The small community of Gerritsen Beach was a pioneering cookie-cutter suburb in the 1920s.
Levittown, brainchild of the brilliant, doomed real-estate developer William J. Levitt, was the opening act of a great American tragedy—the postwar explosion of suburban sprawl that turned us into a nation of motorists and plunged our cities into a bitter cycle of disinvestment and decline.
Levitt, who served with the Seabees during World War II, foresaw a huge demand for housing once the war ended. In 1946, he and his family began buying up vast tracts of farmland in Hempstead, Long Island; the farmers were eager to sell due to a nematode infestation that ruined the potato crop. The land was soon carpeted with thousands of little Cape Cod houses designed by William’s bookish brother, Alfred, a self-taught architect. They went up fast. Within a year of breaking ground, about 3,000 houses were ready for occupancy; a decade later, 82,000 people were living where spuds once grew.
Isolated on the edge of the metropolis, linked by a single bus line, Gerritsen Beach developed a social fabric as tightly knit as its streets. It had its own Chamber of Commerce, Civic Association, and Citizens Protective Committee, a Lily of the Valley Garden Club—even its own elected “unofficials,” including a mayor and commissioners of parks and public welfare. When the city failed to fix a massive sewage backup in Shellbank Creek, citizens organized a pick-and-shovel army to cut a channel across the Plum Island sandbar to Rockaway Inlet, allowing tidal action to flush the waters.
This insularity also had a darker side. Though I’ve not found evidence of restrictive racial covenants of the sort that barred African Americans from Levitttown, Gerritsen Beach was—then as now—almost exclusively white. The initial population was working-class Irish, Swedish, and German (hence the two churches, one Lutheran and one Catholic). The tight-lipped town with streets dead-ending on backwater canals proved ideal as a base for rum-runners during Prohibition, and stories of basement speakeasies abound. A police shootout with bootleggers on Devon Avenue in 1931 yielded 3,500 bottles of whiskey (1,200 of which the cops promptly spirited off).
Gerritsen Beach was badly battered by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and many of the original homes have been torn down, or rendered unrecognizable by mammoth additions. But it’s managed to retain much of its original scale and charm. Its street names are among the most evocative in all New York—Melba, Ebony, Dare, Opal, Joval, Dictum, Just. As late as the 1980s there were still commercial trawlers working out of Shellbank Creek, and chickens and horses on one street. Guarded by Brooklyn's last volunteer fire department, Gerritsen Beach remains an extraordinary urban village, a provincial pocket of working-class Hibernia on the edge of Gotham.