Positively 3rd Street

Did 9th Street in Park Slope formerly have sidewalks as generous as 3rd Street?

Strolling up 3rd Street in Park Slope from 7th Avenue toward Prospect Park, it’s easy to see this is one of the most magnificent streets in what is, let’s face it, one of the prettiest neighborhoods in the city. The homes, built in the late 19th century and often clad in white stone, are set back further. The double flanking of trees lend a calming tone. A bike lane is set along one side of the one-way street.

But what’s most luxurious about this street, if not consciously noticed by its users, are the expansive sidewalks, about 8 paces, which is roughly twice as wide as the sidewalks on surrounding streets. The wide sidewalks on 3rd Street provide room for several people to walk side by side in one direction, without playing the game of dodge a person so common in New York. It’s a strolling street.

If you walk south from 3th Street for just six blocks, you come to a very different sort of street, 9th Street. It’s probably one of the least pleasant streets in the Slope. The sidewalks are narrow. The car portion of the street is wide. A torrent of cars and trucks pour up and down it, making their way to and from the Gowanus Canal, Court Street, and Red Hook. The street has bike lanes on each side, but this is still a chaotic and risky place to cycle, given the trucks and double-parking.

But here’s the thing. Did 9th Street used to be like 3rd Street? My eye, somewhat attuned to urban geography, sees evidence that the answer is yes. Both of the streets, measured by the distance from the homes on each side to each other, are wider than surrounding streets. Both are flanked by particularly elegant townhouses.  I wonder if 9th Street, now so chaotic and workhorse like, used to be a grand strolling street leading up to the prominent entrance to Prospect Park where the statue of General Lafayette awaits you.

What I bet happened is that at some point in the last century the city grabbed some of the width from the sidewalks and setbacks of 9th Street, and gave it over to cars, converting 9th street into a car artery, decidedly unpleasant. I bet the political power of the residents of these beautiful townhouses had reached a nadir, allowing the city to decrease the charm of their street and thus their property values.

So far I have found little evidence to back up my thesis. A friend of mine in his 50s who grew up on 9th Street near 7th Avenue said he remembered — or at least had heard about — the streetcars that used to run down 9th Street. This makes sense. Park Slope and all of brownstone Brooklyn are streetcar suburbs, developed around the streetcar lines that were laid out in the late 19th century.

I checked with some sources inside the city’s Department of Transportation. They said “uummm, we’ll get back to you on that,” but so far they haven’t. I’m hoping some Park Slope historian will come forward.

Whatever the street’s history, to understand these two streets more deeply, and to see if my hunches had some facts behind them, I paced off the elements of each street.

Each of the sidewalks on 3rd street was eight of my long paces wide, with the setbacks to the buildings taking up another eight paces, and the street to its middle taking up six paces.

The sidewalk on 9th Street was only four paces wide, or maybe four-and-a-half. The setbacks on 9th Street were about five to five-and-a-half paces. The car portion of the street, on the other hand, took up 11 or 12 paces, perhaps twice the width of 3rd3 street. My paces were not exact, so these measurements are loose.

Looking more closely at 3rd street, I found that it does an odd thing between 6th and 7th avenues. The sidewalks narrow a few feet, and the street widens, and the row of trees takes a step back toward the houses. Just for this one block, the street is wider, before returning to wider sidewalks and narrower street after 6th Avenue. Why did this happen? The extra car-street space is not used for anything now. Is this evidence that the city once started to do to 3rd Street what it did to 9th Street?

Whatever the history of 9th Street, here’s a radical question: Could 9th Street be more like 3rd Street, today? Could the city widen the sidewalks to eight paces, and reduce the street width to four paces as on 3rd street, while keeping the bike lane? And would this be a good thing?

