantic Avenue, at least until it got to Bedford Avenue. There, it would run into the tracks of the Long Island Railroad at the open cut at Atlantic and Bedford, by the 23rd Regiment Armory, where the tracks come up out of the ground. In order to bypass this, the Nassau Railroad wanted to veer off to a side street, run east down that street until Howard Avenue, where the train went underground again, and then get back on Atlantic until the LIRR re-emerged at the East New York terminal.

To further complicate matters, the Long Island Railroad actually owned the middle of Atlantic Avenue, and wanted to run their own trolley down the street. They were granted this ownership of the center of Atlantic by an old land deed, an agreement struck between the old city of Brooklyn and the railroad. They actually laid their trolley tracks, but only had the right to the center of the street, and when they wanted to deviate from that center, like for their own open cut at Bedford, they needed to petition the city. And the city said no. That was why they were In cahoots with the independent Nassau Electric Railroad, because it would be able to do what they couldn’t. The rest of the deal, like using their tracks that were just sitting there, could be worked out later. The city once again, said no.

Now if this had gone through, it would have meant a tremendous change to the face of Atlantic Avenue and surrounding streets. During the 19th century, the LIRR had run its tracks along the surface of Atlantic Avenue, with the entire length of the way fenced in, except at street crossings, basically dividing Brooklyn, north from south. During this time, since they owned the center of the street, the Avenue remained undeveloped, the sidewalks unpaved and uncurbed. As the Guide said, “Here was an avenue more than one hundred feet wide and extending the length of Brooklyn, whose residential usefulness was largely nullified by railroad occupancy and use.”

The Pennsylvania Railroad Company bought the Long Island RR system in 1901, and one of the first things they did was to move the tracks up, elevating them from Bedford Avenue to Howard Avenue, opening the streets below up for development. Atlantic Avenue immediately became a busy commercial road, as crowded then as it is now. Everyone was happy. Except property owners. Now the problem wasn’t a fenced in train track, physically blocking one side of the street from the other. Now the problem was a loud, pollution spewing elevated train with ugly elevated tracks. Who wanted to develop there? As far as they were concerned, the railroad still was the ruination of Atlantic Avenue.

After the tracks were removed from the surface, the city paved the avenue with a new layer of asphalt, and laid and paved the sidewalks and curbs. It was hoped that this would spur a love for Atlantic Avenue, but it didn’t. As the 1912 Guide said, “The Avenue enhanced its fame only the extent of becoming a fine thoroughfare for automobiles; and it future structural character gives promise of being garages and factories.”

Next time: So what was the new Atlantic Avenue shaping up to be in 1912? Nothing but garages and factories, or was there more? And how does this impact us now? The conclusion, on Thursday.

Atlantic Avenue at 4th Ave. El construction. 1907. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

Elevated LIRR tracks, Atlantic at Alabama Ave. 1923. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

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