InstaBlog Collection: Cortleyou Rd, Coney Island Avenue, & Midwood

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!

Cortleyou Rd. & Ditmas Park

A look at the bustling urbanism, attractive architecture, and all-around beautiful streetscape of Cortleyou Road, one of the main streets of Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.

Compared to places like Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Williamsburg, and the like, comparatively little buzz surrounds Ditmas Park. And yet, here you will find a deeply urban, deeply diverse neighborhood. Small businesses, which run the gamut from chic restaurants and cafes to dollar stores, workaday laundromats, and bodegas, fill the street. Street vendors are prevalent near the subway station. Sidewalks buzz with activity from all groups: children to the elderly, women and men, well-off and working class, all going about their business. The road itself is small, with limited traffic and many trees, making walking a natural and attractive experience. A touch I particularly love: the neighborhood has installed its own series of public benches, which are warmer and more attractive than New York's standard, if much appreciated, CityBenches.

Apartment buildings from three to four stories line the busy Cortleyou Road, while relatively tightly-packed residential homes spread in the streets beyond. Some of these remain single family homes, but a quick examination shows a very large number are divided into multiple units—a good density compromise. Almost all were built in tandem with the Brighton Line's transition from pleasure to commuter line, from around 1900 to 1920. Of particular note is the neighborhood's distinctive Victorian architecture, with heavy uses of columns, porches, and balconies. It gives the area a distinctive visual flair, which has led to the entire neighborhood being designated a historic district. While some would bemoan this fate, not only is the architecture gorgeous, but the designation gives the community one thing they can't get any other way with present regulations: control over the public-facing streetscape. While the neighborhood could probably use a bit more density, it would be best if it could be harmonized to the scale and style of the area.

All that said, sometimes you just need to stand back and let the streetscape speak for itself.

Based on an Instagram post.

Courtleyou Rd Station

The Cortleyou Road stop on the BMT Brighton Line—today's Q train. A strange name for a road, to be sure but a lovely station all the same.

I have a love for the Brighton Line—as it is known to certain locals, old timers, and transit enthusiasts—mainly because it often feels very different from the rest of the subway system. The line was originally built in 1878 as a steam excursion railroad to Brighton Beach, taking day trippers and vacationers from the city to the (then) distant resorts on the shore. Gradually, as trains became faster and as the city grew, the line stated to transform into a commuter route, and this section was rebuilt to eliminate grade crossings in 1905-1908. At that time, many trains would continue along the Fulton Street elevated to downtown Brooklyn (via today's Franklin Ave shuttle), yet many trains were powered by trolley poles because, further south, the line still ran at ground level. Over the years, the rest of the line would be grade separated and brought up to subway standards, and eventually lose most of its resort traffic, becoming another part of the subway.

Still, I love the small stations and their waiting rooms, in particular. These spaces feel far more like a commuter railroad then they do subway stations. You have to love the bench seating, the wood-paneling, the decorative glass overlooking the tracks, the spaces for a ticket office and stoves, and even the covered staircases to the platforms. To me, these stations also feel very London-ish, for reasons I can't quite explain—maybe it's the late-Victorian styling details, the age, or simply the name "Brighton." It feels... delicate and warm. And yet today, the line is a fully integrated and vital part of New York's mass transit system. The word, I think, is lovely, simply lovely.

Of course, with rapid transit came a wave of building, much of which was equally lovely, as we shall see soon!

Based on an Instagram post.

Coney Island Avenue

Coney Island Avenue is one of the major north-south streets of Brooklyn, and looking at a map, you would expect it to be a bustling hub of urbanism, like nearby Flatbush or Nostrand Aves. But while it is busy in parts, and is certainly a vital part of the neighborhoods it runs through, it could also use a lot of love.

Physically, it’s clear from the moment you turn onto the street that it is a car-first thoroughfare. The road is wide, and cars drive fast. Sidewalks may look wide in photographs, but in person, they feel tiny compared to the massive-seeming roadway. A large number of businesses along the route are auto focused, from repair shops to gas stations. Such low rise structures surrounded by pavement deeply hurt the walking environment. Don't make a mistake, the street is relatively dense, and often has retail—although with a relatively high vacancy rate. Things improve as you travel south, but not by much.

It would only take small changes to transform the avenue into a walkable street, one which truly serves the communities it runs through. Lane diets, bike paths, curb extensions, and more trees would all help tremendously, as would encouraging new construction which complete the street wall. Small changes could make this important street a place, one where people want to be.

In contrast, culturally, the street is intensely urban, and a joy to walk down. At first, it felt to me like any other part of Brooklyn, until all of the sudden, I realized I was the only woman on the street not wearing a hijab: I had wandered into a healthy and active Afghan & Pakistani community. A few more blocks south, I realized in turn I was the only woman not wearing a long, wool skirt: I was entering the Jewish community of Midwood. Unfounded speculation about why it's always women who get the worst restrictions in different cultures aside, it was a wonderful mix—part of the joy of a diverse, cosmopolitan city.

