Brooklynology is happy to present a guest blogger this week, historian John Manbeck. After 32 years teaching English at Kingsborough Community College and eight years as Brooklyn Borough Historian, Manbeck continued to write a column for The Brooklyn Daily Eagle for another eight years. He has authored/edited nine books on Brooklyn history and is now writing fiction.
Back in 1967, I was looking for a job. I had just returned from a two year grant as a Fulbright professor at Helsinki University in Finland and applied for a professorial position at Kingsborough Community College in Manhattan Beach. Community colleges were the latest development in the educational market and City University of New York was experimenting. The opening date was 1964 at an abandoned public school in Sheepshead Bay. About 300 brave students enrolled.
The master plan was to open on 64 acres of a de-commissioned Merchant Marine base at the eastern tip of Manhattan Beach. Since 1945, the base had resisted Robert Moses (who had wanted the land for a parking lot) and had housed the Air Reserve, Coast Guard and veterans. The city purchased it from the federal government for $1.
The Merchant Marine base as it appeared during World War II. Photo supplied by John Manbeck
When I walked through the gates, I felt I had walked onto a set for a Hollywood western. Sidewalks were wooden, buildings had been former barracks, and sand blew over the muddy roadways. Street signs heralded the names of naval heroes. The remains of the former Rainbow Bandshell, left from the Manhattan Beach Baths of the 1930—where big bands played, Danny Kaye got his start and Mayor LaGuardia held a war bond drive—wobbled as the wind blew through the superstructure.
Above, a brochure from the Manhattan Beach Baths, an earlier tenant of this plot of land. Below, images of how the decommissioned Merchant Marine base looked in 1967. Photos supplied by John Manbeck.
Nearby were the remains of a freighter built on sand where recruits had trained; on Jamaica Bay waterfront hung lifeboat davits. The former officers’ club, with a substantial oak bar, had been a dance hall before World War II interrupted the party. By the gate was a gun used on Liberty Ships and a brig, used as an art studio by the school. A flagpole donated to the Manhattan Beach Baths had been at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair was still flying the flag over Brooklyn’s most recent college.
Because of lack of space while new classrooms were being created, Kingsborough had two additional campuses: West End on Manhattan Beach’s West End Avenue, and Mid-Brooklyn in the Masonic Temple in Fort Greene. The college also had an amenity no other New York City college could claim: a private beach on the campus where life guard chairs and barbecue stoves were soon erected. Until the college, and the community college concept, gained wider recognition, classes were small: not more than 20 to a room where merchant mariners had studied.
A typical Manhattan Beach scene from the 1960s.
Initially the academic structure was designed around six divisions consisting of departments: Division 1 for Liberal Arts contained English, Languages, Art and Music, for instance. Students who attended were experimenting with higher education, had difficulty passing CUNY’s admission tests, or used the community college to build their academic grades so they could transfer to a top senior college.
Within the next five years, the campus began to take shape with the temporary buildings—former barracks—replaced by new construction with a library, theater, gymnasium with pool and marine center. The ancillary campuses closed—the Fort Greene site became home for the new Medgar Evers College—sending the Kingsborough students to Manhattan Beach and enrolling in the new academic programs now available, including the college’s own FM radio station, the first in New York City in 40 years.
Rendering of the Kingsborough Community College campus plan. Image supplied by John Manbeck.
Today, after six presidents, Kingsborough occupies an important role in City University and a trailblazing position among the nation’s community colleges. After 50 years of education, Brooklyn is proud of its only community college, Kingsborough.