In Canarsie, history comes around once a year

A picture of the Flatlands Volunteer Firemen in 1929.
Photo by Steve Solomonson

Canarsie’s history is as rich as Jamaica Bay is deep — and to most Brooklynites, it’s just as murky.

Few know the storied past of the place rising up from the bay, whose pier rivals the one in Coney Island, and whose name conjures up images of Duke Snider hitting a home run and the southern drawl of Red Barber reminding residents of Brooklyn’s eastern extremity that a ball might soon be landing nearby.

No, most people don’t know Canarsie’s history, and most haven’t been to its History Museum.

But how can you, if the museum doesn’t have a home?

Of course, all that would change if Ramon Martinez, the curator of that museum, had his way.

Since 2002, when he chartered his museum with the state Department of Education, he’s been trying to find a permanent home for his exhibits — pieces of Canarsie’s history that, much like the area’s famed Golden City Amusement Park, could be buried by the sands of time if that home isn’t found.

And that would be a shame, because now, if you want to get a taste of that history, you have to find that museum at one its revolving locations — where it pops its head out once a year at places like the Hebrew Educational Society on Seaview Avenue at 95th Street or at the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club on Conklin Avenue recently.

And that, too, is a shame, because without the museum, that history dies. And the stories that the Museum had to tell — Canarsie’s stories — dies right along with it.

So you’d never know that if you were a zoot-suited gangster who wanted to take your new dame to a day of thrills followed by a night of drinking, dancing and some under the table blackjack in 1920s Brooklyn, you certainly didn’t have to go to Atlantic City. You went to Canarsie.

All you had to do was take that new-fangled subway to the end of the line and then hop a trolley to Brooklyn’s “Boardwalk Empire,” where a never-ending supply of amusements — including rides, hotels, casinos, and beer halls — dotted the landscape of the one-time fishing village back.

Just picture it: days were spent taking leisurely boat rides that cast off from the Canarsie Pier, and nights including rides on “The Whip,” a roller coaster at the amply lit Golden City Amusement Park, which shined like the Hope Diamond on a black velvet cloth thanks to its 140,000 lights.

When you were all screamed out, the amusement park’s walkways — made up of ground up clam and oyster shells found on the banks of Jamaica Bay — would lead you out to a night drinking, dancing and, quite possibly, a few hands of cards in the back of neighborhood casinos like Whittakers, before stumbling, in a drunken stupor, of course (it was the prohibition era, after all) down that dirt road that became Rockaway Parkway over to Glanders Hotel on E. 95th Street and Conklin Avenue to rest your head.

When you woke up, you would have probably had your coffee and poached eggs with members of the Flatlands police force, which held its morning roll calls at the rooming house before moving to the corner of Conklin Avenue and E. 95th Street — yes, that’s where the 69th Precinct still sits.

That’s how blurred the lines were back then: cops, most of them volunteers, would rub elbows with gangsters, card sharks and other ne’er-do-wells.

Canarsie’s close-knit waterfront resort Xanadu was a perfect spot to vacation: it had everything that Coney Island had — including its own Boardwalk on what is now Seaview Avenue.

The roaring ’20s was truly a golden age for a piece of America where Native American tribes like the Canarsee and the Lenape once thrived.

Then, as now, there was nostalgia for days cone by, and residents looked back fondly on the 1880s, when Canarsie was just fishing village, and they cursed the days when pollutants killed all of the oysters and edible fish — their main source of income.

But by the 1920s,with an influx of Italian and Jewish immigrants and close to 50 hotels stretching along Avenue L from Glenwood Road to the water, the glory days had arrived.

Alas, those days are gone. There are no more hotels on Avenue L, just an assemblage of medical supply stores, bodegas and 99-cent stores. The casinos, which were actually just gathering places, and not full-fledged gambling halls, are all gone as well.

But that doesn’t mean Canarsie’s future isn’t bright. The thriving neighborhood now sports a growing Jamaican and Trinidadian community, and the promise of its greatness is always just a high (or low) tide away.

And like the tide, Canarsie will rise again.

Reach reporter Thomas Tracy at ttracy@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2525.

Rockaway Parkway and Farragut Road looked quite different in 1924.
Photo by Steve Solomonson

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