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From grand parkway to 'canyon of mediocrity,' the story of Brooklyn's Fourth Avenue

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What you would never guess walking down Fourth Avenue is that it was once considered the Park Avenue of Brooklyn

A postcard depicting Fourth Avenue circa 1905.

Over the years, Brooklyn's Fourth Avenue——which stretches for six miles from the Barclays Center to Bay Ridge——has gained the reputation of Brooklyn's worst thoroughfare. Bulky new development, limited commercial activity, and a wide, mostly treeless roadway earned it the nickname of the "Canyon of Mediocrity." What you would never guess walking down Fourth Avenue, however, is that it was once considered the Park Avenue of Brooklyn. Between 1896 and 1900, this thoroughfare was built out as a grand boulevard with paved streets, sidewalks, electric lights, and a lush landscaped median strip. The glory days of Fourth Avenue didn't last long; the construction of the subway lines in 1910 marked the beginning of the end.

Back in the days of Dutch settlement, the land around current-day Fourth Avenue was mostly swampy from nearby Gowanus Creek. Because of that, surrounding streets had to be built up on fill when they were laid out in the 19th century. As streets popped up, the area continued to develop, and by the late 19th century Fourth Avenue was home to some row houses and private free standing houses, accommodating both commercial and residential traffic.

"Fourth Avenue has historically been a transit-oriented thoroughfare," says Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council. He also noted that it has never been a particularly popular thoroughfare to live on, considering that it cuts through many surrounding residential neighborhoods.

[Elevated train construction along 5th Avenue, via Here's Park Slope]

According to a Brooklyn Eagle article in 1880, Fourth Avenue was most heavily utilized in the late 19th century by horse-drawn trollies to Green-Wood Cemetery. "At present, its chief frequenters are funeral processions on their way to or from Green-Wood Cemetery," it stated. Nevertheless, the city wanted to pave it in 1880 to accommodate more traffic, but there was opposition to that plan. Edwin Litchfield, a major landowner at the time, wanted to build an elevated rail line down Fourth Avenue instead. But it never happened, and the elevated trains ended up along the adjacent Third and Fifth Avenues.

[Fourth Avenue in the early 1900s, via Brooklyn Public Library.]

Fourth Avenue, instead of getting an elevated train line, was built out as a "grand boulevard" between 1896 and 1900. The street was paved, the sidewalks built out, electric lights installed. The thoroughfare was distinguished by a central planted median. It was especially nice as it ran through Sunset Park south into Bay Ridge, according to Brownstoner.

[4th Avenue subway construction at 38th Street, via MCNY]

[Construction at 37th Street, via NYC Subway]

The glory days of Fourth Avenue didn't last long. In 1910, construction of the BMT trains began underneath Fourth Avenue. Bankoff says that the city employed a "cut and cover technique"—one that ripped out the street to lay down tracks, destroying the big trees and landscaped median in the process.

[4th Avenue in Sunset Park after the subway construction, via Brooklyn Public Library]

Where there was once greenery now existed pavement and ventilation grills, and the trees were not not immediately replaced. This line, which now services the N and R trains, was first completed in Manhattan and the Bronx in 1904. It was then extended to the Long Island Rail Road station and finally further south along Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. When it started running in 1915, it led to the demise of the elevated trains on Third and Fifth avenues, which opened up the streets as we now know them today.

[The street restored after subway construction, via NYC Subway]

[Coverup at 22nd Street, via NYC Subway]

Although the underground subway improved the quality of life and increased development for the surrounding neighborhoods, Fourth Avenue itself never really took off. "It was never heavily developed," says Bankoff. "Then auto-related things started opening in the mid-1900s."

[Fourth Avenue in 1941, via Brooklyn History]

By the 1960s, Fourth Avenue was known as an "automobile alley" with repair shops and garages. Due to its proximity to the industrial neighborhood of Gowanus, "People didn't want to live here," says Bankoff. The area was more or less dominated by the arterial road, with parking on both sides and two lanes of traffic, plus turning lanes. The industrial and garage buildings were modest, keeping low to the ground, joined by some early 20th century tenements and apartment buildings.

[Fourth Avenue today, via Google Streetview]

Then came the rezoning of 2003, one of the first major rezoning decisions under Amanda Burden, then the chair of the City Planning Commission for the Bloomberg administration. The hope was to transform an area—"a traffic-choked thoroughfare dotted with auto-body shops, a gas station and a taxi depot," as put by the Wall Street Journal—into Brooklyn's Park Avenue (again). But the rezoning focused on housing density, allowing buildings up to 12 stories, rather than housing design. The result? Bland, bulky architecture with parking garages, air vents or concrete slabs along street level rather than shops and cafes. Seven years after the rezoning, as WSJ wrote, "The result is that Fourth Avenue remains relatively desolate, attracting little of the street activity that has made Park Slope one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city."

This failure of a rezoning was so bad that it actually changed the requirements set by the Department of City Planning, which started going out of its way to ensure more streetlife and retail by requiring them in subsequent rezonings. A partial renzoning change for Fourth Avenue in 2011 helped bring in new retail and restaurants. Community groups, like Forth on Fourth, have also planted new trees and pushed for street safety measures.

In the midst of a very strong Brooklyn real estate market, development along Fourth Avenue continues to chug along, with a building boom in the last four years or so. But the question remains: will it ever be a pleasant place for a stroll? It takes many elements to make a great thoroughfare, including interesting architecture, pedestrian-friendly streets, retail, and greenery. Most likely, Fourth Avenue's brief stint as a Park Avenue-worthy stretch will remain a thing of the past.
· Tracking the Development Boom on Brooklyn's Fourth Avenue [Curbed]
· All Fourth Avenue coverage [Curbed]