This is not a question that is only of interest to people in Park Slope. During the 20th century, the city widened and increased traffic lanes, at the expense of sidewalks, setbacks and park space, all over the city. Park Avenue used to have more park down the middle of it before World War II. Third Avenue in Manhattan, where I used to live, used to have wider sidewalks, I was told. Dozens if not hundreds of smaller streets all over the city were widened, at the expense of walkers, to make way for the new master, the automobile.

I’ll list some positives and negatives of making 9th Street more like 3rd Street. The negative would be that it would reduce the street’s utility as a thoroughfare, one meant to “clear” traffic, and carry it swiftly from one part of the city to another. That’s the only negative I can think of. The positives would be many. Bicycling would be safer. Strolling would be nicer. Significantly, the values of the homes along the street would almost certainly increase, perhaps more than making up for the cost of the infrastructure work.

Should 9th Street be more like 3rd Street? It’s a question worth asking.

  • Larry Littlefield

    A reasonable question, but I wouldn’t overstate how bad 9th Street is to bicycle on.  It isn’t as dangerous as 8th Avenue.  And pedestrian traffic is not that high, except in summer when large number of people walk between the subway and Prospect Park for an event.

    If the sidewalks were narrowed, a likely suspect would be the time the IND was constructed — in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  The IND broke ground March 14th, 1925, and the extension to Church Avenue, which started later, was completed in early 1933.  The extended time to complete the project was considered a municipal scandal.

  • Probably.  I have an old picture of 5th Ave (in Manhattan) from 100 years ago and the sidewalks are noticeably wider.  The city has a history of expanding streets since the 18th century.

  • Anonymous

    The website of the Museum of the City of New York has thousands of old photographs that show how the city used to look. I found an interesting postcard from 1910 with the caption “B. F. Keiths Prospect Theatre. 9th Street, Brooklyn, N. Y.” and it depicts HUGE sidewalks with a tiny roadway (with horse-drawn carriages!) in between.

  • Anonymous

    Here’s the Google street view of what used to be the B. F. Keiths Prospect Theatre (now a CTown!). The perspective is different, but the sidewalks sure look narrower to me:

    https://maps.google.com/maps?q=prospect+theater&hl=en&ll=40.668888,-73.985748&spn=0.001776,0.002803&sll=40.665959,-73.976226&sspn=0.028288,0.044847&hq=prospect+theater&t=h&z=19&layer=c&cbll=40.66894,-73.985858&panoid=dF7IY6peR6hBBSUwApgZWQ&cbp=12,83.7,,0,5.51

  • Miles Bader

     @qrt145:disqus wow, that’s crazy!

    What is it going to take for the city to get the balls necessary to start removing car lanes and actually improve the city for people?

  • Anonymous

    qrt145,

    The big difference 

  • da

    I’ve heard that the 9th St sidewalks had to be narrowed when the F train was dug in the 1930s.

  • da

    I should have said, “had to be temporarily narrowed.”  They could have been reinstalled to their original width.

    One big difference though between 3rd & 9th is that 3rd is one-way while 9th is 2-way.

  • Alex Marshall

    Hi, this is the author Alex Marshall. These are some great comments. As I hoped, you readers are filling in the knowledge gaps. The old postcard put up by qrt145 of the old “B.F. Keiths Prospect Theater” on 9th Street, streetview, is very convincing! The sidewalks do look huge, and the streets much narrower. So it appears even with streetcars, less space was dedicated to vehicular traffic. This is really interesting. It shows you how quickly memory dissipates. In checking around for this essay, I couldn’t find anyone who knew, remembered or had heard that sidewalks on 9th Street used to be wider. Yet here we have some convincing evidence, pretty quickly. 

  • Joy

    On Church Avenue between E. 5th Street and Ocean Parkway, a portion of the street is wider than it is on the rest of the block. It’s where the streetcar emerged from a tunnel.

  • Carcharadon

    Here’s a photo of 9th betw 4th and 5th from the early 30s. The sidewalks appear to be their current, narrowed width.

    http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/4033

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