LOST STREETS OF GREENPOINT

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Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s northernmost community, settles along the junction of the East River and Newtown Creek north of Williamsburg. It has a — for Brooklyn — unusual alphabetized street name system. While Queens has quite a number of pockets of named streets in alphabetical order, Greenpoint can claim one of Brooklyn’s 4 entries in the genre, even though middle and southern Brooklyn has an alphabetized Avenue scheme. The other 3 are in Manhattan Beach (Amherst through Quentin) and Gerritsen Beach (Allen through Gotham and Abbey through Nova, with two sets of K-M streets, just to confuse).

 

Noble and Franklin Streets

After Greenpoint’s grid street system was laid out by Neziah Bliss, east-west cross streets were named simply, A through Q Streets from north to south. Greenpoint Avenue was a plank road that was bridged over Newtown Creek, entering the Queens township that gave the creek its name, but it later became National Street and later, ┬ásimply L Street.

The story goes that by the early 1850s Greenpoint residents were dissatisfied with the bland lettered street names, and thenceforth they acquired names. Interestingly there’s a pattern to those: the ones in the north, Ash, Box, Clay, DuPont — seem to honor the industry and manufacturing along Newtown Creek, though some historians believe Clay Street was named for Henry Clay, the “Great Compromiser” of the US Senate in the early to mid 1800s.

Further south, Huron, India and Java Streets hark to the shipyards found on the East River side, where vessels from the world over unloaded their cargoes. L became Lincoln in honor of the 16th President, while Milton and Noble honor Williamsburg political luminaries. There may have been many Oak trees in the area, while Quay (properly pronounced “key”) is a fancy word for “dock.” There had never been a “P” name, since P Street became Calyer for an early Greenpoint patriarch.

Many Greenpointers are aware of the old alphabet system and know something about where the alphabet street names come from. There are other sets of lost Greenpoint streets, though, that are not as prominently chronicled.

 

This 1886 map shows a number of dead-end streets… Dick, Ann, Bell, Pink, Blue, and Bay, along today’s Commercial Street between West Street and Manhattan Avenue.

 

By 1916, Bell, Pink and Blue are still on the map but notice that there are no buildings shown along them. Pink Street seems to have a building right on top of it. By then the other streets have disappeared from the map. I’d have to guess that these were “paper streets” on developers’ blueprints, but never actually built. Whatever rhyme or reason there was for these names would be hard to track down by now.

There’s one more road on this map that should be noted. Note the dotted line diagonal marked “Old Ravenswood and Williamsburgh Turnpike.” This was part of the turnpike constructed in the 1840s by developer Neziah Bliss between Greenpoint and western Queens, bridging Newtown Creek. Today’s Franklin Street, Manhattan Avenue and Vernon Boulevard were part of the old turnpike.

 

Moving forward to 1891, there are a number of dead-end streets on the map emanating from Paidge Avenue that dead-ended at the creek. In order they were Shawnet, Pequod, Ranton, Setauket, Brant and Duck west of Whale Creek, and Holland, Henry (likely an extension of North Henry without the “North”), Leyden, Halleck, and Emery.

 

OK, once again here’s a look at the 1916 atlas plate. All the streets west of Whale Creek are depicted, but weren’t paved at all and it’s again debatable whether they were built in the first place. Today, the areas between Commercial Street, Paidge Avenue, and Newtown Creek are largely given over to light manufacturing, water and gas tanks, and warehousing and any trace of any streets has been completely eliminated. As for those dead-ends east of Whale Creek, they disappear from maps quickly after 1900.

 

This 1949 Hagstrom still dutifully depicts these streets, but they seem to vanish for good from maps in the 1960s. As for their derivations, Setauket is a community in Suffolk County at Long Island Sound near Port Jeff; Pequod was Captain Ahab’s whaling ship in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or: The Whale (could Whale Creek and Pequod Street both have honored the work?) while Duck Street may have been named for Newtown Creek waterfowl.

