The Brooklyn Community That Grew Up on a Ridge over the Bay
By Marian Betancourt
Gilded Age tycoons sailed their yachts from Manhattan across the harbor to tie up along the Bay Ridge shore in Brooklyn. This unique part of our city has single-family homes on tree-lined streets with rolling lawns, parks for walking and biking along the shore, a golf course, and excellent restaurants. As a friend from Kansas noted, “It’s so Norman Rockwell.”
Although Rockwell was not yet on the scene, wealthy New Yorkers clearly recognized the value of a great landscape rising up from the shoreline. When the Crescent Hill Club, opened in 1884 with 2700 members, it became the largest social club in Brooklyn, and the Grand View Hotel was built at the water’s edge in 1886 for 1,000 paying guests to enjoy the view from the terraces. These are long gone, but many of the elegant early homes remain, giving an urban community a suburban feel.
The oldest house in Bay Ridge, built in 1847 on Shore Road and later moved around the corner of 95th Street, is a New York City landmark known as the Bennet/Farrell/Feldman house. The most beloved early house is the 1918 Gingerbread House, whose current owners patiently tolerate passersby taking photos. An early frame house on Harbor View Terrace gained fans as the home of television’s Blue Bloods police commissioner, played by Tom Selleck. Nearby Fort Hamilton High School is the alma mater of our Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
Bay Ridge is a community of about 80,000 residents along the coast of southwest Brooklyn, beginning from Owl’s Head park at 65th Street (originally Bliss Park after the family who owned that land) and runs to the foot of the Verrazano Bridge at 101 Street near the Fort Hamilton Army Base. The Belt Parkway, along with a popular bike path, runs along the water’s edge at the base of the ridge.
Shore Road along the top of the ridge is lined with benches facing the water for its entire length from 69th Street to 101th Street. You can sit and enjoy the view, talk with neighbors and friends, or read a book. You may even find a free used book in small shelf racks nearby and outside many stores, a sort of neighborhood circulating library. The Brooklyn Public Library also has a branch at either end of the community.
Lining the far side of Shore Road are private homes or apartment buildings limited to only six stories. The treelined streets behind Shore Road—Narrows Avenue, Colonial Road and Ridge Blvd–have one and two-family homes with driveways, garages, and backyards for most of their length. (The last tree census by the city’s Parks Department counted 9,569 trees in Bay Ridge.)
The American Veterans Memorial Pier, better known as the 69th Street Pier, is a popular fishing spot, and people come here every day with poles and canisters of bait. There are picnic tables and benches so you can bring a sandwich and a book and enjoy the salty air. It is worth going just to get a close-up view of ships on their way in or out of the port and close-up view of lower Manhattan. Before the Verrazano Narrows Bridge was built, a ferry to Staten Island made several daily runs a day from this pier. Now, the modern NYC Ferry stops here to take us to other parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
The nearby Narrows Botanical Garden, at the start of Shore Road, is maintained by volunteers as a place to enjoy a variety of plants and flowers while relaxing on the lawns or benches. At the other end of Shore Road, the 18-hole Dyker Beach Golf Course is shared with the adjoining community. And the Fort Hamilton Army Base, established during the Revolutionary War, shares its large outdoor swimming pool for a small membership fee.
Bay Ridge is the perfect small town with the advantages of a big city, so few residents leave, which may be why we have the city’s largest population of seniors (42,000). The Bay Ridge Center for Older Adults, which began in 1976 in the basement of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, recently broke ground for a large new facility just steps from the harbor. In addition to providing help with food, health care, technology, and transportation, seniors will enjoy modern exercise equipment and a “quiet room” with chairs specially designed to be easy to get into and out of.
When you sit on a bench on Shore Road and look at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the longest suspension bridge ever built when it opened in 1964, you can see that the curve in the bridge matches the curve in the earth beyond it. Cool! I am forever grateful to all the people who fought to save this community in 1959 when Robert Moses, the city’s infamous bridge and tunnel czar, planned to wipe out Bay Ridge with a twelve-lane throughway for the Bridge.
Marian Betancourt is the author of Heroes of New York Harbor and many other books and articles including several for this publication. She has lived in Bay Ridge for a very long time.