InstaBlog Collection: Avenue U Walk

Author's Notes: This post combines many more images & stories! Make sure to click read more!
Also: Warning—these are blog-style posts originally from social media. Beware typos and poorly elucidated thoughts. For more polish, perhaps try an article!

Avenue U, Gravesend

Last October, I decided to walk along Avenue U in Brooklyn, starting from the F station in Gravesend*. Walking down from the elevated platform with the crowd, I couldn't help but notice the makeup of the commuters: a surprising amount were the traditional Brooklyn & Long Island stereotype—middle aged, middle class whites, speaking in the (remains) of their famous accent. Once a huge percentage of the population, I had thought almost all had either moved to the suburbs, retired, or been priced out of the city. Nice to see that even in modern Brooklyn, there’s still some space for what has to be a shrinking but historically important community.


I know I'm behind on these! But look at it this way: right now, it is too cold, and the sun sets too early, for me to do many such trips right now. So it all works out! *laughs*

As to Avenue U itself, I was a little surprised by quite how low rise it is. Most of the buildings along the street are only two or three stories, and once I was away from the station, stores were fewer and farther between—although never absent from any block. The side streets consist of tightly packed single-family houses. The Avenue itself, while far from crowded, was clearly an important neighborhood space, with a healthy amount of people. In a nice touch, I caught two elderly women sitting on their porch, talking, watching the world go by. There were a handful of new developments going up between four and five stories tall, but not many; the neighborhood could probably be made denser very easily.

Some random thoughts: Interestingly, the supports for the Culver El were, right at the Avenue, spaced very widely, perhaps once a streetcar stop? A number of the old houses had been remodeled with "fancy" fronts—an interesting vernacular, but I have to admit, I'd probably prefer their original (non-garage doored) fronts. In what's becoming a running trend for me, I realized I had happened across another Jewish neighborhood; I would later learn that this community of Syrian, Sephardi Jews started arriving in the early 1990s.

Based on an Instagram post.

Ocean Parkway

Ocean Parkway—seen here as it crosses Avenue U on the border between Gravesend and Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn—may be a classic, late 19th Century urban boulevard. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

The Parkway has a storied history. Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead & Calvert Vaux (the architects of Central, Prospect, and many, many more famous Parks), Ocean Parkway was an attempt to bring a majestic European boulevard to Brooklyn. Opening in 1880, it runs from Prospect Park all the way to Coney Island, and has that standard boulevard typology: a wide central roadway flanked by service roads. The islands that separate those service roads are quite park-like, & are lined with benches. Also of note, the Parkway was the site of the first bike path to open in the US (in 1900), and for a long time also had bridle paths for horses.

The entire boulevard was landmarked in 1975 after its northern end was converted into the stub-ended Prospect Expressway, and not long after a Robert Moses proposal to convert the entire road into a limited-access highway was narrowly averted.

Sadly however, this is one of the few times I wish a space were *not* landmarked. While it may have avoided expressway conversion, the Parkway still acts as a highway first and foremost. Its park benches face nothing but cars: the central six lanes of high-speed vehicles act as a traffic sewer. Long, unbroken vistas of tree-lined pavement are here simply dehumanizing: to walk along it can feel like walking along a (tree-lined) Interstate. For a place designed in the 19th Century, it is shockingly non-human-centric (although, to be fair, at the time there were no cars to dominate its length). While loved by many, it is a space which could be so much more.

I'm often not one for grandiose ideas, but imagine if, for the length of the road, the central lanes were turned into an actual park, forcing traffic to the slower service roads. The Parkway would then be a true amenity for the many neighborhoods it runs through. At the very least, it needs a significant redesign, with traffic calming facets like bus lanes and pedestrian islands.

Put simply, while it may be historically significant, Ocean Parkway is often not a nice place to be—or at least, nowhere near as nice as it could be.

Based on an Instagram post.

Avenue U, Sheepshead Bay

When I think of Sheepshead Bay, I tend to think of the area around the bay itself, with its docks, restaurants, and the like. If pushed, my mind then goes to the streets and neighborhood north of the Belt Parkway, surrounding the Sheepshead Bay station on the B & Q trains. On a map, however, the neighborhood continues well north and inland, encompassing (just) this stretch of Avenue U west of Ocean Parkway. Places like this, to me, highlight the difficulties of labeling neighborhoods—not only how arbitrary boundaries can be, but how our mental maps leave many hazy, hard-to-describe lands between them.

Crossing Ocean Parkway, you quickly feel the street's Jewish character begins to fade out and a heavily Russian (and other ex-Soviet states) presence begins to fade in. Soon, Avenue U here begins to resemble a less-dense version of Brighton Beach and its heavily Russian population. It makes sense: as noted, neighborhoods are amorphous things and spread out wide. I am no Russian or Soviet expert, but compared to Brighton Beach, which is still a major attractor for Russian immigrants, I get an older, more established vibe here—at least from the stores. It feels more ex-Soviet than ex-Yelstin/Putin, if that makes any sense, down to a restaurant which cheekily advertises its "Soviet" cuisine.

The avenue has stretches of intense density & relative sparseness. The buildings are a mix of low-rise forms, few taller than two stories. There are 1920s & 30s taxpayers (simple shopping blocks with office space above), individual store and office/apartment buildings, converted rowhouses, and even a number of townhouses which have been adaptively reused into commercial structures without heavy modifications—something I love to see. The side streets are classic New York outer-borough vernacular: tightly packed, modest houses, sometimes touching, sometimes with narrow driveways in-between. It's certainly more than dense enough to be urban, lively, and walkable, and readily supports busy pedestrian shopping streets like Avenue U.

