Community History Notes
Co-Naming Eastern Parkway As Major Owens Parkway Will Better Reflect The Evolution Of Central Brooklyn's History
A. History of Eastern Parkway via NYC Parks
There are several histories of Eastern Parkway—see links below. A good summary is this description from NYC Parks found at
Eastern Parkway follows the course of Jamaica Pass, a low area or valley resting between terminal moraines left here by the Wisconsin Glacier over two million years ago. During the Revolutionary War, Jamaica Pass provided British troops with access to American forces in what is now Prospect Park. This unfortunately contributed to the defeat of the Continental Army during the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776.
Eastern Parkway, the world's first parkway, was conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1866. The term parkway was coined by these designers as a landscaped road built expressly for “pleasure-riding and driving” or scenic access to Prospect Park (also designed by Olmsted and Vaux). The parkway was constructed from Grand Army Plaza to Ralph Avenue (the boundary of Brooklyn) between 1870 and 1874. Olmsted and Vaux intended Eastern Parkway to be the Brooklyn nucleus of an interconnected park and parkway system for the New York area. The plan was never completed but their idea of bringing the countryside into the city influenced the construction of major parks and parkways in cities throughout the United States.
The original design called for a 55-foot wide carriage drive centered between two pedestrian malls with four rows of trees extending 2.2 miles. There were also side roads for delivery wagons. Adorned almost exclusively with American Elms, this landscape of over 1100 trees is now mixed with twenty-four other species. Varieties of maple, linden, oak, and ash trees were introduced to discourage the spread of infestations such as Dutch Elm Disease. Eastern Parkway Extension, which proceeds northeast to Bushwick Avenue, continues the landscape for another two miles.
Eastern Parkway divided two communities: Crow Hill (now Crown Heights) to the south and Weeksville, an African-American settlement to the north. As real estate developers erected sumptuous apartment buildings that attracted professionals and their families to the area, the parkway became known as "Doctor's Row."
A host of restrictions, starting before the turn of the century, protected the parkway and adjacent blocks. One regulation limited "Anoxious or offensive" industrial and commercial development ranging from slaughterhouses to tanning plants, railways to gas stations. Another required that planting in yards along the parkway be approved to preserve the integrity of the design.
Key additions in the development of the surrounding area include the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Grand Army Plaza (1892-1901), Brooklyn Public Library (1941), Brooklyn Botanic Garden (1910), and Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (now Brooklyn Museum, 1897-1924). (Congressman Owens was the Assistant Library Director at the Brooklyn Public Library's Grand Army Plaza Branch when he first arrived in New York City after his time in Atlanta and Europe.)
In 1915 the construction of the IRT subway resulted in the eradication of many original trees, pavement, and light fixtures. In the 1920s the parkway's townhouses and apartment buildings attracted Jews from the Lower East Side and Williamsburg and migrating African-Americans.
Two buildings of note are Turner Towers, at 135 Eastern Parkway (1928), which was Brooklyn's first residential high-rise, and the world center of the Lubavitcher Hasidim (a Jewish sect originating in Russia in the 1920s) at 770 Eastern Parkway (1940). (The late Congressman Owens resided in Turner Towers, with his wife Maria, from 1992 until his death in 2013.)
Eastern Parkway hosts many special events, including the springtime “Welcome Back to Brooklyn,” which celebrates the borough's famous sons and daughters, and the early September Caribbean Day Parade. Community members along Eastern Parkway celebrated a remarkable milestone in August 1978. At that time, the United States Secretary of the Interior designated Eastern Parkway a National Scenic Landmark in order to preserve the legacy of the world's first parkway. (In September, 1973, Eastern Parkway hosted the "Major Owens Day Parade," which celebrated the late Congressman's work leading New York City's anti-poverty programs under the Community Development Agency.)
B. Eastern Parkway as a tool of cultural dominance by the rich
In 1994, Joshua Lupkin published “The search for an urban middle landscape: Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway, 1867-1930.” It is Available at Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection (388.411 L). He is currently the Charles Warren Librarian for American History at Harvard’s Widener Library.
What is significant about this book is that it gives two powerful arguments in favor of renaming Eastern Parkway. First is that it has constantly been changing, and that every aspect of it has been in flux since its conception, starting with the path.
Eastern Parkway runs to Evergreen Cemetery. The original vision of connecting the rural refuge of Central Park and Prospect Park was not even close to being realized. And even the path of Eastern Parkway changed significantly, since it originally went straight in Brownsville on to what is now Pitkin Boulevard, and the remnant of that can be seen in that Pitkin still continues the numbering from Eastern Parkway.
