While the other kids were out playing stickball, running in the street or causing various ruckuses in the age before Xbox, I was busy in my room doing a singular activity.
Perusing street maps.
I obtained my first full color street map of Brooklyn, a Hagstrom, at a Gertz department store in Jamaica, Queens in September 1968. My parents and I traveled all the way out there to purchase a “wall unit” for my father’s various tape recording equipment and collection of tapes, which had gotten quite voluminous. We must have taken the J train elevated all the way out to Parsons Boulevard (or the stop corresponding to it; that section of the Jamaica El was torn down in 1977-1978, and a new subway to Parsons Boulevard opened in 1989). That day, I remember the old man sending a steak back twice at lunch: he didn’t want any pink in the middle. (Today, gourmets and gourmands alike prefer steaks as rare as possible, but my father was adamant and me, I like just a bit of pink to make the steak chewable.)
Before getting that street map my interest in streets, their names, and street layouts had likely been sparked by the presence of a Geographia “little red book” listing the streets of Brooklyn alphabetically. A wealth of other information was included, such as cross streets and subway and bus lines. A small foldout black and white Brooklyn map was also tucked into the back of the book. Throughout the next two decades I collected as many Geographia and Hagstrom publications I could find in the metropolitan area; sent in corrections to Hagstrom, some of which made it into following editions; and interviewed for jobs at Hagstrom in 1981 and 1992, at their locations on West 33rd Street and on 54th Road in West Maspeth. I have kept 99% of the amassed map collection.
In the 1970s, I think, I embarked on a project that consisted of placing every street in NYC — about 9400 or so — in alphabetical order that would include all the boroughs, including every numbered street from 1st to 271st that would include all the various East, West, Bay, Brighton, Paerdigat, etc. streets in order, too. I printed them out in longhand. And I think I finished it! But somehow it got lost.
Way out on the Canarsie-Brownsville border, there was a street that intrigued me, running along railroad tracks from Farragut Road to Foster Avenue between East 102 and 105th Streets, that I saw on Geographia but not Hagstrom maps called Turnbull Avenue. It ran past the East 105th Street station, which used to be unique among all subway stations in NYC as it was accompanied by a grade crossing: a gate would come down when a train was approaching, and cars on East 105th had to stop till it went past.
Until 1973 this was the lone grade crossing in the NYC subway system, left over from the days when the Canarsie Line (today’s L train) was a steam railroad. The gates were hand-operated, and while there were a few more houses around, this was never a heavily populated area. You can see photos of its grade-crossing days on FNY’s Irresistible Lure of Canarsie page.
In 1974 I started bicycling obsessively all over southern Brooklyn. I found out much later that I had missed seeing this grade crossing by just one year. Since I was an idiot then, I didn’t carry any money with me and, one day when I got a flat tire, I had to hike all the way from Canarsie back to Bay Ridge, wheeling the bike, in lieu of getting the bicycle fixed. I did ride on the rim for stretches, but that was one heck of a walk on one of the hotter days of the summer.
Here is a 2020 excerpt from Google Maps of the Canarsie Line (L train) tracks at their southern end. I have marked where Turnbull Avenue used to run, alongside the tracks. East 105th Street used to run through between Foster Avenue and Farragut Road, but after 1973, dead ends were placed on either side of the tracks. The tracks still run at grade: but the street does not cross over them anymore.
This 1912 map shows Turnbull Avenue running on either side of the railroad tracks. The Canarsie Line once ran only between Atlantic Avenue and a Canarsie terminal at today’s Rockaway Parkway as a surface railroad pulled by steam engines. In 1906 the Canarsie was acquired by Brooklyn Rapid Transit and was extended from the Fulton El in an elevated section south to New Lots Avenue; south of that, it ran “at grade” or on street level, though it ran on electrical power from a third rail. From 1924-1932 it was extended in underground subway sections north and west into Manhattan as part of the reconstituted BMT, or Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit.
Moving forward to 1929, Turnbull Avenue remains mapped alongside the Canarsie tracks. On Belcher Hyde atlases, paved streets were shown in purple — thus, none of these streets were paved though we do see a couple of houses, represented by brick red and yellow boxes, popping up here and there inclusing a couple on Turnbull Avenue.
This 1949 Hagstrom shows the East 105th Street station but ignores Turnbull Avenue. Hagstroms were occasionally maddening in that they ignored existing streets, but showed entire neighborhoods of nonexistent ones, relying on official city maps that showed streets that were laid out but not yet constructed.
Note that all the cross streets are shown intact. It’s quite likely that none were built exactly as shown, since only East 105th and East 108th are through streets today (consult the above Google map from 2020).
The 1940 Municipal Archives shows three completed buildings on Turnbull Avenue. These three buildings must have faced the railroad tracks, and whoever lived there must have put up with some kind of racket from passing steam engines, later electrified subway cars.
Finally NYC Subway’s Canarsie Line page shows a wealth of images of the East 105th Street station when it was a gate crossing. Here, a 1912 vintage open air gate car on a fan trip crosses East 105th in 1956. The page emphasizes subway car styles for train buffs but also “inadvertently” provides some glimpses of Turnbull Avenue…
In 1956, Turnbull Avenue, still a dirt road, passes alongside the station.
Turnbull Avenue can be seen here in 1966, at left as a dirt road, as was East 105th Street in the foreground.
Why “Turnbull” Avenue? It remains a mystery; I looked on this 1890 Kings County map excerpt for property owners with that name, with no luck. I imagine someone in the area was named Turnbull, or perhaps it was whoever cleared out the space along the tracks for the dirt road. I’m not sure Turnbull Avenue was ever paved, and it must have disappeared after a large station house was constructed at East 105th after the street was interrupted to traffic in 1973.
Today, I don’t know if any Canarsie residents remember a Turnbull Avenue at all.