Finally, there is Coney Island Avenue, just as awful and dehumanizing a highway here as it was further north (see my #MidwoodCIAve). This important street desperately deserves a rethinking in order to support the vibrant neighborhoods it passes through.

Based on an Instagram post.

Unacceptable sidewalk

No one should have to put up with this: the sidewalk on Avenue U just past Ocean Parkway is a mess. It's bad enough that the construction fence has taken up a good chunk of the sidewalk, but the concrete itself is completely unmaintained and falling apart.

As you can see, the family ahead of me with a stroller was having difficulty navigating the rocky terrain, and it would be a nightmare for anyone with any kind of physical impairment. That is unacceptable, and the construction site is no excuse: the physical city has to work for everyone.

Things would be better if the sidewalk was pristine, but even then it would be quite narrow: parking probably should have been sacrificed as well to ensure there was enough walking space.

These little pieces of maintenance and care can make a huge difference in not only the livability, but the absolute accessibility of a place, and should always be a priority. They should never be left to rot like this. And yet it sadly happens all the time. Sigh; rant over.

Based on an Instagram post.

Avenue U's Chinatown

Continuing down Avenue U further into the northern reaches of Sheepshead Bay, as you approach the Brighton Line Q station, you run into one of New York City's newest (and Brooklyn's second) Chinatown. As often happens in tightly packed urban communities, the fade-in of Asian groceries, convenience stores, and the like is incredibly quick; one moment you are in outer Brooklyn, the next, you could mistake for Canal Street in Manhattan. That is an appropriate comparison: like New York's original Chinatown, this one is primarily made up of Cantonese speakers and others from the South of China. Some have hypothesized that the reason this neighborhood has sprung up here—instead of equally affordable areas—is that it is a one seat ride on the Q to Canal Street.

Either way, I don't want to give the impression that this neighborhood is homogeneous—far from it! Like many ethnic neighborhoods, similar groups including, Mandarin and Fuzhou speakers and a strong Vietnamese community, cluster nearby. At the same time, the Russian influence is still strong, as is the compliment of the standard New York businesses. It is easy to find a banh mi shop next to a bodega next to a Russian restaurant.

What I love about this Chinatown is that, while it has similar shops to New York's other Chinese (& other Asian) enclaves, it doesn’t have the crushing crowds. Density is an important piece of urbanism to be sure, but it's often forgotten that not every urban space need be as crowded as Times Square or Flushing. A healthy density is all you need, which this community has in spades.

As with the rest of Avenue U, I also loved the mix of architectural styles and ages. Street-wise, the building wall is strong, and the Citibenches are a very appreciated asset. Indeed, they seem to form strong nucleation points for community: I saw many people sitting on them engaged in conversation—a wonderful sight!

Finally, I love little, random pieces of urban infrastructure, and here is no different. Avenue U's sidewalk rises above the street as it passes under the Brighton Line, and to make up the difference, the entire sidewalk is lined with (quite old-looking) steps. I don't when or why they were built, but they are a fascinating, intriguing, and useful piece of public infrastructure!

Based on an Instagram post.

Odds and Ends

There are just some odds and ends left to finish out my Avenue U walk. My original plan had been to continue all to Marine Park (the actual park, that is, not simply the neighborhood). But with daylight quickly fading (damn axial tilt) and my energy running low, I cut my trip short just shy of my destination. And yet, it seemed appropriate, as the walking neighborhood had already started to fade out, replaced by an auto-centric one.

Leaving Sheepshead Bay's Chinatown, the streets continued to be very active: full of shops, people, and buildings of different ages. You can feel the cultural mix: a Russian shipping store advertises in Spanish near a Banco Popular, all near a plethora of other local stores. The differing building ages, from late 19th Century storefront homes through 1950s & 60s faux tower-in-the-park apartments (with appropriately street-deadening ground levels), create an interesting and varied walk. A newly reopened cobbler’s caught my eye with its classic sign: it had not been redone at all, making the shop feel like it had been there forever. Side-streets were equally of mixed architecture, generally composed of row houses and tightly packed suburban homes, mainly from the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s.

The further I got from the Brighton Line & Q train, however, the more the neighborhood streetscape began to fade out, replaced by an auto-centric landscape. Stores became further and farther in-between. Pedestrians became fewer and fewer, making the sidewalks seem huge. Parking lots—something blissfully absent elsewhere on the avenue—became common. Abandoned stores also became more numerous, although never dominating the environment, and included a particularly striking old video rental business. It was clear the further I got from the subway, the more auto-focused the environment became.

This all culminated at Gerritsen Avenue, a car-centric road with little positive to say about it. Deciding to head home, I found myself waiting over 20 minutes for a B31 bus, an acceptable wait for transit in such a dense area—no wonder cars are the norm. Interestingly, the population of Avenue U itself seems to use buses extensively. Every ten or so minutes a bus full of people trundle up or down the street, palpably connecting the neighborhood. Here, however, I felt as if I might have been in a suburban county.

It may have been an ignoble end to my Avenue U walk, but all in all it was still a great look at another often unvisited part of urban Brooklyn.

Based on an Instagram post.