Chapter 3.2: Indians, Geology, and Transportation



List of Tables, Maps, Illustrations, and Figures


1. Symbolism, Self and Urban Environment
    Residential Succession: How "Losers" Win
    Negro Pioneers and White Flight
    Relative Selectability among Minority Invaders
    Symbolic History and Self
    Symbolic History: Modern and Ancient Foundations

2. Self Selection and Urban Decay
    The Social Character of the Manor

3. Woodland to City Neighborhood: 300 Years of Change
    Indians, Geology and Transportation
    Protecting the Community: Covenant and Zoning
    Increasing Community Parameters

4. Invasion and Succession

    Irish and Italian Catholics
    Veterans: Undesirable Heroes
    Blacks and the Special Problems of Nonwhite Invaders
    Back to City Brownstones: A Confused Invasion
    The Invasion Mentality

5. Micrological Aspects of Urban Problems
    Involuntary Change: Aging and Death
    Attidues of Heirs
    Apartment Houses: The Big Change
    The Life of a Tenant and a Building
    Understanding Intricate Urban Problems

6. Stigma and Self-Image in the Inner City
    Achievement and Residentia Movement
    The Moral Careers of Inner-City Residents
    The Community Paradigm
    Implications and Applications


Although the impact of families such as the Lefferts can be noticed on the maps of modern Brooklyn in the form of street names and historical landmarks, ordinary people's influences can only be discovered through investigation. Before the European, primarily Dutch settlement, others had lived on this western tip of Long Island. Various Original American tribes--like the Canarsie and Rockaway, who are offshoots of the Delaware and Algonquin peoples--had permanent and temporary homes here. They came from many miles away, at different times of year, to fish in the Hudson and East Rivers for salmon, or to collect oysters, scallops, clams and other varieties of the abundant sea life in and around New York Bay. The modern lack of respect for the natural environment has led to heavy pollution of New York waters and seafood delicacies now must be brought to the city from places many miles away.

Almost all of the Original American influence on Brooklyn has been forgotten, but one can still make tenuous connections between their habitation of the area and modern urban problems. Part of the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens area covers what once was the "Steenbakeray", or Stone Bakery Pond. Before Dutch settlement of Brooklyn, local tribes believed that the misty waters were inhabited by their spirits of the dead. It was to them sacred waters. When the Dutch took over they built the Bakery on the edge of the waters, and during subsequent years the pond and related marshlands were slowly drained and filled by farmers, and finally built upon. During the seventeenth century local farmers thought they had seen sea serpents swimming in the water and one reported seeing balls of fire hanging over the mysterious pond.

These ancient spirits, of course, have no influence today, but some mysterious occurrences are reported in homes near where once the pond existed. Houses that were built upon the drained and filled area are prone to have many problems. Houses creak and groan, windows move down and window shades roll up suddenly. This is not due to resident poltergeists, or Indian spirits, but the weight of the heavy stone structures resting upon soft, spongy substrata. The homes in that area continue to float and settle on the semi-solid ground. When the foundations slowly slip back and forth, strange things are bound to happen.

Historical decisions such as these, to fill and build upon marshlands, have definite influences on modern events. The effects include the damp, wet and leaking cellar floors and occasional sewer back-ups into basements because the local water table is high and rises even higher after heavy rainfalls. The streams that once ran into and out of the pond also continue to plague the present-day environment. There are no streams visible in Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens today, as in the rest of Brooklyn, but the streams are still there. Streams continue to run, although more diffusely than before urbanization, under the concrete and stone that was laid over them. This causes the undermining of sidewalks, streets and some house foundations. In addition, other problems are caused by the ground water that is simply forced through stone and brick walls into basements by stream-generated pressure. Topographically, the Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens community slopes from the north toward the south, so it is the northern basement walls that are the wettest.

If one were to write a chronicle of the "Lost Streams of Brooklyn", the records of the Department of Highways would be a valuable archive. The Department is called upon to repair damaged streets after heavy rainfalls. The rain increases the volume and velocity of the underground water, and the flow washes away gravel and other supporting material under pavement. The weight of traffic over the space, then, depresses the roadway, creating a clearly defined gully. An interview with an official of the City Water Department confirmed these speculations by noting that when the streets were hastily constructed in this part of the city, road crews did not provide conduits for existing streams but simply dammed them by building across their path. Sewers and storm drains were also not built in accordance with natural stream paths.

The streets and highways that were constructed in Brooklyn were the result of high level decisions that had important consequences for the Lefferts manor, and its environs. In particular, the laying out of the grid patterns for future streets in Brooklyn by city planners in 1835 were especially important. The grid anticipated the annexation of Flatbush and the real estate boom that was to follow. Street grids tended to spread traffic and to inhibit the concentration of industrial areas in the middle of the borough. Flatbush became for the most part a collection of primarily residential communities ' each with a somewhat distinct ethnic and social class character.

American city planners employed the grid pattern because it allowed for rapid expansion as urban population mushroomed. The cities grew so fast in the nineteen hundreds that more aesthetically pleasing formulas for urban design were not attempted. This is part of the reason why so many New World cities seem to be so similar in appearance, and why it is so difficult to get lost, even in cities where one has never been. The experience of living in one American city helps us to orient ourselves in another. The street numbering and lettering systems are part of this uniform urban transportation network.

