Bay Ridge

This brief history of the neighborhood is adapted from the Introduction to How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge by Henry Stewart.

Bay Ridge at the turn of the twentieth century. Photograph by Samuel Winter Thomas

What we now call Bay Ridge was for most of history just a piece of land, the westernmost part of Long Island, a portion of which was long inhabited by Native Americans. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch showed up, later bringing slaves, and pushed out the indigenous peoples, forming a farming community.

As nearby New York City grew, the area’s position at the mouth of New York Harbor became militarily strategic, especially during and after the American Revolution. The federal government built several forts at the Narrows to defend the entrance into the city. A small village formed around Fort Hamilton. Like Yellow Hook, the locality to its north, Fort Hamilton village was a part of the town of New Utrecht, one of the original six that made up Kings County and, much later, the borough of Brooklyn. 

In 1853, the leading citizens of Yellow Hook renamed their community Bay Ridge, after its prominent geographic features. They wanted a prettier name, less Dutch and agricultural, to fill them with pride and attract more outsiders like the mercantile elites who’d recently settled on the ridge, or the artisans and craftsmen who’d recently formed Ovington Village, an artists colony on the former Ovington estate. They also probably wanted to avoid associations with yellow fever—a terrible outbreak of which would strike a few years later. Meanwhile, Fort Hamilton village grew into a vacation destination, with hotels, amusements, fresh air, fishing and copious alcohol.

Development in the city spread southward, through Brooklyn and Gowanus, down toward Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton. In the 1870s and ’80s, transportation improved—more and better ferries, streetcars and trains (surface and elevated). More elites arrived, this time building mansions along Shore Road. New Utrecht joined in the city of Brooklyn in 1894; Brooklyn joined the city of New York in 1898. 

Soon after, the first serious proposal for a subway to the area kicked off wild real estate speculation: farms were chopped up into developable “lots,” and builders put up rows of houses in anticipation of the new commuting class. Swaths of undeveloped property west of Third Avenue, hitherto used by wealthy visitors as a golf course, were bought up and turned into attractive residential enclaves. First Avenue and Second Avenue were given fancy-sounding names—“Colonial Road” and “Ridge Boulevard.”

The city invested in parks as the nineteenth century became the twentieth, from Leif Ericson to “Cannonball” Park, Shore Road to McKinley. The Bliss family, which had improved and expanded State Senator Henry Murphy’s old Owl’s Head estate, haggled with the city over a price for it. The old marsh past the army base was drained and turned into the Dyker golf course. Many of these projects took decades to complete, remaining in progress into the 1930s and ’40s.

The subway opened in 1916–25, and thousands of new residents arrived. The Crescent Athletic Club’s old country club was transformed into Fort Hamilton High School, to accommodate the swelling population. Crooked farm roads were erased by a sensible grid, whose streets were paved, graded and opened; houses in the way were demolished. Old country cemeteries were dug up. Streets that once ran through forests were now lined with modern housing, with cars parked out front. In just a few decades, developers built a small city atop once-bucolic fields and forests, transforming with startling speed the rural pastoral into the suburban modern.

Men and horses building 76th Street. Looking west toward Third Avenue and Samuel Winter Thomas’s house. Photo by Samuel Winter Thomas