Coney Island Avenue is important to all these communities, and deserves to be a better place for all of them.

Based on an Instagram post.

Flatbush Malls

The Flatbush Malls of Victorian, well... Flatbush, a circa 1900-1910 real estate development.

Historically, these divided streets were designed in the very early 20th Century by Scottish landscape architect John Aiken, and were based roughly on Commonwealth Avenue (& the rest of Olmstead's Emerald Necklace) in Boston, albeit on a much smaller scale. Combined with ornate Victorian architecture & quite large houses, the region was designed to entice the middle class out to what was then the suburbs, newly accessible by fast transit.

I had no idea these existed until planning one of my walks, and seeing them on the map. Even walking down Coney Island Avenue, they are relatively hidden: you wouldn't notice them unless you were looking for them. Walking through them, I couldn't help but be reminded of Cleveland Heights, of all places. They are beautiful in the Romantic sense, and quite bucolic—early suburban Romanticism *without* curvilinear streets. The malls themselves are tiny and not really "useful", but do make the streets very small and friendly for walkers and bikers. Giant 100+ year old trees shade the streets and perfectly frame what is some very pleasing architecture.

What is interesting, to me, is how the neighborhood has been allowed to densify *without* changing its fundamental characteristics. The majority of these large homes are no longer single family, but are now divided into multiple units. The result is a pleasantly busy space (for what was meant to be a suburban street), which ends on all sides with higher, denser shopping & apartment streets. All in all, not a bad compromise on how to add density without fundamentally changing the character of a neighborhood.

Also, a weirdly named apartment building... channeling Blade Runner, or are they just letting me name buildings again!?

Sorry for being slow with these (as the weather in the pictures shows, I'm way behind!) Will try and catch up!

Based on an Instagram post.

Bay Ridge Branch

Whenever I'm out walking in Brooklyn, I love to look for the Bay Ridge Branch, a little-used, freight-only piece of rail infrastructure that stretches across the borough.

I'm consistently impressed by how hard the right-of-way can be to spot, even when you know where it is located; it seems, somehow, to just blend into the background. Looking through fences is like looking into a different world—and in a way it is, to the almost abandoned-in-place remnants of industrial Brooklyn.

While it seems highly unlikely right now, if the Regional Planning Association's TriboroRX plan ever comes to fruition, this line will be rebuilt as (more likely than not) light rail, forming a large loop all the way across outer Brooklyn, up north through Queens, and then across the Hell Gate Bridge into the Bronx. This intersection, on Coney Island Avenue, would be between the Ave H/E 16th Station (interchange with the Q train) and the McDonald Avenue Station (interchange with the F).

Another option would be to connect the line to a proposed cross-harbor freight tunnel, allowing freight trains (and their goods) to reach Long Island without masses of trucks and traffic.

Either way, it would be a significant transformation for what, right now, is a lonely, oft-ignored piece of the city.

Based on an Instagram post.

Avenue M

Walking down Avenue M into the heart of Midwood, and in particular, the center of its large Jewish community.

In comparison to the highly unpleasant, auto-centric Coney Island Avenue, turning onto Avenue M was a breath of fresh air. The street is narrow, the sidewalks are wide, and the buildings form a comforting, attractive street wall. New construction mixes in with old, adding apartments to a busy retail street without destroying its scale or appearance. If you're a sucker for odd, non-90° intersections like I am, you will love their prevalence, and the tiny plazas and interesting vistas that they create. Small businesses dominate; there are very few chains, creating the feeling of a complete neighborhood.

In short, Avenue M may physically be like many other Brooklyn shopping streets, but it's still well worth stopping and appreciating how nice that physical and social texture is.

Culturally you can feel the Jewish influence, from the vast majority of women wearing long skirts to the proliferation of kosher shops to the prevalence of Hebrew writing. While conservative, this isn't Hasidic territory, so it doesn’t feel exclusionary. Still, I did pause for a second before patronizing a local coffee shop: was I too much of an outsider? I let the thought pass, but that feeling of being an outsider in a New York City neighborhood is one which is quickly disappearing.

Inside the shop was a scene with characters that could've been pulled from central casting. I watched and listened from a table in the back as the Jewish owner asked a newly hired Hispanic woman if she knew about the story of how the Jews were expelled from Egypt. He then proceeded to tell the story in the friendliest way imaginable to a woman who was equal parts interested and overwhelmed as she tried to learn the ins and outs of a new shop. If I hadn't seen it, I might have assumed the story was just the product of stereotype... *laughs*

Based on an Instagram post.