Text (c) Robert Barry Francos
Photo by Helen Rosen, from Robert Francos's personal collection
In Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, there is a thoroughfare called Bay Parkway. It cuts through southern Brooklyn from North to South for a 3 mile stretch, and ends in what we one time called, surprise, The Bay.
When I was growing up in the early 1960s, one would drive or walk down Bay Parkway and after a mile, travel below an overpass for the Belt Expressway. There we would scream at the top of our lungs to hear the echo reverberate against the concrete walls.
Once past, there was a long and narrow amusement park designed for children, named after journalist and traveler Nellie Bly (1864-1922), in honor of her feat of traveling around the world in less than 80 days. It may seem like an odd choice, but as children, we were more focused on the rides than the name. I still have photos of myself having a joyous time there. On the other side of Nellie Bly was the Bay. That point in Brooklyn is the opening of what is known as the Verrazano Narrows, or Lower New York Bay, where the waters from the Hudson and East Rivers funnel into the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, from the Bay, we could see the Verrazano Narrows Bridge being built three miles away, rising and growing until its completion in 1964.
The Bay was essentially a quarter moon shaped inlet. The concrete of the road gave way to large rocks leading down a sharp incline from the street to the shore. Being small children, we were never allowed on the rocks, and for good reason. You could easily see the green algae that covered the boulders, making them slippery and treacherous. A person, especially one as uncoordinated as a child, might easily slip and either hurt themselves on the stones, or fall into the brine.
The ocean water meets the mighty freshwater rivers just to the north, which caused both dangerous tides and occasionally some wonderful spray on those hot summer days, especially delicious after being whipped around on some of the Nellie Bly rides. We were fascinated by the white foam rising up higher than our heads even as we were standing on the cement, many meters above the sea.
While we were not permitted below the unfenced street level, there was still plenty of activity to observe among the rocks. Fishermen were a common sight, each with their pole (sometimes more than one) jammed and secure between the stones, waiting for a bite, which apparently came fairly often, thanks to the way the water jetted in and out between the rocks.
Along with these hearty souls who were willing to hunt for fish despite dubious health risks inherent to the waters in which they were found, there were also those with traps who were looking for crabs, and mollusks, such as mussels. You could hear the exclamations of joy or cursing, depending on the results of the hunt, well above the roar of the waves slapping the rocks.
Then there were the teens, who would sit on the rocks with friends or partners, holding hands and necking in the coolness on a humid summer’s day.
It was always a pleasure to walk there, to feel the wind as it came off the water, to hear the sounds of the waves lapping and crashing, and be jealous of those climbing on the stones, as they seemed like crabs themselves, carefully approaching the water’s edge. The salt water spray would fill the nostrils to the point of being able to taste its sharpness at the back of the throat.
The Bay as a whole always seemed alive to me, with constant movement and sounds, drowning out the carousel calliope and motors just a few meters away.
While I was in fifth grade, in 1965, they started to fill in the Bay. First they removed the rocks and put them further along the shoreline towards the recently opened Verrazano bridge, turning the beaches my mother used to visit with her friends into unforgiving boulder piles that essentially ended local bathing.
I remember the year well for other reasons. Having my first male teacher in grade school was a sign for me to prove myself. That is, until he suddenly disappeared a couple of months later. Apparently he vanished into the blue without notice. Later that year, I learned that he had been, well, inappropriate with one of my peers, the daughter of someone involved in organized crime. We other students quickly surmised that he was somewhere in the Bay, as it was being filled up by a construction company with which this shady dad had connections. Taking care of a pedophile was personal back then, as the law didn’t acknowledge the crime as seriously as it deserved.
Day by day, the Bay disappeared under concrete, steel and eventually asphalt. The final stage of the death of the Bay at Bay Parkway was marked by fixing it with a new name, Ceasar’s Bay. Heck, they even spelled it wrong.
In the place of the motion of nature watched by the people who moved above and among the rocks and spray, was a brand new shopping plaza: a department store called E.J. Korvette (opened by, as we erroneously believed, Eight Jewish Korean-War Veterans), a series of smaller stores, and a huge supermarket called Food Fair.
For us kids, the saddest part was the closing of Nellie Bly, which was replaced by a Wetson’s fast food restaurant (evolving over time into a Nathan’s, A&W, Burger King, and eventually Wendy’s). By the time a new Nellie Bly was opened up down the road about half a mile away, I was too old to go on those rides.
Over the years, there have been many more changes. The department store was split, with one half becoming a Toys ‘R Us and the other a collection of smaller stores known as Ceasar’s Bay Bazaar. The supermarket transformed into an automobile parts chain store called Strauss. Nowadays, the Toys ‘R Us remains, the Bazaar has become a discount clothing store called Kohl’s, and Strauss is a Best Buy electronics store.
The once vibrant Bay is not only flat, black tar, and nearly impossible to get into around the holidays, with cars jammed onto what was once a beautiful natural spot (well, for a city anyway). It became boring and pedestrian.
Indeed, they paved paradise, put up a parking lot.