The grid pattern, however, does not merely have physical results. There are social and psychological consequences of this kind of urban growth plan. Lewis Mumford states it this way:

The development of transportation caused the traffic avenue to become the dominant component in nineteenth-century design; the emphasis changed from facilities for settlement to facilities for movement. By means of the traffic avenue, often ruthlessly cutting through urban tissue that once had been organically related to neighborhood life, the city as a whole became more united perhaps; but at the cost of destroying, or at least seriously under-mining, neighborhood life. (1968:60-61)

Most of the "new" urban neighborhoods lost contact and continuity with the past. As they emerged from the grid iron, communities had to find more mechanical bases for solidarity, which were not offered by the organically organized urban world. They found that solidarity in homogeneous groupings by social class, ethnicity, religion, race and occupation. only in a few exceptional circumstances did accidents or designs allow older historical neighborhoods, forged by topography and historical events, to survive intact. People found it harder to get lost in the city and also more difficult to feel at home. Neighborhoods and neighborhood residents had to create their own uniqueness in order to stand out from potentially anonymous communities. The urban resident could more easily find himself on a map than within some meaningful organic whole. Aesthetically, the grid pattern, as noted by urban planning critic Jane Jacobs, led to monotonous, boring and generally unpleasing cityscapes.3 The uniform street system also bred uniform housing types which resulted in row upon row of the exact same house.

Besides the aesthetic pollution of Brooklyn's once charming woodlands and farms, the comprehensive transportation and development design facilitated the rapid urbanization of the Lefferts Manor and surrounding areas. Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens and Flatbush in effect were not really "urban" until the turn of the century. By 1930 they were completely citified, with high density housing and bustling shopping areas. Many people today remark at the rate of growth of suburbanization, and the more recent urbanization of the suburbs. They would not have been so surprised had they known that not too long ago many of the nation's inner city slums were also suburban communities.

Flatbush Avenue which runs north and south on the western edge of the Lefferts Manor led out of a fully developed City of Brooklyn in 1860, and cut through the rural and semi-rural countryside, connecting small towns and villages together in a comprehensive urban and suburban web. It functioned then in the same way that parkways and expressways tie modern suburbs to the metropolis. It was on these major routes, in the nineteenth century, that commuter transportation lines were built, first exclusively as surface and later as underground lines as well. As early as 1860 a horse-drawn trolley car traveled back and forth between the Town of Flatbush and the bustling port and mercantile centers of the City of Brooklyn. The transit company was privately owned and run. In 1896 the line was electrified, heralding the beginning of twentieth-century mass transportation innovations.

In addition, during the late 1800s a steam railroad with "diminutive engine and open, cross seated passenger cars" ran by the Manor on the way from Atlantic Avenue to the popular oceanside resort of Brighton Beach. Atlantic Avenue was then an important east-wide corridor which led to the farm-lands of western Long Island. The world famous Coney Island amusement park was built in 1897 adjacent to Brighton Beach and forever changed the character of that once exclusive resort area. Today, Brighton Beach is referred to as a sort of "poor man's Miami Beach"; in 1980 over half of its residents were sixty years of age or older.

It was not until the extension of major subway lines into the greater Flatbush area that the suburban to urban metamorphosis took place. In 1904 the construction of the Brighton Line was started. Eight years later, excavations for the Nostrand Avenue line were also begun. The two routes straddled the Lefferts Manor and Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens. Spurred on by the availability of rapid transit to Manhattan, as well as downtown Brooklyn, when the lines were opened in 1920, a building and population explosion took place in Flatbush. The travel time to Manhattan, for example, was reduced by thirty minutes and put workers within easy commuting distance with their jobs.

North of Flatbush, in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, the great "transportation revolution" had taken place several years earlier, and they were already bursting at the seams with excess population. The rapid build-up to the south of these neighborhoods was not uniform and did not result in the uniform distribution of dense urban neighborhoods as was true of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Some upper-middle-class, one-family, suburban-like communities, such as the Lefferts Manor, were left as idyllic enclaves of privilege in a vast collection of more ordinary urban neighborhoods. The phenomenal growth of Brooklyn is demonstrated in Table 4 and Figure 1, which show that it grew from 1,166,582 residents in 1900 to 2,560,401 in 1930. In essence, every ten years a city for 500,000 residents had been built. These figures also chart the growth and racial changes in Brooklyn, Flatbush and Prospect-Lefferts-Gardens.

Rapid transit made economically feasible the construction of large-scale apartment houses of fifty units or more in Flatbush because subways connecting the area to downtown jobs made apartments marketable. The concentration of population in turn fostered the growth of retailing industries in the area. Population densities and types of housing available varied, but with a certain regularity: near subway stations density was high, and apartment houses dominated the scene; further away the densities decreased, and single-family homes were in the majority. The Lefferts Manor was close by to both the Brighton and Nostrand subway lines, but its covenant which restricted the use of property to one-family, noncommercial uses, protected it from apartment house developers, real estate speculators and eventual oblivion. Regrettably, the elite community was surrounded by large imposing apartment houses which forever blocked out its suburban horizons. The Manor became a canyon of low-rise houses almost encircled by steep five- and six-story building walls.

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Notes to Chapter 3.2

3. Jacobs (1961:379-81).

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