 

A satellite view from Google showing the areas where the supposed streets were located. As mentioned, no current trace of them exists.

 

Formerly a major north-south Greenpoint thoroughfare, Oakland Street, which went from the Creek south to Driggs Avenue, was extended south and widened when the Pulaski Bridge was opened in 1954. It was renamed and given Boulevard status in 1964 for former local Democratic alderman Peter McGuinness, who was the first to call Greenpoint the “Garden Spot of the Universe.”

Peter J. McGuinness: My Hero [Miss Heather in The Gowanus Lounge]

 

Another of Greenpoint’s lost routes is Old Woodpoint Road, which zigged and zagged through the area before Neziah Bliss began to develop it. When the street grid was built, Woodpoint Road utterly vanished, though a small slice of it can be found further south in East Williamsburg at Bushwick and Maspeth Avenues. You can see it above as the jaggedy route in the upper section of the map.

 

I’ve mentioned Greenpoint’s lost streets, and now here’s a lost waterway. Whale Creek is a tributary of Newtown Creek that was straightjacketed into a ship canal during the peak of Greenpoint’s industrial era. It’s still there, but has been landfilled almost out of existence, and now extends to about were Paidge Avenue would be had it, too, not been truncated.

 

Today, the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, whose “digester eggs” are seen here from Monitor Street, now fills the area where Whale Creek formerly ran, as well as the street grid east of the canal as seen on the map. It was formerly known as the Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant, and the “eggs,” which process over a million gallons of sewage each day (I’m not afraid of the word) have become beloved local landmarks and tours are given regularly in them.

Make no mistake, though, the area gets pretty ripe — especially during the summer.

 

A casualty of the construction of the sewage treatment plant in the 1950s was Paidge Avenue, which was cut back to a dead end just east of Provost Street. However, in recent years…

 

… the Newtown Creek Nature Walk was amazingly constructed in an area where, as little as five years ago, you would not have even conceived of anything at all being open to the public. I’m speaking in general terms but there has been a complete alteration in the city’s attitude about what constitutes a proper area to let people in — especially the waterfront areas, which had always been zealously protected from the curious eyes of the public. The walk lines Newtown Creek and is eventually going to wind around Whale Creek as well as the sewage treatment plant.

Newtown Creek Nature Walk [pamphlet providing a detailed description of the nature walk and what will be opening before long]

12/17/12





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25 Responses to LOST STREETS OF GREENPOINT

  1. clark says:

    I notice in a lot of places with lettered streets they skip “I”. Perhaps it looks too much like 1? In a couple places I have been noticed O was skipped as well. In Anchorage where I live there is an I St. but no J. And O is used but not Q. When it was originally platted the streets east of A St. were called East B, East C, etc. but for a long time [or possibly from the beginning] those are named after other Alaska towns and places — Barrow, Cordova, Denali, Eagle, Fairbanks, Gambell, Hyder, Ingra, Juneau, Karluk, Latouche, Medfra, Nelchina, Orca. I always thought it would be cool to give the west side streets names, too.

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      Until the colonial era, the differentiation between I and J was not yet complete, and they were somewhat interchangeable in orthography. I think that was the case in Washington, DC.

      In later cases, when handwriting was more common in letters, envelopes etc. I think there was a desire to avoid the I or the J to avoid confusion.

      • Ken B. says:

        Sometimes, “I” Street, in Washington, D.C., is also written as “Eye” Street. It is an old practice that goes back to earlier times when handwritten envelopes could be easily misread.

      • Eric Jablow says:

        The street system in DC has no J, X, Y, or Z Streets. Following that in the NW quadrant, there are 22 streets with one-syllable names beginning with A, B, C, and so on. Two-syllable names follow those, and then 3-syllable names until one reaches the MD border.

    • Ryan says:

      In Brooklyn, there are no avenues E, G, or Q, though there is an Avenue I. Makes me wonder.

