My book, Then & Now: Gravesend, Brooklyn (Arcadia Publishing, 2009; ISBN 9780738564692) offers a unique tour of the history of the neighborhood through postcards, photographs, prints, lantern slides, stereoscopic views, and maps. Get your copy today from the publisher, Amazon.com, or Barnes & Noble!
Images and text from the book also appear in Google’s very cool new — and free! — FIELD trip app, which links the locations to a map for a handy do-it-yourself tour.
- Interview with the author — “Gravesend: Southern Brooklyn’s Historic Capital” by Ned Berke of SheepsheadBites.com
- Preview at Google Books
- PDF of front and back covers: Gravesend.Then&Now
The following historical overview of Gravesend is adapted from the introduction to the book:
“Ultima Thule” was a region the ancients believed lay at the end of the Earth. In Roz Chast’s New Yorker cartoon with that title (published on October 14, 2002), a mother warns her daughter of the dangers lurking in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, New York outside their own. Heedless, the girl sets out to explore and steps off the planet. “I just wanted to see what was on the other side of McDonald Avenue!” she wails.
What Chast’s character probably did not know is that McDonald Avenue was once called Gravesend Avenue. If she had followed it to a point just south of Avenue U, she would have come to the heart of Gravesend, one of the first planned communities in America. She would not have recognized it as such. There are no historic signs to read, just the names on auto body shops under the elevated train tracks. It might seem like the gritty edge of the world today, but to its founder, Lady Moody, Gravesend was Utopia.
Deborah Moody (née Dunch, born about 1586 and died between August and November 1658) was the wealthy, freethinking widow of a baronet who left England when the Court of the Star Chamber ordered that she limit her time in London and stay on her Wiltshire estate. By 1639 she was in Puritan Massachusetts, where her dissenting belief that Scripture did not sanction infant baptism branded her “a dangerous woman.” Avoiding censure she moved in 1643 to New Netherland, where she petitioned the tolerant Dutch to grant her and some followers a spot on which to worship as they pleased.
A war raging against the Native Americans foiled the group’s immediate plans. After the hostilities, on December 19, 1645, Director-General Willem Kieft issued a patent for land on southwestern Long Island, an area that by mid century included five Dutch towns: Flatbush, Flatlands, New Utrecht, Bushwick, and Brooklyn. Kieft’s patent called this sixth, English town “GRAVESAND,” a combination of two similar sounding European places: ’s-Gravenzande, South Holland (which means “count’s beach” in Dutch) and Gravesend, England (which takes its name from words meaning “at the end of the grove”). Eventually spelled the English way, Gravesend’s seemingly morbid name had no connection to burials (despite the presence of New York City’s earliest cemetery within its borders).
Lady Moody’s fellow patentee, the surveyor James Hubbard, designed the town’s central plan: a 16-acre square bounded by present-day Village Road North, Village Road East, Village Road South, and Van Sicklen Street, and cut into quadrants by the intersection of Gravesend Neck Road and McDonald Avenue. In each quadrant 10 house lots bordered a common yard for holding livestock. A palisade enclosed the larger square and beyond it circled 40 long, wedge-shaped plantations. The pattern resembled a radiant cross and perhaps signified Lady Moody’s intent—that Gravesend “shine” like a beacon for seekers of religious freedom. Kieft’s patent ensured they could enjoy “liberty of Conscience…without molestation or disturbance from any magistrate or . . . ecclesiastical minister that may pretend jurisdiction over them.”
This idealism died with Lady Moody. Soon many Gravesenders moved on to other ventures. Families that stayed (with surnames like Stillwell and Lake) were joined by their Dutch neighbors (with surnames like Stryker and Voorhies) whose language, church, and customs prevailed as intermarriage blurred ethnic distinctions. That English Gravesend became increasingly Dutch is clear from the numerous Dutch-style farmhouses that once dotted Gravesend, their projecting eaves being characteristic of the form.
The British seized New Netherland in 1664 and renamed it New York. In 1683 they formed Kings County from the six towns on southwestern Long Island, but the six remained self-governing far into the 19th century. The town of Brooklyn incorporated as a city in 1834. Between 1854 and 1896 Brooklyn annexed each of its neighbors until its borders equaled Kings County’s. Gravesend became the 31st ward of the city of Brooklyn on May 3, 1894. Brooklyn, in turn, became a borough of New York City on January 1, 1898.
Gravesend was roughly triangular, its apex pointed north to Foster Avenue and East Seventeenth Street, its eastern side along Gerritsen’s Creek, its western side along Bay Parkway, and its base on the Atlantic Ocean. It covered much of the once marshy reaches of southern Brooklyn, including all or parts of the present neighborhoods of Homecrest, Sheepshead Bay, Plum(b) Beach, Gerritsen Beach, Marine Park, Madison, Midwood, Bensonhurst, Ulmer Park, and Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach, and Sea Gate on Coney Island.
Coney Island proved key to the (sub)urbanization of Gravesend, which had a total population of 898 in 1845. Between 1862 and 1879 five steam railroads opened through town to carry well-off New Yorkers on trips to the shore, where luxury hotels and nearby race tracks sprang up to house and amuse them. Later electrified and linked to downtown Brooklyn and Manhattan, the trains next shuttled thousands of working class immigrants to the area seeking spacious, modern homes outside the city’s aging tenements.
They found (and often built) their houses on a grid of numbered streets and alphabetical avenues mapped in 1874 in anticipation of Brooklyn’s absorption of Gravesend. Many streets existed only on paper until the 20th century. When opened, some old structures blocking their paths were shifted to new property lines, but demolition ruled the day. Gravesend’s current landscape of asphalt and brick was largely complete by 1929, and in the intervening decades, most traces of its rural history have disappeared.
Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (firstname.lastname@example.org)