Blogger One More Folded Sunset and photographer Larry Racioppo are working on a series of pieces on Brooklyn's Third Avenue. This is an excerpt from the first. In future posts, they'll be interviewing businesses owners, uncovering art, and continuing to find inspiration in the avenue's changing landscape.
I'm drawn to city borders. Not 'edge of town' divisions, but the ones inside the city limits, where infrastructure, for better or worse, creates some kind of boundary: a rail track, a highway, an elevated train line. They're city landmarks, hardly ever for their architectural merits, but as barriers, and bold font strikes on a map. Sometimes the route of a train line or highway creates a neighborhood, sometimes it hews to an older route, and sometimes it breaks the pattern of a long-established grid. Sometimes it divides communities forever. As I walk in the city, I often follow elevated train lines. Partly it's a question of light - the shadows of the slatted tracks falling on the sidewalk or a building in the late afternoon - and partly it's the sound of the train juddering overhead. And if you happen to be up there, the shift of the platform beneath your feet as the train arrives or departs brings the platform, the journey, the permanence of anything at all, into the slightest moment of doubt. And then life composes itself again. Right around the elevated lines, things moves more slowly. While Els in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn were dispensed with over half a century ago, in much of the city they're still the way of life. From a train car, a ride on the tracks offers unparalleled views of the urban landscape. I take the F or the D or the Q as much for the journey itself as for the shore at the end of the line: those views of sky and of rooftop, of ragged graffiti tags, of in-your-face encounters with cornices, upper-floor window drapes and every variety of store sign. I take the train to escape the moraine of over-hyped territories farther north. It's a relief. But I'd just as soon be down below, where life still accommodates knots of businesses resistant to rapid change. The floating garment murals of the J & R laundromat, the clinking cocktail glasses of the Starlite Lounge, the Couch Potato of New Utrecht. Miraculous survivors all, Julius Knipl would be reassured by all of them. And borders like these make for a kind of infrastructure demimonde, where time and place are blurred at the edges.
Away from the elevated subway lines, there are darker borders. Living close to Third Avenue, I dip into the sub-expressway stream regularly, especially in the nearby teens and twenties. And its waters are deep. There's an overlay of history here. A Lenape homeland is 'acquired' and farmed by Dutch & later other European settlers. The area witnesses the Battle of Brooklyn. Paths become roads, then avenues; horse-drawn street cars become trolleys. A grid fills in with housing and industry, and a succession of immigrants make their homes in the brick and frame rowhouses close to the bay. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Third is marked by the growth of the working waterfront and its attendant industries. The area is booming. By the early 1940's, Commissioner Robert Moses' Parkway arrives, and a by now flagging waterfront gets a shot in the arm from the production demands of World War II. After the war, the area's economy sags again. The Parkway has helped to usher in the Age of the Automobile; a flight from city to suburb ensues. It also leaves Third both physically & environmentally scarred. For those immigrants who come to the neighborhood post-war, steady, well-paid jobs are thinner on the ground, and like the rest of urban America, by the 60's and 70's the area falls victim to economic and social turbulence. After a period of slow, steady recovery at the end of the century, the waterfront becomes once again a speculatory landscape, ripe for 'repurposing,' and bigger, outside players are ready to make moves on the area. As a misguided realtor put it, blissfully unaware of a typographical Freudian slip, the area's "bourgeoning."
The avenue today is certainly softer than it used to be, and pictures of thirty years ago show as much. Its transition continues, and commercial rents and property prices are booming. Some of the older businesses are holding their ground, while others are closing or moving away. There are fewer auto shops today, and the sex shops - video parlors and strip clubs - are thinner on the ground. Industry City, once dubbed by the New York Times "the Soho of Sunset Park," promotes a re-invented neighborhood, replete with co-working 'creatives,' and 'artisans,' and catering to expensive tastes. An $18 cup of coffee and a $600 marble dog bowl are yours for the taking here. A developer-driven city plan for a sleek new BQX streetcar on Third is purported to help transit-starved lower-income residents, but many suspect other motives behind the apparent benevolence. Some residents and businesses are buoyed by the new wealth coming into the area, while others fiercely resist the forces of gentrification.
Even tamed from its harder-edged decades, Third's still got its own rich, particular presence, and the aging expressway's still formidable. Ever-cautious, I race across its lanes, but if the light's against me mid-way, I have to admit I don't much mind. I like the expressway's dank median, sometimes so much that I'll miss the white light and have to wait all over again. Look about: a bevy of trucks, an exterminator's van worked over in technicolor, a windscreen memorial to a lost driver. Look up: the girders do have a certain beauty, and the shade of green paint that coats them looks like oxidized copper. Still, I can't believe they're capable of holding up the traffic overhead. How does this hulk of iron & cement stay standing? By all objective standards I should hate the expressway, but that's not entirely the case. Against my better judgement it draws me in.