The original conception by Olmsted and Vaux was based on the idea that Eastern Parkway would be a safe haven for Anglo-Saxons. For instance, this history of Prospect Park emphasizes that the park would be “where the people of all classes” could gather, that it “[will be easily accessible] to the masses of our people.”
By using primary documents and thorough research, Joshua Lupkin offers a radically different narrative. He says “Status insecurity was an integral part of Eastern Parkway, as all suburban development, from its beginning. In the Gilded Era, Olmsted and Vaux successfully promoted an old-money mystique based on aesthetic restrictions, spatial separation and social exclusivity.”
Lupkin emphasizes that “for the most part, the parkway plan responded to the environmental needs of the wealthy. Only with the continued residence and enthusiasm of the upper classes, Olmsted carefully reasoned, could cities be reformed. The attraction of such residents, ‘would be greatly aided by the opening of spacious and agreeable suburban thoroughfares.’ For the affluent, an improved environment usually denoted a country house isolated from the dense neighborhoods of the lower classes.” That’s why there are access roads on Eastern Parkway: to create physical separation between the affluent carriage riders on the main road and the working poor. “Olmsted and Vaux aimed to lure the elite with permanent exclusivity.”
The early Eastern Parkway was “a road to nowhere, a linear park with few inhabitants and few uses beyond the well-equipped carriage rider.” The road construction proceeded between 1872-1874. But with new transportation options like electric streetcars, the Romanesque and other villas sprung up in the 1890s to 1905 on St. Marks Avenue and President.
Building large cultural institutions, including Grand Army Plaza in 1892, lent classical profile to a street that was largely still deserted. The new luxury buildings featured parquet floors and even separate baths for servants. Advertising at the offered prestige by proximity to “the old families who have lived for generations around Prospect Park, conservative and delicately aloof.”
While the new high-density apartment buildings fit in with the Olmsted & Vaux’s vision of attracting the rich, they also undermined one its basic concepts, that of separation of commerce from residence. The original plan did its best to keep out the scourges of the time, like tanneries and distilleries, but now there was buzzing commercial activity on the single-family residential life on the parallel blocks.
Those seeking to preserve the 19th century parkway faced an uphill battle after the turn of the century. A 1903 amendment scrapped the 30-foot setback requirement on side streets. In 1911, residents began to successfully challenge the front yard restrictions. Restrictions on aesthetics originally in the 1868 Act creating the parkway kept heading to the courts, leading to a case-by-case legal fight for the character of the road.
In 1925-26, the Eastern Parkway Civic League won its three-year effort to remove the city’s garage and stables from a site three blocks north of the parkway. Homeowners in 1931 protested one realtor’s attempt to rezone one block of the parkway for mixed residential and commercial use.
Moses Spratt successfully lead the charge, calling the application a “brazen attempt… to infringe upon the residential aspect of Eastern Parkway.” In 1953, the parks department denied an application from the Terrace Luncheonette, already a non-conforming use, to expand onto the parkway.
“Although many residents hoped to hold onto some remnants of the Olmstedian middle landscape, even the best-organized neighborhood committee could not defend every parcel…. As commercial establishments began to spread to the larger lots of the parkway, yet another positive tenant of the Olmstedian environmentalism would be shattered. This would be a key factor in the decline of the parkway from scenic grace and bourgeois respectability in the latter half of the twentieth century.”
“Almost all the original criteria for a good parkway neighborhood have been violated. Stable and affluent Anglo-Saxon homeowners had been replaced by what they would imagine as less reliable, and ethnically diverse, apartment dwellers. The ‘villa’ neighborhood truly took hold only on one or two blocks of the parkway and on selected streets such as President Street. Aesthetic land-use restrictions, while remaining on the books, have been continually undermined by defiant residents and passive judges.”
“It is hard to escape the conclusion, moreover, that Eastern Parkway was never truly ‘urban’ until Olmstedian imperatives were overthrown. While aiming for a balance between rural cottage and bustling boulevard, their original ideal heavily favored the former…. The plan opposed dynamic forces of growth that contribute to the excitement of urban life…. The total exclusion of commerce precluded the stores, restaurants, and nightclubs that defined the late nineteenth-century experience. The plan’s insistence on single-family life denied the very tendency to concentrate at points of high value.”
“The search for control and upper-class identification in American cities, however, is far from over. In gated residential enclaves and on the urban fringe, people continue to reconfigure the idea of the middle landscape.”