Once a popular beach resort overlooking Jamaica Bay, Canarsie has become known as a stable middleclass neighborhood filled with suburban life. Tucked away to the east, the land remained rural longer than most Brooklyn neighborhoods before developers eventually realized its potential.
Originally part of the Dutch town of Flatlands, the land was named after the Native Americans living there, the Canarsees. The entire area remained quiet until the late 1880s with fishermen casting into Jamaica Bay and farmers harvesting the soil.
Its period of growth began in the 1860s when the Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach Railroad was built, drawing visitors to the shore and soon-to-be area of a resort. Hotels popped up and beer gardens followed as German-Americans from East New York moved alongside Dutch, Scottish and Irish immigrants.
In 1907, Golden City Amusement Park opened where the Canarsie Pier is today and growth continued in the 1920s when Italian and Jewish families began to buy year-round homes.
Hard times came though when the Depression increased pollution, putting a stop to fishing in Jamaica Bay. The amusement park then burned down and the entire site was later leveled for construction of the Belt Parkway.
The population eventually grew with the construction of public housing projects but segregationist violence flared when black residents moved in. With integration in the 1980s, more immigrants from the Caribbean settled, opening up more Caribbean-owned stores alongside the suburban spirit of the neighborhood.
How Canarsie Got Its Name
One of the reasons we give names to neighborhoods is for the community to have a sense of its past, a tie with its history.
Nowhere is that truer than with Canarsie.
For it was the Canarsie Indians who saw Giovanni da Verrazzano enter New York Harbor; it was the Canarsie who were here to greet Henry Hudson when he stepped on the shores of Brooklyn.
The Canarsie fished here, oystered here, farmed here, and lived here, in longhouses.
A Dutchman, Jacob Van Corlaer, bought the land from Canarsie chiefs Penhawitz and Kaskapettino and the Dutch settled there, on the swamps near Jamaica Bay. They named it Canarsie (sometimes spelled Canarsee) — which most likely is an Indian word meaning “fenced land” or “fort,” for the fences built by the Dutch farmers, although some believe it comes from the French “canard,” for “duck.”
The area then was part of the Dutch town of New Amersfoort, but when the English took over in 1664 they changed the name to Flatlands.
It was a quiet, lightly populated area, primarily a fishing village, until the 1860s when the Brooklyn and Rockaway Beach Railroad was built, bringing new visitors to the shore and new residents to live there.
In 1907, the Golden City Amusement Park opened where the Canarsie Pier is today and the waterfront became a popular recreation area. During the 1920s, however, the waters of Jamaica Bay became polluted, ruining the clamming and fishing businesses. Golden City burned down and in 1939 the entire site was leveled to construct the Belt Parkway (known then as the Circumferential Highway). Meanwhile, the City of New York built the 600-foot Canarsie Pier, which became part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.
Canarsie’s wetlands were filled in and its marshlands became sites for housing. With a growing population, the old swampy Canarsie became more of a typical American suburb.
Brooklyn-born Norm Goldstein is retired, after working 44 years for the Associated Press, the global news agency, where he served as a reporter, feature writer, editor, author and administrator. He also worked for AP as director of Educational Services and editor of the AP Stylebook.
He graduated from Brooklyn College and the Penn State Graduate School of Journalism.
He currently lives in Brooklyn Heights.