Much of the history of this area is well documented - its colonization, its Scandinavian heritage, its waterfront heyday, and the waves of colonists and immigrants - from Dutch through to Mexican & Central American - who have made this piece of Lenapehoking their home. But some of its history is vague in aspect. The first Dutch house in Brooklyn was sited where exactly? A nineteenth century streetcar stable partially survives a Moses demolition blitz, but fades into anonymity. Photographs record the demolition as it happens, but what of the photographer himself, who remains something of a cipher? We'll look at a short stretch of the avenue, between Prospect and 38th, and observe its passage through time. We'll see it through the shadows and the girders of expressway, and we'll walk with Whitman - "one of the few artists who could see past the infrastructure to the souls it carried" - for inspiration.
"When Commissioner Moses finds the surface of the earth too congested for one of his parkways, he lifts the road into the air and continues it on its way."-November 1, 1941, New York Times
At the opening ceremony for the Gowanus Parkway, the Times, effusive with praise, cast Moses as an Olympian, and in the process of planning and executing his parkway vision he certainly showed a Greek god's indifference to mere mortals. Residents along the parkway's southern path pleaded for an alternate path, taking it along Second Avenue instead, away from the commercial hub of Third, but Moses had little sympathy. He declared the area around Third "a slum," and suggested that using the existing structure of the elevated train line below 38th would be a money saver. For Third Avenue residents north of 38th there was no elevated line; the Fifth Avenue El traveled down Fifth from Flatbush, before it swung over to Third at 38th. In The Power Broker, Robert Caro's brilliant biography of Moses, Caro describes the effect the Parkway had on the Sunset Park community, but he pays less attention to the northern section of the Parkway route, and concentrates instead on the area from 38th to 63rd, defined as Sunset Park. The issue of neighborhood names arises here. The date by which Sunset Park (below 36th or 38th) became a neighborhood name & not just a park is hard to call, though some sources have cited it as the 1950's or '60's. By most accounts though, the area above 38th was still South Brooklyn in 1940. And before it was South Brooklyn, it was Gowanus. Today the stretch above 38th is one of those moniker no-man's-lands. Is it South Brooklyn (outdated by now?), Sunset Park, or the newer Greenwood Heights? Today the Sunset Park border begins anywhere from 16th south. (Perhaps the Parkway & the Prospect Expressway markers were influential here.) Neighborhood names, it seems, are fiercely guarded, and today they fall victim to realtor appropriation & hyperbole, and the backlash to same. They depend on standpoint - age, ethnicity, political persuasion, economic interest. Where you live though, is largely a consequence of when you arrived on the scene.
The Sunset Park Caro focused on in The Power Broker suffered more than its South Brooklyn neighbors when the Parkway was built, in that the parkway divided a substantial residential community, west of Third Avenue, from the rest of Sunset Park, but all along the avenue's path the effects were catastrophic. Extensive demolition took place around Hamilton Avenue, the northern point of the Parkway, and all along the east side of Third a more than one hundred foot slice of buildings was demolished. Over 1,300 families were displaced.
And through that shadow, down on the ten-lane surface road beneath the parkway, rumbles (from before dawn until after dark after the opening of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel flooded the area with freight traffic) regiments, brigades, divisions of huge tractor-trailer trucks, engines gunning and backfiring, horns blasting, brakes screeching, so that a tape recording of Third Avenue at midday could have been used as the soundtrack for a movie or of a George Patton tank column. And from above, from the parkway itself, came the continual surging, dull, surf-like roar, punctuated, of course, by more backfires and blasts and screeches, of the cars passing overhead. Once Third Avenue had been friendly. Now it was frightening.
The never bucolic Parkway became an Expressway in 1961, when it was widened, and redefined as an interstate. This was all part of an expansion, through Bay Ridge, to the yet-to be-completed Verrazano Bridge, with more demolition & displacement along the way. Whatever its name, the roadway has never been popular. A blight on the avenue, a danger to pedestrians and drivers alike, a source of noxious environmental damage. For decades it's served as a symbol of transit failure: its design outdated, its structure degraded, and its capacity to handle traffic woefully insufficient. It's synonymous with bleak traffic updates on 1010 WINS. For decades the community has demanded its replacement, and for a while a tunnel looked like a real possibility, but plans were ultimately shelved. 'Interim' repairs continue.
Color photos by Larry Racioppo, 1993. To read One More Folded Sunset’s complete post about the long history of Third Avenue, including more images from the Brooklyn Collection, click here, and stay tuned for more posts on Third Avenue.