Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A River Walk Down Memory Lane

This morning I awoke thinking of Sheepshead Bay.

When I was growing up in this coastal area of southern Brooklyn, decades ago, it had the ambiance of a fishing village. This was long after the racetrack that first brought crowds to this area was demolished.

Walking east along the main commercial street, Emmons Avenue, you had the bay on your right. A small bridge over the bay (below) would take you to Manhattan Beach, through a neighborhood of stately mansions.

(Photo by Jim Henderson
courtesy of Wikipedia.)

There was a large fleet of fishing boats that went out before dawn and were back in the late afternoon with their catch, blowing their horns as they arrived so the housewives could hurry down and buy that night's supper. There were fishing boats for hire that, once three miles out, would open the liquor cabinets and turn into party boats.

On the other side of Emmons from the Bay were large homes that would be rented out for the summer, and groups of bungalows crammed together in an area separated by "courts" rather than streets. There were seafood restaurants of all sizes including the famous Lundy's, the less famous Randazzo's and the Kips comedy club where many now-famous people got their start.

Continuing east, past the bars where fights would send the wounded to my father the doctor to patch up, were the two big beach clubs, the Deauville and the Palms Shore. Here, you paid your dues and rented a cabana for the summer, bringing out your chairs to sit around the large pool to work on your tan or swim. The older ladies would sit under their beach umbrellas in their bright bathing suits and coverups, dripping with jewelry and bronzed, sagging skin.

Beyond was Plumb Beach, a dirty stretch of sand where you did not play because of the garbage strewn around. You never knew what you might step on. People would drive down here at night to make out, or "submarine race watching." Instead, if you didn't want to join the beach clubs or walk into Manhattan Beach, you would go west on Emmons to where it became Neptune Ave.,  under the elevated train tracks (where the track sign pointed you to "the city"), toward the beaches of  Brighton Beach and Coney Island.

North of Emmons Ave., you had to travel up Sheepshead Bay Rd., Ocean or Bedford or Nostrand avenues to get past the elevated Belt Parkway. Here, you had apartment buildings, schools, commercial shopping strips and rows of identical houses. This is the area where we lived, not on the water but close enough to walk over and enjoy it.

I woke up thinking of Sheepshead Bay because like other waterfront communities, what made it unique has disappeared.

The beach was rediscovered and cleaned up. It is now a destination for sunbathers and bird watchers who want to see endangered least terns and assorted shorebirds including the occasional rarity. That's a good thing.

(Plumb Beach now, courtesy of Wikipedia)
But the waterfront also drew profit-seeking developers. The old beach houses are gone. The diners where we ate are gone. The tiny summer bungalows have been winterized and people live there year around. Many of the small businesses were expanded or torn down for larger ones. The seafood places became chains or large restaurants. The big barn that was Lundy's was divided up to create two restaurants and an indoor mall.

You can still walk along the water near the small bridge to Manhattan Beach and there are still fishing boats, but there are fewer of them and the bait and tackle shops are mainly gone. LIke the party boats, the gambling boats wait until they have sailed out three miles before the real action starts.

The old beach clubs are gone. In their place are tall apartment buildings that block the view of the bay to anyone except those paying for "ocean views." Emmons Ave. is now crowded all year, not just when beach seekers from other New York City neighborhoods come off the Elevated to walk into Manhattan Beach over the foot bridge.

The same thing has happened elsewhere. Industrial areas that dumped their chemical byproducts into adjacent waterways are closing, many torn down to make way for waterfront parks to allow people access to the water again, even if that water is still slowly recovering from decades of pollution.

I can still walk along the Charles River, as I did when I went to college in Boston, but looking across to Cambridge and Charlestown you now see more huge "waterfront" apartments. On the Boston side, the removal of the elevated highway known as the Central Artery brought light to an area near the Boston Garden that I remember from my college days as being perpetually dark. Once down, however, huge apartment buildings and offices went up. This "development" has spread into the old North End, along the waterfront and down into less-scenic neighborhoods of Boston.

All because of those water views.

The first towns were built on rivers. Roads were slow going, if there were roads at all. Rivers moved you from one place to another and took your goods to market. New York City was founded on a natural port sheltered from the Atlantic, with a mighty river, the Hudson, that allowed for transport inland. Even where I live, far from the ocean, there are several rivers on which many towns were founded.

You wouldn't realize that now unless you were told. No one notices rivers. "Developments" are placed anywhere because they can get highway access. Forests are cut down. Old farms suddenly sprout "luxury townhouses" and multi-acre estates. All of them look alike.

After all that tearing down, it seems inevitable that anywhere with some water running through it would be seen as an attractive, "natural" alternative. The more built-up this world becomes, the more yearning there is to go back to a simpler time -- as long as you still have all the modern conveniences. If you are a developer, you can cash in on that.

You may not have a forest anymore but the river just keeps flowing along, at least for now.

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