  2. James says:

    Good article – thanks for posting it. Most of those dead-end streets are part of the process by which the coastline of Brooklyn was extended with landfill: You can see these streets on a number of old maps: we have an 1872 Colton map that shows some of them: Dick, Ann, Bell and Pink are named. In that map, however, the streets Bell and Pink are shown to be still underwater… so the streets were planned, but the land had not yet been filled in. A lot of Brooklyn and Manhattan’s shoreline was built out this way: Piers would often be given a street name, and eventually the space between the piers would be build up with landfill: voila, new shoreline. All that had to be planned in advance, so it often showed up on the maps before the actual work was done.

  3. Jamie says:

    I noticed that the steetcar tracks on Manhattan avenue between Box and clay curved thru the curb into the builling on the south West side of Manhattan avenue. When I was working for DDC back in 1999-2000 we resurfaced Manhattan Avenue from Ash to Nassau and removed the double streetcar tracks that were below the existing pavement. The curved tracks between Box and Clay were found to be encased within the old Bluestone sidewalk that was under the present sidewalk on Manhattan Avenue, and probably still there today.

  4. John Spain says:

    This post is great! I wanted to ask though: when did you go to the nature walk? It’s been locked up every time I’ve gone recently. It feels almost as if they decided building it was a bad idea and Transmitter Park was meant to replace it conceptually.

  5. Phil Freedenberg says:

    Brooklyn also has an alphabetized street scheme in Manhattan Beach.

  6. Pete Jakab says:

    Since ancient times, no one has been able to agree on how to spell Newel Street. Above, the 1886 map say “Newell” but by 1891 its shortened to “Newel.” You see it both ways to this day, both on maps and in city records. The “Newel” camp hangs their hats on the belief that it is the counterpart of “Jewel” a couple of blocks over. But 1981 seems to have two L’s on the end of that name too. The “Newell” faction says its named after person…its an established Anglo surname. A newel, on the other hand, is the word for the main post in a staircase bannister. Why waste time on this esoteric and ultimately meaningless debate? Why not….?

    • Joe Pearce says:

      I grew up on Newell Street from 1943 to 1966, and my parents were there until 1981. In all that time, everyone spelled it with two Ls – as in Newell Street.

  7. Adey says:

    I live in Greenpoint and it took me a while to notice the Alphabet for street names, I think you may miss it because its not consistent with Greenpoint Ave and Calyer St throwing it off.

    Interesting other fact is that East London follows a similar, though reverse logic to the postcodes (zipcodes). E1 = Algate, E2 = Bethnal Green, E3 = Bow, E4 = Chingford… E17 = Walthamstow.

  8. John Dereszewski says:

    A terrific article, as usual. A few comments and recollections.

    While Oakland Street was, just prior to its remaning, the broard avenue we now know as McGuinness Blv., before that it was a narrow and very sleepy cobblestoned street; it was, in fact, the last residential street in Greenpoint with cobblestones. Its major misfortune was the fact that it ran all the way up to Newtown Creek at preciselty the point where the Pulaski Bridge would be built. Thus its transformation during the 50′s and early 60′s could not have been more dramatic – and traumatic.

    When I was very young, I remember seeing an old map that contained those one-block long streets that extended from Paidge Ave. to the creek. I then took a walk with my father to “discover” them, only to find an unbroken block of industrial uses. It was my first opportunity to learn that what you see on a map is not always true. (The same situation has long existed with Mussel Island, a small piece of land that once existed in Newtown Creek and was obliterated when that stream was canalized at the turn of the last century but has continued to appear on many more recently published maps.)

    One interesting fact about the last remaining remnant of Woodpoint Road, which existed as little more than an alley until its widening in the – I think – 1930′s, is that it turns toward the northeast even though the old road once ended its course in the northwest, near the intersection of the East River and Newtown Creek. The reason for this stems from the one time existence of Bushwick Creek, whose flood plain existed far inland and required Woodpoint Road to turn slightly east to avoid it.

    • Ken says:

      i read your comment with interest. I am wondering if the change from Oakland to Mcguiness was so drastic that it is a very different street. my grandfather lived at 417 Oakland and wondering if perhaps the building might still be there or was destoryed and doe the numbers from Oakland match up with Mcguiness numbers? Thanks for any help

      • Joe Pearce says:

        The change from Oakland Street to McGuinness Boulevard was quite drastic at the time. Oakland Street ran from Driggs Avenue to Newtown Creek, with houses (mostly three- to eight-family) on both sides of the street. To build the Pulaski Bridge and widen the street to make it a boulevard, all of the houses on the East side of Oakland Street from Driggs Avenue to Kent Street had to be demolished (this also included some houses on the various streets and avenues with which Oakland Street intersected). The slight turn at Greenpoint Avenue necessitated that, from that point on and up to Newtown Creek, the houses on the East side of Oakland Street remained standing and the houses from the West side of that street were then demolished. All of this meant that many hundreds, perhaps well over a thousand families had to leave their homes, and many chose that point to move out of Greenpoint completely so that we all lost a lot of friends, and in my case, a lot of schoolmates at PS126 (then situated where PS31 now stands). I think this started around 1951 and was in full swing by 1952. Isn’t it interesting that they could tear down about a mile of buildings, shore up the buildings they had been attached to, help relocate hundreds or even over a thousand families, completely tear up a cobblestone street that was perhaps 25 feet wide and replace it with a paved boulevard that is at least 60 feet wide and runs that same mile, build a quite long and wide bridge that runs from Jackson Avenue in Long Island City to at least four or five blocks into Greenpoint and spans Newtown Creek, and do this entire job in only about two years? Today it would take ten and with a 500% cost overrun! (Witness that last year they took over three months to simply repave Nassau Avenue, something which they had previously done in less than two weeks when I was a kid.) I cannot imagine they would have changed the addresses of the buildings left standing, as they continued to run from Driggs Avenue to Newtown Creek (although now on only one side of the street). If Oakland Street’s house numbers ran the same as Newell Street’s, that would mean that number 417 was on the West side of the street and, if it stood south of Greenpoint Avenue, was probably demolished. The next time I walk on McGuinness, I’ll check it out, but I’m fairly certain that there weren’t enough buildings between Driggs Avenue and Greenpoint Avenue to reach a number as high as 417, so it was almost certainly part of the north-of-Greenpoint Avenue demolition process. I do recall that for several years after the Pulaski was completed and the boulevard in full operation, there were several deaths on that boulevard due to traffic speeding off the bridge and with no streetlights in place, and that there were demonstrations until something was done about it – maybe the first indication that our little out-of-the-way-to-most-New Yorkers community was (unfortunately) losing its anonymity.

        Question in return: Someone mentioned (if I understood it correctly) that Oakland Street officially became McGuinness Boulevard and was termed a ‘boulevard’ only in 1964, but I’m pretty certain that it was so proclaimed back at or near the time the Pulaski Bridge was opened to traffic. I have a recollection of Pete McGuinness’s funeral procession moving down Newell Street (and practically every other street in Greenpoint) back in 1948 (his brother, Tom, lived directly across the street from me), and since he was so instrumental in getting the Pulaski Bridge built and in wanting to be able to connect the traffic from that bridge to the BQE by means of the reconstructed Oakland Street, I cannot believe it took 16 years from his death, or 10 years from the opening of that boulevard, to re-name it.

  9. Richard says:

    Such an amazing article. I’m trying to find out more about the history of Engert Avenue between Leonard and Eckford. Technically this is Greenpoint but many people call it Williamburg. Either way, there are many newish condos here now. Before the condos this area was mostly inhabited by low lying warehouse type buildings. I want to know what was here before the single story buildings. Were there every houses or apartment buildings in this area? We are immediately surrounded by town houses and apartment buildings so I have to imagine this whole area was residential at some point.

    If you know anything about this please do share.

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